This Crazy Il-62 Airliner’s Grass Landing Has A Great Story Behind It

A wild video exists of a Soviet-era Ilyushin Il-62 long-range narrow-body jetliner narrowly clearing a treeline as it approaches the grass runway at Stölln/Rhinow airfield in Germany. The nail-biting approach and subsequent and landing were carried out in an effort to help immortalize the airfield’s storied genesis, the aviation pioneer who first flew there, and the Il-62 itself. 

In the clip, the Il-62 drops-in in dramatic fashion over the grass field and is then set down by pilot Heinz-Dieter Kallbach. Kallbach has since become a revered fixture of German aviation right alongside Otto Lilienthal who took his last flight at the same airfield nearly 100 years prior. The precarious Il-62 landing, though, took place on October 23, 1989, and was carried out on the mere 900 meters of short grass that makes up the Stölln/Rhinow airfield in Gollenberg, in what was then East Germany, and which now doubles as a museum open to locals and tourists alike. 

You can watch the landing below but another great video of it can be seen here.

The tricky operation would be this Il-62’s final flight, as the sole purpose of the landing was to permanently memorialize the aircraft at the site of Lilienthal’s fatal crash on the foot of Gollenberg Hill. The Il-62 itself was even named Lady Agnes after Lilienthal’s wife.

Lilienthal is one of the world’s first aviators, although the museum where the now-grounded Lady Agnes remains claims he was the first. Born May 23, 1848, Lilienthal paved the way for human flight with his research and development efforts during the years between the innovations of England’s George Cayley and the widely known Wright brothers of the United States. Beginning in 1891, Lilienthal proceeded to make more than 2,000 flights with his self-made gliders over the next five years, helping him better understand the many facets of aviation now known today, including how maintaining balance in flight can be controlled through the wings as opposed to the aircraft’s body. 

A replica of Otto Lilienthal’s glider, 1931. Credit: National Museum of Science and Technology/Wikimedia Commons

On August 9, 1896, however, Lilienthal would take flight for the last time. With his mechanic and assistant Paul Beylich present, the team set up shop at Lilienthal’s favorite spot at the foot of Gollenberg Hill to test his glider as the boost in height that the hill provided offered him the leverage he needed for takeoff. After using his glider to reach a height of about 50 feet, Lilienthal dropped to the ground and sustained an injury to either the brain, his spine, or both that would kill him a day later. 

Lilienthal’s legacy has turned Gollenberg Hill and the land surrounding it into not only an organic relic of aviation history but also one of the oldest airfields in the world, now known as Stölln/Rhinow on the Gollenberg. During the two world wars, the German Luftwaffe used the airfield as a training area for gliding, and the area was later used in the 1950s as a space for sports flying in then-communist East Germany. 

Three-quarter left rear view from below of Otto Lilienthal in flight in his biplane glider. Credit: Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons
Left side view of Otto Lilienthal in flight in his glider; a small group of spectators watch from below. Credit: Smithsonian Institution/Wikimedia Commons

However, restrictions imposed upon civil aircraft operations enacted by the Potsdam Conference of 1945 would have prohibited such aerial activity for years if it weren’t for the 1952 establishment of the Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik, or Sport and Technology Association. The group was intended to encourage East German youths that were interested in sports and technology. Before its disbanding in the early 1990s, this association greatly contributed to the militarization of East Germany through a partnership with the National People’s Army which organized the country’s mandatory pre-military training in schools. 

At the foot of the Gollenberg is where the Il-62 Lady Agnes now rests after her dramatic 1989 arrival landed her there. The aircraft’s fuselage has been remodeled to serve as a museum for Lillienthal on one side, and strangely enough, a registry office for the affianced on the other. The story of how she ended up there, though, makes the footage we now have of her landing even more impressive. 

The Il-62 Lady Agnes after being prepared for a wedding ceremony at the Stölln/Rhinow airfield in Germany. Credit: Zöllner/ullstein bild/Getty Images

It all began with Interflug. Throughout and after World War II, civil aircraft operations in Germany suffered. Deutsche Luft Hansa served as the primary flag carrier up until the end of WWII, but all of the airline’s planes were later seized by allies after the occupation, causing it to officially cease operations in 1954. Then-divided Germany needed to quickly start preparing for what would take Deutsche Luft Hansa’s place, so the potential airline name ‘Lufthansa’ was trademarked by the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) in the West, and in contrast, ‘Deutsche Lufthansa’ was trademarked in 1955 by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in the East.

However, according to an article about Interflug published by Simple Flying, the similarities between the two names concerned government officials in East Germany and so in an effort to avoid potential legal battles, the GDR established ‘Interflug’ in 1958 just to be safe. The move later proved to be unnecessary because the GDR’s Deutsche Lufthansa ended up being completely liquidated in 1963, and all operations were then transferred over completely to Interflug. 

Interflug Ilyushin Il-62 in January 1988. Credit: Aldo Bidini/Wikimedia Commons

Based out of Berlin Schönefeld Airport, Interflug operated a fleet dense with Soviet-era aircraft. The Tupolev Tu-134, Tupolev Tu-154, Ilyushin Il-18, and of course, the Ilyushin Il-62 are all designs that originated in the Soviet Union and went on to serve the Interflug airline throughout their lifetimes. The Tu-134 carried out most of Interflug’s short- to medium-range operations between countries that were part of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON), an economic union between socialist nations affiliated with the Eastern Bloc. That is until Interflug acquired the Il-62, which first arrived at Schönefeld Airport in 1970. 

The Il-62, which took its introductory commercial flight in 1967, served as a successor to Ilyushin’s Il-18 turboprop. The Il-62 flew its first revenue-earning service between Moscow and Montreal for the Soviet airline Aeroflot before its time with Interflug, and the 165-seat passenger plane was sometimes referred to as the ‘White Giant’ because of its imposing size. It was so huge, in fact, that it was known to be the world’s largest jetliner at the time of its launch, clocking in at about 174 feet in length. 

Photo of an Ilyushin Il-18 turboprop jetliner taken sometime in the 1970s/80s. Credit: MercerMJ/Wikimedia Commons

It also featured a range as far as 4,200 miles depending on the number of passengers on board and flew with four Kuznetsov NK-8-4 turbofan engines that were located at the rear of the jetliner’s fuselage, two to each side. The Il-62 was introduced at around the same time as the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8, which both have four engines, as well. However, the Il-62’s specific engine configuration shared a likeness so similar to that of the British-made Vickers VC10 that accusations of espionage began to swirl, eventually leading to a full-on investigation into the dispute. Although, no further proof to substantiate those claims ever surfaced.

The addition of the Il-62 to Interflug’s fleet in 1970 allowed the airline to continue its important Berlin-to-Moscow route as well as introduce its inaugural intercontinental jet services, which resulted in Cuba becoming one of the Il-62’s premiere destinations beginning in 1973. Six Il-62s were delivered to Interflug in total, with 12 modified Il-62Ms joining the ranks from 1980 on. The Il-62 remained a famed asset for the GDR’s Interflug airline all the way up until 1990 when Germany’s reunification caused Interflug’s potential investor pool to dwindle, prompting the airline’s complete liquidation the following year.

Rear view of an Interflug Ilyushin Il-62, its four engines in clear view. Credit: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Wikimedia Commons

Two years before Interflug’s demise, though, the airline’s Il-62s were on track to be replaced with Airbus A310s. The planned replacement made it easier for Interflug to decide to donate one of their Il-62s to the Stölln/Rhinow airfield in commemoration of the 90th anniversary of Otto Lilienthal’s death. 

Thus, German pilot Heinz-Dieter Kallbach, chief pilot of Interflug’s Il-62 fleet at the time, was selected to land Lady Agnes on Stölln/Rhinow’s grassy runway. While no one had any qualms about Kallbach’s prowess, several experts at the time feared that landing the tons and tons worth of aircraft in such conditions wouldn’t be possible.

The cockpit of an Interflug Ilyushin Il-62. Credit: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt/Wikimedia Commons

As can be seen in the footage, Kallbach proved everyone who had doubted him wrong on a beautiful fall afternoon in October 1989 when Lady Agnes landed successfully at Stölln/Rhinow airfield. According to Kallbach’s recounting of the landing, the Il-62 bounced a bit more than he expected throughout the maneuver. While some may think that he popped what looks to be a wheely at one point during the landing, Kallbach stated that he intentionally raised the plane’s nose in order to reduce the tangential force on the landing gear while at high-speed speeds so as to prevent the landing gear from sinking into the soil. It also looks a lot like classical aerobraking to rapidly reduce airspeed after touchdown. Even so, large chunks of earth were said to have been ripped up from the ground as the aircraft came to a full 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,” said Kallbach in an interview with the German aviation outlet Aero Telegraph. “During the final landing approach, we turned off two engines and only flew with two engines. At an altitude of 50 meters, we had to use reverse thrust, which is generally forbidden in aviation and is not possible with today’s aircraft of the technical standard. A go-around was no longer possible and the landing had to be successful, for better or for worse. Luckily that’s what happened!”

The Lady Agnes, an Il-62 of the airline Interflug, stands at the airfield Stölln/Rhinow. Credit: Jörg Carstensen/Getty Images

After the aircraft slowed, the jet’s engines (those that were still operable) were thrown into reverse throwing up a huge cloud of dirt and filling the engines with debris.

It was quite the dramatic sequence.

Kallbach went on to develop a decorated resume flying for commercial airlines even post Interflug, piloting aircraft like the Airbus A310 and the Boeing 737 of the Germania airline. He even faced one of the most challenging incidents a commercial pilot could face during their career in March 2000 when a man broke into the cockpit and attempted to crash the plane. The attack turned into an all-out brawl between Kallbach and the offender, even disabling the plane’s autopilot in the chaos. Although Kallbach sustained a number of injuries, the man eventually conceded, was restrained, and Kallbach was able to land the plane and everyone on board safely, just as he did with the Il-62.

It’s difficult to think of an innovator, pilot, plane, and airfield combination more deserving of such a memorialization than Lilienthal, Kallbach, the Il-62, and Stölln/Rhinow airfield. As such, the one-off landing in the video is layered with historical significance.

Regardless, Lady Agnes will surely continue to hold down the fort at Gollenberg Hill as a homage to all those that were responsible for getting her there.

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