The Aerocon Wingship: 7 stunning images of DARPA's 'huge' answer to the Russian Ekranoplan

The Aerocon Dash 1.6 wingship was a giant flying hotel, that could travel at just a few meters above the water at 460 mph, and had the capacity to carry thousands of passengers.
Christopher McFadden
The Aerocon Wingship would have been giant, high-speed flying hotel.

Tim Samedov/Artstation 

  • DARPA once considered building a bigger, meaner version of the famous Russian Ekranoplan
  • It would have been enormous and would carry helicopters, tanks, and troops
  • A commercial variant was also considered, but the entire project was scrapped due to its excessive cost

The Aerocon Wingship, which was twice as big as a jumbo jet, had the potential to revolutionize aviation. If it had ever been realized, it would have dwarfed the largest airliners in the world.

400 tons and 566-feet-long (172.5 meters), this mighty machine was a design financed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA) with lofty goals to transport thousands of passengers and 1,500 tons of goods close to the sea surface.

With 20 rocket engines mounted on wings close to the plane's nose, engineers estimated that the enormous aircraft could fly around 12,000 miles (19,312 km).

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The Aerocon Wingship would have been a true beast.
Tim Samedov/Artstation  

The surface-hugging aircraft would operate by employing a principle known as the "ground effect", which forms an air bubble beneath the vessel. This would allow the Aerocon to hover just above the water's surface, unlike airplanes, which travel thousands of feet in the air.

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The Aerocon Wingship would have been giant, high-speed flying hotel.
Tim Samedov/ArtStation 

This effect is comparable to a hovercraft but allows for far faster and more stable travel, opening the door for potentially enormous flying ships like the Aerocon Wingship.

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The Aerocon Wingship
Tim Samedov/ArtStation 

But because of its tremendous range, it could also travel nonstop from the U.S. to practically everywhere, including China, Japan, and Australia.

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The ship would have carried ship-size payloads at airplane speeds.
Tim Samedov/Artstation  

Additionally, it could haul 30 times as much weight as a Boeing 747 while flying at aircraft-level speeds and skimming up to 100 feet above the ocean.

It was planned that the aircraft would be opulent, carrying rooms, bars, and restaurants much like a massive flying hotel or cruise ship. The Wingship could also pull up to the dock and open its back doors like a roll-on, roll-off ferry, allowing people to possibly even bring their cars.

Steven Hooker, the lead designer of the aircraft, got the idea for the Wingship after seeing Caspian Sea Monster-like vehicles (aka the Ekranoplan) in the Soviet Union.

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The Aerocon compared to the Russian Ekranoplan
Tim Samedov/Artstation  

Only one of the beast's experimental ground effect vehicles, which could reach speeds of 311 mph (500 kph), was ever constructed because the Kremlin lost interest in the plane.

Hooker, on the other hand, believed he could do better and concocted his Wingship, which was 10 times larger than the "Sea Monster".

When it first debuted in the 1990s, he anticipated that his device could transport passengers across the Atlantic for as little as £60 ($72.4) per ticket.

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Top view of the ship.
Tim Samedov/Artstation  

Furthermore, Hooker found that the bigger, the better rule really applied because of the way the ground effect notion functions. He told Popular Mechanics, “in order to build a large aircraft, I have to build a huge aircraft.”

"You really have to be motivated to do, but if one took that step, it would have a commercial pay off," he added.

It was ambitious and would have cost a small fortune to build

However, the project's start-up costs were staggering—up to $600 million. Additionally, the U.S. military explored purchasing 13 aircraft for a total cost of $15 billion.

The Pentagon was highly intrigued by the DARPA-funded idea because it might potentially be a huge fast response troop carrier.

The vehicle's capacity was projected to be 32 helicopters, 20 tanks, four landing craft, and about 2,000 soldiers.

“We've never built anything on this scale”, program manager Lt. Col. Michael F. Francis told the Los Angeles Times. The Wingship might be transported into disaster areas as a sizable flying hospital.

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Artist's impression of the ship.
Tim Samedov/Artstation  

Hooker also noted that "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," he told the LA Times.

What is the 'ground effect'?

For fixed-wing aircraft, the reduced aerodynamic drag that an airplane's wings produce while it is near a fixed surface is known as the "ground effect". When in "ground effect" during takeoff, reduced drag might lead the airplane to "float" while traveling slower than the advised climb speed.

The aircraft will then accelerate in ground effect as the pilot flies close to the runway until a safe climb speed is obtained. Designers were mesmerized by ground effect vehicles, particularly in the Soviet Union, but the idea was never fully realized outside the drawing board.

The so-called “Caspian Sea Monster” was one of the huge wingships the Russians intended to construct.

However, the persistent economic issues that ultimately resulted in the Soviet Union's demise grounded the project. Sadly, DARPA canceled the billion-dollar project in the 1990s, so the genuinely enormous Aerocon never got to hurtle over the world's oceans.

While it was never meant to be, we can still imagine what it may have looked like in real life thanks to the work of artists like Tim Samedov. He is a graphic designer who created the amazing 3D model of the Aerocon featured in this article, and would like to thank him for his hard work in bringing the ship to life.

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