The Soviet / Russian military has received a great number of years of faithful service from its Ilyushin IL-76 line (NATO codename of "Candid") of four-engined jet aircraft. The series first flew in 1971 and was debuted in June of 1974 as a strategic airlifter to help Soviet forces support its interests around the world. Some 960 airframes were eventually completed with many exported to allies and former states - some servicing the civilian market as jetliners and others modernized into more capable military forms. In the 1970s, thought was given to modifying the type for service in the aerial refueling role as a tanker aircraft and this produced the IL-78 "Midas" of 1984. First flight was on June 26th, 1983. The type remains in service and production is ongoing today (2014) with 53 total units completed.
The IL-78 has its roots in a late-1960s initiative by the Soviets to produce a tanker offshoot of the IL-76 line but the bulk of the work to bring the new system to pass happened in the late 1970s thanks to evermore evolved forms of the IL-76 airframe that emerged. The IL-76 lost its cargo-hauling and management hardware during the conversion process and was fitted with three refueling positions to service three awaiting/trailing aircraft at once. The aircraft utilized the proven three-point "hose-and-drogue" delivery system with a fuel dispensing position found under each wing and one under the tail. Trials were undertaken in 1977 through a converted IL-76MD airframe and this testing led to certification trials thereafter, spanning into the early 1980s. First deliveries were in 1984 and official service began in 1987 - replacing the outgoing stock of Mya-4 "Bison" tankers. The crew numbered seven with the rear tail gun position of the IL-76 replaced by an observer's perch. Additionally, ranging radar was installed as were formation lights at the cargo door ramp so as to be visible by the approaching recipient aircraft - particular in night time refueling exercises.
On the whole, the IL-78 retains much of the form of the classic Soviet IL-76. It features the large, high-mounted main wing assemblies each holding with two underslung engine nacelles. The flight deck is over the nose with a commanding view of the environment ahead and around the massive aircraft. The fuselage is very tubular and aerodynamically efficient with few protrusions apparent. The tail unit constitutes a single vertical tail fin with high-mounted horizontal planes in a "T-style" arrangement. The undercarriage is wheeled and fully retractable with a two-wheeled nose leg and multi-wheeled main legs under the mass of the airframe.
Original production versions were known simply as "IL-78" and these carried up to 188,540lbs of fuel through two removable tanks held in the fuselage. The IL-78T was similar in scope though it kept the cargo-hauling capabilities of the original IL-76 freighter. The IL-78M of 1987 became the first true dedicated tanker form as it carried three large fuel stores in a fixed arrangement. The cargo door was removed (though the ramp was retained) as was the cargo management equipment. Carried fuel loads now reached over 300,000lbs. The export version of this mark became the IL-78ME. The IL-78MKI was a version delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF) and were airframes completed in Uzbekistan with Israeli-based fuel transfer system and applicable equipment. The Chinese and Pakistani air forces received the IL-78MP which were tanker forms (removable fuel tanks) retaining some of their cargo-hauling and cargo management capabilities. Beyond these operators, the IL-78 has been taken on in limited numbers by the forces of Algeria and Libya. Ukraine also operates up to eight of the type. Furthermore, some IL-78 aircraft are operated privately by American companies overseas.
Performance from IL-78M models includes a maximum speed of 530 miles per hour with a range out to 4,535 miles. The aircraft sports a service ceiling of 39,350 feet. Power is through 4 x Aviadvigatel (Soloviev) D-30 KP series turbofan engines of 26,700lbs thrust each. Variations of this engine were featured in the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-31"Foxhound" interceptor, the Ilyushin IL-62 "Classic" airliner, and the Tupolev Tu-154 "Careless" airliner.
From March to April 2014, the Chinese Air Force acquired three IL-78MDs to help improve its long-range strategic ability. This initiative also falls in line with the long-term development of an indigenous strategic bomber currently on the drawing board for the PLA. The IL-78MDs were modified in Ukraine with Russian equipment. The PLA also relies on a fleet of twenty-six H-6U tanker aircraft - aerial refueling versions of the local Xian H-6 strategic bomber. The bomber itself is based on the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16 bomber of the early 1950s.
The IL-78M-90A is an all-modern, in-development version of the IL-78 series. It began flight testing in December 2018 and includes such upgrades as an all new wing with additional fuel cells and Perm PS-90A-76 series engines (as in the IL-76-90A transports). The engines will grant better fuel efficiency as well as greater power leading to improved performance specs (MTOW, take-off run, etc...).
December 2018 - An IL-78M-98A tanker aircraft began factory flight testing by way of a first-flight from Aviastar SP in Ulyanovsk.
IL-78 ("Midas") - Base Series Designation
IL-78 - Initial production model
IL-78T - Aerial tanker retaining cargo-hauling capability of IL-76 transport.
IL-78M - Model of 1987; dedicated aerial refueler; increased fuel load.
IL-78M-90A - Improved, modernized variant; new wing with additional fuel stores; fitted with Perm PS-90A-76 engines for increased power and fuel efficiency.
IL-78ME - Export model based on the IL-78M model
IL-78MKI - Indian Air Force model; Israeli equipment with modification by Uzbekistan.
IL-78MP - Hybrid cargo-tanker; in service with China and Pakistan.
Ribbon graphics not necessarily indicative of actual historical campaign ribbons. Ribbons are clickable to their respective aerial campaigns / operations / aviation periods.
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