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Landing on the Grass Improves Tail-Dragger Performance

The Il-62’s moment of bravery in a grassy and dusty field became a memorial to Germany’s rich aviation history.

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There is a fascinating video of a Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-62 long-range narrow-body jetliner just making it over a treeline as it approaches the grass runway at the Stölln/Rhinow airfield in Germany. An attempt to immortalize the airfield’s storied beginnings, the aviation pioneer who first flew there, and the Il-62 itself led to the plane’s hair-raising approach and subsequent and landing.

In the video, pilot Heinz-Dieter Kallbach performs a daring drop-in onto the grass field and sets down the Il-62. In the years since Otto Lilienthal’s final flight at the same airfield nearly a century ago, Kallbach has become an equally venerated figure in German aviation. However, on October 23, 1989, the Il-62 landed on the tiny Stölln/Rhinow airfield in Gollenberg, East Germany, which is now a museum open to the public. The airfield measures only 900 meters of short grass.

Another great video of the landing can be found here, but you can also watch it down below.

The Il-62 would be making its final flight in the difficult operation, with the sole intention of landing at the site of Lilienthal’s fatal crash at the base of Gollenberg Hill. Lady Agnes, Lilienthal’s wife, inspired the naming of the Il-62.

The museum housing the grounded Lady Agnes asserts that Lilienthal was the world’s first aviator, but he is more accurately considered to be among the first. In the years between the work of Englishman George Cayley and that of the more well-known American Wright brothers, Lilienthal, who was born on May 23, 1848, did groundbreaking research and development that paved the way for human flight. Over the course of the next five years, starting in 1891, Lilienthal flew more than 2,000 times in gliders he had built himself. These flights taught him many of the fundamentals of aviation, such as the importance of wing design in achieving stability in flight.

In 1931, Otto Lilienthal built a glider, which was copied here. Photo courtesy of the National Museum of Science and Technology/Wikimedia Commons

However, Lilienthal would make his final flight on August 9, 1896. With his mechanic and assistant Paul Beylich present, Lilienthal went to his preferred spot at the base of Gollenberg Hill to test his glider. The hill’s elevation gave him the extra boost he needed to get his craft airborne. After gliding to an altitude of about 50 feet, Lilienthal crashed to the ground, suffering an injury to his brain, spine, or both that would prove fatal the following day.

Because of Lilienthal, the area around Gollenberg Hill is now known as Stölln/Rhinow on the Gollenberg, and it is considered to be one of the oldest airfields in the world. The airfield served as a gliding training ground for the German Luftwaffe during both World Wars; after the war, it was used as a sports flying venue in communist East Germany in the 1950s.

Otto Lilienthal’s biplane glider, seen from below in a three-quarter left rear view. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution/Commons. Looking left, we see Otto Lilienthal soaring above the heads of the onlookers in his glider. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution/Commons.

However, if the Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik, or Sport and Technology Association, hadn’t been founded in 1952, the restrictions placed on civil aircraft operations by the Potsdam Conference of 1945 would have effectively banned such aerial activity for years. The goal of the organization was to support young people in East Germany who were interested in both sports and technology. The association’s collaboration with the National People’s Army to organize East Germany’s mandatory pre-military training in schools contributed significantly to the country’s militarization before its dissolution in the early 1990s.

After a dramatic arrival in 1989, the Il-62 Lady Agnes came to rest at the base of the Gollenberg. The plane’s fuselage now houses a museum dedicated to Lillienthal on one side and, oddly enough, a marriage bureau on the other. The footage we now have of her landing is impressive enough, but the story of how she got there is even more so.

Interflug was the first step in this process. Civil aviation in Germany was hampered by both the war itself and its aftermath. After WWII, all of Deutsche Luft Hansa’s planes were seized by the occupying allies, forcing the airline to formally shut down in 1954. In order to quickly prepare for what would replace Deutsche Luft Hansa, the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the West trademarked the potential airline name “Lufthansa,” while the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East trademarked “Deutsche Lufthansa” in 1955.

An article in Simple Flying claims that East German officials were worried about possible legal conflicts because of the similarity between the names, and so in 1958 the GDR established “Interflug” to play it safe. In the end, however, the transfer was unnecessary because Deutsche Lufthansa, the GDR’s national airline, was dissolved in 1963 and all of its operations were transferred to Interflug.

In January of 1988, Interflug flew an Ilyushin Il-62. Photograph by Aldo Bidini/Wikimedia Commons

Interflug, which was based out of Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport, flew a large number of aircraft that had been manufactured in the Soviet Union. Several Soviet-era designs, including the Tupolev Tu-134, Tupolev Tu-154, Ilyushin Il-18, and, of course, the Ilyushin Il-62, were used by Interflug over the course of their careers. The Tu-134 was used for the majority of Interflug’s short to medium range operations between countries in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), an economic union between socialist countries in the Eastern Bloc. Until 1970, when Interflug bought the Il-62 and began flying it to Schönefeld Airport.

The Il-62 was Ilyushin’s follow-up to the successful Il-18 turboprop and made its first commercial flight that same year (1967). Before its time with Interflug, the Il-62 was put to use by Soviet airline Aeroflot on a profitable route between Moscow and Montreal; this route earned the 165-seat passenger plane the nickname “White Giant” due to its massive size. It was so massive that when it was introduced, at a length of around 174 feet, it was recognized as the largest jetliner in the world.

Image of a Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop airliner. Photos by MercerMJ/Wikimedia Commons.

Its four Kuznetsov NK-8-4 turbofan engines, two on each side of the jetliner’s fuselage, gave it a range of up to 4,200 miles, depending on how many people were on board. At about the same time as the introduction of the four-engined Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8, the Il-62 entered service. There were allegations of industrial espionage because the Il-62’s engine design was so similar to that of the British-made Vickers VC10, which prompted an official investigation into the disagreement. However, no additional evidence to back up those claims has ever surfaced.

Cuba quickly rose to prominence as one of Interflug’s most popular Il-62 destinations after the airline added the plane to its fleet in 1970, allowing it to maintain its crucial Berlin-Moscow route and launch its first ever intercontinental jet services. Interflug received a total of six Il-62s, and then 12 upgraded Il-62Ms beginning in 1980. Until Germany’s reunification in 1990, the Il-62 was a prized possession of the GDR’s Interflug airline. That year, however, the number of potential investors dropped precipitously, leading to the company’s eventual dissolution.

One can see all four of the Interflug Ilyushin Il-62’s engines in this view of the plane from behind. Thanks to Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Wikimedia Commons for this beautiful illustration.

However, the Il-62s were scheduled to be replaced with Airbus A310s two years prior to Interflug’s demise. For the 90th anniversary of Otto Lilienthal’s death, the Stölln/Rhinow airfield received a donation of an Il-62 from Interflug as a gift.

German pilot Heinz-Dieter Kallbach, who was also the Il-62 fleet chief for Interflug, was chosen to land Lady Agnes on the grass strip at Stölln/Rhinow. Although nobody doubted Kallbach’s skill, many aviation experts at the time thought it was impossible to land the enormous plane in the slick conditions.

The inside of an Ilyushin Il-62 from Interflug’s cockpit. Photo by Konstantin von Wedelstaedt / Public Domain

As the footage shows, on a sunny afternoon in October 1989, Kallbach silenced his critics by landing Lady Agnes safely at the Stölln/Rhinow airfield. Kallbach said the Il-62 bounced around more than he was expecting during the landing. At one point during the landing, the plane’s nose appears to rise, leading some to believe that Kallbach popped a wheelie. However, Kallbach has since explained that he was actually trying to reduce the tangential force on the landing gear at high speeds to prevent the gear from sinking into the soil. For a quick deceleration after touchdown, it also resembles classical aerobraking. Large amounts of soil were reportedly torn up as the plane came to a stop.

“We needed different calculations, a changed landing technology, many special permits, and existing rules and regulations in the Aviation Act had to be suspended,” Kallbach told the German aviation outlet Aero Telegraph. “With the landing approach in sight, we shut down two of the engines and flew with just two. Reverse thrust was required at an altitude of 50 meters, which is strictly forbidden in aviation and technically impossible with today’s aircraft. For better or worse, a go-around was out of the question, and the landing had to go through. It worked out that way, thank goodness!”

Once the plane slowed down, the jet’s (still working) engines were put into reverse, creating a huge dust cloud and filling the engines with debris.

This sequence of events was quite dramatic.

After leaving Interflug, Kallbach went on to build an impressive resume as a pilot for commercial airlines, including time behind the controls of the Airbus A310 and the Boeing 737 for Germania. In March of 2000, a man broke into the cockpit and attempted to crash the plane, making it one of the most difficult incidents a commercial pilot could face. When Kallbach confronted the attacker, a fight broke out, and the plane’s autopilot was disabled. Though Kallbach was hurt quite a bit, the man eventually gave in and was restrained, so, like with the Il-62, he was able to land the plane safely and bring everyone on board home.

It would be hard to find a more deserving group of people—Lilienthal, Kallbach, the Il-62, and the Stölln/Rhinow airfield—to be honored in this way. Therefore, the one-time landing depicted in the video has multiple layers of significance.

Whatever the case may be, Lady Agnes will undoubtedly keep guard at Gollenberg Hill as a tribute to everyone who helped her get there.

Emma@thewarzone.com is the email address you can use to get in touch with the writer.