Why Are Cubana Ilyushin Il-96s Flying To Gander?

Filed Under: Other Airlines

Here’s a fun avgeeky topic that’s ultimately of very little consequence, but that has an element of mystery to it.

Cubana’s Ilyushin Il-96 in Gander

Cuba’s flag carrier is Cubana, and Cubana’s flagship long haul aircraft is the Russian-built Ilyushin Il-96 (it’s like the Emirates A380 of Cuba). The airline has four(ish) of these planes, with a capacity of up to 262 passengers each. I say “ish” because I believe only a couple of the planes might still be airworthy, given that two of these planes haven’t flown in a year.

As is the case with virtually all airlines, Cubana’s route network has been modified due to coronavirus and the associated travel restrictions, but I saw a picture on Twitter last night that piqued my interest.

Someone posted a picture of a Cubana aircraft in Gander, Canada, noting that the plane has been making more visits to the airport as of late.

That certainly got me wondering — why on earth is a Cubana plane in Gander?!

Gander is a special place to me, as I’ve been a few times, and I got married at the Fogo Island Inn. Gander is also a significant airport in aviation, given its history as an airport for refueling on transatlantic flights. On 9/11 it even became a major hub of sorts, as many wide bodies diverted to the airport. The hospitality of the people of Gander is what the musical “Come From Away” is about.

Gander tends to get some interesting traffic, given that it’s a transatlantic refueling point. When smaller planes are being repositioned across the Atlantic, or airlines are taking delivery of new planes, it’s common to see them refuel in Gander.

So while I’ve seen some interesting traffic there, I’ve never seen anything like a Cubana Il-96.

Where are Cubana’s Ilyushin Il-96s flying?

When I saw the Cubana plane in Gander I assumed it was there to refuel, but where was it flying? Well, I pulled up flight data for Cubana’s long haul fleet.

It would appear (I suppose unsurprisingly) that Cubana’s Il-96s are currently flying primarily to Caracas and Moscow. It seems that Cubana’s general Russia “rotation” is to fly nonstop from Havana to Moscow (a roughly 11 hour flight), and then on the return the flight generally stops in Gander before returning to Havana.

These don’t seem to be scheduled passenger flights, as the rotations here are unusual. For example, looking at the 15 year old plane with the registration CU-T1251:

  • The plane flew from Havana to Moscow on March 16, and from Moscow to Gander to Havana on March 21
  • The plane flew from Havana to Moscow on March 28, and from Moscow to Gander to Havana on April 1
  • The plane flew from Havana to Moscow on April 8, and from Moscow to Gander to Havana on April 13

This raises a few questions.

Obviously I get the political connection between the countries, but are these cargo flights, flights with government officials, or what? Why does the plane typically sit in Moscow for several days if the service is operated so frequently? If these flights were about cargo I’d think they would turn them pretty quickly, so maybe they’re more about the people they’re carrying, and they fly out and back on the same planes? At first I wondered if the flights might be carrying vaccines, but Cuba claims to be developing its own vaccine, rather than getting them from Russia.

Furthermore, best I can tell the Il-96 has a published range of ~7,200 miles, while a nonstop Moscow to Havana flight covers under 6,000 miles, so is a fuel stop (or whatever it is) really needed in Gander? Are they just loading the plane with so much cargo at the expense of fuel (I’m not sure what exactly the limits are for the Il-96), is the plane’s range not as good as published, or is there something else I’m missing here, like perhaps Cubana picking up some cargo in Gander?

Fortunately Gander is really convenient geographically, as it’s just a seven mile detour from the nonstop route.

It’s also interesting to see how the plane keeps quite a bit of distance from the US coast flying from Gander to Havana, as you’d expect. Admittedly the direct route is over the Atlantic Ocean anyway, but the plane definitely flies further East than it would if it weren’t a Cuban-registered aircraft.

Bottom line

Cubana seems to primarily be flying its Il-96 aircraft between Havana and Moscow nowadays. While the plane operates nonstop on the outbound, it makes a stop in Gander on the return.

I find Cubana’s Moscow rotation to be be fascinating, in particular that the plane sits in Moscow for several days before returning. Furthermore, I’m curious about the Gander stop, given that in theory the plane should be able to fly nonstop.

This isn’t the only “unique” route we’ve seen between “alley” countries. There’s also Conviasa’s Caracas to Moscow route, as well as Conviasa’s Caracas to Damascus flight, which operated a while back.

Anyone have more info or theories on Cubana’s Moscow flights, as well as the need for the Gander stop?

(Featured image courtesy of Dmitriy Pichugin)

  1. At first I figured deliveries of Sputnik V vaccines, but it appears Cuba is actually producing (and exporting) at least two of its own vaccines. They are exporting to at least Venezuela and Iran. Deliveries to Iran could probably go through Russia, I suppose, but that doesn’t explain the fuel stop on the return.

  2. Back in 1989 we flew from Moscow to Havana on Aeroflot’s IL-86. The plane stopped at Shannon and Gander – we were told: for refueling.

  3. I would suppose that these flights are clandestine military intelligence efforts and these planes are loaded with high tech spy gear and undercover Russian agents setting up shop in Havana. Obviously, this is a quiet and unobtrusive operation masquerading as pedestrian air traffic. Likely, advance munitions and brain scrambling subsonic wave generators would also be part of the cargo. Alternately, Cubana could be highlighting Moscow as a vacation paradise for the masses.

  4. @ Daniel B. — Fascinating, jealous you got to take that flight! In fairness, the Il-86 has/had significantly less range than the Il-96.

  5. @Brant – If this were the case, I doubt they’d risk a stop in Canada, considering the close security relationship between the US & Canada.

  6. @Lucky: LOL. I was sitting at the back of the plane in economy. I was 27 years old. But the way I got our ticket would be a fascinating read for you (it had to do with a unique situation in the socialist countries back then). I would love to email the details to you.

  7. Can it have something to do with not wanting/being able to use a US divert in case of low fuel due to weather on route or in Cuba?

    Diversion in an emergency is possible, but not as an filed diversion airport in a flight plan.

    Aka it can do Moscow-Havana direct, but they want more reserve range in case of headwind flying west etc etc.

  8. These are cargo flights. Moscow is only a stop-over on the way to China. That’s where the Cuban government is sourcing medical supplies for the pandemic.

  9. Quite simple. Cheaper to park the aircraft whilst crew undergo rest under Covid restrictions before turnaround than have additional crews on rotation in Moscow for over a week.

  10. There is a very interesting documentary to be found on Roku (I can’t remember which app, maybe Curiosity Stream?) on the Gander airport and its’ history. I highly recommend it.

  11. The 7,200 mile range is the maximum range possible with a full load of fuel.
    Like every aircraft however the IL-96 is subject to a maximum takeoff weight (MTOW).
    No aircraft can fly with maximum fuel and maximum payload as it exceeds MTOW, so every flight planned has to take into account the fuel needed and the payload, and in some cases one has to be sacrificed for the other.
    Its why sometimes cargo has to be offloaded at the gate, because when flying passengers its usually better for the airlines to avoid a fuel stop and reduce the payload than it is to reduce the fuel.
    In this case however the priority is almost certainly the payload, so the aircraft is operated at maximum payload in which case to remain under its MTOW it is limited in how much fuel can be taken.
    Remember also that the heavier an aircraft is the more fuel it burns. So an aircraft departing right at MTOW is burning the most fuel possible, and it also has to fly lower than ideal until it gets lighter, burning even more fuel.
    The range reductions in a fully loaded aircraft can be quite severe.
    Complicating things more can also be the airports involved, as the certified MTOW might not be applicable and a reduced MTOW is needed due to things like minimum climb gradients, obstacle clearance and engine out performance.

    It’s a very complex numbers game.

  12. Apropos of nothing, but I’ve always liked the full name of Cubana de Aviación, as well as Boliviana de Aviación.

  13. I was a child when when I got to fly on two different Ilyushin planes: IL-62 and IL-86 in 1989. The former operated the Moscow-Dubai-Singapore route and all Soviet citizens flying to Australia were required to fly with Aeroflot to SIN or another Asian airport where it flew, and then connect to a non-Soviet airline there. I dont remember all the details but the flight seemed very pleasant at the time, and both Dubai and Singapore airports were impressive even then.
    On the way back, we flew Singapore-Delhi-Tashkent-Moscow on IL-86 and there was nothing pleasant about those flights 🙂

  14. @lucky Aeroflot and Cubana used to fly this very frequently… also it is important to Cuba… Canada and Cuba have a very very unique and close relationship with each other since during the Cold War which the US hated… they stop in gander as its cheaper and more efficient and Canada/Canadians are also given perks already with Cuba

  15. Back in the Cold War days, one always stopped in Gander and Shannon between the US and USSR. So that stop-over is not surprising – it really is for fuel. The ‘fun’ part of the trip was finding out whether they would allow you to deplane or not – you never really knew until you touched down. Sitting and waiting for 2 hours in a Soviet aircraft isn’t exactly fun. As other people have already mentioned, a packed IL-96 does not have a true real-world range to cover the distance non-stop unless it’s empty or has prevailing winds to help it along.

  16. Same as @ Daniel. When we came to the US in March of 1991, flew from Sheremetyevo to Shannon to Gander to JFK on IL-86. Still clearly remember being at the airport in Gander and being handed out cans of Pepsi as a snack. What a time!

  17. @ Ben,

    I did it too a couple of times around 1991, with always the same surprising approach into JFK when the pilot suddenly seemed to have become drunk, veering right for 20 seconds or so, then left… then right again… then left again… probably 5 or 6 times.

    An aviation buff like you may guess why. In case you don’t know (but I’d be surprised…) the answer is in the next post.

  18. The IL-86 was unable to maintain a slow enough speed as mandated by JFK approach… Hence the organized excursions from the glidescope.

    Eventually, NY ATC (or was it the FAA?) got tired of it and revoked the IL-86 license to land in the USA. This is when Aeroflot started leasing B 767s and 777s.

  19. Slight nitpick – it’s ally, not alley. No doubt auto-correct, or voice recognition, got you there.

  20. Interesting that not one of your readers commented on the Fogo Island Inn. It is a very special place…I have been there for lunch. Upon entering the hotel, David Letterman was at the front desk making a purchase. Fun!

  21. I have a friend that is a commercial pilot for a passenger charter company. In Iceland they give the pilot $50 bucks and a bottle of liquor if he chooses Island for his refueling stop . Maybe Gander has a perk system too.

  22. The fuel stop in Gander is perfectly understandable. When flying west bound, Moscow to Havana, the plane is going against the jetstream so it burns more fuel than when it flies to Moscow. So it needs to stop in Gander to top off the tanks to finish the final leg of the journey. If they were flying with zero payload, they’d probably be able to make it all the way to Havana. But my guess is they have some sort of payload, either passengers or cargo, that limits their range going against the strong headwinds.

  23. Gander refuel may be in part due to head winds on the return flight. East to west transatlantic flights are always longer.

  24. These aircraft are all noted for poor fuel efficiency.Il76 was one of the worst.
    Depending upon the time of the day, westbound flights may be getting less desirable altitudes if they are going against the Night eastbound North Atlantic tracks.
    Being stuck with a lower altitude than you want and can accept increases fuel consumption even more. Hence the stops at Gander.
    Years ago East Bloc countries even had their own fuel supply in Gander. The shipped it in to the port of Lewisporte NL on Soviet oil tankers.
    Several EB countries also did crew changes for their fishing fleets in Newfoundland ports. The EB airlines, had an entire apartment building in Gander for many years and changed flight crews and had their own maintenance people there.
    The first Soviet flight I remember seeing there was an Aeroflot TU 114 in late 1966.

  25. As a a child I took this root several time on Bristol. Británia and IL 18d on the Route Prague, Shannon, Gandet Havana. With the turboprop it takes around 24 hours. Recently was published book Longroots , golden Age of ČSA from Miloš Kvapil who described how this Route was develope. Calculation shows of the orthodrome shows that this is the shortest path and Američan give permision for flight on their controllef airspace. Before that Cuba s were flying through Azores. First flight on this Route happen on 1962.

  26. @iamhere

    Canada has a major incoming border closure. Citizens returning face a two week isolation with covid tests, the first 3 days are restricted to a hotel room. Travel outbound is firmly discouraged until the covid numbers improve. The American government has named us a Do Not Travel destination today for its own citizens.

    We love travel, but won’t take the risks in our household. We get as far as Puerto del Sofá!

    Tourist dependent towns miss the full flights. We feel for the staff, their families, and their investors.

  27. There is a saying in Cuba about Cubana…. “if we don’t fly today will fly tomorrow”. Those who are buying tickets with this company shouldn’t be surprised if the schedule flight changes several times.

  28. Dumb question, perhaps… Did you try reaching out to Cubana and asking? Or Gander Airport? They might know.

  29. I’ve managed to get a few pictures during an early morning arrival/departure . They tend to only stay for a hour or two before heading on to Havana. Seems to just be a fuel stop.

  30. Just a thought, at MTOW, westbound, the would be fighting the jet stream, outbound it’s a tailwind. IMHO, captain would want a top up in case he has bad weather to go round on, that last leg. It’s still a nice looking plane. Excellent article, and yes I’d phone Gander and ask if they know what’s on it.

  31. I flew several times Lima-Moscow-Lima back in the 90’s on IL-86 and IL-62 planes. For some reason Aeroflot had to stop 5 times: Caracas, Havana, Gander, Shannon and Luxembourg. Still wondering why some many stops……..

  32. Russia currently only accepts citizens of about a dozen countries (including Cuba), but only on direct flights from the respective countries. So direct flights make sense.

  33. Gandervis an aviation timewarp did a lot of ferry flights single or with enough engines still yo get to the place of disaster no jets but that s because I was addicted to spark plugs really. The Cubans stop looks to my like payload, headwinds and no place to go apart from the US unless you call Caracas next..

  34. If you ever want to experience what it was like on a god-awful charter flight in the 1960’s-1970’s, fly in economy class on a Cubana IL-96 in the 2020’s. I guarantee you will never forget that flight.

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