THE PELICAN WITH A WINGSPAN OF 500 FEET IS THE LARGEST PLANNED PLANE IN HISTORY. IT WILL CARRY 5,000 PEOPLE OR 38 BATTLE TANKS ACROSS ANY OCEAN TO ANYWHERE ON EARTH SKIMMING THE WATER AT 20 TO 100 FEET BEFORE RISING TO ENTER AIRPORTS. ILLUSTRATION BY MIKA GRONDAHL, EDIT INTERNATIONAL.
By Lance Laytner
WASHINGTON - Europe's long-delayed Airbus A380 will carry as many as 900 passengers on long-haul flights including intercontinental voyages.
But, Airbus' super jumbo-jet may eventually look tiny next to the monster plane being planned by Boeing Aerospace.
The huge plane, code-named "Pelican" by its designers, will carry more than five times the passengers of the Airbus 380 - a stunning 5,000 people at a time.
“It will be the largest, heaviest aircraft ever to fly,” said John Skorupa, head of the strategic development office of Boeing Aerospace's Advanced Airlift and Tankers
Division. Empty, the giant craft will weigh as much as seven fully-loaded 747 jumbo jets.
How will such a heavy machine get off the ground? Seventy-six tires will support the aircraft for take-off and landing. Eight 80,000 horsepower turbine engines, the size used in large cargo ships, will power eight 50-foot high propellers (the largest in history). The giant 500-foot foldable wings with more than an acre of surface area will keep the plane aloft and also hold cargo or troops.
A plane this massive should guzzle so much fuel that a flight of any long distance would be impossible. And yet this super plane will be able to fly at 300 mph to anywhere on Earth without refueling. Says Skorupa, “We estimate it is roughly twice as efficient as any airliner flying today.”
This scientific miracle is accomplished through a secret flight technique developed by the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War and now perfected by the Americans.
It began in 1967 when an emergency session in Washington was called by the CIA to analyze a strange spy satellite image taken over the USSR. The photograph showed a craft much bigger than any airplane known to exist. It was a massive seaplane with wings that seemed too short for it to fly and was shown flying low across the Caspian Sea near the small city of Kaspisk.
“We knew they were getting tremendous efficiency operating close to the water,” reveals Skorupa, “and we wanted that technology.”
US spies inside Russia learned the strange machine was an ‘ekranoplane’ – an aircraft designed to use an aerodynamic phenomenon called ‘ground effect’ to fly heavy weights over water. The plane remained a closely guarded mystery for many years and the Pentagon nicknamed it the “Caspian Sea Monster.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union more information came out. The experimental plane was invented by Rostislav Alexeyev, a personal friend of then Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
The 500-ton Caspian Monster’s official Russian name was ‘KM’ and it was completed in 1966. The Monster had ten jet engines, two in the tail and eight on the wings.
It was a sea plane that had to reach 210 mph before it finally lifted off the water.
Because its hull had to withstand crashing through waves at high speed, the Caspian Monster was extremely heavy. It guzzled fuel far too quickly to be useful and never flew well. One former Soviet engineer complained years later that the experimental plane was a waste of money and that its designers said after every failure it would work if only it were bigger and bigger.
Designer Alexeyev hoped KM would quickly move 900 Soviet troops at a time across oceans. But its poor performances always kept the Soviet military skeptical.
Their navy only accepted five out of a planned fleet of 140 KM's and they were never used. The last KM sits today unfinished in a massive warehouse/hanger beside a huge barge and ship near the Caspian Sea. It was designed to be a flying hospital with operating rooms and patient wards. But the Russians ran out of money.
But the Americans were extremely interested. In 1993 after the fall of the USSR the Pentagon began to intensely study the Caspian Sea Monster. They found the Soviets were indeed on the right track and the craft could be feasible with design changes. Alexyev was right. It would have to be much bigger.
The US military gave the project to defense contractor Boeing Aerospace which for many years had been playing with the idea of making a plane the size of a cargo ship. It might have been left as only an idea but for the work of Osama bin Laden.
After the September 11th attacks and because of the frustratingly slow build-up in preparation for the war with Iraq, the US military has brought the idea out of moth balls and mere think tank discussion.
The American military feels it took far too long to get its forces across the globe to Iraq. In a world where terrorists might suddenly get their hands on weapons of mass destruction the US feels it needs to be able to wage war far more quickly. The Cold War era policy of moving massive armies of tanks and fighter planes by ship simply can’t catch up to fast moving terrorist organizations.
Even the huge C5 Galaxy transport planes the US currently uses can only move two heavy Abrams battle tanks at one time. The US air force’s entire fleet of 126 C5’s would still take months to move an entire tank battalion.
So the Pentagon has made the old idea of a huge transport plane a new priority. “The thing that is driving our interest is the military need,” says Skorupa. “All branches of the U.S. Military want various applications of the airplane.”
Boeing's Phantom Works experimental aircraft division started by making their design much lighter and much larger than the Soviet Caspian Sea Monster. They gave up the idea of a sea plane because the reinforced hull took too much weight.
Next, they analyzed how best to take advantage of the ‘ground effect’ the Soviets had attempted to use. Instead of small wings, Phantom Works changed the design to enormously large wings. They call their new method WIG or ‘wing in ground.’
A major rule of flight has always been the higher the better because flying through thinner air takes less fuel. But WIG uses a completely different flight principle.
“Normally, air swirls up and over the tips of a plane’s wings and essentially pushes it downward. It is easier to fly at higher altitudes because the air is thinner and can’t push as hard,” explained Skorupa.
“But if you fly a plane very low and close to the ground the small distance between the surface and the wing prevents the air from swirling in the first place – the so called ‘wing in ground’ effect. The air gets trapped under the wing and makes a cushion that pushes up instead of pulling down.”
This is how heavy pelican birds fly effortlessly a couple feet above the water and almost never have to flap their wings as opposed to lighter seagulls that have to frantically flap their wings flying high over the sea. Boeing has nicknamed their design the ‘Pelican’ because, like the bird, they hope it will fly far with little energy.
The Pelican should be able to fly much farther using less fuel and with more cargo than any plane that flies at high altitudes. The catch is that the plane is most efficient when flown between 20 and 100 feet above the ocean.
A raging sea could present some problems for the super plane but its designers say they can be overcome. If needed the Pelican can fly like a normal plane as high as 20,000 feet and jump over any storm. Even at high altitudes the super plane will be slightly more fuel efficient than a normal jetliner.
And no human being is expected to hand fly the Pelican twenty feet above the water. Skorupa says, “High-tech weather satellites will constantly beam real time information to the Pelican’s automated flight system which will guide the massive aircraft exactly on the best path.” – not to mention keeping it from crashing into ships while it skims across the ocean.
But a few more problems still need to be worked out. The cushion of air effect that Boeing’s super plane will rely upon to glide above the sea will act like a spring and bounce the huge airship from wave to wave making for a very bumpy ride.
Although, the craft could probably hold five thousand passengers the rocky ride has convinced Boeing so far to give up on it as a passenger craft in its early stages – the inside of the plane will not even be pressurized except for the cockpit.
Another difficulty is the plane will be so huge and heavy that when it takes-off or lands at a normal airport with a runway built over gravel it may start mini-earthquakes which will begin by damaging toilets and windows in terminals.
Despite these obstacles, more than just the military are excited about the Pelican. The super plane could herald a revolution in the shipping industry not seen since the invention of the steam engine.
Planes can’t hold much and ships are too slow but Boeing’s huge aircraft blends the two – fast as a normal plane but holding as much as a cargo ship.
By using a plane that can land anywhere inside a country, shipping companies would never have to unload ship cargo onto trucks. The Pelican could fly directly to the city where its cargo needs to be delivered.
The US space program is also interested. With the destruction of the space shuttle Columbia and the death of its crew, NASA is looking for ways to make the space program safer. But, the huge rockets used to initially launch the space shuttles into the sky put out a tremendous amount of destructive energy.
The Pelican may provide a gentler alternative. “We’ve talked to some folks at NASA and they are interested in it as the first stage of an airborne launch,” says Skorupa.
An entire space shuttle can easily fit inside the Pelican’s cargo hold. The huge plane would carry the space shuttle high into the air before dropping it and allowing it to activate its own rockets to propel it the rest of the way into space. This would bypass the violent rocket powered takeoff that may have contributed to the Columbia disaster.
And all of these are just the first uses for the initial model of the Pelican.
In time super planes may be perfected and become a common method of travel and eventually replace high flying jets for trans continental flights. Just think of it:
A fuel efficient Pelican carrying more than 5,000 passengers may someday allow travel between any major city on Earth for as little as $50 US dollars - no matter what is the price of oil.
By Lance Laytner
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