The Caspian Sea Monster may turn into a flying ocean liner.
It's one of the new roles being considered for a successor to the monster, a mammoth floating airship built by the Soviet Union in the 1960s.
The ungainly hybrid, nearly as long as two football fields, cruised out of a harbor, speeded up and skimmed the water like a Hovercraft, then gained altitude and flew.
Visionaries today say that an enlarged version, the biggest thing ever to fly, could be used as an airborne cruise ship, a winged hospital or a speedy express to deliver troops and heavy equipment to distant battlefields.
Western intelligence experts were astonished about 30 years ago when they first saw spy satellite photos of the 540-ton Soviet behemoth resting on the water.
The Caspian Sea Monster got its nickname from its stubby wings, elongated fuselage and towering tail and from the body of water where it was spotted.
The weird-looking craft, intended for anti-submarine warfare, never saw active service. It crashed in the 1970s.
Lack of money in the post-Cold War era has prevented Russia's Central Hydrofoil Design Bureau in Nizhni Novgorod, which created the monster, from developing another one.
But Stephan F. Hooker, an American engineer who analyzed the monster's design for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency in the 1960s--exact dates remain classified--wants to create a 550-foot-long successor, shaped like a manta ray, with a large V-shaped tail.
As a first step, Hooker has formed Aerocon, a company in Arlington, Va., that someday hopes to coordinate a joint project with the Russians to build a wingship. "The Russians have past experience with big craft and modern competitive designs," he said.
The 1990s version of the Caspian Sea Monster, which Hooker dubbed a "wingship," would be 10 times larger than anything flying today.
As many as 20 turbofan engines at the front of the wingship would provide thrust and pump air beneath the wing so that the craft could take off from the water.
The wingship could fly 1,500 tons of cargo and 2,000 people as far as 11,500 miles at speeds up to 460 m.p.h., slightly slower than a standard commercial jetliner.
But there's no guarantee that the wingship or anything else using the same technology will ever be built. Developing such a machine, Hooker estimates, might cost $400 million to $600 million.
Hooker's research has been supported by the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency. The idea of a versatile craft that could expeditiously transport heavy equipment and large numbers of troops to distant harbors appeals to the U.S. military, which must update its aging transport fleet.
"Desert Storm highlighted the need for this sort of thing," said Earl W. Rubright, science and technology adviser to the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla.
The military also would like to reduce its equipment and troops overseas. "We're not saying you want to step away from a forward presence, but does it have to reside there all the time?" Rubright asked.
"Probably not. If you could take units from the States in full combat readiness together with their heavy equipment and have them in a theater of operations within 30 hours, you'd be dealing with a much better situation than the one we face today."
The Pentagon agency is sending a group of experts, including Hooker, to Russia to take a fresh look at wingship technology.
"We'll be trying to separate the myth from the reality, trying to understand what the Russians did with this technology and how well they did it," said Lt. Col. Michael F. Francis, the program manager.
"We'll also try to stir in things the Russians didn't have in their development work, such as advanced structures and materials and digital flight controls, and see if that makes future development more feasible."
Other factors besides risk and expense will decide whether a big wingship goes beyond the study phase. "We've never built anything on this scale," Francis said, "so we'll have to learn more about the physics and aerodynamics associated with it."
The wingship Hooker proposes could fly at 10,000 feet, but most of the time it would skim at 15 to 100 feet above the waves, operating efficiently on a cushion of dense air.
Speeding along 20 times faster than a ship, the 5,000-ton craft could heft 10 times more cargo than any airplane now flying. As an airborne ocean liner, Hooker estimates, it could carry passengers from the United States to Europe for as little as $75 a ticket.
Transformed into a mercy ship, the wingship's cavernous cargo compartment, 40 feet high, 50 feet wide and 200 feet long, could take a prefabricated two-story, 150-bed hospital to disaster areas, Hooker said.
"The stern of the ship opens up, and the hospital could be rolled on or off," he said. "The upper level would house the infirmary, and below would be the operating room and other facilities."
Hooker estimates that the potentially huge volumes of freight carried by the wingship could infuse billions of dollars into the air cargo business.