Strategic and tactical airlift is a major responsibility assigned to most air forces around the world, and nations which possess the capability for these vital duties can not only support their forces in combat but also can perform humanitarian relief missions around the globe.
Modern strategic airlifters are a vital asset in many national inventories, especially those that can operate from austere airstrips and can perform ‘hub and spoke’ re-supply missions.
One of the best of these is the Ilyushin IL-76, which has performed valiantly for the Soviet/Russian air force since the 1970s as a transport aircraft, but the basic airframe is also used as a template for an aerial tanker and an AEW&C radar platform as well.
Built in large numbers for both military and civilian use, the IL-76 has been constantly upgraded over the years and has also recently spawned a near-copy by the PRC known as the Xi’an Y-20. Many nations and civil cargo companies around the world operate the IL-76, including the United Nations which has several aircraft on loan from Russia.
Design and Development
Ilyushin submitted a proposal for a transport aircraft in 1967, and the design parameters were very ambitious indeed: the ability to carry 40 tonnes (88,000 lbs) over 3,100 miles (5,000 km) in less than 6 hours, as well as the ability to operate from short, unpaved airfields in all weather conditions.
After several design options were considered, the prototype flew in March 1971, and the type entered service with the Soviet air force in June 1974.
The initial variant accepted for service in the Soviet Union was also the most manufactured version to date, the IL-76 D (NATO reporting name ‘Candid D’) of which 860 units were produced. With a cargo capacity of 50 tonnes, the Candid D was the Soviet Union’s first four-engine heavy jet transport and was intended to replace the AN-12 turboprop transport, though this aircraft remains in service to this day.
This version was manufactured solely for military service, with most of the production run being of the basic cargo version, but many aircraft were also modified for aeromedical transport, tanker, AEW&C, electronic warfare and other roles, even as a support aircraft for cosmonaut training purposes.
Several minor variants followed the Candid D, and these were mainly test aircraft for power plant improvements and other technological advances considered for use in the IL-76. The next major version was the IL-76 M/MD, which introduced minor improvements including a longer range. These aircraft were only produced in small numbers for Russian use.
Major improvements in the basic design led to the introduction of the IL-76MF first flown in 1995, which while intended to enter service with the Soviet air force was not procured for economic reasons.
With a fuselage stretched by nearly seven metres and new high-bypass turbofan engines fitted the payload of this variant was 60 tonnes, but the few aircraft of this series were only delivered to the Jordanian Air Force.
The final major variant of the cargo version of the Candid was the IL-76 MD-90A, which was manufactured in small numbers in 2017, with the first flight in 2019.
With improved engines, a longer fuselage, a modern glass cockpit and upgraded avionics, large-scale manufacture of this capable aircraft was constrained by Russian economic difficulties, and only small numbers have entered service to date, but production of this version is ongoing.
The IL-76 was produced in two specialised versions for tanker and AEW&C duties: the Beriev A-50 (NATO reporting name Mainstay) was introduced in 1978, mounting a Liana radar dome for airborne command and control tasks.
The improved A-50M enabled the aircraft to be refuelled in flight, greatly increasing the endurance of this version.
The IL-78 tanker (NATO reporting name Midas) first flew in 1982, with the first models of this series being converted from IL-76 cargo aircraft. In 1984 the improved IL-78M version was introduced, which was a dedicated tanker version.
All IL-78s have three drogue-type refuelling systems, one under each wing and the third trailing from the aircraft fuselage.
The IL-76 has a height of 15 metres (48 feet), a length of 46 metres (152 feet), and a wingspan of 50.5 metres (165 feet). The Candid D has a crew of five: pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer and two loadmasters. The empty weight of most versions is 203,000 lbs (92,500 kg) and the IL-76 MD-90A has a Maximum Take-Off Weight of 429,000 lbs (194,590 kg).
The IL-76 was originally fitted with four Soloviev D-30KP turbofans, but later aircraft were equipped with the high-bypass Aviadigatel PS 90-76 turbofans, giving the aircraft a top speed of 560 mph (900 km/h).
Cargo versions have an un-refuelled range of 2,700 miles (4,400 km) with a load of 50 tonnes. An empty IL-76 has a ferry range of 5,800 miles (9,300 km) when fitted with extra fuel tanks in the cargo area. The service ceiling of the IL-76 is 43,000 feet (13,000 metres).
The cargo versions have steadily increasing cargo capacity following the introduction of the basic Candid D: the IL-76M could carry 42,000 kg (92,500 lbs) of cargo, this was increased to 48,000 kg (105,800 lbs) in the MD variant. The final cargo version IL-76 MD-90A has a total capacity of 60,000kg (132,300 lbs).
Basic cargo versions of the IL-76 were fitted with defensive weapons and electronic aids such as radar warning, chaff and flare dispensers and jamming equipment. A powered manned turret with optional radar guidance was fitted to the base of the tail for defensive purposes, and this turret was equipped with two 23mm GSh-23L autocannons.
Some early production versions were equipped with an ordnance rack under each wing, which could carry bombs up to 500 kg in weight, or radio beacons.
While the IL-76 is a robust and serviceable aircraft, the type has a poor safety record in both civilian and military use, with many fatal accidents over its time in service.
A total of 80 airframes were written off in crashes and other accidents in 2018, with over a thousand fatalities. An average of two IL-76 crashes each year have been recorded since 1979.
The Candid D was very heavily used by the Soviet Air Force to support Red Army operations in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1991. During this period, over 14,400 flights were made from Russia to Kabul and other destinations within Afghanistan, with 786,200 passengers and 316,000 tonnes of equipment flown into the country. This represented 89% of all personnel, and 74% of cargo airlifted to Afghanistan by the Soviet Air Force.
Afghan mujahedeen had serious difficulty in trying to engage the IL-76 within the country, as the high-flying Candid was difficult to target in flight. The rebels had to wait until the IL-76 was taking off from or departing an airfield before attacking the aircraft with Strela and Stinger missiles, or heavy machine gun fire.
Many aircraft were damaged in these attacks, but the basic robustness of the airframe meant that the IL-76s were able to remain in an operational state, and the attrition rate of the platform during the conflict was remarkably low. Taking note of this, Canadian forces employed civilian IL-76s to ferry the majority of their troops and equipment into Afghanistan in 2006.
The Chinese PLAAF flew an IL-76 to Afghanistan in 2004, and in 2011 used several IL-76s to evacuate Chinese citizens from Libya. These were the first instances of the PLAAF performing long-distance airlift missions, and in 2016 a highly similar aircraft to the IL-76 known as the Xi’an Y-20 transport aircraft started operating with Chinese military units.
The Y-20 is an improved version of the IL-76, with a cargo capacity of 66 tonnes, and when new Chinese turbofan engines become available is expected to have an increased range compared to the Russian version.
The Syrian Air Force operates several IL-76s in civilian configuration with the national freight company Syrianair. These aircraft have been reported making many clandestine flights between Damascus and Moscow and Tehran, transporting weapons and other cargo to bolster Basher Al-Assad’s regime despite international sanctions.
It has also been reported that several flights between Moscow and Damascus have been used to transport large quantities of Syrian banknotes, enabling the Syrian government to survive fiscally despite strict international financial sanctions.
The IL-78 Midas and the A-50M AEW&C aircraft continue to support Russian military aviation to this day, and India and the PRC have also ordered these variants to sustain operations by their air arms. A new version of the A-50 aircraft is in the late stage of development, and this Beriev A-100 is based on the IL-76 MD-90A airframe, with a new solid-state radar replacing the analogue version in the A-50M.
However, sanctions imposed on Russia after the invasion of Ukraine have delayed service introduction of this model due to financial constraints.
Several IL-76s have been lost by both Russia and Ukraine during the current conflict between those two nations. A Ukrainian Air Force IL-76 was shot down by separatist rebels on approach to the Luhansk region of the country in 2014.
Two Russian IL-76s were engaged on the second day of the current conflict, shot down near Kyiv on the 25th of February 2022. The wreckage of these aircraft was not discovered until September of that year. In April 2022 two Ukrainian Air Force IL-76s were destroyed on the ground by Russian forces at Melitopol Airport in the Zaporizhzhia Oblast within Ukraine.
The Ilyushin IL-76 is a prime strategic airlifter, and while not as capable as later Western cargo aircraft like the Boeing C-17 Globemaster or the Airbus A400M Atlas still has some distinct advantages over these platforms: a robust and simple airframe and also the capability to be maintained by minimally-trained conscripts while on operations in austere conditions.
The aircraft could never be called pretty but is supremely capable within its design limitations.
With further improvements in avionics and engines, it is not unreasonable to assume that the platform will be in operation in many countries for the foreseeable future. It is only the current financial sanctions on Russia that have slowed the manufacture and introduction of the latest versions of this venerable airlifter, but existing variants are performing sterling services around the world, in both military and civil use.
- Crew: 5
- Capacity: Il-76M 42,000 kg (92,594 lb); Il-76MD 48,000 kg (105,822 lb); Il-76MD-90A 60,000 kg (132,277 lb)
- Length: 46.59 m (152 ft 10 in)
- Wingspan: 50.5 m (165 ft 8 in)
- Height: 14.76 m (48 ft 5 in)
- Empty weight: 92,500 kg (203,928 lb) Il-76TD-90
- Max takeoff weight: 190,000 kg (418,878 lb) Il-76MD/TD
- Powerplant: 4 × Soloviev D-30KP turbofans, 117.7 kN (26,500 lbf) thrust each
- Maximum speed: 900 km/h (560 mph, 490 kn)
- Range: 4,400 km (2,700 mi, 2,400 nmi) Il-76MD/TD with 52,000 kg (114,640 lb) payload.
- Service ceiling: 13,000 m (43,000 ft)