To fly on an Ilyushin IL-62 in 2012 is not something many people would think of doing, let alone going to the lengths I did to enjoy the privilege.
On October 20, 2012 after months of planning, amounts of Euro cash that had bank-tellers convinced I was a spy; a lovely jaunt to Beijing on Air Macau and a visit to Datangshan, I was standing at the check in counter for Air Koryo in Terminal 2 at Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK). Oddly, and unfortunately for collectors of rare boarding passes, flights to Pyongyang are issued on Air China stock.
Chinese police, and politeness didn’t really allow me to capture the sight of the sheer amount of cargo the North Korean people were taking back but it was the contents I found more curious than the volume. A cursory search of the bindles and exposed boxes showed mostly flat-screen TVs and other completely civilian commercial goods.
PEK terminal two is much like their new international terminal. Slow passport control on exit- and then tiny security tables where all your camera gear must be removed for inspection. It’s a stressful process, but in retrospect most of it was the realization that in roughly an hour I would be flying to North Korea. A country that many of my friends had visited and continue to travel to- but one I only knew of from their reports and the media. After understanding that yes, I was crazy and that I was not actually risking my life just to fly on Russian planes- I became excited to see what was sitting at the gate waiting for me.
Air Koryo’s newest Ilyushin IL-62M, P-881, was built for Air Koryo in 1986- the frame looked as good today as it did when it rolled off the line. I had secretly been hoping for P-881, an IL-62M with “hat-rack” type overhead bins- but that really comes down to semantics.
I will admit that the venerable -62 is one of my favorite Cold-War passenger jets; so actually just seeing one up close was very exciting. Going on one was beyond belief.
The best way to describe the interior of P-881, other than the photos, is that it feels like what you would imagine a Soviet Doctor’s office waiting room in 1975 to look like. That’s not derision- just fact. That was the first vibe I had and it was AWESOME. Saggy blue “First class” seats which were unfortunately not for sale due to diplomatic traffic. Speckled, almost linoleum, covered walls, tinted Bakelite window shades. It was spectacular! Wonderfully well kept!
That said, to differentiate from Soviet carriers of the day- there are a few touches to make you well aware you are on Air Koryo. As I boarded, I was greeted with Patriotic North Korean marches. The in flight reading was either a Party magazine simply titled “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea N.O 682” or the Pyongyang times.
Beforehand we were advised not to loot the safety cards, as we would be given mint-condition ones at a later date. Once I settled into my seat next to a couple of missionaries going to work at an orphanage near Ryongchon. Doors were shut. “Welcome to Air Koryo, the Airline of Juche Korea” was the start to an otherwise very normal and ICAO satisfactory safety demonstration.
After that, was pushback- and my most anticipated moment; start up.
The IL-62M has four Soloviev D-30KU relatively low-bypass turbofan engines. They do not sound like Western engines. There are numerous videos of people sitting in the “thrash seats” indicating the firing order and, partially, the noise. I suppose people would wonder what a Russian plane smells like it does .
The answer is, it does not smell like either communism or vodka. You can smell the Jet-A burning a little more than you can on a Western aircraft and a faint hint of ozone at times- but really not much different than a DC-8.
What the microphones miss however (I recommend the IL-62M videos of FlyMajj on YouTube’s for this) is that unlike the GE’s and Rolls Royce engines of the world, the “whine” is exceptionally high frequency and has this steady gain in volume as each engine fires up.
When all four are going one hears the rather standard vacuum-like noise of a jet engine, but because of the high-RPM on the compressor, also what sounds a bit like an alarm bell. This continues throughout the taxi and onto take-off when the volume exceeds anything you’ll ever hear made by Airbus or Boeing.
Do not fool yourself, even though it is only an hour and twenty minute flight from Beijing to Pyongyang. The takeoff roll is very long. The IL-62 is not a light aircraft, nor overpowered. Like all Russian aircraft of the period, however- it still climbs like a fighter jet. Relatively shallow angle of attack off the runway to build airspeed, and then up like a rocket sled.
After leveling off at an inaudible number of meters above the surface. Service commenced.
For an hour and a half flight, the food selection is actually quite pleasant. You don’t have a choice of your main- but you do get some cold chicken, curry rice (a North Korean favorite), cold ham, and a bun!
Not sure what they’d be feeding me at the Koryo hotel, so I ate about 90% of the feast. After that it was time to head to the back of the plane to get my own wing/engine shot. Shortly there after, it was time for descent.
Air Koryo does not do descents like other airlines, other than the military style spiral in to Sunan airport. The most concerning thing is that the gear is lowered at roughly 20,000 feet. Aboard P-881, this was doubly concerning as I could feel a change in pressure in my eardrums. The IL-62M mechanical manual I have makes no mention of such a thing being an imminent danger, but to my Western sensibilities- it was a bit… odd.
Overall, the flight was quite smooth. The IL-62M is an aircraft that feels very relaxed in its handling. We did not get to ride it through any heavy turbulence, but it seemed to absorb any bumps we did encounter with relative ease.
Once on the ground at Sunan, my tour arranger allowed for us to visit the flight deck. We were not allowed much time due to some miscommunications, but it was still a truly amazing feat.
After that it was through a very thorough, but polite, customs visit where mobile phones are confiscated (and returned at the end of the visit) we were allowed to leave and get on to the bus at the hotel.
As far as Russian passenger jets go, the IL-62M has to be one of my favorites. The flight only confirmed this.
Author’s note: Some of the photos of the interior of FNJ and P-881 were taken at later dates.
|This story written by Bernie Leighton, Correspondent.
Bernie has traveled around the world to learn about, experience & photograph different types of planes. Bernie will go anywhere to fly on anything. He spent four years in Australia learning about how to run an airline, while putting his learning into practice by mileage running around the world. You can usually find Bernie in his natural habitat: an airport.