Ekranoplans are effective aircraft that hover just a few feet off the ground.
For those interested in aviation, the Cold War was one of the most fascinating and at times bizarre periods for military aviation. Whilst the Soviet Union and the west wanted to outdo each other with conventional weaponry, there were times when both sides went to extreme lengths to try and outdo the other. Witness the XB-70 bomber or the giant Ekranoplans, behemoths that seemingly glided above the water. Speaking of Ekranoplans, that is going to be the topic of this feature. But we aren’t talking about the Caspian Sea Monster anymore.
Ekranoplans are effective aircraft that use the ground effect to fly just at least a meter above a surface, say the water, at high speeds. This has some advantages over conventional ships, namely, they are faster, plus an advantage over aircraft is that they can often be undetectable to radar. The Soviet Union was finding itself in a tricky position in the 1960s with the threat of new nuclear missile-equipped American submarines, that could hide just off their shores. So, they needed something in their arsenal that could counter this threat, and tackle it head-on. Thus, the Bartini Beriev VVA-14 was born.
Background To The VVA-14
The VVA-14 was the product of Robert Bartini, a man who often thought both outside the box and ahead of time. Bartini believed that Ekranoplans, or hydrogliders, would be the future, and have benefits over aircraft. They could use their size and mass to their advantage and give them incredible capabilities. When they saw Bartini’s ideas, Soviet leaders thought that it had some potential and that it could be developed into an effective submarine hunter to tackle the new threat to the Soviet Union. And what Bartini proposed was something out of this world.
More than just a smaller Ekranoplan, what became the VVA-14 would have wings so it could fly like a conventional aircraft. It would have landing gear and inflatable pontoons to make it amphibious, as well as having multiple lifting jets to make it a vertical take-off and landing capable machine. This bizarre machine was somehow given approval, and Bartini and his team set to work, creating one of the most extraordinary machines of the Cold War. Quite remarkably, the VVA-14 was indeed built and flight tested, in what was hoped would be a three-phase development program to test the concept.
Testing And Development
The VVA-14 was to be tested in three phases, with three prototypes. The first aircraft, VVA-14M1 would be a conventional aircraft, to test the aerodynamics of the design and be a technology testbed. It would also be used to test the inflatable pontoon system, after initially being fitted with rigid pontoons. VVA-14M2 would then be used to test the vertical take-off and landing performance of the aircraft, whilst also being used to test fly-by-wire controls as well as an automated flight control system. Finally, VVA-14M3 would be near-production and test anti-submarine warfare systems and weapons.
Whilst these were all incredibly ambitious targets, the first tests of the conventional VVA-14M1 initially proved pretty promising. When it came to utilizing the ground effect, the aircraft could make use of it impressively, some eight meters from the surface of the water. Handling also seemed promising and the aircraft flew well when in regular flight. For regular flight performance, the VVA-14 was powered by two Soloviev D-30M Turbofan engines, and it was hoped it would be able to reach speeds around 472 mph and flight up to 33,000 ft. However, as the program went on, issues soon started to arise.
Perhaps the most well-known issue with the VVA-14 was that of the ambitious pontoons. Of course, problems were probably expected, even by Bartini, but he and his team probably didn’t expect the floats to prove so troublesome. They were a nightmare to engineer, and proved incredibly unreliable, having been designed to use high-pressure air from the aircraft’s cruise engines. They proved so troublesome that eventually, metallic floats would replace the inflatable ones that Bartini had initially proposed. Whilst that was a pretty major issue to overcome, things got worse.
Manufacturing of the vertical lift engines was assigned to the Rybinsk Engine Design Bureau. The thing is, though, the REDB was a small and relatively inexperienced engine builder that was struggling to cope with other projects. And this company had to design engines that could lift a 57-ton leviathan off the ground. The VVA-14 would have been the largest VTOL aircraft in existence. As Bartini himself suspected, the engines never arrived. This canned the whole idea of the VVA-14 being a VTOL aircraft that could take off from all sorts of small areas and on different surfaces, so Bartini had to act to save the project.
Final Design Tweaks And Cancellation
To try and salvage the project, Bartini made some modifications to the design. VVA-14M1 became the 14M1P. The aircraft now had a lengthened fuselage, additional engines at the front, and permanent floats instead of the inflatable pontoons. This was done to allow the new engines to create a cushion of air under the jet, but these modifications never worked. Sadly, Bartini never even saw these changes in action, as he passed away in 1974. The project slowed and was ultimately canceled altogether, and the Beriev A-40 Albatross was ordered instead to counter the American submarine threat.
Had it made it into production and worked, the VVA-14 could have been one of the most capable aircraft of the Cold War. The potential in the project was undeniably massive, and Bartini must be applauded for even getting Soviet approval, and seeing two prototypes of the aircraft built. His passing probably only accelerated the cancellation of the project, with it looking highly unlikely the VVA-14 would ever be able to fulfill its original design proposal. VVA-14 No.19172 was the only survivor of the two prototypes, and it survives today at the Soviet Central Air Force Museum in Moscow, but it sadly resides dismantled without its wings, tailfins, or engines. It is though a reminder of what the Cold War pushed aircraft designers all over the world to do, push the envelope like never before.
Sources: CNN, Military Review, Pinterest, Tails Through Time, War History Online, Mig Flug, Auto Evolution, Abandoned Spaces