The ekranoplan, or water-skimming wingship, is a ground-effect aircraft: an aircraft that flies very close to the surface of the water, obtaining its lift not from hurling air down like a plane, nor from hurling water down like a hydrofoil or speed boat, but by sitting on a cushion of compressed air sandwiched between its wings and the nearby surface. You can demonstrate the ground effect by flicking a piece of card across a flat table. Maintaining this air-cushion requires very little energy, so the ground-effect aircraft, in energy terms, is a lot like a surface vehicle with no rolling resistance. Its main energy expenditure is associated with air resistance. Remember that for a plane at its optimal speed, half of its energy expenditure is associated with air resistance, and half with throwing air down.

The Soviet Union developed the ekranoplan as a military transport vehicle and missile launcher in the Khrushchev era. The Lun ekranoplan could travel at 500km/h, and the total thrust of its eight engines was 1000 kN, though this total was not required once the vessel had risen clear of the water. Assuming the cruising thrust was one quarter of the maximum; that the engines were 30% efficient; and that of its 400-ton weight, 100 tons were cargo, this vehicle had a net freight-transport cost of 2kWh per ton-km. I imagine that, if perfected for non-military freight transport, the ekranoplan might have a freight-transport cost about half that of an ordinary aeroplane.

Figure C.16. The Lun ekranoplan -slightly longer and heavier than a Boeing 747. Photographs: A. Belyaev.

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