Passenger airplanes made during the Soviet era saw various phases of development. While the initial ones looked more like troop transport carriers, subsequent airframes down the decades began resembling more and more like the ones produced in the west. Then in the late 1970s, the Soviet civil aviation landscape witnessed another transition with its very own widebody airliner, the Ilyushin Il-86.
The Ilyushin Il-86 holds the distinction of being the USSR’s first widebody aircraft. Photo: Dmitriy Pichugin via Wikimedia Commons
The idea for a USSR-built widebody airplane emerged sometime in the mid-1960s. Given the global political climate of the time, the need for a bigger aircraft was partly Soviet Union’s response to the emerging larger jets in the west, but primarily to serve the actual growing number of air passengers.
Until the 1960s, the biggest airplanes at the time could carry a maximum of around 200 passengers. The world needed larger planes, with both Boeing and Airbus committing to such projects. The USSR also felt the need to produce an equivalent of the B747 and A300, which were in the making, to cater to approximately 100 million passengers a year within a decade.
Some early proposals envisioned giant adaptations of military aircraft such as the An-22 with passenger capacity of 600+. However, by the late 1960s, it became increasingly clear that an airplane with smaller proportions but still large enough to carry 250+ passengers was more practical.
The Ilyushin Il-86 traces its origins to the growing passenger need for a larger airplane in the 60s and 70s. Photo: Dejan Milinković via Wikimedia Commons
Development and commercial service
In 1969, Ilyushin started looking at its existing and popular Il-62 for inspiration, initially planning to modify it with a longer fuselage. Some other suggestions made at the time included double-decks and even conjoined double fuselages.
The following year, all modification plans of previous airplanes were scrapped, and a fresh aircraft design was proposed under the Il-86 designation. Sticking to the widebody theme, the new aircraft had twin-aisles and a 3-3-3 seat layout, comfortably accommodating more than 320 passengers. The size of its fuselage width from inside was behind only the Boeing 747 at the time.
The service entry of the Il-86 was initially planned to coincide with the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics. However, much of that year went into completing the final tests and certification, and the airplane first flew on December 26th, 1980, missing the Olympics by a few months.
Only the military versions of the airplane, the Il-86VKP variants, remain in active service today. Photo: Dmitry Terekhov via Wikimedia Commons
Where is it now?
The Ilyushin Il-86 wasn’t quite as popular as the USSR had hoped for. A total of 106 examples were produced until 1991, of which most were put in use for the USSR’s civil aviation requirements. The airplane did not find much popularity outside the Soviet Union, with China Xinjiang Airlines being the only foreign carrier to order brand new Il-86s, with three in its fleet.
While no passenger version of the Il-86 remains in service today, there are four active military variants of the aircraft, according to ch-aviation. These modified airplanes are the Il-86VKP variants and are currently in service for the Russian Air Force.
Have you ever seen some of the older Soviet-era airplanes? What do you feel about USSR’s aviation development back in the day? Do share your comments below.