Russia's Military Industrial Complex's technology may open up a new multi-million dollar market
The so-called ground effect, which implies the change of wing's lift properties at low altitudes was first exploited in the early 20s. This has given birth to the idea of making a ground-effect vehicle.
USSR's Navy commenced the work on ground-effect planes in the late 50s. Designer Vladislav Alexeyev was developing hydrofoil ships then and therefore apart from other designers, who came to design ground-effect vehicles from aviation, had a naval background.
In early 60s Vladislav Alexeyev made CM-1, Russia's first ground-effect machine. Despite the fact that the tests of the new vehicle failed, USSR leader Krushchev supported the concept and promoted the young, promising designer.
In 1967 USSR produced the so-called Caspian Monster, a ground-effect vehicle capable of carrying up to 25 tons of cargo at the speed of some 565 kilometers per hour. Russian seamen were exited over the test results. The Monster easily passed the distance between Makhachkala, Russian seaport at Caspian eastern seaboard and Kazakhstan's port of Shevchenko in less than 40 minutes despite the three-meter high waves.
However, the Russian Navy considered unreasonable to launch the Monster into serial production and placed an order only for three experimental transport vehicles capable of carrying 20 tons of cargo and ammunition. The central design bureau at Nizhny Novgorod made three such machines named Orlenok. None of these vehicles survived. One of them disintegrated during the tests, the other drowned. Nothing is known about the third vehicle.
In 1987 after Alexeyev's death, Russia's Navy commissioned an assault ground-effect vehicle "Lun", equipped with three pairs of Moskit cruise missiles (SS-N-22Sunburn). The machine successfully completed all tests, but was never launched into serial production. USSR's leadership decided to terminate all works on ground-effect vehicles, irrespective of previously investing 400 million rubles (over $ 550 million at then existing exchange rate).
In early 90s, Dmitri Sinitsyn, who succeeded Alexeyev at the central design bureau, decided to apply the military developments for the civilian purposes.
The design bureau considered designing a 5-seat passenger vehicle. Unfortunately these plans were frustrated by the conflict between Sinitsyn and the management of Krasnoye Sormovo plant, that produced ground-effect vehicles.
In 1992 Sinitsyn and some of his colleague designers left the Central Design Bureau and moved to Amfistar company, established by a Taiwanese entrepreneur, who owned 99.9 percent of the Company's assets. The Taiwanese made a contract with Sinitsyn, whereby the entrepreneur would finance the design works in exchange of getting a patent on all vehicles and receiving exclusive rights for their sale. If the Taiwanese terminated the financing, he would lose the patent.
The entrepreneur invested over $ 6.5 million in the design works and received 10 Amfistar ground-effect machines. The vehicle was equipped with a standard Mercedes car engine, enabling to speed up to 150 kilometers per hour at the range of 600 kilometers.
Amfistar turned out very easy for operating. Each car driver, who completed a two-day training course, could operate it. The interest to Amfistar on part of potential buyers exceeded all expectations. At the exhibitions in Germany and USA, the Taiwanese entrepreneur was piled with sale orders. According to Sinitsyn, the businessman was not in hurry to sell the machines, as he was afraid that buyers might steal the technology and start their own production. He also declined a proposal for making a joint venture.
At present, two Amfistars are carrying tourists between the Bahamas islands, where the entrepreneur resides himself. The other eight machines are anchored at Norfolk, US. Norfolk Mayor who was given a ride in Amfistar really liked the machine. His colleague mayors of other coastal cities proposed to establish a service between their cities, using Amfistar. The municipal authorities of one of the cities have even legally formalized this idea in the urban development plans.
However, the Taiwanese refused to cooperate again.
The market demand for Amfistar machines is estimated at thousands units, with a price tag of $ 300,000 each.
According to the local experts, the route between Miami and Nassau as well as between Miami and Big Bahama will require several dozens of such vehicles. At present it takes nearly 9 hours for thousands US citizens to reach these islands on a ferry, while with Amfistar it would take only several minutes. The potential market for all Sinitsyin's vehicles, ranging from the transatlantic MPE-200, capable of carrying up to 500 passengers at 400 kilometers per hour to the cargo platforms for arctic areas could be easily guessed at a few billion US dollars.
The design and launch into production of a ground-effect vehicle capable of carrying at least 48 passengers will require an investment of about 20 million US dollars.
The Taiwanese investor was not inspired by such prospects due to some obscure reasons. After theeconomic crisis of 1998, he reduced the Amfistar's staff from 51 to 11 employees and slashed the financing down to 1,100 dollars a month.
As a result, Sinitsin and his team are currently trying to secure a patent on all developments made outside Amfistar and produce experimental prototypes without Taiwanese businessman's assistance.
From Russian Magazin "The Expert", 24.04.00