Russian IL-76 to Syria messages decoded

On the 19th of December, the Russian Air Force HF frequency 11360kHz used by the Transport Fleet came alive with calls from various IL-76 transports. This frequency is generally active all day, but on the 19th and 20th it was far busier than normal

Russian Air Force IL-76MD at Pskov in January 2010. Photo taken by Alexander Tarasenkov

Initial heads up came from a friend in the USA and fluent Russian speaker Ron, who listens on-line daily to the University of Twente Wideband WEbSDR in the Netherlands with the main intention of catching the Russian Air Force flights. Ron’s Russian is excellent and far superior to mine – I still consider myself a very early beginner

His logs were to provide interesting reading as it became clear early on that these IL-76s were transiting from Russia to the West coast of Syria; various press releases confirmed this on the 20th including this one, which also has a short video. The transports were taking armoured vehicles and supplies to assist in the destruction of Syrian Chemical Weapons

So, what did the logs consist of? To make things easier I have added the Logs here in OpenDocument Text format.

In general the IL-76s were contacting “KORSAR”, Pskov Air Force base in North Western Russia, close to the Estonia/Latvia border.

Pskov is home to the 6985th Aviation Base which operates a fleet of approximately 27 IL-76MD aircraft. How many of them are in an airworthy condition is anyone’s guess but this mission alone used over 12 different airframes. Callsign “DAVLENIE” was also called on a couple of occasions, this being the Russian Air Force 6958th Aviation Base at Taganrog, west of Rostov-on-Don. The 6958th also operate IL-76MDs. As well as having the Air Force in-situ, Taganrog is also the home of the Aircraft manufacturer, Beriev.

As you’ll be able to see, the messages being sent from the aircraft to KORSAR were mainly coded. This differs slightly from normal position reports as they usually pass the messages in full uncoded speech. Whether the codes were created specifically for this mission, I don’t know. If anyone has seen them before then please let me know

What caught my eye straight away was the repetitiveness of some of the codes, in particular three figure ones beginning with “2”. I have listed them below:

One code that really stood out was 212, this always had a four figure number afterwards which had to mean it was a time; and with the roughly 4 hour difference to the UTC time the message was being sent at, it also had to be Moscow Time(MSK). This is confirmed with some flights even mentioning MSK. As the Russians tend to also include fuel remaining at the end of their normal position reports it was obvious that code “249” was this item, especially so as it was just two figures after (in tonnes).

With this in mind it became fairly easy to start working out what everything meant. Another 3 figure number group soon stood out, these ones beginning with “6”:

These represented either waypoints, much like Military TACAN route waypoints used in the UK; or they were codes for specific airfields. They were only ever used after codes 241, 243, 247 and 272. Of course, Airfields could be used as waypoints anyway so they could actually mean both things.

241, 242, 243, 247 and 272 nearly always coincided with a 212 code or “time”. 272 gave itself away easily as a “passing a position” code thanks to IL-76 78835 which reported 272 TUDEK 212 1745. TUDEK is waypoint on the Ankara/Rostov FIR boundary, not too far away from Sochi (ICAO- URSS). 78835 then helped even more 24 minutes later when it then passed another message 247 URSS 212 1810 249 15. This meant that 247 equalled “Landed” (this is why I think that some of the “6” codes are airfields as there are some 247/6** messages too). I came to this conclusion because of the time and distance involved between the two reports.

Possible route of IL-76s to Sochi

If you take a look at the route I created using SkyVector you’ll see what I mean. This is a guess on the route flown to Sochi.

The final leg between TUDEK and Sochi is just over 79nm. The standard cruise speed of an IL-76MD is around 400kts Ground Speed which would equate to around a 12 minute flying time. But, from it’s report it took 24 minutes, therefore it’s average speed around that stage was 200kts. This is an IL-76s average descent and approach speed, so from this it pretty much shows that it has landed at Sochi – this is how I worked out that 247 equals “Landed”

This left me with 241, 242 and 243 from these six codes associated with times. And as one was “Landed”, one was “Passing a position” the obvious answer to 241 was “Take off time” as it’s the first 2** in the sequence. This was confirmed by many reports, for example 78976 on the 20th at 1412z when it reported 241 OSLK 1756 MSK 243 URSS 249 37. OSLK is the ICAO code for Bassel Al-Assad International airport in Syria. There were others prior to this mentioning Sochi

From this message 243 led me to believe that it represented “Destination” because of the reference to Sochi. However, 242 threw that to pot a bit when I noticed that it also looked to be a Destination, in particular 2 reports at 1227z on the 19th that mention ORKA. Now, as a side issue I then tried to work out what ORKA was. It wasn’t a waypoint as it only had four letters, so it was probably an ICAO code. But, ORKA doesn’t exist, and OR** is also in Iraq. So is it actually URKA which is Anapa, 145nm NW of Sochi. This seemed more likely, but didn’t help the 242 issue. I did wonder whether 242 may have also been a mistake and should have been 272 (passing a position) which makes a lot of sense as it’s also enroute to Sochi from Pskov. In the end I concluded that 243 has to be “Destination” with 242 either being a mistake or representing “next point on route” or such like

This now didn’t leave me with much more to work out. 270 is mentioned once followed by 280. This I think represents height, either as a Flight Level (FL280, approx. 28,000ft) or more likely as Russian use Metres, 2800m (approx. 8,500ft). The metres height I will agree is quite low but this is maybe all that was allowed whilst in Syrian and Turkish Airspace due to the nature of the flights.

213 occurs once that I could find, and as this is at the beginning of the message I actually think this represents “Position Report” or Message type if you like

And finally there are 237 and 246. Now, these are strange ones. These two codes are only sent by 78844; and more interesting is that the next numbers after these codes are 844 – the last three digits of the tail number (78844). My only conclusion to this is that this is another reference to the aircraft making the call, although the messages sent are identical in type (a 212/249 message) with just a different code of either 237 or 246

The final list then looks like this:
212 = Time
213 = Message type, Position report
237 = Tail number? (See 246)
241 = Departed at (Time)
242 = Next point on route? or Error for 243
243 = Destination
246 = Tail number? (See 237)
247 = Landed at (Time)
249 = Fuel remaining
270 = Height
272 = Passed Position/waypoint

There are other numbers in there of course, so I’ve probably missed a few, but the reoccurring ones above I’m pretty certain about. It is all a guess though so if anyone has any other ideas or additional information then please contact me to let me know

IL-76M/IL-76MD “Candid-B”
The IL-76 design process started in the late 1960’s and first flew on the 25th March 1971, just four days before I was born. I still remember the first IL-76 that I saw, at the beginning of 1986, as I was cycling from Windsor to Old Windsor after school. I could hear this screeching of jet engine noise catching me up until it finally overtook me at about 4 miles out for 10R at Heathrow.

YI-ANC IL-76MD Iraqi Airways

Iraqi Airways IL-76TD waiting to depart Heathrow on the 20th September 1986. Photo by Chris Chennell

This was an Iraqi Airways IL-76TD, inbound to pick up parts of the Iraqi “Super Gun” (something I would meet later on in life).

The IL-76TD is just an unarmed version of the IL-76MD used by the Russian Air Force. The armament comes in the form of a rear gun turret in the tail which contains two 23mm twin-barrel GSh-23L machine guns. Some of the Air Force MDs have had these guns removed, had advanced navigation equipment installed (as fitted to the IL-76TDs) and so have been designated IL-76TDs. Approximately 980 IL-76s have been built, with around 300 having been in service with the Russian Air Force. The total number currently in service is believed to be around 600

Algerian Air Force IL-76TD at Prestwick in April 2011. Copyrighted Tony Roper 2011

Algerian Air Force IL-76TD at Prestwick in April 2011. Copyrighted Tony Roper 2011

The primary task is forwarding freight, with a maximum load of 47,000kg – this includes being able to take large Tanks. For passenger carrying there’s numerous configurations possible with the basic being for up to 140 troops or 125 paratroops. The use of quick change modules gives the ability to mix and match roles, including for Medical flights.

The standard crew consists of seven – Pilot/Co-Pilot, Navigator, Engineer, Radio Operator and 2 loadmasters. The undercarriage has been designed for all types of landing strips, including dirt and snow

Max Take Off weight: 190,000kg
Max Landing weight: 155,000kg
Cruise Speed: 405-420kts
Normal cruising height: 9,000-12,000m
Max payload range: 2051 nautical miles
Max Range: 4211 nautical miles

Equipment Sent:
The reports list two types of vehicles that were sent to Syria; 50 kamAZ trucks and 25 Ural Armoured Trucks

The video shows only the kamAZ trucks – kamAZ-5350

kamAZ 5350 – picture taken by Vitaly V. Kuzmin

The 5350 is the medium size truck of the three within the kamAZ “Mustang” range. Normally fitted with a soft-top, the truck can carry up to 6 tonnes, with the addition of being able to tow a further trailer. A new Armoured version is available which adds a “pod” to the rear cargo compartment. The 5350 can do a maximum speed of 100km/h, and has a range of 1000km

Armoured version of the kamAZ 5350 - picture by Vitaly V. Kuzmin

Armoured version of the kamAZ 5350 – picture by Vitaly V. Kuzmin

I can only guess at the Ural Armoured Truck variant that has been sent, but I’ll hazard a guess at the 63095, which is designed for this kind of escort duty

The Ural-63095 is designed to withstand pretty much anything, right up to anti-tank mines, although there have been reports this may not be the case with talk about the fuel tank not being able to even withstand small arms fire. The module can take 12 fully armed troops and has a good range. Bullet proof glass protects the cab crew