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Ukraine’s Inactive Heavy Transport Fleet
In the first half of 2022, dozens of civil and military cargo and passenger aircraft from all around the world flew to Kyiv Boryspil and Lviv Airport in Ukraine and Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport in Poland to deliver military aid. Some countries, mainly richer West-European and North American countries, use their own aircraft. Many other countries, for example in the Baltics and Eastern Europe, are supported by foreign NATO aircraft such as the Royal Air Force and Royal Canadian Air Force. Before the Invasion, part of this foreign aid was picked up by the Ukraine Air Force. Following the invasion of Ukraine however, surviving aircraft of Ukraine’s Il-76 heavy transport fleet were evacuated to Dęblin Air Base in Poland, and have not been seen in service ever since.
Ukraine Air Force Transport Fleet
Russianplanes.net provides a quick overview of Soviet aircraft operated by air forces around the world (except for the Russian Air Force. Following the invasion of Ukraine, access to Russian Air Force pages has been disabled).
Although their data is not always fully correct, it gives a good approximation of flying Air Force inventory. According to Russianplanes.net, the Ukraine Air Force operates a fleet of some 30 active Mil helicopters (Mi-8 variants), around 30 twin-engine Antonov propellor transport aircraft (An-26 variants) as well as seven large four-engined Ilyushin Il-76 heavy transport jet aircraft.
More Ukraine Government-owned twin engine propellor aircraft are operated by the Ukraine Ministry of Emergency (SESU), some of which were evacuated to Bydgoszcz in Poland on 25 Feb 2022, the day after the Invasion. These Antonovs An-26 and An-32 remained active after the invasion, for example picking up firefighting equipment in Germany in March 2022.
I may be publishing further information about the whereabouts of SESU aircraft in future, when sharing information about Ukrainian aircraft is deemed less sensitive. For now, I choose not to publish this information.
The Heavy Transport Fleet: Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft
One of the striking features of some airports in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Asia is the presence of a large amount of Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft, most of which in poor condition and in long-term storage, unlikely to ever fly again.
For example, at least 22 Il-76 aircraft can be seen on Google Maps imagery of Zaporizhia International Airport. 11 mostly complete Il-76s can be seen on Google Maps imagery of Fujairah Airport in the UAE (home base for e.g. Ukraine’s Fly Sky Airlines). Google Maps imagery of Osh Airport in Kyrgyzstan shows 9 mostly complete Il-76s parked closely together just west of the airport, only connected to the airport by a dirt road.
Similarly, 29 Il-76s can be seen on Google Maps imagery of Melitopol Air Base, the main Il-76 base of the Ukraine Air Force. Most of them have not flown in years and will likely never fly again. This can also be seen on Russianplanes.net, which states that a total of 33 Ukraine Air Force Il-76s remain in storage.
In Zaporizhia, Fujairah and Osh, stored Il-76s are parked separately, away from active aircraft. At Melitopol Air Base however, active Il-76s are parked between the permanently stored Il-76s.
The Il-76 wreckages
On the early morning of 25 Feb 2022, one day after the Invasion, seven airworthy Ukraine Air Force Il-76s were evacuated from Ukraine.
Although only four aircraft were tracked on Mode-S, a total of seven Il-76s were evacuated to Dęblin Air Base in Poland. Combining Scramble forum and Soviet Transports data, we can create the following list of Ukraine Air Force Il-76s evacuated from Ukraine on 25 Feb 2022:
Il-76MD MSN: 00534 63913, registered UR-76661/76661
Il-76MD MSN: 00734 76296, registered UR-76732/76732
Il-76MD MSN: 00634 68029, registered UR-76683/76683
Il-76MD MSN: 00834 87627, registered UR-78772/78772
Il-76MD MSN: 00934 96907, registered UR-78820/78820
Il-76MD MSN: 00534 63885, registered UR-76655/76655 (typo in Scramble forum post)
Il-76MD MSN: 10134 07215, registered UR-76413/76413
Combining various data sources, we can reconstruct the events preceding this evacuation.
From the first few days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, no usable optical satellite imagery of Melitopol Air Base is available because of dense cloud cover. However, Chinese private space company Spacety released HISEA-1 radar satellite imagery of Melitopol Air Base, dated 24 Feb 2022: the day of the invasion, the day before the evacuation of the Il-76s. Because it is radar imagery, cloud cover is not a problem.
On radar imagery, smooth objects show up as dark (weak backscatter) while rough objects show up as bright (strong backscatter). Pavement and intact aircraft fuselages therefore show up dark. Rough(er) surfaces, such as vegetation and aircraft wreckages, appear brighter.
The imagery shows one very bright and clear aircraft at Melitopol Air Base: A wrecked Ilyushin Il-76MD, later identified as Il-76MD reg. 76697 (MSN: 00634 70118). Last seen active on 17 Feb 2022, she was airworthy until the incident, and was therefore a valuable asset of Ukraine Air Force.
The fact the events took place in this order is a major discovery: when pictures of the two wrecked Il-76s (the other being 76322, MSN: 00534 62873, in long term storage) were first released in early April 2022, general belief was that they had been unable to get away before Russia captured the base on 01 Mar 2022. This radar image however proves that they were already wrecked before the capture. Rather, they were already wrecked before the other Il-76s were evacuated!
Around 04:00 AM local time in the early morning of 25 Feb 2022, one day after the Russian Invasion of Ukraine, seven Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft cross the border between Ukraine and Poland. Unlike their Russian counterparts heading for Gostomel Airport a day earlier, they are leaving Ukraine. Not seen using Mode-S transponders until close to the border, they sneak out at low altitude, in a suspected attempt to remain unnoticed by Russian radar systems until reaching the border. Upon reaching the border, they head straight for the safety of Dęblin Air Base (EPDE).
This Polish Air Base is home to the Polish Air Force Academy as well as military/aircraft construction facilities is located in Eastern Poland, some 120 km west of the tripoint of Poland, Ukraine and Belarus.
No activity after the evacuation
In the following months, they would never show up on Mode-S again, and would remain visible on all Sentinel-2 satellite images of the base, suggesting that they are not flying.
In the period before the Invasion, Ukraine Air Force Il-76s regularly flew abroad to pick up foreign aid (for example: 78820 to Bucharest on 10 Feb 2022, 76697 to Lielvārde on 17 Feb 2022, 78820 to Rzeszów on 23 Feb 2022). In the months following the Invasion, Ukraine’s Military Heavy Transport fleet has had little to no contribution in the airlift delivering air freight to Ukraine.
As the war rages on, foreign military aid is keeping the Ukrainian Military and the Ukrainian people standing, much of which is transported by air. However, Ukraine relies on foreign aircraft to deliver this aid to them, forcing Eastern European allies to rely on NATO allies to deliver the aid to Ukraine on their behalf. It is therefore difficult to understand why Ukraine is not utilizing the full potential of their own Heavy Transport Fleet.
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