While full-size wing-in-ground-effect aircraft typically operate over open water, this scale model of a wing-in-ground-effect aircraft operates on a tradeshow display table. (Image source: Marina Lystseva/TASS)

Russia to bring back the wing-in-ground-effect aircraft

Aerospace returns to the 1980s.

[This Friday post is part of our “Composite coverage: real lightweight stuff” series and a departure from SAE International’s traditional reporting approach. Let us know if you like our fun, conversational, and most likely irreverent coverage of legitimate news and notable events.]  

On July 30, according to Russian state news outlet TASS, Russia is developing a prototype of the Orlan wing-in-ground-effect multimode aircraft under the state armament program.

“The state armament program for 2018-2027 includes Orlan R&D work, which stipulates the construction of the wing-in-ground-effect craft. The [Orlan] prototype will be created as part of this armament program and it will carry missile armament,” says Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov.

So, what is a wing-in-ground-effect aircraft?

A wing-in-ground-effect aircraft operates by leveraging (wait for it) ground effect, or the increased lift and decreased drag that wings generate when they are moving close to the ground. This occurs when an aircraft is flying approximately at or below the altitude equal to the length of the aircraft’s wing: close enough to the ground that drag-inducing wingtip vortices and downwash are disrupted.

In a simple sense, the higher pressure “lift air” generated under the forward moving wing area gets sandwiched between the wing and fixed surface. At this point, the wing-in-ground-effect aircraft travels like a puck on an air hockey table, riding on a cushion of air with less force needed to keep the aircraft moving forward.

One of the safest ways to maintain this flight envelope is with a multimode watercraft. Operating like a hydrofoil on steroids, a wing-in-ground-effect craft accelerates like a normal marine vessel until their lifting surfaces generate enough lift to rise out of the water. The result is a fun cross between low-flying plane and high-speed boat.

The old Soviet Union was very interested with the idea of wing-in-ground-effect craft back in the 1950s – back then they would call them “ekranoplans.”

Then, in 2015, at the MAKS international airshow outside Moscow, the Chief of Russian Naval Aviation, Major General Igor Kozhin stated that a standardized wing-in-ground-effect craft with a lift capacity of 300 metric tonnes was expected in service by 2020.

Fast forward 60 years: everything that was old is new again.

According to Borisov, the craft will be used primarily to patrol along Russia’s poorly protected Northern Sea routes and littoral regions.

“It can hover and monitor these areas, as well as the internal seas: the Caspian and the Black Seas,” says Borisov.

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William Kucinski is content editor at SAE International, Aerospace Products Group in Warrendale, Pa. Previously, he worked as a writer at the NASA Safety Center in Cleveland, Ohio and was responsible for writing the agency’s System Failure Case Studies. His interests include 'literally anything that has to do with space,' past and present military aircraft, and propulsion technology. And also sportscars.
Contact him regarding any article or collaboration ideas by e-mail at william.kucinski@sae.org.
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