Authored By Dan Alex (Updated: 5/2/2016):
The Soviet Need
The Ilyushin IL-76 was born out of a Soviet 1967 requirement calling for a heavy cargo hauler capable of carrying loads upwards of 88,000lbs out over 3,000 miles at speed. This aircraft was to serve with both the VTA Soviet military transport service and civilian operator Aeroflot while replacing the prop-driven, heavy cargo Antonov An-12BP. Additionally, the new design would have Short Take-Off and Landing (STOL) capabilities in all weather types and inherent qualities to allow for operations from rough or unprepared airstrips. The aircraft would play a large role in servicing the remote, hard-to-reach outlying areas of the Russian empire. Ilyushin delivered on their concept - with a lead role played by G. V. Novozhilov - and the first prototype flew on March 25th, 1971.
The aircraft design made use of reverse thrusters and high-lift devices to help in its short-take off and landing requirement. The wings sported triple-slotted trailing edge flaps, near full-span leading edge slats and upper surface spoilers. The undercarriage was designed with rough field operations in mind, totaling twenty low pressure tires across five landing gear legs. Crew accommodations numbered seven personnel to include the pilot, copilot, navigator, flight engineer, communications officer and two cargo handlers. Though comparable to the American C-141 Starlifter in scope, the IL-76 proved dimensionally larger in size and with a greater operating weight at the expense of shorter range and a smaller internal cargo space. The IL-76 entered service in June of 1974 with a VTA development squadron to which NATO assigned it the codename of "Candid-A". Series production was handled by Tashkent Aviation Production Association of Tashkent, Uzbekistan beginning in 1975. During the Cold War, Uzbekistan was a republic of the Soviet Empire.
A civilian conversion model - the IL-76T - was made available and was essentially an unarmed form with extra internal fuel in the bulging center wing structure. The unarmed IL-76TD was the last of the "Candid-A" production models. This particular model is of note in that the wings were strengthened, the avionics were upgraded and the engines were an uprated set of Aviadvigatel D-30KP-2 series engines. The engines maintained their power output even at higher altitudes.
The IL-76M was developed as a military variant and received the NATO designation of "Candid-B". This IL-76 could ferry up to 140 soldiers or 125 paratroopers as needed. The aircraft was protected with a twin-barreled rear stinger tail turret as well as Electronic CounterMeasures (ECM) pods along fuselage fairings and flare dispensers. The IL-76M was improved in the IL-76MD, essentially taking into account the improvements as seen in the IL-76TD.
While the Tashkent facility is no longer in operation, the IL-76 still remains a critical component of the Russian air arm in the multiple roles required of it. It has proven a favorite performer of India and China as well, both maintaining military ties to Russia. During the Cold War years, some 10 IL-76s were leaving the factory floor. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, this number decreased substantially to only 10 per year.
Despite the original intention to replace the turbo-prop powered An-12, the IL-76 proved that it could only compliment the former in joint operations - similar to the continued American use of the prop-powered C-130 Hercules family. As such, the IL-76 has never fully replaced the adequate and versatile An-12 in service. However, the IL-76 continued its evolution while in operation. Later production models featured improved maximum take-off weights and increased ranges and went on to set over two-dozen flight records for aircraft of this type.
The IL-76MDP was designed as a firefighting Candid, capable of dispensing some 44 tons of fire retarding liquid in two massive cargo hold tanks. These aircraft were fitted with specialized targeting and release instrumentation to assist the crew with accuracy. At the same time, the IL-76MDP could carry up to forty firefighters and "weather changing" launch cartridges when needed.
The IL-76PP is notable in its dedicated role as an ECM aircraft. Developed from the IL-76MD, the IL-76PP was given a longer undercarriage and fitted Landysh avionics equipment. Another IL-76MD development became the dedicated IL-76VPK command post sporting antenna, a ventral radome and various probes.
Beriev took to converting the IL-76 as an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) platform sometime in the 1970s to replace the outgoing Tupolev Tu-126 "Moss". The Tu-126 became Russia's first AEW platform and was nothing more than a conversion of the Tu-114 commercial airliner. The new Beriev aircraft came under the designation of A-50 "Mainstay" and development began as far back as 1969. These aircraft were based on the IL-76MD models and fitted with Liana radar. First flight was achieved on December 19th, 1978, and the type finally entered service in 1984 with 24 examples. The A-50 was made identifiable by its saucer-type radome on a fuselage stem and manned by some 10 crewmembers. This system was inevitably improved in the A-50U appearing in 1995 and quickly replaced the first-run models. U-models sported Vega-M Shmel-II radar with simultaneous tracking of up to fifty targets out to 125 nautical miles. Israeli Aircraft Industries installed an Elta phased non-rotating radar array unit into an A-50I for its Chinese customer in 1999 but pressure from the United States forced a cancellation of this effort. The A-60 was a related airborne laser testbed while the IL-76SKIP/Be-976 proved a surveillance platform to monitoring missile launches and aircraft flight data.
The Ilyushin IL-78 "Midas"
The IL-78 (NATO codename of "Midas") was the converted aerial tanker form of the IL-76 transport with a three-point "hose-and-drogue" delivery system - two under each wing and the third emanating from the tail. Trials occurred in 1977 with a converted IL-76MD and the type finally appeared in service form in 1987 after a lengthy evaluation period -replacing the aged Mya-4 "Bison" tanker series. Fuel was installed throughout the wings and the fuselage. A standard crew of seven operated the aircraft with the rear tail gunner replaced by a rear observer. Applicable ranging radar and formation lights were located along the cargo hold ramp door, visible by any rear-approaching aircraft. The IL-78 "Midas" form is described in detail here.