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As a defense analyst and writer, it is gutting to see a unique part of navy history flounder on a beach, at the mercy of the waves. The Cold War era ‘ekranoplan’, a one-of-a-kind flying missile boat that almost defies description, was set to become the centerpiece of a new museum. It was towed from a nearby naval base to the site of the museum on July 31. Efforts to tow it ashore appear to have gone wrong, however. It is still sitting on the surf line of the Caspian Sea. And it is taking on water.
The situation looks bad. Analysis of Russian social media shows that locals and sightseers have been playing in the water nearby. It is the ultimate selfie attraction. Some have even climbed onto the craft’s wings. In many of the pictures, the craft still looks majestic, but there are hints at the direness of the situation. It makes sobering viewing, like a beached whale. In desperation, people have been trying to haul it ashore using human strength. Today, mechanical diggers appear to be trying once again.
Ekranoplan is the Russian term for a Wings in Ground Effect (WIG) craft. This is essentially a plane that is designed to fly so low that it benefits from an aerodynamic phenomenon called ground effect. This reduces drag which in turn increases efficiency, which is translated into speed and endurance.
The Lun Class was the only serious attempt to weaponize WIG technology. It is heavily armed, comparable to a missile boat, but with the speed of an aircraft. The missiles are arranged in sloping launch bins along the back, and it is covered in radomes for the many radars required. This gives it an utterly unique appearance which, combined with its size and performance, makes it an iconic Cold War weapons platform.
Other Ekranoplans were built, but these were all experimental or for transport. While they were impressive in their own ways, none compare to the Lun Class’ widespread appeal.
This was the only Lun Class WIG ever completed. But another, unarmed version, was almost finished before the halt of production following the collapse of the U.S.S.R. This has been stored at the construction site in Nizhny Novgorod, then known as Gorky. The town is in the middle of Russia but was an active ship building area during the Cold War. Ships, submarines, and WIG built there reached the sea using the river network. The unfinished airframe has been stored in the open since mid-August 2016 with no sign of it moving. You can see it on map programs at 56°21’46.25″N, 43°52’43.92″E. Its engines are covered and its wings and tail are stacked on its back.
It will be a tragedy for military history if this unique craft is broken into pieces by the powers of nature. I have been checking daily for signs of a rescue, but as of this morning, it still appears to be on the surf line. It is a tourist attraction already, but not in a good way. Let’s hope it can be salvaged before it is too late.
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