The Ekip does not require an airfield. It can land on ground and water surfaces. Takeoffs and landings are performed at steep trajectories, which decrease the level of noise affecting the surrounding area. Citizens of Patuxent River, Maryland, do not be alarmed. When you see a flying saucer overhead sometime in 2007, it will not be a sign of alien attack.
Instead, the strange craft in the skies will mean that the Russians are finally here -- with a little help from the U.S. Navy.
For more than two decades, engineers at a former Soviet aerospace plant have been toiling on a drone aircraft that looks a whole lot like a prop from Plan 9 From Outer Space. But financial woes have frozen progress on the pita-bread-shaped, stubby-winged, wheel-less, unmanned ship, dubbed the Ekip (short for ecology and progress).
Momentum on the project may pick up again soon, however. After an introduction from an American congressman, the Ekip's designers at the Saratov Aviation Plant have a new partner: the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command, or NAVAIR, which has agreed to join in the development of the unorthodox drone over the next several years. Test flights are tentatively scheduled for 2007 at Webster Field, near Patuxent River.
The initial prototype will be only 500 pounds -- just a speck compared with the 12-ton craft that Saratov claims to have successfully test flown in the early 1990s.
"But if we can make it work, it'll allow for new, radical concepts in aircraft design," said Dr. John Fischer, NAVAIR's director of research and engineering sciences.
Odd-shaped objects are often difficult to push through the air, because the airflow around them gets so disjointed. And the Ekip certainly qualifies as odd.
But Fischer claims that the Ekip's designers have figured out a way to create a vacuum around the drone's surface, which keeps the air flowing around it.
In that way, Saratov's engineers appear to be taking a page from the playbook of the Romanian aeronautics pioneer Henri Coanda. He's best known as the father of the jet engine. In the 1930s, however, he observed that the flow of air will follow a curved surface, rather than just continue in a straight line. This "Coanda Effect" led engineers to increase the lift -- the vertical motion -- of most aircraft, which are slightly curved.
But it's also inspired more than a few engineers to try to build a completely curved plane -- an honest-to-God flying saucer. In the 1940s, the Navy developed the Flying Flapjack -- a propeller-powered, Frisbee-looking fighter plane that could take off and land like a helicopter.
The Flapjack was tested near Area 51, the clandestine military base that's been an obsession of X-Filers for decades.
"It's what originated many people's belief in flying saucers," said Phil Scott, author of The Wrong Stuff: Attempts at Flight Before (and After) the Wright Brothers. "Anyone on a lot of drugs would think it was a flying saucer."
The Flapjack flew well, Scott added. But by the time it was completed, the military had moved on to jet planes.
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