Five of the weirdest creations that ever flew, skimmed, or twisted their way across the Soviet Union.
1. The KM Ekranoplan (aka 'The Caspian Sea Monster')
Less a plane than "a boat that flies," the giant Ekranoplan represented a completely new kind of vehicle when a champagne bottle was cracked against its nose and it slid into the Caspian Sea in 1966.
The freakish addition to the Soviet navy used what pilots call the "ground effect," where airflow under low-flying wings creates a cushion of high pressure (the reason some seabirds skim just above the water, and why passenger planes sometimes loft slightly before touching down). When CIA agents first spotted the mysterious vehicle in satellite images, they were said to have been so spooked that a plan was hatched to fix a camera onto a radio-controlled "bird" in order to get more detailed photos. (The plan was dropped after the drone-bird repeatedly crashed in tests.)
And maybe they were right to be worried. The Caspian Sea Monster could scream along at 650 kilometers per hour, would skim harmlessly over antiship mines, and flew too low for most radar to spot. One analyst told the Science Channel: "[The Soviets] could be invading San Francisco in three hours and we wouldn’t know they were there until they arrived."
And it got scarier. After pilot error caused the original monster to crash and sink into the Caspian Sea in 1980 (where it reportedly still lies today), a 1987 Ekranoplan called the Lun (pictured) went full Thunderbirds, with six nuclear-capable Moskit missiles mounted along its spine.
Despite Ekranoplans adding a new dimension to naval warfare, the project was shelved as the Soviet Union collapsed and money ran dry. But a careful scan of Russia’s southern coastline reveals a Lun still sitting, derelict, on a barge today.
2. The Zil 4904 screw-propelled vehicle
With deep snow in winter, fragile ice in the spring and autumn, and swampy forest in the summer, Russia’s outback can be a tricky place to get around.
But if there’s one example of a truly Russia-proof vehicle, it's the amphibious ZiL 4904. This swamp beast was propelled forward by two aluminum pontoons wrapped in a screw-like thread that churned through squishy terrain the same way a screw twists into wood. The ZiL could plow through snow at running speed, could outpace any human swimmer on the open water, or could crunch through swamps when the need arose.
The Soviets were unable to find a use for the massive vehicle, and the Zil 4904s were soon retired. But with the onset of the Soviet space program, the screwy design was resurrected in the smaller Zil-2906 (pictured swamp-crunching above).
The little ZiL was tasked with fetching cosmonauts parachuting down to the plains of Kazakhstan in reentry capsules. The twisted little sister remains in active service today as part of the Blue Bird cosmonaut search-and-rescue team.
3. The Sever-2 Aerosled
What might be the world’s funkiest-looking “aerosled” was created in 1959 when Soviet engineers bolted the engine from a Yak-12 airplane onto the back of a GAZ M20 sedan, then fitted the craft with Teflon-coated skis.
But for all the Sever-2’s hot-rod swagger, it had a pretty boring job.
Tasked with delivering mail to the isolated villages of Russia’s north, the vehicle made quite a sight cruising the frozen rivers of Siberia. But the glorified mail car was beset with problems. The Sever-2 struggled to climb hills, and on narrow forest paths it slid around hopelessly. Add to that the tight space for carrying the postal cargo, and its days were numbered.
After three years of bedeviling mailmen, the model was replaced with the sturdier, roomier KA30, which served until the 1990s.
Out of around 100 Sever-2 aerosleds built, only one vehicle remains intact, looking like a duck out of water inside Moscow’s Central Air Force Museum.
4. The 'High-Speed Car-Laboratory' jet-powered train
The Soviet Union’s first and last jet-powered train was built in 1970 at the Tver Wagon Works in central Russia. It featured an ordinary locomotive body with a bulbous, sheet-metal nose fitted to the front and a pair of jet engines pulled from a Yak-40 passenger plane fixed onto the roof.
The experimental train’s career peaked in 1972 after it reportedly topped 250 kilometers per hour on a stretch of straight railway and had a gushing report on its performance written up in Pravda, the propaganda mouthpiece of the Communist Party.
Despite Pravda’s breathless report on the train’s performance, its fatal flaw is hidden in plain sight in the article: "to take passengers from Moscow to the shores of the Neva [in Saint Petersburg] would take six tons of jet fuel." That’s nearly three times the fuel a modern Boeing 737 would use for the same trip.
The train was retired from tests in 1975 and sat slowly falling to pieces in the old railyard, where some urban explorers found what is claimed to be the sad wreckage in 2014.
5. The Mil V-12 Helicopter
Looking like a praying mantis in a permanent threat display, the world’s biggest helicopter was rolled out of the Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant in 1968.
The giant prototype choppers measured 67 meters from rotor-tip to rotor-tip and needed six crew, including an electrician, to keep the Mil V-12 aloft. The craft’s harbinger-of-doom appearance is well-suited to the task it was designed for -- whisking intercontinental nuclear missiles to their launch sites.
In 1969, a brave test crew flying a Mil V-12 carried a 40,000-kilogram load to an altitude of 2.25 kilometers, a helicopter-weightlifting record that remains unbroken today.
But by the time the Mil V-12 had passed its job interviews, it was already redundant; the development of giant missile trucks that could wheel, erect, and launch missiles offered a simpler, more efficient way to destroy humanity. The two Mils that were built were sent into retirement in 1974, and one is today on display in the Central Airforce Museum near Moscow.
In 2009, the giant chopper made a brief, awkward appearance in an April Fools joke in which the Mils served as the basis for carefully photoshopped publicity images for "the world’s first Hotelicopter," a five-star hotel that "can finally take flight." Like the Mil V-12s themselves, the company behind the prank is now consigned to history.