The Soviet Union’s VC10! Perhaps one of the more recognisable designs to come out of Russia’s Cold War era is the Ilyushin Il-62, a long-range, narrow-body jet airliner that was built to mobilise the Eastern Bloc and to give its western counterparts a good thrashing. However, even though some examples are still in revenue earning service, the Il-62 has sadly had more strikes than hits, especially with regard to its safety record.
The Il-62 proposal first came about in early 1960, and was a consideration by Ilyushin OKB to create a four-engined, long-range jet airliner that would compete against America’s brand new Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, as well as the upcoming Vickers VC10 from the UK. Interested, the Soviet Council of Ministers gave the project the go ahead in June of the same year, with the Kuznetsov Design Bureau being instructed at the same time to develop the NK-8 turbofan to power the new airliner. Officially designated Il-62, the requirements of the airliner were the ability to carry 165 economy-class passengers over a distance of 2,800 miles or 100 first class passengers over 4,200 miles.
The Il-62’s immediate domestic intention was to replace long-range turboprops, specifically the Tu-114. Seeing however as the Tu-114 had only been introduced in 1961, the Il-62 could be given a longer development time.
The design took a leaf out of the book of Vickers in the UK, who, in 1962, unveiled the VC10, Britain’s primary long-range passenger airliner, attempting to pick up the pieces of our tattered aviation industry after the Comet disasters of the 1950’s. Perhaps the most prominent similarity between the two is the fitting of the four-engines at the rear of the fuselage, with horizontal stabilisers mounted atop the rudder in a T-Tail configuration.
The VC10 and Il-62 would go on to be the only commercial airliners to adopt this setup. The added bonus of having the engines in this position meant that the aircraft was internally quieter, and allowed the wing design to be optimised for aerodynamic efficiency, without being cluttered by having to carry engines.
These advantages are, however, balanced by a number of drawbacks. The wing structure, without wing mounted engines to relieve the wing bending moment, need to be heavier, as did the rear fuselage structure, which had to carry the engines. This made the aircraft much more fuel inefficient and had the risk of stalling as all weight was at the back rather than centrally distributed on more conventional under-wing designs.
The first prototype was notably underpowered, largely due to delays in providing engines. The NK-8’s that had been comissioned for the Il-62 were temporarily supplimented by smaller Lyulka AL-7PB turbojets. The prototype with AL-7PB engines (registered СССР-06156) first flew on January 3rd, 1963, but crashed after clipping a perimeter fence during a maximum weight testing flight of the development program. The production Il-62 was powered by the originally intended rear-mounted Kuznetsov NK-8-4 engines. The first Il-62 powered with NK-8 engines (registered СССР-06153) first flew in 1964.
Nevertheless, in spite of losing a prototype and the various production faults, the Il-62 entered commercial service with Aeroflot on September 1th, 1967, flying from Moscow to Montreal. The Il-62 had many distinctions for Russian aviation engineering, being the first Russian pressurised aircraft with non-circular cross-section fuselage and ergonomic passenger doors, and the first Russian jet with six-abreast seating and international-standard position lights.
Very quickly, the Il-62 was taken up by many of the Soviet Union’s subordinate nations such as Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and many more. It was also a popular aircraft in nations whose regime was supported by the Soviet Union, including Angola, North Korea, Cambodia, Cuba and Egypt. In fact, even with the Cold War still in its darkest and most turbulent years, a few Il-62’s also made it into the hands of western airlines. Air France and Japan Airlines leased a small number of these aircraft from Aeroflot to operate long-haul services, while the most committed western
operator of the Il-62 was KLM, which flew them jointly with Aeroflot on services between Moscow and Amsterdam, with the 9 leased aircraft being painted in both KLM and Aeroflot markings.
However, the Cold War was still very much an overarching issue when it came to trying to sell and operate these aircraft. Poor relations between the USA and USSR meant that the Il-62 didn’t really make it big in America, nor was it ever really seen. Only a handful of operations saw the Il-62 venture to the United States, but this was only after a deal was struck between Ireland and Aeroflot to operate flights to New York via Dublin. These services were later expanded to Florida and the Carribean. For its US west-coast air links (which began in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union) Aeroflot Il-62’s flew east to Anchorage from Moscow and several cities in the Russian Far East (Khabarovsk, Vladivostok, Magadan, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk), often continuing on to San Francisco. Trans-Pacific Il-62 flights between the Russian Far East and Anchorage continued until 2000.
However, perhaps the biggest problem with the Il-62 is one that befall nearly all Soviet-era airliners was its reliability. As of 2013 there had been 23 hull losses from all causes including prototype testing, fires, runway overruns, navigational errors, and non-operational incidents, 48% of which did not involve fatalities, with 1,141 fatalities total.
The first crash, as mentioned, involved the prototype, which failed to become airbourne and hit the perimeter fence, killing 10 of the 17 technicians aboard.
One of the worst in the aircraft’s history however was the loss of an Il-62 belonging to East German carrier Interflug on August 14th, 1972. The aircraft lost control and crashed after the tail section detached in-flight. It was determined that hot air at 300 °C (572 °F) escaping from an unsecured air-con coupling melted electrical insulation and caused a short circuit that started a fire in the cargo bay. After losing elevator function, the crew decided to return to Berlin but were unaware of the fire that eventually destroyed the tail section, rendering the aircraft uncontrollable. The crash was the worst in German history, with the loss of all 156 souls aboard.
However, the most high-profile and deadliest accident involving the Il-62 was that of LOT Polish Airways Flight 5055 on May 9th, 1987. Following an uncontained engine failure and resultant in-flight fire, Engine #2 exploded during initial climb 25 minutes after takeoff, causing damage to engine #1 and a fire in the cargo hold. Landing at Gdansk or Modlin airfields were abandoned in favour of Warsaw (which had better fire-fighting equipment). The crew dumped half the fuel but control was lost during the return flight and the aircraft crashed. The #2 engine turbine shaft bearings had been improperly manufactured with 13 rollers instead of 26, causing overheating and seizure, destroying
the shaft. The low-pressure turbine spun out of control and disintegrated. The crash was the worst involving an Il-62, and one that has become synonymous of Soviet product quality and design failings.
Following the collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1991, production of the Il-62 was gradually ceased, with the last examples being produced in 1995, 32 years after the first one’s left the factory. Due to a lack of replacement models, larger airlines such as Aeroflot maintained usage of these aircraft until only recently, but with an influx of Airbus and Boeing examples, the Il-62 has been removed from a majority of mainline operations.
Today, only one national carrier continues to maintain an Il-62 fleet in revenue earning service, that being Air Koryo, the flag airline of North Korea. North Korea is one of those unique examples of a social time-capsule, with its cities, utilities, fashion, social order and modes of transport coming straight out of a 1960’s Soviet photograph, thanks solely to it’s single-party, authoritarian state. You could walk down the street in Pyongyang and feel yourself teleported right back to the high of the Cold War! The nation’s airlines are no exception, with Air Koryo continuing to operate a varied fleet of ex-Soviet models such as the Il-76, the An-24, the An-148, the Tu-134, the Tu-154 and, of course, the Il-62.
Looking back on the Il-62, the aircraft conjures mixed feelings. Those who are fans of Soviet built aircraft and love their raw and basic feel often cite the Il-62 as the embodiment of Russian aviation technology, and the flagship of its commercial aviation. If you are not a fan of Soviet aviation, then you’d be quick to chide it for embodying everything that was wrong with Soviet manufacturing, being of poor build quality, a
dated design which was already ripped-off from the VC10, abysmal flight performance, a catastrophic safety record and the fact that it was an aircraft with seemingly no love put into it. A common complaint among many of my aviation friends when it comes to Soviet-era aircraft is that they weren’t built with any love, just huddled together in a rush so as to try and beat Western equivalents, and for that I can agree.
When looking at pioneering jets like the Boeing 707, the VC10, the 747, Concorde and so on, you get a sense that time and patience was taken during every stage of the process, these aircraft were loved and cradled from the drawing-board to the runway, whilst Soviet aircraft were basically forced into production in the vain hope that one of them might actually be a hit in the Western world, with the Il-86, the Tu-144 and the Il-62 being some fine examples of this.