By William Pearce
Rostislav Alexeyev (sometimes spelled Alekeyev) was born in Novozybkov, Russia on 18 December 1916. On 1 October 1941, he graduated from the Gorky Industrial Institute (now Gorky Polytechnic Institute) as a shipbuilding engineer. Alexeyev was sent to work at the Krasnoye Sormovo Shipyard in Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod), Russia. In 1942, Alexeyev was tasked to develop hydrofoils for the Soviet Navy, work that was still in progress at the end of World War II. However, there was sufficient governmental interest for Alexeyev to continue his hydrofoil studies after the war. This work led to the development of the Raketa, Meteor, Kometa, Sputnik, Burevestnik, and Voskhod passenger-carrying hydrofoils spanning from the late 1940s to the late 1970s.
Alexeyev appreciated the speed of the hydrofoil but realized that much greater speeds could be achieved if the vessel traveled just above the water’s surface. Wings with a short span and a wide cord could be attached to a vessel to lift its hull completely out of the water as it traveled at high speed, allowing it to ride on a cushion of air. Such a craft would take advantage of the ground (screen) effect as air is compressed between the craft and the ground. In Russian, this type of vessel is called an ekranoplan, meaning “screen plane.” They are also known as wing-in-ground effect (WIG) or a ground-effect-vehicle (GEV), since the craft’s wing must stay near the surface and in ground effect. Because ground effect vehicles fly without contacting the surface, they are technically classified as aircraft. However, ground effect vehicles need a flat surface over which to operate and are typically limited to large bodies of water, even though they can traverse very flat expanses of land. Because they operate from water, ground effect vehicles are normally governed by maritime rules.
In the late 1950s, Alexeyev and his team began work on several scale, piloted, test machines to better understand the ekranoplan concept. The first was designated SM-1 (samokhodnaya model’-1 or self-propelled model-1) and made its first flight on 22 July 1961. The SM-1 was powered by a single jet engine and had two sets (mid and rear) of lifting wings. Lessons learned from the SM-1 were incorporated into the SM-2, which was completed in March 1962. The SM-2 had a single main wing and a large horizontal stabilizer. The craft also incorporated a booster jet engine in its nose (bow) to blow air under the main wing to increase lift (power augmented ram thrust). The SM-2 was demonstrated to Premier of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev, who then lent support for further ekranoplan development to Alexeyev and his team.
Ekranoplan design experimentation was expanded further with the SM-3. The craft had very wide-cord wings and was completed late in 1962. That same year, Alexeyev began working at the Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau (CHDB or Tsentral’noye konstruktorskoye byuro na podvodnykh kryl’yakh / TsKB po SPK). In 1963, the next test machine, the SM-4, demonstrated that a good understanding of ekranoplan design had been achieved. Also in 1963, the Soviet Navy placed an order for a large, experimental ekranoplan transport known as the KM (Korabl Maket or ship prototype).
While the CHDB began design work on the KM, the SM-5 was built in late 1963. The SM-5 was a 25-percent scale model of the KM and was powered by two Mikulin KR7-300 jet engines. The craft had a wingspan of 31 ft 2 in (9.5 m), a length of 59 ft 1 in (18.0 m), and a height of 18 ft 1 in (5.5 m). The SM-5 had a takeoff speed of 87 mph (140 km/h), a cruise speed of 124 mph (200 km/h), and a maximum speed of 143 mph (230 km/h). Its operating height was from 3 to 10 ft (1 to 3 m), and the craft had a maximum weight of 16,094 lb (7,300 kg). The SM-5 could operate in seas with 3.9 ft (1.2 m) waves. Initial tests of the SM-5 were so successful that the decision was made to construct the KM without building a larger scale test machine. Sadly, the SM-5 was destroyed, and its two pilots were killed in a crash on 24 August 1964. During a test, a strong wind was encountered that caused the craft to gain altitude. Rather than reduce power, the pilot added power. The SM-5 rose out of ground effect and stalled.
The KM’s all-metal fuselage closely resembled that of a flying boat with a stepped hull. Mounted just behind the cockpit were eight Dobrynin VD-7 turbojets, with four engines mounted in parallel on each side of the KM. Each VD-7 was capable of 28,660 lbf (127.5 kN) of thrust. The jet nozzle of each engine rotated down during takeoff to increase the air pressure under the craft’s wings. These engines were known as boost engines.
The shoulder-mounted, short span wings had a wide cord and an aspect ratio of 2.0. Two large flaps made up the trailing edge of each wing. The tip of each wing was capped by a flat plate that extended down to form a float. Two additional VD-7 turbojets were mounted near the top of the KM’s large vertical stabilizer. These engines were known as cruise engines and were used purely for forward thrust. A heat-resistant panel covered the section of the rudder just behind the cruise engines. At low speeds, the rudder extended into the water and helped steer the KM. Atop the vertical stabilizer was the horizontal stabilizer, which had about 20 degrees of dihedral. A large elevator was mounted to the trailing edge of the horizontal stabilizer.
The KM had a wingspan of 123 ft 4 in (37.6 m), a length of 319 ft 7 in (97.4 m), and a height of 72 ft 2 in (22.0 m). The craft had a cruise speed of 267 mph (430 km/h) and a maximum speed of 311 mph (500 km/h). Operating height was from 13 to 46 ft (4 to 14 m), and the KM had an empty weight of 529,109 lb (240,000 kg) and a maximum weight of 1,199,313 lb (544,000 kg). The craft had a range of 932 miles (1,500 km) and could operate in seas with 11.5 ft (3.5 m) waves. The KM had a crew of three and could carry 900 troops, but the craft was intended purely for experimental purposes.
The KM was built at the Krasnoye Sormovo Shipyard in Gorky. Alexeyev was the craft’s chief designer and V. Efimov was the lead engineer. The KM was launched on the Volga River on 22 June 1966 and was subsequently floated down the river to the Naval base at Kaspiysk, Russia on the Caspian Sea. To keep the KM hidden during the move, its wings were detached, it was covered, and it was moved only at night. After arriving at the Kaspiysk base, the KM was reassembled, and sea-going trials started on 18 October 1966. V. Loginov was listed as the pilot, but Alexeyev was actually at the controls. At 124 mph (200 km/h), the KM rose to plane on the water’s surface but did not take to the air. Planning tests were continued until 25 October 1966. The early tests revealed that the KM’s hull was not sufficiently rigid and that engine damage was occurring due to water ingestion. Stiffeners were added to the hull, and plans were made to modify the engines.
The first true flight of the KM occurred on 14 August 1967 with Alexeyev at the controls. The flight lasted 50 minutes, and a speed of 280 mph (450 km/h) was reached. Further testing revealed good handling characteristics, and sharp turns were made with the inside wing float touching the water. At one point, the KM was mistakenly flown over a low-lying island for about 1.2 miles (2 km), proving the machine could operate over land, provided it was very flat.
The KM was discovered in satellite imagery by United States intelligence agencies in August 1967. Rather baffled by the craft’s type and intended purpose, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began to refer to the enormous machine as the “Kaspian Monster,” in reference to the KM designation. The “Kaspian Monster” name slowly changed to “Caspian Sea Monster,” which is how the craft is generally known today. The sole KM was painted with at least five different numbers (01, 02, 04, 07, and 08) during its existence. Some sources state the numbers corresponded to different developmental phases, while others contend that the numbers were an attempt to obscure the actual number of machines built.
While the KM was being built, a second 25-percent scale model was constructed. The model was designated SM-8, and its layout incorporated changes made to the KM’s design that occurred after the SM-5 was built. Like the SM-5, the SM-8 was powered by two Mikulin KR7-300 jet engines. The craft had a wingspan of 31 ft 2 in (9.5 m), a length of 60 ft 8 in (18.5 m), and a height of 18 ft 1 in (5.5 m). The SM-8 had a cruise speed of 137 mph (220 km/h). Operating height was from 3 to 10 ft (1 to 3 m), and the craft had a maximum weight of 16,094 lb (8,100 kg). The SM-8 could operate in seas with 3.9 ft (1.2 m) waves. The craft was first flown in 1968 and tested over a grassy bank in June 1969. The SM-8 also served to train pilots for the KM.
By the late 1960s, the KM had proven that the ekranoplan was a viable means to quickly transport personnel or equipment over large expanses of water. Alexeyev’s focus had moved to another ekranoplan project, the A-90 Orlyonok. By 1979, the KM had been modified by relocating the cruise engines from the vertical stabilizer to a pylon mounted above the cockpit. All engines were fitted with covers to deflect water and prevent the inadvertent ingestion of the occasional unfortunate seabird.
In December 1980, the KM was lost after an accident occurred during takeoff. Excessive elevator was applied and resulted in a relatively high angle of attack. Rather than applying power and correcting the pitch angle, the angle was held and power was reduced. A stall occurred with the KM rolling to the left and impacting the water. The crew escaped unharmed, but the KM was left to slowly sink to the bottom of the Caspian Sea. Reportedly, the craft floated for a week before finally sinking. Either the Soviets were done with the KM, or its immense size prevented reasonable efforts to salvage the machine. From the time it first flew, the KM was the heaviest aircraft in the world until the Antonov An-225 Mriya made its first flight on 21 December 1988. The KM is still the longest aircraft to fly. Experience gained from the KM was applied to the Lun-class S-31 / MD-160.
– Soviet and Russian Ekranoplans by Sergy Komissarov and Yefim Gordon (2010)
– WIG Craft and Ekranoplan by Liang Lu, Alan Bliault, and Johnny Doo (2010)