This is the second part of a two-part series. You can find Part 1 here.
Overcoming These Problems
With the failure of the giant KM Ekranoplan, the Soviet government reduced the funding for such vehicles, instead focusing on things they knew worked. Despite this, they managed to iron out some of the problems by focusing on smaller designs that could move 100 or so troops. The A-90 Orlyonok could not only operate in more conditions, but could fly a little higher when ground effect wasn’t working well. It could also land on beaches, increasing its utility for military operations.
There was also the VVA-14, another design for an anti-submarine plane that would have been able to to do everything from vertical takeoff and landing, sea landings, beach landings, and high-altitude flight. This design proved to be too complex and problematic to get through development, but it would have led to some truly amazing designs had it been successful. Here’s a video about that plane and what they learned trying to build it:
Further development on Ekranoplans stalled as the Soviet Union’s financial issues got worse, and Soviet leadership couldn’t get along with Alexeyev. However, one final vehicle was built: the Lun-class. It was made to approach coasts and fire missiles, but like others, it never went into mass production. The design had improved, and could have been useful, but the collapse of the Soviet Union put the idea on hold permanently.
That didn’t stop others from continuing the work, but the work since 1991 has been a lot slower. A few companies have built prototypes, others have built low-volume vehicles for limited use. No GEV has been mass-produced, and no large ones have been built since the 1980s. But, that’s about to change.
An Electric Revival Of Ground Effect Vehicles
One of the biggest advantages to ground effect vehicles is their efficiency. Instead of having to move the whole craft and keep it flying with the energy of the engines, they operate close to the water and hold themselves up on a cushion of air. Unlike tires or the water itself, air has much lower friction, so you just don’t need as much energy to stay up and move.
And really, energy efficiency is the main problem holding electric aviation back. A battery pack just can’t hold that much energy per unit of weight compared to avgas and jet fuel. To get enough range for long flights, you would only be building a flying battery, with no room for passengers and cargo. Or, make room for passengers and cargo, and you can only do short hops. A more efficient ground effect vehicle solves this problem through efficiency.
The ground effect enables electrification, but electrification also enables ground effect. One of the biggest problems with jet-powered Soviet Ekranoplans was that the salty, moist air would destroy the turbines. Electric motors, on the other hand, don’t need to suck in air to function. As long as the wiring is protected from corrosion, the electric motors could make runs just over the ocean all day every day without falling apart. The same should apply to sand from beaches and other contaminants because the plane doesn’t eat where it poops like an Ekranoplan did.
Not only does this mean a form of electric aviation is now viable, but this also means that high speed zero-emissions travel can happen without having to build massive infrastructure. The water doesn’t need any preparation to be flown over. When operating like a seaplane (at launch and landing), the Regent Seaglider can stop at existing docks. It will need some charging stations installed, but that’s about it.
The Seaglider has a range of 180 miles, which doesn’t sound impressive, but when you consider that it does this at 180 MPH and doesn’t need an airport, dock, or tracks, it’s actually a big possible improvement for transportation on short routes.
San Diego to Los Angeles? That’s 122 miles as the Seaglider flies. Not a problem, and you’ll get there in around 45 minutes. What about LA to San Francisco? A fleet of them could be set up to make the trip happen in only a couple of hours, with some stops to switch planes at smaller coastal towns. Even a fleet of the planes would still be a small fraction of what the California bullet train’s build costs are.
The goal isn’t to do anything so grand at first, though. Regent’s first customers are going to run the vehicles on short ferry routes, like from Portsmouth, England to Cherbourg, France. This English Channel route would only take 40 minutes, despite being around 80 miles.
Saving people time without needing to spend big money on infrastructure or contribute to climate change is a really big deal. Inland routes would still need to be covered by bullet trains or by cleaner aircraft, but with many big cities on coasts, this could make a real difference.
Possible Military Applications Of Modern Electric GEVs
The United States and a number of other large militaries haven’t been in a peer-state conflict in quite some time. After World War II, most conflicts were between large states and small ones, or between states and nebulous, ill-defined adversaries (ex. the War on Terror). This left runways and other infrastructure largely safe during conflicts, as they were far from the conflict zones and far, far out of reach of enemy combatants.
With tensions simmering up, especially between the US and China, seaplanes are suddenly a big deal. Large adversaries can send barrages of missiles that can put big holes in runways, crippling not only fighter jets and bombers, but also freezing supply lines and troop movement. Being able to land on bodies of water basically creates a missile-proof runway that can be used to move supplies.
This is why the US is ordering a special version of its existing C-130 planes with big pontoons attached, enabling it to land on water. It’s going to be a bit clunky, and it’s going to cost the aircraft some range and payload capacity, but the versatility it offers can make a big difference.
This isn’t the same infrastructure issue the civilian world is facing, but it’s close enough. Needing to move people and things around without a bunch of fragile and expensive infrastructure, while also needing to cut back on emissions, means that high efficiency ground effect vehicles could present a very compelling option.
Electric versions still can’t move cargo and soldiers to far off destinations, so hybrid versions would likely be needed (but electric final propulsion will still be needed to avoid the fate of the Soviet Ekranoplans). But the range and reliability, combined with a safe landing in the event of propulsion failures, could make such a hybrid ground effect vehicle highly useful for militaries.
A PHEV option could also be very compelling. By having its normal range (180 miles), but with a small amount of range taken up with a rotary range extender, the first craft to enter an area could arrive powered by fossil fuels, but be loaded with roll-up solar panels that could be quickly set up. By not having to rely on other craft to bring in fuel, and getting at least some range from the sun, military operations could prove to be a lot less vulnerable to supply line issues and attacks.
In other words, high efficiency and renewable energy could make a big difference.
Featured image by Regent Craft.