In the late 70s Soviet engineer Lev Nikolayevich Schukin came up with an idea for an aircraft of a new kind: a flying wing that would take-off from an air cushion, use a new kind of fuel, and would be incredibly efficient due to an innovative boundary-layer control system.
By the late 80s, Schiukin’s team was, allegedly, composed of the crème of the crop of engineers from Sukhoi, Ilyushin, Tupolev, and Energia bureaus, as well as the TsAGI institute and several other elite research institutions. They were based in Nizhny Novgorod, at the testing facility of Sokol aviation plant – the birthplace of many top-of-the-line Soviet military jets, from the MiG-15 to the MiG-31.
A small-scale technology demonstrator, called the L-1, was built there. Its wobbly runs on the facility’s airfield featured early experiments on the boundary layer control system – the key feature which, according to later promotional material, passed the test with flying colors. Supposedly, all the calculations on the efficiency of the aircraft were proven, and there was no doubt that the full-scale vehicle would surpass conventional airplanes in every aspect. In 1989, in accordance with changing times, the EKIP bureau was reorganized into a firm.
The model never took off, though. In the winter of 1990, during a routine test run, the L-1 veered off the frozen runway and spectacularly crashed into a pile of snow – an episode, for some bizarre reason, featured in the later promotional material. Nobody was injured, but supposedly, the project was deemed dangerous.
Plant’s management did not hesitate and kicked the team out of the premises, a strange move that underscored both the lack of support Schiukin had and the growing decentralization of the Soviet system. A personal initiative could make or break a project now, on a much larger scale than ever before.
EKIP L-1 smashing into a pile of snow. (Image: EKIP Aviation Concern)
The firm found a new home at the Saratov aviation plant, by the personal invitation Schiukin received from the plant’s head. A less glamorous, but at the same time less militarized and decidedly less strictly controlled facility, the place became the scene for some of the wildest legends that surround the project to this day.
The move to Saratov signified the start of the golden age of the EKIP, even as the Soviet Union crumbled all around the vehicle. In one of the plant’s 90 hangars, amongst towering airframes of unfinished Yakovlev Yak-42 airliners, the team began working on the second prototype – the L-2. It was still remotely-controlled and had conventional landing gear, but was supposed to be flyable and featured a provision for an air cushion.
Anatoly Savitsky, an up-and-coming businessman with an academic background, became Schiukin’s right hand. He understood the commercial potential EKIP had in the new climate which veered to capitalism more and more.
Savitsky managed to attract some investors of yet-unseen scale: Alexander Mikhailovich Mass, one of the first oligarchs of the emerging Russian gas industry, offered $1,5 million and a cheesy motto for the company – “On the wings of the dream we will fly to the bright future of the humanity.”
Schiukin’s connections brought in Nikolay Kuznetsov, the founder of the famous Kuznetsov bureau responsible for many Soviet jet engines. He promised to personally oversee the creation of EKIP’s wonder turbofan, which was supposed to have an ability to consume a wide range of different fuels and have a thermal efficiency of over 50% – at the time when most commercial jet engines barely reached 30%.
By 1993, Russia’s governmental Committee on the Issues of the North and the Ministry of Agriculture were onboard, promising solid sums of money. The project became a personal favorite of Oleg Lobov, the secretary of the presidential Security Council of Russia, and – reportedly – received a large backing from the military as a whole. Even the president Boris Yeltsin, supposedly, was following the development with great interest.
According to Savitsky, up to 600 people worked on the project at that time. The L-2 took off in 1992 and was shown at the Moscow air show the same year. In 1993, it was exhibited at the Paris air show and the Russian government promised to invest a further 1.2 billion rubles.
Mass’ investment was the only money the team actually got its hands on. It opened the door which was hitherto closed: the one to wind tunnel testing.
The problem was, TsAGI – the leading aeronautical institute with the best equipment on this side of the now-fallen Iron curtain – did not want to have anything to do with the project. According to Savitsky, several of TsAGI’s scientists worked on the EKIP and the rest viewed the development with contempt.
The reason for that is unclear. In several contemporary interviews, Savitsky presents it as a sign of backwardness and irrelevancy of the people belonging to the freshly-collapsed Soviet system. The other possibility is a bit more likely – that academia at large simply viewed EKIP’s designers as charlatans, due to their fantastical claims and a lack of actual evidence.
Nevertheless, at the time the institute did not have the luxury to choose its sources of income. While the original L-2 crashed during a flight test, a second model, the L-2B, was constructed and tested in TsAGI’s wind and water tunnels. The model was equipped with floats instead of wheels or an air cushion, a feature present in most of its subsequent iterations, and the one that gave the vehicle a large part of its distinct, futuristic look.
None of several manufactured EKIPs had a planned air cushion attached and working, despite many of them carrying auxiliary engines installed for this purpose. Custom-built air cushion equipment was expensive and every ruble invested in the project either had to be spent elsewhere or never actually reached the engineers.
That was because of rather tragic circumstances the firm found itself in. The Soviet Union and the Soviet economy fell apart, giving way to the Russian Federation with the new capitalist system. But that system quickly got a habit of falling apart itself. The economic “shock therapy” brought hyperinflation, halved Russia’s GDP and opened doors to ever-present corruption. Whatever money the government or investors were delegating to the cause simply disappeared on its way to recipients, depreciating in value and trickling into the pockets of intermediaries.
By the mid-90s, the situation became desperate. Without the pay, the team was melting. Schukin was constantly sending letters to the government, the military, and Russia’s aeronautical firms asking them to save the project. But according to later interviews, time and time again he became a witness of the same dark comedy: an assurance of the full support, a promise to consider sending the inventor some money, and not a single ruble being actually sent. The largest fiasco of this kind happened in 1999 when the funding for the project was actually included in the governmental budget, but nothing resulted from that.
Schukin ended up investing much of his personal possessions into the project, hoping to keep the shrunken team afloat for a little while. The only hope now could come from beyond Russia’s borders.
The firm tried attracting Western investment even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Its very first promotional reel, likely made in 1991 and complete with an eerie synth soundtrack, retro-futuristic computer graphics, and delightfully broken English, invited “the Soviet and foreign firms for cooperation”.
It was also the year when foreign investors started frequenting the Saratov plant, inspecting models and promising to return with what designers hoped to be suitcases full of Western currency. Supposedly, between then and the early 2000s, 255 investors considered working with the firm.
In later years, members of the EKIP team made a habit of providing a lot of lists in their interviews. One of those lists was that of fantastical qualities of the vehicle. Another one was of countries that were supposedly interested in the development: from the UAE to Germany and from China to Argentina. Such geography was supposed to contrast the “world-wide fame” of the project to the utter disinterest it was receiving in Russia, and maybe, just maybe, stir some national pride in some rich oligarch.
For this reason, it is unclear how many foreign investors were actually interested. Although some of those 255 may have visited the Saratov plant with an appetite for opportunities, most of them, likely, were barely anything more than simple tourists.
There was one with serious intentions among them, though. In 2002, United States Senator Curt Weldon came to Saratov. He was a co-founder of the Duma-Senate Study group, an international committee intended to bolster cooperation between the former rivals of the Cold War.
EKIP’s team was deeply impressed by the visit and the visitor, reportedly, was impressed by the EKIP. A year later, the Saratov aviation plant signed an agreement of understanding with the Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) – US Navy’s airborne weapons material support office. It is quite symptomatic that in many interviews with the Russian media, EKIP’s engineers presented NAVAIR as an American company looking to invest in Saratov.
On the American side, cooperation was headed by Dr. John Fischer, NAVAIR’s director of research and engineering sciences. He oversaw the signing of the formal contract in 2004; According to the contract, the Saratov plant would produce a 230 kg (500 lb) prototype which would then be tested at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River. The testing was scheduled for 2007.
There are differing accounts of what happened next though. The most likely version is that in 2005 NAVAIR informed the EKIP concern that it was no longer interested due to unknown reasons. AeroTim News tried contacting the agency on this question but did not receive an answer.
Russian version of the events differs.
Members of the EKIP team, on numerous occasions, told the media that Americans actually built the prototype themselves. They spent millions of dollars, Boeing was somehow involved, yet all they managed to construct was just a barely flyable knock-off of the Russian original. It crashed on the maiden flight, and to save face, NAVAIR decided to sweep the development under the rug.
There is also a version where Schukin himself either visited the US to work on their prototype before his death in 2001 or was invited and declined the offer. Both Boeing and Airbus supposedly tried to recruit Schukin too, yet the inventor refused to sell out to Westerners, wanting EKIP to kick-start Russia’s economic recovery instead. In some of those accounts, foreign companies were about to start manufacturing copies of EKIP in the very near future; in others, they were unable to reproduce the Russian engineering miracle.
These legends might seem absurd, being an integral part of many discussions of the lost Soviet glory in Russia. Yet they are a direct result of the marketing strategy the company had adopted.
The legendary status of the vehicle – the extremely low cost, the incredibly high efficiency, the yet-unheard flight characteristics – originate from interviews, brochures, and videos, the EKIP aviation concern produced in the 90s and early 2000s. Most of them were aimed directly at the Western audience.
Sometime in the late 90s, the Discovery channel filmed an episode on the project; it was featured on ABC’s “Beyond 2000” too. Technological miracles happening among the rusting hulks of abandoned Soviet airplanes was an attractive story. The more fantastical were the figures that engineers could provide to journalists, the more attention they got. Such a tactic that should have led to investments, but did not really work, and in some cases – such as with TsAGI’s scepticism – even backfired.
To this day it is impossible to discern what part of the EKIP’s legendary status was created purely for promotion and what part was actually substantiated. The initial project Schukin worked on in the 80s may have not even had a sci-fi angle, it may have been a simple idea to create a vehicle with a boundary layer control system, which later got overgrown with a dozen of cutting-edge features and resulted in this vehicle-of-the-future, perfectly adapted for the sensation-hungry climate of the 90s Russian capitalism.
After the failure of the cooperation with NAVAIR, several Russian journalists visited the Saratov plant and the hangar where the EKIP L2-3, the largest of constructed prototypes, stood. They described the sorry state of the project: a team of a couple of dozens of elderly scientists, led by “the chief of the saucers” Valery Sorokin; a cold place full of incredible inventions falling apart due to neglect; a bright Soviet future buried by corruption, indifference, and greed of both domestic and foreign officials and businessmen.
The worse the state of the project got, the more there was food for legends. Separating them from the real situation became even more difficult. But despite the mythical status, there are some hard facts and some glimpses of the future EKIP might bring upon us.
[To be continued in Part 3]