Il 76 – The versatile Soviet strategic transport aircraft

Ilyushin Il 76 is a Soviet strategic transport aircraft originally conceived to ferry heavy machinery to rural, underserved areas of the USSR as a replacement for the turboprop Antonov An-12. Il 76 took to the skies for the first time on 25 March 1971, and five decades later, the aircraft has continued to spread its wings in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Let’s dig deeper into the history and superiority of the versatile Soviet military transport aircraft Il 76.

Ilyushin Il 76
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In a world dominated by Boeing and Airbus aircraft, one can’t simply ignore the presence of versatile Soviet-era aircraft depicting the might of the Soviet aviation industry. While the Soviet Union has collapsed for decades, some aircraft dating back to its glory days continue to grace the skies today. One such extraordinary airplane is Ilyushin Il 76.


Ilyushin Il 76 is a multi-purpose, fixed-wing, four-engine Russian strategic airlifter widely used as a commercial and military freighter for delivering equipment, weaponry, supplies, and troop forces and as an emergency transport for disaster relief operations. Designed by the former Soviet ‘Ilyushin Design Bureau,’ Il 76 was conceived in the late 1960s to meet the requirement of a heavy transport plane that could carry a payload of more than 88000 pounds. The resultant heavy-lift freighter was to fly over a range of 5,000 kilometers in less than six hours and possess the capability to take off from short and unprepared runways and endure the inclement weather conditions of Siberia and Arctic regions.

Ilyushin Il 76
Ilyushin Il-76 from the Ukrainian Air Force seen at the 2017 Royal International Air Tattoo at Royal Air Force Fairford in Gloucestershire – Photo from

First flown in March 1971, Il 76 entered operations in 1975 and became a huge success. The aircraft underwent several modifications in terms of the power plant, size, and purpose of service. The further development of Il 76 took place from 2004 onwards when it was modernized to the Il-76TD-90VD version to serve the commercial purpose with the newly developed PS-90 engine.

Ilyushin Aviation Complex Joint Stock Company made a huge success with Il 76, which eventually saw large-scale production with big orders from several countries, including the People’s republic of China, where the aircraft assembly took place under license.

The modernization of the Il-76 series continued with the introduction of several prototypes and development variants. The military variants of Il 76 include Il-76-Tu160 tailplane transporter, Il-76 D ‘Desantnyi’, Il-76K/Il-76MDK/Il-76MDK-II, Il-76LL ‘letayuschchaya laboratoriya’, Il-76M Modified, Il-76MD Modified long-range, Il-76 MD Skal’pel-MT, Il-76M/Il-76MD, Il-76-MD-90, IL-76MD-M, IL-76MD-90A, etc.

Also Read: IL 76 Aircraft to air lift mortal remains of Indian Pilgrims

The civilian cargo transport variants of Il 76 include Il-76MGA, Il-76P, Il-76T, Il-76TD, Il-76TD-90, Il-76TD-90VD, IL-76TD-S, Il-76TF, etc. Likewise, there are special purpose variants to serve the role of telemetry and communication relay, missile tracking, electronic intelligence, and other unknown missions.

The versatility

The unsung hero of cargo logistics and the favorite of air forces worldwide, Ilyushin Il 76 is an iconic Soviet-era design with versatile features. From the basic transport job to the specialized aerial firefighting role, zero-G training and Ilyushin Il 76 do it all. If you are wondering what Il 76 is used for, this extraordinary aircraft can perform the following functions:

1. The original Il 76 is a purely military transport aircraft built to transport strategic military cargo into front-line air bases in poorly-developed regions of the USSR with the worst environmental conditions. The Soviet war in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1991 saw the extensive use of Il 76 for transporting servicemen and freight.

2. Need to carry oversized or unusually heavy items? The commercial Il 76 freighter can lift massive cargo and run in and out of unpaved runways with little or no facilities. This heavy-duty cargo aircraft has a unique capability to operate in rough terrain. So, cargo transportation to far-flung villages is easy.

3. As a military freighter, Il 76 enjoys a prominent position in countries like Russia, Algeria, Belarus, China, Cuba, India, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Ukraine, etc., to carry payloads of up to 50 tons and airdrop cargo, supplies, and vehicles.

4. One of the unique features of Ilyushin Il 76 is its tough, dependable airframes which can take substantial damage and remain operational. It can handle the extreme climatic conditions experienced in Siberia and the Soviet Union’s Arctic regions, making Il 76 ideal for Antarctic air operations.

Ilyushin Il 76
Kaunas Lithuania 2021-01-25 (EW-383TH) Ilyushin Il-76TD – Rubystar. Photo from

5. Besides performing the commercial and military freighter role, Ilyushin Il 76 also functions as an emergency response transport in the event of war or outbreak of diseases, or natural disasters. Over its history, Il 76 has contributed a lot to humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations and airlifted supplies and equipment over a distance from airports with little or no loading devices.

6. Il 76 offers unparalleled and unmatched flexibility in carrying out indispensable support roles, including cosmonaut training, aerial firefighting, airborne laser platform, civilian mobile aircraft, etc.

While most operators use IL 76 as a commercial or military freighter for ramp-delivered cargo, some use it as an airborne refueling tanker or command center, and a few as a firefighting waterbomber.


The Soviet-designed turbofan airlifter Ilyushin Il 76 was initially built as a military aircraft featuring two cranes traveling on overhead tracks, two guns in a rear turret, and four engines producing 26,455 pounds of thrust each, a maximum speed of 528 miles per hour, 50,850ft ceiling, and hard troop benches.

The widely-used civil versions of Ilyushin Il 76-the IL 76-T and IL 76-TD, were introduced in 1978 and 1982, respectively, to transport heavy payloads to remote areas. The unarmed civil cargo transport version IL 76-T is characterized by a conventional aerodynamic configuration with a high-mounted swept wing, four engines on underwing pylons, a high-swept T-tail, and full pressurization on the crew cabin, cargo hold, and rear compartment and freight-handling equipment inside the hold. It can carry a payload of 48000kg in a medium-haul flight at a maximum range of 4600km.

The Il 76-TD, the civil equivalent of military transport version Il-76MD, is powered by 4 Soloviev D-30KP turbofans to give it the maximum speed of 900 km/hr and accommodates a total of 5 crew. Compared to its predecessor, IL-76T, Il-76TD has an increased fuel capacity due to enlarged fuel tanks, better performance at higher ambient temperatures, and reinforced airframes that facilitate higher takeoff weights.

The modern IL-76MD-90A

Despite Il 76 being designed during Soviet times, Russia has not only continued the tradition of retaining and flying this iconic bird. Still, it has also given much-needed facelifts and advancements to keep it at the forefront. From the maiden flight of 25 March 1971 till now, Russia is still producing Ilyushin 76 in a handful of quantities. On par with modern cutting-edge technological features, Russian state-owned United Aircraft Corporation rolled out its first Il-76-MD-90A at Aviastar’s Ulyanovsk plant in 2014.

Il-76-MD-90A is the newest variant and successor to the prolific Soviet Ilyushin Il 76 military freighter powered by high-bypass PS-90A turbofan engines, which meet all international ecological standards. This latest model offers more economy, greater autonomy, and a payload capacity of up to 60 tons, 20% more than its predecessors. It has a 25% greater range and features internal improvements like advanced avionics and multifunction cockpit screens, upgraded control and fuel system, a digital automatic aircraft control system, and a sighting and navigation complex.

Ilyushin Il 76
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The Russian military industry is touching new heights every day with significant breakthroughs in producing Il 76 aircraft, infusing the latest technology and creative spirit of the Soviet era. With the completion of the first military cargo aircraft on a new Aviastar-SP assembly line in 2021, Russia has invested in its capacity to project its military power over decades.

Operators of Il 76

Kickstarting operations from obscurity, Il 76 has marked a milestone as a landmark Soviet-era design and gained a reputation as a versatile cargo aircraft all over the world, flying around commonly for operators in North Africa, Russia, Asia, and the former Soviet republics. Ilyushin Il 76 is one of Russia’s most successful cargo projects, with more than 960 units built so far.

 In the list of the primary military operators of IL 76 come the Russian Air Force, Ukrainian Air Force, and Indian Air Force while the largest civilian operators include Belarus’ TransAVIAexport Airlines, Azerbaijan’s Silk Way Airlines, Tesis Aviation Enterprise, Aviacon Zitotrans, etc.

How much does the Il 76 aircraft cost?

The legendary Russian strategic and tactical airlifter has remarkable value in the marketplace. The price of Ilyushin 76 ranges around $50 million.

Interesting facts about Ilyushin Il 76

  • Deployed on active duty during the Soviet-Afghan war, Ilyushin Il 76 was the Soviet Union’s staple troop carrier, transporting 89% of Soviet troops and 74% of freight airlifting.
  • The onboard crane of Il 76, used for loading and unloading ultra-rugged cargo, can lift to 10 tons.
  • Suited to Antarctic adventures, Il 76 has successfully operated two Antarctic airdrops for Argentina’s Belgrano II Station, delivering 166 tons of supplies on each occasion during nine round-trip flights.
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