Air Transportation: Falling Apart In Russia


November 5, 2009: Last month, a Russian Il-76 transport crashed after taking off from a Siberian airport. The aircraft had just unloaded a cargo. This accident was no surprise, in general, because of growing problems with the aging Il-76 fleet. For example, a month ago, all Il-76s were grounded because the engine fell off one of them while it was preparing to takeoff. All Russian Il-76s remained grounded until recently, when it was determined that the problem was not common to all Il-76s. The recent crash led to another mass grounding, and growing unease among the many foreign nations that use the Il-76..

It was only two years ago that Russia rolled out an upgraded model. New engines and electronics give the Il-76MD-90 eight percent better fuel efficiency, and the ability to lift up to 60 tons of cargo. Further improvements, in development, will increase fuel efficiency another 14 percent. Russia is trying to make the Il-76 a contender in the military air transport market

 The Il-76 is somewhat similar in capability to the U.S. C-17, but uses older technology, more similar to the recently retired U.S. C-141. The Russians have also been buying a stretched version of the Il-76 (the Il-76MF). This version first flew in 1995, and has become popular with users of earlier Il-76 models. The Il-76MF has better engines and can carry 50 tons of cargo over 4,000 kilometers. Another popular Il-76 is the tanker version (called the Il-78.)

 There are far more Il-76's in use than all of America's four engine jet transports (C-5, C-141, C-17) put together. Over 900 Il-76s were manufactured over the last thirty years, with nearly a hundred exported, so far, mainly to Cuba, Iraq, China, India, Libya and Syria. With few foreign or domestic sales in the last decade, the Il-76 manufacturer (Chkalov) was surviving by manufacturing wings and other components for the An-124, An-70 and An-225 transports. In addition, it made replacement parts for the Il-76 and Il-114 aircraft. There was no help from Russia, because Chkalov was no longer a Russian firm,. When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, the manufacturer of the Il-76, which was located in Uzbekistan, was no longer under the control of Russia (the dissolution agreement left all Soviet assets owned by the post-Soviet nation they were in.)

 A 2006 Chinese order for 75 Il-76s forced the Chkalov firm to reorganize, and move at least 60 percent of the Il-76 production to a Russian firm (Ilyushin). The new assembly line at the Ilyushin Ulyanovsk provides the Il-76 with two production lines, as well as some protection against political problems in Uzbekistan (which needs the 18,000 jobs the Chkalov operation creates). Russia always produced many of the Il-76 components, and the Chkalov plant still has plenty of work manufacturing replacement parts, and refurbishing aircraft.

 Russia is also renegotiating the deal with the Chinese, because the Chkalov low balled the price so much that they were sure to lose a lot of money on it. Russia is a major user of Il-76 aircraft, and expects to buy or refurbish 75 of them in the next decade, and do nearly as much business with foreign customers. The new models of the Il-76 indicate a substantial R&D investment, and an effort to make the Il-76 a serious competitor (mainly on price, at about $50 million each) with the C-17 (which costs about three times as much, and is able to carry up to 86 tons). What the C-17 is best at is carrying about half that weight, half way around the world, non-stop. The Il-76 has a hard time matching that. The C-17 is also easier to maintain, and more reliable. But a fuel-efficient Il-76, that can be refueled in the air, has a price that's tough to beat.





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