The Story Of The Ilyushin Il-86 – The USSR’s First Widebody Airliner

Soviet-era airliners from the former USSR are a widespread source of fascination among avgeeks worldwide. The union produced a wide range of commercial aircraft, with widebodies also eventually becoming part of its portfolio. The first of these was the Ilyushin Il-86, a four-engine design produced between 1976 and 1991. Let’s explore its story.

Ilyushin Il-86
The Ilyushin Il-86 first flew in December 1976. Photo: Dmitry Terekhov via Flickr

The need for additional capacity

The Il-86’s story began in the mid-1960s. At this time, the USSR decided that it would be of use to produce a significantly larger airliner than its current offerings, similar to the projects that were in the pipeline in Western Europe (Airbus A300) and the US (Boeing 747). However, this wasn’t just a case of aiming to match the efforts of Western planemakers.

Indeed, the additional capacity that such an aircraft would offer had become necessary in light of increasing passenger numbers. For example, Aeroflot predicted at this time that, within a decade, it would be carrying 100 million passengers a year. Of course, the USSR was no stranger to large airliners, with the Ilyushin Il-62 having once been the world’s largest.

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Ilyushin Il-62 Getty
Ilyushin’s Il-62 was once the world’s largest airliner. Photo: Getty Images

Development and introduction

The USSR awarded the project to Ilyushin in the late-1960s, and the company began work on it in 1969. It initially looked into producing a larger version of its existing Il-62, but, by March 1970, it had opted instead to develop an all-new design. This would be a four-engine, single-deck model with a nine-abreast (3-3-3) economy class seating configuration. In total, it could seat 320-350 passengers depending on the configuration.

When the Il-86 first flew in December 1976, the Boeing 747 had been in service for nearly seven years. Nonetheless, the plane was ground-breaking in being the USSR’s first widebody, and only the world’s second four-engined widebody behind the aforementioned 747.

Furthermore, it also had the second-widest fuselage of any airliner until the Boeing 777 entered service. Just over four years after its first test flight, the Il-86 entered commercial service on December 26th, 1980. It formed the basis for the Il-96, which entered service in the early-1990s, similar to an Airbus-designed single-deck quadjet, namely the A340 family.

Ilyushin Il-80
Today, the Il-86 only sees limited service in a military capacity. Photo: Sergey Vladimirov via Flickr

The Il-86 today

Today, the Il-86 (perhaps unsurprisingly given its age) is something of a rarity in the world’s skies. Although it wasn’t a best-seller, Ilyushin did still produce 106 examples of the Il-86 between 1976 and 1991. Of these, data from shows that just four remain active today.

All four of the active aircraft are examples of the Il-86VKP variant, which is a modified, military-configured version of the plane that serves as an aerial command post aircraft for the Russian Air Force. They are also designated separately as the Il-80, and have an average age of around 36.5 years. One of these was recently burgled, with 39 radio parts stolen while the plane was on the ground for maintenance.

What do you make of the Ilyushin Il-86? Have you ever seen or even flown on one of these Soviet-era quadjets? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.