An Air Koryo Ilyushin IL-62 in Beijing, ready for boarding. Photo by.

An Air Koryo Ilyushin IL-62 in Beijing, ready for boarding. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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.

A first class seat in the Air Koryo IL-62 heading to North Korea. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

A first class seat in the Air Koryo IL-62 heading to North Korea. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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.

The overhead bin on the Air Koryo IL-62. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

The overhead bin on the Air Koryo IL-62. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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!

The flight deck on the Air Koryo IL-62. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

The flight deck on the Air Koryo IL-62.Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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.

Air Koryo sickness bag on the IL-62. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

Air Koryo sickness bag on the IL-62. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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.

Not your typical view: two Soloviev D-30KU turbofans. There are another two on the other side. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

Not your typical view: two Soloviev D-30KU turbofans. There are another two on the other side. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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.

Need a good meal for an IL-62M flight to FNJ. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

Need a good meal for an IL-62M flight to FNJ. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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!

De-planing at FNJ and about to go into the new terminal at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

De-planing at FNJ and about to go into the new terminal at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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.

The outside of Pyongyang Sunan International Airport (FNJ) in North Korea. Photo by Bernie Leighton

The outside of Pyongyang Sunan International Airport (FNJ) in North Korea. Photo by Bernie Leighton

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.

An inside look at the new terminal at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport (FNJ). Very utilitarian. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

An inside look at the new terminal at Pyongyang Sunan International Airport (FNJ). Very utilitarian. Photo by Bernie Leighton.

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.

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MANAGING CORRESPONDENT - SEATTLE, WA. Bernie has traveled around the world to learn about, experience, and photograph different types of planes. He 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. Email: bernie@airlinereporter.com.

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12 Comments
Roland

Thank you for the wonderful explanation of your journey on an Air Koryo Il-62. Describing the sound of the engines and experiencing the take off. Just a dream come true. I know I won’t get an opportunity to travel on one in my life. I really enjoyed reading about your trip. Greetings from another friendly Canadian.

The Russian-metal stories are excellent! I loved the money-quote about communism and vodka — I would have expected it to exude the aroma of both.

I’ve always liked the IL-62 and VC-10 designs. Aeroflot during the early days of its service to Seattle flew the -62 here. It was great to see ‘live’.

Great story. I wonder if the pilot didn’t drop the gear that early as a sign of surrender so he wouldn’t be accidentally shot out of the sky on approach.

Thank you Bernie for that very interesting article. We are going to the DPRK this September. We were hoping to fly on the IL62, though my tour company tell me that these are rarely used on the Beijing flight, instead replaced with the TU204 which is a shame as flying on an IL 62 was going to be one of the highlights. Interesting what you say about phones being confiscated asI have read and my tour company tells me that they now allow phones in and you can buy a SIM if you really want. I’m not bothered by that as part of the experience is being remote and detatched from the outside world. Still would like to keep my i phone just for the alarm ets. Anyway thank you for the interesting artical.

Oh yes, you are not wrong about the phones rule changing. I think at the beginning of 2013 they “liberalized” their policy. When I was up there, however, not wanting my phone to come back with a DPRK bug- I left it at home.

This is slightly off topic. I would like to know where Boeing designs and builds the ailerons for the 767, 777, and in particular the 787 airliners. I would be happy if someone were to send me email to my address: MICHAEL.BENJAMIN.LUSKIN@GMAIL.COM

Thank you very much.

Michael B. Luskin

charles bonan

Hi Bernie,

You are a man after my own heart. One of my passions is visiting the boneyards. I bet you have done that yourself. Years ago, I was head of Turner Broadcasting International. I was launching The Goodwill Games and Ted Turner and I were flying into MOW from HEL. It was my first experience on the Soviet version of Aeroflot. All of my other trips were on BA.
I run an entertainment company in LA. Send me your personal email and or mobile number so that we might speak directly.

Best,
Charles Bonan

Tom Monzell

Very interesting article. It reminded me of my 10 day tour of Beijing and Moscow from London in Jan., 1987. We flew British European Airways to Moscow and connected to a CAAC (Civil Aviation Administration of China) IL-62 to Beijing. The flight left Moscow at 12:01 AM after the 20 of us Americans boarded the ice cold aircraft at 11:50 PM and were seated at the very back of the plane. During the 10 hour flight, I remember the loud noise of the jet engines, the heavy cigarette smoke from the Russian and Chinese passengers, the “gifts” which the Chinese flight attendants gave us every hour, and the sheer boredom of the whole experience. Same thing on the trip back to Moscow, but Beijing and Moscow were fascinating in the winter. We had modern hotel accommodations, excellent meals, friendly tour guides, and quite a few nasty colds among the members of our group who did not dress properly for the Russian weather. P.S. In the 1970s, I flew on a number of LOT Polish Airlines IL-18 flights to and from London and Warsaw. Spartan cabins, tasteless meals, but efficient flight attendants.

Everything is very open with a clear clarification of the challenges.
It was definitely informative. Your site is extremely
helpful. Many thanks for sharing!

David Uscus

Is Air Koryo the last passenger operator of the il-62?

David Uscus

As of 2015 or 2016, is Air Koryo the only remaining passenger operator of the il-62?

Nope.

Unit 223 of the Russian Air Force also operates at least one. One of which was assembled in 2004.

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