The Soviet-era Lun-class ekranoplan, aka MD-160, looks a bit like a unit you might see in the Command & Conquer series. It’s also currently beached in the Caspian Sea and taking on water. It’s possible the ekranoplan may be hammered apart by Mother Nature, joining the original “Caspian Sea Monster” on the sea bottom, before it can be repaired and put on display as a museum showpiece as originally intended.
The MD-160 is designed to fly by taking advantage of the increased lift and decreased drag an aircraft’s wings experience when close to the earth during flight. Where an ordinary plane only experiences ground effect during takeoff and landing, an ekranoplan exploits ground effect during the entire time the vehicle is operating. This is also why the MD-160 and other types of ekranoplan also operate over water. Flying a few dozen feet over the ground is unlikely to work in any area more crowded than the Great Plains and would wreak havoc on telephone poles and electrical wiring even then. Ekranoplans are unique vehicles, distinct from aircraft, helicopters, hoverfoils, and hovercraft.
Invented in Russia, the Lun (from the Russian word for “harrier”) originally mounted eight NK-87 turbofans, with six missile tubes mounted on its back and a wingspan of 144 feet (44 meters). It served in the Russian Navy from the late 1980s through the late 1990s before being laid up Kaspiysk until 2020. On July 31, the vehicle was taken under tow for a move to Derbent, Dagestan, where it was to be displayed in a future park. Instead, the Lun arrived on site before it was discover there was nowhere to put the aircraft in the first place (at least, according to this translation provided via Twitter):
Экраноплан “Лунь”, недавно отбуксированный в Дербент,в будущий филиал парка “Патриот”.
Оказалось, никакого парка там пока не построено. “Лунь” лежит на брюхе возле дикого пляжа и превращается в ключевую местную достопримечательность. pic.twitter.com/MQkeKmkpdN
— Грета Коронатуборг (@qretaxyeta) August 8, 2020
The craft has reportedly been sitting in the surf ever since, with locals making multiple unsuccessful attempts to haul it into shore by hand.
The original discovery of Russia’s secret ekranoplan tests in 1967 caused a stir in the United States. The predecessor to the Lun was labeled “KM” on the wings, for Korabl-maket, meaning “Prototype Ship.” When spy satellite photos showed a monstrous aircraft with tiny wings taxiing for testing, the CIA nicknamed the ekranoplan “Kaspian Monster” without being aware of what it actually was. One of the reasons the CIA was working on unmanned drone surveillance technology via Project Aquiline as early as the mid-1960s was the supposed threat posed by craft like the KM or the Lun that later followed it.
HI Sutton has assembled the image above and his website, Covert Shores, has additional details on how the craft fit into the Soviet military doctrine. The original goal of Soviet ekranoplan research was to create a vessel that could move almost as quickly as an airplane while remaining below the minimal altitude for radar detection. While smaller ekranoplans have been built for a variety of uses, there are no monsters the size of the original KM or MD-160 in service, and ekranoplans are not major components of any planned transportation networks worldwide that I’m aware of. The craft is a rather fascinating example of a ‘what if’ that might have proved popular if technology had developed along different lines than it did.