Belly Of The Beast: Illicit Photos From Inside The Soviet Ekranoplan

A Russian photographer snuck into the world’s only nuclear-capable, ground-effect vehicle and captured rare images of its interior.

This is the Lun-class ekranoplan, a formerly top-secret Soviet naval vessel that could skim just above the waves at jet-plane speeds, evading radar and anti-ship mines.

The ekranoplan during tests on the Caspian Sea in the 1980s

The vehicle was equipped with six launchers along its spine that could fire nuclear missiles powerful enough to destroy an aircraft carrier.

The vehicle made use of the so-called “ground effect” -- a cushion of high pressure that forms under the wings of extremely low-flying aircraft, boosting speed and lift. Wave-skimming seabirds can often be seen utilizing the same phenomenon.

The ekranoplan in 2010

After the collapse of the U.S.S.R. and subsequent end of the Lun program, the “aircraft carrier killer” sat idle on this tightly guarded dock on the coast of Russia’s Daghestan region.

This summer, Russian urban explorer Lana Sator, 31, read about the ekranoplan being towed by sea to Derbent, a city in Daghestan, where it is due to be moved into a "patriotic park” and put on permanent display.

With the ekranoplan lolling in the waves awaiting its final transport to the military theme park, Sator told RFE/RL she booked a last-minute, $150 flight from her base in Moscow to Daghestan.

The ekranoplan sitting a few meters off the shore of Derbent.

At around 1 a.m. on the morning of August 7, Sator and a friend stuffed cameras into watertight bags, walked along the moonlit coast, then waded through the waves toward the vehicle. Around the wing, Sator says the sea had scooped out “a deep hole in the sand” but the pair eventually managed to clamber on board and peer inside the vessel’s open door.

Sator’s companion -- his T-shirt still wet from the wade out to the wing -- inside the ekranoplan

Inside the entrance, Sator says “light bulbs were on and a generator was humming very loudly.” Then they saw a security guard.

Controls inside the ekranoplan

Somehow the guard was sleeping through the generator’s din. With the noise covering their footsteps, Sator and her companion -- both dripping with seawater -- were able to sneak past him and into the belly of the Soviet beast.

A radar dish stands tall in the tail of the ekranoplan. Sator says there are three different radar systems stacked atop each other in the tail of the craft.

The pair headed away from the guard and into the rear of the vessel, then unbagged their cameras and flashes and got to work.

Sator says she was more excited than scared as they crept undetected through the dimly lit compartments. The vessel swayed gently in the waves like a boat.

The cockpit of the vessel: the ekranoplan required a crew of 15 when it was operational.

After nearly an hour exploring the rear of the ekranoplan, the pair again tiptoed past the slumbering guard and made their way to the front where Sator was able to photograph the airplane-like control room.

A radar operator’s station: Sator says some places in the Lun were cluttered with “chicken and cakes” left by the men working on readying the vessel for public display.

Finally, at about 3 a.m., with scores of photos on their cameras, the pair once more passed the guard -- who they noticed had turned over in his sleep -- and stepped off the wing into the warm seawater, which by then was deep enough that they plunged unexpectedly in over their heads.

After getting safely to shore and later watching the oblivious guard emerge from the craft to stretch and yawn at the sunrise, Sator said her mission could “be considered accomplished.”