HURTLING just a few metres above the sea at speeds comparable to airliners, this enormous flying hotel could have carried some 3,000 passengers at speeds of 460mph.
The Aerocon Wingship could have been a revolutionary way to travel – dwarfing the world’s biggest airliners as it was twice the size of a jumbo jet.
With ambitious planes to carry thousands of passeng 1,500 tons of cargo, the 400 ton, 566ft long machine was a concept funded by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA).
Engineers predicted mammoth aircraft could travel around 12,000 miles, powered by 20 rocket engines attached to wings near the plane’s nose.
But unlike airplanes which fly thousands of feet in the air, the Aerocon would hover just over the surface of the water using a concept called the ground effect – which creates a bubble of air beneath the craft.
It is similar to a hovercraft – but allows the vehicles to travel much faster and with much more stability, allowing for potentially huge flying ships – just like the Aerocon Wingship.
The aircraft was designed to fly across the Atlantic between America and Europe.
But with its incredible range it could also fly nonstop from the US to Japan, Australia, China or almost anywhere in the world.
It had a wingspan of 100 metres – so was almost as wide as a football pitch.
And it could carry 30 times the weight of a Boeing 747, hauling ship-level loads at aircraft-level speeds as it skimmed up to 100ft over the sea.
It was hoped the aircraft could be luxurious – potentially carrying sleeping quarters, bars and restaurants like an enormous flying hotel or cruise ship.
The wingship could also cruise into dock and open its rear doors like a roll-on, roll-off ferry – potentially allowing passengers to even bring their cars.
The airplane’s chief designer, Steven Hooker, dreamed up the Wingship after witnessing similar vehicles in the Soviet Union – such as the Caspian Sea Monster.
The beast was an experimental ground effect vehicle and could hit speeds of 311mph, but only one was ever built after the Kremlin flew out of love with the plane.
Hooker however thought he could do better – and dreamed up his Wingship which was ten times bigger than the Sea Monster.
This [tech] would be perfect for the role of ferries or cruise ships
He hoped his machine could carry people across the Atlantic from as little as just £60 a ticket when it launched in the 1990s.
And because of the way the ground effect concept works, for Hooker it really was the bigger the better.
“In order to build a large aircraft, I have to build a huge aircraft,” he told Popular Mechanics.
“You really have to be motivated to do, but if one took that step it would have a commercial pay off.”
But the project however had a staggering development cost of up to $600 million.
And the US military considered buying 13 of the aircraft, totting up the total expense at some $15billion.
With the project funded by DARPA, the Pentagon was very interested – imagining it could be an enormous rapid response troop transport.
It was estimated the vehicle could carry 32 helicopters, 20 tanks, 4 landing craft and some 2,000 troops.
Lt. Col. Michael F. Francis, program manager, told the LA Times: “We’ve never built anything on this scale.”
The Wingship could also be used as an enormous flying hospital to be flown into disaster zones.
Hooker said: “The stern of the ship opens up, and the hospital could be rolled on or off.
“The upper level would house the infirmary, and below would be the operating room and other facilities.”
Ground effect vehicles enchanted designers – especially in the Soviet Union – but it was a concept which was never been fully realised beyond the drawing board.
The Russians attempted to build large wingships, such as the so-called “Caspian Sea Monster”.
But the constant economic troubles which eventually led to the death of the Soviet Union grounded the plans.
And sadly the truly massive Aerocon also never got to hurtle across the world’s oceans when DARPA canned the billion-dollar project in the 1990s.
Aerocon’s flying machine was deemed too high a “technical risk”.
But could the incredible machines ever make a return?
Tim Samedov, a graphic designer who produced an incredible 3D model of the Aercon – as seen in this article, hopes so as he dreams of flying aboard one of the airborne ocean liners.
He told The Sun Online: “[It] looks incredible and fantastic. I would love to ride on an ekranoplan. I think this is a very promising technology.
“I think that this [tech] would be perfect for the role of ferries or cruise ships.
“But as far as I know, several models of small ekranoplans are currently being tested. So I hope that ekranoplans will develop in the future.”
Source: The Sun