Why the Soviet Red Baron Matters Today
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because his discoveries, while not fully appreciated in his lifetime, may well be the bedrock of modern transportation innovations.
By Agostino Petroni
Last July, the so-called Caspian Sea Monster was hauled from its decadeslong beach perch to become a tourist attraction. The extraordinary machine briefly captivated the internet, and for good reason — half plane, half ship, the Cold War vehicle once could fly as fast as a jet and carry tanks for thousands of miles. But few considered the aviation mastermind who paved the way for such a magnificent invention: Robert Ludvigoich Bartini, a man once known as the Soviet Red Baron.
Which is all some strange historical happenstance, considering Bartini was not actually born in Russia. His unwed, teenage mother drowned herself shortly after his birth, in 1897, leaving Robert in the care of a biological father who wanted nothing to do with him, the Austro-Hungarian elite Lodovico Oros de Bartini. Despite his noble ties, Bartini was raised by a peasant family before Lodovico eventually acknowledged him.
As a young man, Bartini served in the Imperial Army and fought against the Russians during World War I. In 1916, he was imprisoned in Siberia. That was the moment Bartini — by then a baron who spoke seven languages and was well-versed in physics and chemistry — became a Bolshevik. At least, that’s what Giuseppe Ciampaglia, an Italian engineer, military historian and author of The Life and Planes of Roberto Bartini, believes.
The Soviets, also convinced that Bartini had been won over to the cause, sent him to Italy to spy for them until 1922. After the Fascist takeover in Italy, Bartini moved to Crimea and began designing Russian planes, experimenting with fluids and materials in ways befitting a scientist more than an engineer. His primary role was to pursue daring, innovative ideas, according to Sergej Težak, a professor of transportation science at the University of Maribor in Slovenia.
Of course, that meant most of Bartini’s work was conceptual in nature. “He implemented only a few of his ideas in practice, as only four prototypes with his name were made,” Težak says, adding that Bartini’s influence was eventually felt more broadly: “He gave conceptual ideas for about 60 different aircraft.”
Among those was the Stal-6, a monoplane fighter faster than any other invented at the time. Bartini designed long-range bombers, tank-transported aircraft and supersonic planes whose base served as the inspiration behind the history-making Concorde. “In today’s Russia, Bartini is described as a misunderstood genius whose ideas were ahead of his time, comparing him with Nikola Tesla,” Težak writes.
Bartini also developed the theory of intercontinental transport of the Earth, which showed that flying just above the ground would be the best, most sustainable way for transportation on the planet. Not only could such vehicles carry 30 percent more weight than regular planes but they also suffered from less drag, greatly increasing their efficiency.
His ground-effect principles became crucial to creating amphibious planes like the Caspian Sea Monster, also known as “ekranoplans” — so much so that the aerodynamic phenomenon powering them was nicknamed Bartini’s Effect. Still, Bartini never received the same widespread acclaim in Russia that some of his famous engineer peers did, perhaps in part due to his non-Soviet roots. “He was known only in the aviation industry,” Ciampaglia says. “He became a head engineer, but not of the highest order, like [Artyom Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurevich], for example. He was not Russian.”
Existing ekranoplans are rare, in part because new technology took one of their key advantages, being able to fly under the radar of opposing military forces. However, Težak says, they are attracting new interest from transportation experts. In Singapore, Wigetworks is creating a modern ground-effect vehicle called the AirFish. The Chinese government has reportedly conducted recent trials on its own take on the ekranoplan, while Russia supposedly considered dusting off the giant ships for Arctic missions.
Ekranoplans have lower energy and fuel consumption, making them well-suited for a more climate-change-conscious future. They are more adept at traversing rivers and canals, easily hopping over dams while traveling at speeds undisturbed by choppy waters. Their technology could even lead to sea- and ground-skimming drones that, theoretically, could seize the holy grail of the shipping industry: one-hour delivery. Meaning that even if Bartini wasn’t always appreciated in his time, the future could soon be an ode to his work.
- Agostino Petroni, OZY Author Contact Agostino Petroni