November 6, 2006 As the knowledge of the world begins to rush rather than seep across the barriers of language and distance via the internet, whole new areas of regionalised human endeavour are becoming visible to the world, and the glorious history of the Russian aerosled is a case in point.
H. G. Wells once wrote, “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature's inexorable imperative.” Getting from point A to point B has not always been as easy as it is today. Man’s need to cross the deserts, oceans, forests, mountains and the skies above them has seen many fascinating conveyances built specifically for a given task and the aerosled was devised to cross the vast frozen Russian tundra.
It evolved from an adapted horse-drawn sleigh powered by a pusher prop 100 years ago to become a thriving ski-automobile industry and with sponsorship from the Russian Military in the Cold War era, developed capabilities that are truly extraordinary.
The January Barrett-Jackson Collector Car auction is to include a fully-restored N007 Tupolev – the vehicle appears to be one of the early prototypes and is the only-known Russian-built aerosled to make it to the United States. Designed by Andrei Tupolev, one of the founders and key figures of Soviet Aviation, the N007 can propel through and protect its occupants from the sub-zero conditions common in the Northern Russian tundra.
Powered by a 365 hp nine-cylinder radial engine it hovers just over water, marshland, ice or snow and given a flat stretch, is claimed to reach 80 mph. Part ground effect aircraft, part boat but mainly a sled, the N007 is a priceless example of human being’s ability to adapt and conquer any terrain.
Over 800 examples were produced, but it’s a fair bet that this is one of the earliest and most authentic of this second generation aerosleds. Watch for our coverage of the new third generation aerosled later this week.
The N007 reached the United States when Juergen Shulte, a German-born businessman and resident of Clarksville, Ga., purchased it in Russia in 1999 and embarked on a rigorous restoration process with engineers across the globe. Since the rebirth of the vehicle formerly used as a rescue craft, it has been awarded the “Corinthian Award” in 2005 and 2006 at the Keels and Wheels Concours d’Elegance in Houston and the 2006 “Award of Excellence” at the Greenwich Concours d’Elegance in Greenwich, Connecticut, so we can be reasonably assured it’s in fine condition and as far as fine fettle, it has been tested as recently as June 2006 and the restored engine has only 50 hours of use.
In the post WWII period, Russian military resources were focussed on the development of contemporary combat and civil aviation engineering, and attention was not focussed on propeller-driven sleighs until the beginning of the 1960s when Tupolev was tasked with developing a means of high-speed extra-road all-season transportation using amphibious propeller-driven sleighs.
Tupolev mentored and oversaw a team of talented designers and highly educated engineers which undertook finding the best solution to the problem. The idea of the creation of a propeller-driven amphibian in the USSR had been studied from the mid-30s, but no solution fast enough or robust enough had been found. Numerous layouts were tested where the sleighs were mounted on floats, and eventually, using studies from aero- and hydrodynamics, it was decided that the most promising design direction for the propeller-driven sleighs was in the form of a hybrid ski-boat.
This approach gave the required “amphibious capability” as the machine could move both on snow and water and so, in 1961, began the testing and evolution of the new amphibious propeller-driven sleighs which would eventually be given the designation A-3. Testing and development took three years before the first series of the A-3 was released in 1964 and was produced until the early 1980s.
The A-3 was an extremely effective multipurpose machine, widely used to take medical assistance to remote regions, as a transportation solution for passengers and important freight, and rescue operations where conditions made roads impassable. The specially profiled bottom of the A -3 made it possible to glide along the top of snow and water with negligible resistance even when water was very shallow (5-10 cm). Deep snow and ice did not even require a reduction in speed and with a complete absence of protruding parts, it was also possible to move through undergrowth and bushes up to a metre in height.
The basic construction of of the A-3 was an aluminium semi-monocoque construction with three airtight sections. In the central section, the heated cab was located. In all-passenger configuration, four armchairs were fitted, and in freight mode, two seats were fitted with additional space for the cargo.
The relatively small overall size and weight of the A-3 made it possible to transport the amphibian in trucks and in the cargo compartments of aircraft helicopters.
The third generation aerosled, the Tupolev AS2 is now available - the beneficiary of a century of development, this 21st century incarnation has all the hallmarks of a luxury sportscar and will be covered in greater depth in the coming week.