Soviet-era aircraft usually come in a dizzying array of, often bizarre, variants and the IL-76 is no different. You may recognise the saucer atop the fuselage of this 76 to mark it out as the AWACs Ilyushin / Beriev A-50 Mainstay variant, but in fact it is something different. It is the 'aircraft 976' SKIP variant, the IL-76SK, used for the AMCS mission. What is that you ask? Read on...
The Ilyushin/Beriev A-50 'Mainstay' is the AWACs version of the standard IL-76, with the massive saucer rotodome of the Shmel' radar mounted on two pylons aft of the wings. The rotodome is incredible and deep enough for a human to stand inside if cut across laterally.
Outwardly the aircraft also has a selection of small lumps and bumps, plus an extra intake at the base of the tail, but otherwise looks broadly like a standard IL-76.
The West got wind of the A-50's development around 1983 and production proceeded at the rate of one to five aircraft a year from 1981 until 1991. This initial version became known as the Mainstay-A when the A-50M Mainstay-B broke cover in 1989 although production of that improved type appears to have been limited to only four or five aircraft. There has since also been a further improved A-50U version and they have been involved in the war against Ukraine, although the Russian Air Force is only believed to have around 9 left in service.
Above: An A-50U. âMil.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
Aeroclassics added the rotodome to their existing IL-76 mould in 2006 but didn't modify the tail form or add any of the small blisters either. Interestingly the two releases they made wore Aeroflot colours and actually do not represent A-50s at all. They are instead Ilyushin IL-76SK 'Aircraft 976' Mainstay-Cs not designed to serve as AWACs platforms at all.
The Mainstay-C was designed to take part in the ballistic and cruise missile programmes of the Soviet Union. It's role was to monitor and record systems operations during missile launches for which it kept the Shmel' rotodome of the A-50. The development of the 976 aircraft followed on from two previous IL-76 conversions lacking the radar. These aircraft were known as 'aircraft 676' and aircraft 776'.
Experience with the first two aircraft led to the creation of the 'aircraft 976' or SKIP (samolyotnyy komahndno-izmereetel'nyy poonkt) airborne measuring and control station (AMCS). Superficially the aircraft look like A-50s with the rotodome and the large fairing ahead of the wings (containing satellite comms and data link antennas) but have several differences.
Above: RA-76453 at the MAKS Airshow in August 1997.
The tail turret is replaced by a hemispherical radome and two large wingtip pods are mounted also. Various other aerials and probes are also fitted. Production extended to the conversion of five new IL-76MDs built in 1986-87 and they all wore the Aeroflot scheme. The aircraft were revealed in August 1988 at the Zhukovosky Aviation Day flypast.
As of 2001 only one aircraft, RA-76453, wore the Russian flag and had an RA- reg prefix. It appears as of 2017 that aircraft is now with the Russian State Atomic Energy Corporation as it at least one sister ship. The aircraft are known to have been used in the Tu-160's trials programme monitoring launches of the RKV-500 AS-15 Kent cruise missile.
Obviously Aeroclassics didn't bother to make a 100% accurate 'aircraft 976' but the model is nice nonetheless and an interesting addition to my collection.
Komissarov, D & Gordon, Y. Ilyushin IL-76: Russia's Versatile Airlifter. Aerofax
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: