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A Russian government jet made the long journey from Moscow to New York yesterday despite the fact that Russian planes are explicitly banned from US airspace. It seems that the purpose of the flight was to ferry Russian diplomats to the United National General Assembly, but it’s not clear why the plane continued on to Washington DC several hours later.
Russian government Il-96 flies to New York and then Washington DC
On Tuesday, September 19th, a 7-year-old Russian-built Ilyushin Il-96-300 (registered RA-96023) took off from Moscow’s Vnukovo International Airport bound for New York JFK. Thanks to airspace restrictions prohibiting Russian planes from overflying literally every country along the way–Finland, Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, and Canada–the journey took an unusually long 11 hours and 35 minutes.
The aircraft landed at New York JFK around 8:18 PM local time before taking off again three hours later and landing in Washington Dulles at 11:59.
The reason for the flight
No official reason has been given for this flight, but it seems likely that the plane was bringing Russia’s Deputy United Nations Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky to New York for this week’s General Assembly. It’s unclear why the plane flew to DC shortly after dropping off Polyansky in New York.
This is the second time in only a few months that one of Russia’s Il-96 has landed in the US. In June, a plane was dispatched to DC in order to return Russian diplomats stationed in the US back to Moscow and to bring their replacements to the US. There was also speculation that the plane might have transported potential intelligence agents out of the US as relations have soured.
Why the Il-96 is so fascinating
The Ilyushin Il-96 is a Russian wide-body, four-engine jet airliner designed and manufactured by the Ilyushin Aviation Complex, a part of the Russian state-owned aerospace and defense company United Aircraft Corporation. While it may not be as well-known as Western widebodies by Boeing and Airbus, the Il-96 has some extremely unique characteristics that make it a fascinating aircraft to aviation geeks like myself. Here are some facts that highlight its distinctiveness:
- It has a strong Soviet heritage. The Il-96 is one of the few wide-body airliners developed by a Russian aerospace company. It was designed during the late stages of the Soviet era but has survived in various forms after its collapse.
- It’s built almost entirely of local components. Unlike many modern airliners that use a mix of international components, the Il-96 was designed to use mostly Soviet or Russian-produced parts. This includes its Aviadvigatel PS-90A engines, which are Russian-made high-bypass turbofans.
- It’s the only flying non-Western widebody. The Il-96 is spacious and can accommodate around 300 passengers in a two-class configuration. It was also among the first Soviet airliners designed with modern computerized fly-by-wire controls, which made it easier and safer to operate on long-haul routes. The Il-96-300 variant, for example, has a range of up to about 11,000 km (around 6,835 miles). As far as I know, this plane is the only non-European or American wide body plane still in service.
- It’s extremely rare. The Il-96 has not seen the same commercial success as Western counterparts. When it was released, it was more expensive and less efficient than Boeing’s competing aircraft, and with international sanctions now affecting its components and sales, the Il-96 is only utilized for a few highly specialized purposes. There are currently just nine in active operation, and eight of those are owned by the Russian government.
An Ilyushin-Il-96-300 is sitting in Washington Dulles after making the long trip from Russia to the United States. I love it when international diplomacy and aviation intersect, especially when a geopolitical situation can be seen in something as humdrum as a circuitous flight path. On a more fundamental level, I also think this plane is gorgeous, and it’s rare nowadays to spot it in the wild, especially in the West.