Russian Test Pilot ‘Hails’ IL-76 MD Military Aircraft Despite “Patriot Shootdown”; Says Can Fly For 50 Years

Media reports in the US have confirmed the shooting down of a Russian Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft over the Belgorod region by Ukraine’s American-origin Patriot air defense missile. Despite the shootdown, Russia hailed the reliability of the aircraft’s new variant at the World Defense Show in Saudi Arabia. 

A top test pilot of the Ilyushin Public Joint Stock Company (PJSC) said that the modernized Il-76MD-90A meets all current strategic air transport requirements and has fully incorporated all improvements from experience in operating the plane. 

On January 24, an Il-76 crashed in Belgorod. Russia later claimed it was carrying 65 Ukrainian Prisoners of War (PoW) and that the incident was not an accident. Moscow maintained it was a Patriot missile, based on the nature of damage on the debris.

It displayed several holes on the plane’s body that could only have been made by a blast fragmentation proximity fuse-activated warhead that many surface-to-air missiles (SAM) carry.  

Subsequent investigations from Russia also showed fragments of the Patriot missile itself. A report in the New York Times (NYT) quoted unnamed officials who confirmed that it was a Patriot missile that brought down the plane.

Ukrainian intelligence officials too later indirectly validated Russia’s claims that the plane was carrying PoWs. They said that a periodic and routine prisoner exchange was scheduled with Moscow but did not directly comment on the identity of the passengers or cargo on the plane.     

Best & Beautiful Plane

Sergei Sukhar, chief test pilot at Ilyushin, was quoted saying the Il-76MD-90A variant “heavy military transport aircraft” has “improved characteristics.”

On the sidelines of the World Defense Show in Saudi Arabia, Sukhar said, “While the designated service life of the aircraft is usually about 30 years, the aircraft can operate for about 50 years.”

IL-76MD-90A at the World Defense Show in Saudi Arabia. Source: X (formerly Twitter).

“The modernized Il-76 currently meets all the existing global requirements for an aircraft of this type in all its characteristics. The only thing that can happen during operation is some changes that can be easily made to the software,” Sukhar said.

This could mean the flight control computer software is necessary to take a significant load off from the pilot to operate the aircraft and make it compatible with operating different loads at varying flight profiles, altitudes, and terrains. 

According to the pilot, foreign delegations showed interest in the Il-76MD-90A. “The exhibition hosts and delegations from other countries in the region have already come to us. Many people are interested in our aircraft. Firstly, the IL-76 itself is very beautiful. A large, beautiful aircraft, everything in it is proportional, elegant,” Sukhar said. 

He also praised the different and unusual paint scheme Ilyushin and United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) chose for the plane this time, which he termed “chameleon.” This is because depending on “how the sun illuminates, it changes color a little.

Variant’s Development & Features

The first unit of the Il-76MD-90A was rolled out of the Ulyanovsk Enterprise Aviastar-SP factory, the transport aircraft division of the UAC, in 2011. The “deeply modernized” version of the Il-76MD has the latest flight and navigation system, transport equipment, and upgraded engines. 

Specifically, the new technologies have been identified as the PS-90A-76 engines, an improved chassis with a more powerful braking system, the installation of digital onboard radio-electronic equipment with a screen indicator, and increased range and cargo carrying capacity. 

An upgraded version of the Il-76MD, the plane is built on the chassis of the Il-76 freight plane. The first Il-76MD-90A prototype had its debut flight in September 2012 after unveiling in December 2011.

Initially, Russia planned to acquire nearly 40 new Ilyushin Il-76-MD-90A aircraft by 2020. But, the first serial Il-76MD-90A aircraft, serial number 0109, was handed over to the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Defense in April 2019.

The Russian Ministry of Defense was dissatisfied with the aircraft’s production output and had even urged manufacturer Aviastar to increase it. As of early 2021, nine aircraft in total had been built. In early October 2022, the Russian Air Force received another modernized Il-76MD-90A aircraft from the UAC.

File Image: IL-76MDA

NYT Confirms Patriot Missile Shot Down Il-76

A February 8 NYT report meanwhile, quoting unidentified sources, said that a Patriot missile indeed was used to shoot down the Il-76, and it was a unit donated to Ukraine by one of the US’s “European partners.”

While US and Ukrainian officials also said it “appeared at least probable that at least some of the (passengers) were Ukrainian prisoners,” Russia may also have “overstated the number of deaths.” 

Ukraine, on its part, “appears to have acted on legitimate but flawed intelligence” since the plane had previously been “used to transport missiles, making it a high-value target for Kyiv,” according to Western officials “briefed on the intelligence.”