The Ilyushin Il-80: Here's all we know about Russia's doomsday plane

It's Russia's airborne command center in case of a nuclear war.
Ameya Paleja
The Ilyushin II-80 in flightKirill Naumenko/ Wikimedia Commons

In case there is a nuclear war, there are only two countries, the U.S. and Russia, that have the capabilities of keeping their heads of state and important military officials out of harm's way while still remaining in command over the situation. While the U.S. uses Boeing's B-4 aircraft, Russia uses homemade Ilyushin II-80 aircraft. Here's all we know about the latter. 

Design 

The Ilyushin II-80 reportedly made its first flight in 1985 while its deliveries were made starting 1987 after many modifications. Western media first observed these flights only in 1992, when the planes are believed to have been put into service. 

Developed using Ilyushin's II-86 aircraft as a model, the II-80s are visibly very different from the commercial aircraft. The calling name for the aircraft is Maxdome, although some refer to it as Camber, a term used by commercial navigation for the II-86s.

Maxdome is notably different from its commercial counterpart since one does not see the cabin windows on the aircraft. The cockpit retains its windows but with a baffle blocking them. These changes were put into effect to protect the occupants from an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or nuclear explosion. The upper deck doors on the aircraft have been reduced in numbers while only one airstair remains.

A large SATCOM canoe sits on top of the fuselage in the front with large antennae in its aft. The tail of the aircraft also houses a winch for a towed, very low-frequency (VLF) antenna, while horizontal stabilizers also have space for more sensors or communication antenna. 

The aircraft also houses two large electrical generator pods placed inwards of its engines, which have air intake scoops and jet exhausts at their ends. A retractable fueling probe is placed below the cockpit. 

Comparison with the American counterpart

The American counterpart has the calling name Nightwatch and was developed from Boeing's 747 aircraft, a good decade before the Maxdome even took its first flight. The aircraft retains its cabin windows but is reportedly protected from EMP by shielding its equipment and wiring, while also retaining analog instruments inside the cockpit. 

The three-decked aircraft carries electric panels, step-down transformers, and SATCOM and VLF equipment. The aircraft is equipped with a trailing wire antenna that can extend up to five miles (8 km) long and can carry 13 communication links. 

Nightwatch needs two fully loaded KC-135 tankers to refuel completely, and, although the aircraft has remained airborne for 35 hours at the most, it can stay in the air for as long as two weeks. 

Both the Russian and American planes have seen one generation of aircraft being built and retired while four units of the second generation aircraft are currently in service. 

The Russian aircraft also holds the unenviable record of having 39 pieces of radio equipment stolen from inside the plane during a maintenance routine. The missing pieces were later declared not to be of strategic importance, CNN reported

Reports suggest that a third-generation aircraft is being developed by Russia to be unveiled soon but there haven't been any updates on this so far.

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