In the mid-1960s, the Ilyushin OKB were tasked with designing a successor to the Antonov An-12 "Cub", a medium range turboprop transport with good rough field capability. This new aircraft would have to possess twice the range and payload of the earlier type without suffering any loss in field performance, a many-wheeled chassis with high cross-country capacity together with the powerful mechanization of wings and high power capacity to make it possible for the plane to takeoff from unprepared dirt airstrips, and also have the ability to transport an 88,185 pound (40 metric ton) load over 3,100 miles (5,000km) in under six hours, at a lower cost than the An-12BP would be able to achieve.
The basic layout, conceived in 1967, was indeed similar to the U.S.-built Lockheed C-141A Starlifter, but the new design had a larger cargo hold area and more powerful engines to achieve the desired performance. Over thirty international patents were obtained for the design, and the OKB later claimed that 180 new inventions were incorporated into the aircraft.
The first Ilyushin Il-76 (SSSR-86712) flew on 25 March 1971 and was the subject of an abbreviated test program. The aircraft made its public debut at Sheremetyevo Airport on 18 May 1971, much to the surprise of Western observers and flew to Paris the next week.
In July 1975, a pre-production Il-76 established 25 new payload to altitude records during four test flights, 24 of which were later ratified by the FAI. They included lifting a payload of more than 154,590 pounds (70 metric tonnes) to an altitude of 38,960 feet (11,875m), and a speed of 532.33 mph (856.7km/h) around a 1,080 nm (2,000km) closed circuit with 121,253 pounds (55 metric tonnes). Operating mainly as a civilian passenger/cargo transport for Aeroflot, it had not escaped Western eyes that the aircraft would be an important reserve to those surely operated by the military, and indeed this was the case.
The military version differed by having four ECM fairings on the nose, different avionics plus a rear gun turret, mounting two twin barreled 23mm cannons. (Il-76s operating in Afghanistan were also fitted with flare dispensers.)
The cargo hold is fully-pressurized and has a titanium floor with fold-down roller conveyors, and can be quickly reconfigured by using interchangeable passenger, freight or air ambulance modules. Somewhat larger than that available in the C-141A, it can accommodate 125 fully-equipped paratroops.
Loading is accomplished using two internal overhead winches, each of which can use two 6,615 pound (3,000kg) or four 5,511 pound (2,500kg) hoists. The ramp itself can be used as a lift, with a capacity of up to 66,150 pounds (30,000kg). The hold is compatible with international standard containers and pallets.
The Il-76MD variant has an increased flight range and service life. The powerplant and systems are identical to those of the Il-76M and the structural changes have been made to its airframe only to accommodate the increased service life and increased takeoff weight. When operating from first-category concrete runways, the aircraft's takeoff weight has been increased from 170 tons for the Il-76M to 190 tons for the Il-76MD, mainly due to the increased fuel. This enables a flight range increased by 40% with a maximum payload. The Il-76MD can be operated from unpaved runways in forward areas of operation.
The Il-76MF aircraft is a derivative of the Il-76MD, with the fuselage lengthened by 21 feet, 8 inches (6.6m). The new PS-90A-76 engines give a 25% higher takeoff thrust than the D-30KP engines on the MD variant. The flight range is increased by over 20%, for example the flight range with a 40 ton payload is 3,132 nautical miles (5,800km), compared to a range of 2,592 nautical miles (4,800km) for the Il-76MD.
Since 1971, more than 700 Il-76 airframes have been produced. Several Il-76 variants exist, including the Il-78 "Midas" and a firefighting aircraft capable of carrying 42,000 liters of retardant.
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