“Ground effect” is an aviation phenomenon that describes what happens when a plane gets close to the ground, like when it’s about to land. As the aircraft skims along a surface — whether hard, soft, or liquid — the wings create a pocket of distorted air beneath it, decreasing the aircraft’s overall drag (via Monroe Aerospace).
Robert Oros di Bartini, after studying conventional plains, trains, and automobiles, believed the best method of transportation hadn’t been invented yet. So, in 1962 he came up with a design known as the “ekranoplans” (in Russian), a low-flying plane that could maximize ground effect (via Mustard) to its fullest. Unlike standard airplanes, which were restricted by weight and size, Bartini was convinced that ekranoplans were far more efficient and versatile.
He was a mysterious and enigmatic character who some referred to as “the Nikola Tesla of his time” (via CNN). Many of the facts surrounding his life are a mystery, but his passion for aviation wasn’t among them. Bartini’s story would make for a great film, but long story short: he grew up in Austria-Hungary, was a prisoner of war in World War I, studied aerospace engineering in Italy, fled after Mussolini took power, moved to the Soviet Union to build planes, accused of spying for Mussolini and tossed into a Russian gulag. He is credited with designing over 60 incredibly unique aircraft, but only four prototypes ever made it into the air, according to CNN.
This futuristic sci-fi looking Russian VTOL failed to launch
In 1961, the United States began arming submarines with Polaris nuclear missiles and parked them right off Russia’s coastlines. The Soviet army had no way of patrolling the 43,500 miles until they saw Bartini’s plans for the ekranoplans (via Mustard).
The Bartini-Beriev VVA-14 was designed with several unique features, some of which can be gleaned straight from the name. The “VV” stood for “vertical take-off amphibious aircraft,” while the number 14 referred to how many engines the plane had (via CNN).
Using 12 vertical lift jets that provided some 10,000 pounds of thrust, it could take off and land vertically (VTOL) like a helicopter on literally any surface. That’s because the VVA-14 had standard landing gear and an inflatable pontoon system that allowed it to set down anywhere, including water, making it a fully amphibious vehicle (via Mustard).
The catamaran-like fuselage created a massive ground effect area underneath. It also had a 98-foot wingspan with two bypass turbojets mounted on top that allowed it to reach speeds of 472 miles per hour and fly at an elevation of 33,000 feet, just like a conventional aircraft (via Mustard).
The first prototype (without pontoons) took to the sky in 1972 and flew 107 times, logging 103 flight hours, according to Business Insider. It was the only design Bartini ever got to see actually fly. A second prototype never came to fruition because they couldn’t build a practical VTOL engine, and the project was scrapped after Bartini died in 1974 (via CNN). What’s left of the VVA-14 still sits at the Central Air Force Museum in Monino, Russia.