The Soviet Union’s first wide-body jet airliner, the Ilyushin Il-86 attempted to lock horns with Boeing’s new 747 and the Douglas DC-10, and while the design of this aircraft is both quite handsome and stylish, it is complimented by being one of the most reliable Soviet-era aircraft, but that’s saying a lot.
The Il-86 project came about in the 1960’s, when word reached the USSR that the Western powers were planning to create a slew of wide-body jet airliners that would carry up to and over 200 passengers. While the USA prepared to launch the Boeing 747, Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed L-1011 Tristar, the combined European aviation manufacturer Airbus was in the process of creating the A300. The prospect of all these aircraft that would make the conventional narrow-body design utterly obsolete spurred the Soviet powers to attempt to create their own rival.
As such, the Aerobus project was born, and tenders were sent out to all of Russia’s aircraft manufacturers so as to win the bid to create what would be their flagship jet airliner.
OKB-153, the bureau led by Oleg Antonov, were the first to respond, proposing a 724-seat passenger version of the An-22 transport plane. The concept was based on a double-deck design, with 383 seats above and 223 below. The plan however was eventually dropped due to the turboprop design being considered old fashioned, and there were fears that the Oleg Antonov bureau were too closely connected to ousted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, thus creating a political dilemma.
Another major constraint for the Aerobus project was the fact that most Soviet airports were not built to handle large jet airliners. While the West had the money to invest in enhancing airport size and capacity, the Soviet Union felt its money was better invested in Nuclear Weapons, thus wanted to find a lazy way around the issue of increasing airport size. Another issue was the fact that most Soviet airports were woefully under-maintained with cracked or uneven runways. As such, the design board chose instead to modify the aircraft to make it flexible enough to land at any large airport in the USSR without the need to reconstruct them, as such, a complex multi-wheel landing gear was devised.
In something of a Soviet novelty, passengers did not have their luggage taken to the plane and loaded aboard by members of the ground crew, but instead you had to load your bags aboard the plane yourself. The system was created so as to reduce the need to have larger airport terminals with large baggage carousels and passengers waiting for their cases to arrive, taking its inspiration from railway travel, where, in most cases, luggage is carried aboard by the customer. It meant that loading and unloading times for the aircraft were halved at a stroke, but for the passenger it was a touch inconvenient!
However, in order for passengers to lug their massive bags and cases onto the plane and store them, the cabin would have to be extended by 3m with a 350-seat capacity. To avoid this, the system had it that passengers would instead drop their massive luggage off in the underfloor compartments before getting aboard the plane, bearing in mind most would probably have small children in tow who, at the first opportunity, would probably go running off around the apron while you’re busy trying to get your bags into the hold!
Either way, the main specifications for the Aerobus project were an aircraft that could carry 350 passengers over a range of 1,900nmi with a 40-tonne load, or an aircraft that could fly 3,100nmi with only passengers aboard and no freight. The aircraft also had to be able to land on an airport with a maximum runway length of 8,500ft.
Eventually, the Ilyushin bureau, OKB-240, won the bid for the Aerobus project in September 1969, and the final specifications for the aircraft were granted in February the following year. In the meantime, Ilyushin set to work on designing their Aerobus project, which at first was considered to be an enlarged Il-62. This design took the regular Il-62 and extended its fuselage by 22ft, giving it a maximum capacity of 259 seats and the ability to carry a 30-tonne payload, essentially a facsimile of the newly created Douglas DC-8 Super Sixty. Other proposed Il-62 modifications involved double-deck and “two fuselages side-by-side” developments. There was also a project to “civilianise” the Il-76.
The project was eventually dubbed the Il-86 in March 1970, which combined the large-body design of the Il-76 with the passenger technology behind the Il-62. The new design was to be the culmination of Soviet flight technology, with powered controls, complex high-lift devices and advanced automation which would reduce the number of flightdeck crew.
The concept, illustrated initially as a scale model, included the much-debated ‘self-loading’ requirement with integral boarding stairs, below-deck luggage stores, and below-deck midships galley. It had a twin-aisle interior with nine-abreast seating in a “3-3-3” layout. Ilyushin considered it politic to make the interior wider than any planned airliner except the Boeing 747. The 19.9ft fuselage diameter was partly dictated by the need to provide standing room in the underfloor luggage compartments. The Il-86 had the second-widest fuselage of any airliner until the Boeing 777.
Intentions were to get the aircraft into the air by 1976, therefore allowing it to be the star of the show preceding the 1980 Moscow Olympics. However, there were many, many problems before this bird could get to the Olympics.
Firstly was the design; the aircraft followed a similar configuration to the Boeing 707, a monoplane design with engines positioned beneath the wings in pods. Power came from four Kuznetsov NK-86 two-spool turbofan engines producing 28,665lbf and pushing the aircraft to a maximum speed of 416mph. The aircraft could accommodate 350 passengers in an all-economy layout, and could fly a distance of 2,160nmi with a full passenger load.
Originally however this was not the case, as the preferred design was a clean-winged, rear-engined, T-tailed configuration similar to the Il-62 and the proposed BAC Three-Eleven. Ilyushin however wanted to create an aircraft of similar principles to the 747, but choosing this design sparked up heated arguments between the Soviet Government and the development team. The Soviet Government were completely against the idea of an American design of wing configuration being used on a Soviet airliner, being more based on a matter of pride rather than common sense. The designers eventually cast the government to history, and notified them that the idea of pod-engines beneath the wings was actually a soviet invention, pioneered by the USSR in World War II with the experimental Il-22 bomber. This, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, was eventually enough to convince the Soviet government that such a configuration was a viable option.
There were other problems too, namely with the engines. At the time there were no engines suitable for the Il-86, with the rear-mounted engines of the Il-62 being underpowered for the design, while the much more powerful pod-engines from the Il-76 were too large to fit under the wing. Interestingly enough, this issue was never resolved, and the Soviet Union wouldn’t get itself a large turbofan engine until the Lotarev D-18T in the mid-1980’s. The Soloviev D-30, originally intended for the Il-86, was the most advanced Soviet civil aeroengine, with a bypass ratio of 2.4 to 1 and aerodynamic clamshell thrust reversers, similar to those found on early 737’s and Douglas DC-9’s. However, it suffered from incredible power-lag, which meant that it wouldn’t be able to meet the 8,500ft runway length specification. The less-advanced Kuznetsov NK-8 series engine, adopted on March 26th, 1975, had a bypass ratio of 1.15 to 1 and drag-inducing grilles over its cascade thrust reversers. Both these engines had high specific fuel consumptions and were noisy. Being ultimate developments of smaller engines, they could not offer growth to future Il-86’s.
Did the problems end there? Far from it!
Next was an issue with the building capacity. Because the Soviet Union was a militaristic regime, and was waging a fierce but ultimately futile Cold War against the Western
Powers, a majority of its manufacturing capabilities were handed over to the construction of weapons and equipment for the armed forces. As such, Ilyushin had very little room to actually build themselves a wide-body jet airliner, and eventually the company had to share production between plants in Russia and one’s in Poland.
There were also some scandalous suggestions that Soviet engineers had no faith in their design, and thus went to the USA to ask for technical assistance. It is rumoured that Ilyushin bureau head Genrikh Novozhilov and Boeing 747 designer Joe Sutter secretly organised a trade-off in 1973 while in Paris. Over dinner, the Soviet side ceded information on titanium technology to the Americans, while the latter, “sketching on the tablecloth,” ceded information on pylon-mounted podded engines and “the structural and aerodynamic amity of the aeroelastic wing.” Some Soviet airlines even considered buying 747’s, especially during the comparatively peaceful period of détente.
Other events included the appearance of Lockheed Tristars in the Soviet Union for a promotional tour, while at the same time Lockheed attempted to sign a deal that would have license built L-1011’s constructed in the Soviet Union for use by Aeroflot. All these ideas and more were vetoed in 1978 when US President Jimmy Carter made human rights a US foreign policy factor. In this, he both brought a halt to the L-1011 deal, but also to the export of General Electric CF6-50 engines to help power long-range versions of the Il-86.
Eventually, and I do mean eventually, the Il-86 did plod into the sky at Khodynka airfield (where Ilyushin’s experimental factory was) on December 22nd, 1976. The initial test programme was flown by Ilyushin staff, ending two months ahead of schedule on October 20th, 1978. After the aircraft was certified airworthy by Ilyushin in 1978, the USSR itself had to certify it again in 1979, rather than in the west where the aviation authority (be it the FAA or CAA) are the only one’s who make this decision. State acceptance trials began on April 24, 1979 and ended on December 24th, 1980, six months after the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics had ended.
Il-86 production was solely based at the Moscow factory, and only production models were constructed. In their haste to get the aircraft into service, Ilyushin did not create prototypes, though it could be argued the two handmade Il-86’s from 1976 and 1977, used primarily for flight testing, could be considered spiritual prototypes.
Intentions were, as mentioned, to share production between Russia and Poland, transferring technology to the aircraft manufacturer Państwowe Zakłady Lotnicze (PZL). By the mid-1980’s, PZL was planned to produce half of the Il-86, including the entire wing, and also to work on Il-86 developments. From May 1977, the Polish factory manufactured entire empennages including tailplanes and the fin, all control surfaces, high-lift devices and engine pylons for the Il-86, representing about 16% of the aircraft. Amid labour and political unrest in Poland from 1980 onwards, the Voronezh factory was instructed to retain wing manufacture.
Anyway, the aircraft was in production, so, was it produced in massive numbers like its rival the 747 and the DC-10?
Nope, it instead plodded along at a somewhat sporadic pace, with an average production per year of around 9 aircraft. Some years, such as 1982, no aircraft where built, while others only 1 example was assembled. The busiest production year for the Il-86 was 1983, with 12 aircraft built. Compare that to the 747, where, in the same year, 24 units were built and for the DC-10 the aircraft built in excess of 30 aircraft per annum for five years in a row!
The problem is there wasn’t really much of a demand for the Il-86. While Aeroflot did take the most orders for the aircraft, the problems that failed to make the Il-86 appealing were its size and its performance. For its size, 350-seats was not enough to justify the usual demand for passengers flying regularly in the USSR, which was very difficult considering both the incredible cost and the limitations on travel for the vast population. In the West, the 747 was a profitable form of mass-transport because the masses were allowed to travel freely, all they needed was the comparatively cheap cost of an airline ticket. In the Soviet Union, the masses were monitored and kept under strict observation, and free travel was a luxury only for those in the higher echelons of power, ironic, in a country where everyone’s supposed to be equal (but, as George Orwell put it, “Some are more equal than others”).
The aircraft’s performance is also a major point of contention as to why it didn’t sell. With a range of only 1,800nmi at absolute full load, it’s not exactly capable of long-haul air travel. The latest 747 model at the time, the 747-300, however, could fly 6,330nmi with a full payload, while the DC-10 could fly anywhere between 3,800 and 6,600 miles.
Within the USSR however, it was the government that nipped that in the bud. Aeroflot aircraft didn’t constitute a sale, but instead was considered an allocation by the Soviet supply and allocation system coordinated by offices called Gosplan and Gossnab which controlled the entirety of planning and distribution in the USSR. Selling the Il-86 commercially (which under the Soviet system meant solely exports) was the job of the Soviet foreign trade organisation V/O Aviaeksport. The division of responsibilities between the influential TsAGI research establishment, design bureau (acting like naval architects) which designed aeroplanes, factories (independent of the bureau) which constructed them, independent service facilities which repaired them and an independent organisation which marketed them alongside designs by all other bureau, has been seen as diluting responsibility for the fate of a product.
As part of supply provisions within the Comecon, Polish national carrier LOT was allocated four Il-86’s as barter for component manufacture; the airline deferred deliveries which were cancelled by 1987. In 1988 the East German airline Interflug is said to have prepared to take delivery of two Il-86’s and to have allocated them the registrations DDR-AAA and DDR-AAB. Instead, that same year the airline took delivery of two Airbus A310’s. The sole export order for the Il-86, and the sole commercial transactions involving factory-built rather than secondhand examples, was by China Xinjiang Airlines which received three aircraft in 1990.
So, to summarise, the Il-86, in terms of a wide-body jet airliner and as a long-haul international aircraft, was useless on both counts. It was underpowered, slow, too large for its purpose, hadn’t got the range, was internally primitive, and basically couldn’t compete with the Western competition. Small wonder then that the moment the Iron Curtain fell in 1991, Aeroflot immediately bought up a slew of Douglas DC-10’s and Airbus A310’s.
But, does that mean it’s unsafe? Well, when you usually think of Soviet builds, you usually think they fall from the sky before they’re truly broken in, but the Il-86 appears to have dispelled this as during its operational life. It was involved in at least 10 incidents, including 4 hull-loss accidents with 14 fatalities. There were, however, no fatal incidents or accidents involving an Il-86 in over 30 years of the type’s passenger-carrying operations.
The first Il-86 to be lost was on March 8th, 1994, when RA-86119 was struck by a landing Sahara India Boeing 737 flown by a trainee at Delhi, destroying both aircraft and killing 4 aboard the 737, 4 on the Il-86 and 1 member of the ground crew.
The worst aircraft involving the Il-86 was on July 28th, 2002, when RA-86060 crashed shortly after departure from Moscow on a repositioning flight to Saint Peterburg. The trim toggle button on the control column caused a spontaneous retrimming of the tailplane, rapid transition to nose-heavy trim and a dive. The four flightdeck crew, two ground support staff and ten cabin crew aboard the aircraft died. The two injured survivors were cabin crew members.
Following the Moscow crash in July 2002, the MAK Interstate Aviation Committee withdrew the Il-86’s certificate of airworthiness, temporarily grounding the type. The certificate was rapidly restored in stages by early 2003. The accident prompted the Egyptian civil aviation authorities to attempt to ban Il-86 operations to Egypt. Amid continuing negotiations, by 2007 the intention had lapsed, with intensive Il-86 operations to and from Egypt continuing.
Aside from these fatal accidents though, the Il-86 has been noted for multiple mechanical failures, including gear failure, loss of avionics, failure for the ailerons to extend/retract, and signs that the airframe is overstressed due to poor build quality. It’s only through the fantastic skill of the flight crew that these aircraft were able to land safely.
Production of the Il-86 ended in 1995, with 106 members built. The Il-86 was however worked hard by Aeroflot, who utilised it initially on peak domestic routes between the various Soviet-bloc cities before introducing it on flights to European cities such as Paris and Berlin. The only real long-haul services it ever carried out were on charter flights to Havana via Shannon in Ireland and Gander in Canada. The Il-86 was refused entry into the United States due to safety concerns, and thus a concept of putting it onto the Moscow – New York JFK via Shannon services from 1992 were instead handed to the Il-62.
Aeroflot operated the Il-86 to 2006, when it retired the entire fleet for Airbus A321’s. The Il-86 did see further service with some Russian charter airlines such as S7, Armenian Airlines, and Uzbekistan Airways. However, beyond 2011, no Il-86’s were in civilian operation, though four converted military models, known as the Il-86VKP, were still in use with the Russian Air Force for troop transport and aerial command.
As mentioned, the Il-86 failed to live up to its requirement as both a long-haul airliner and a wide-body passenger transport. Compared to the likes of the 747 and the DC-10 its efforts were tepid at best, but its lack of range, its lack of a market and the numerous production problems meant it was never going to be the major hit airlines wanted. However, the aircraft’s one saving grace is the fact that it was so safe and reliable, but even then this was more so down to the pilots in command when you consider the multiple near misses the aircraft experienced. Overall, it’s an aircraft, like most Soviet designs, that had promise, and it had a purpose to fulfil, but, like most Soviet designs, it was hampered by the bureaucrats constantly getting in the way of what should’ve been a simple concept.