In late February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, during which the southern port city of Mariupol was besieged by Russian forces. While reports that Ukrainian helicopters had been shot down near the city circulated, the nature of these missions did not become clear until later.  

In May, the Ukrainian military revealed that multiple resupply flights to Mariupol had been performed.   Ukrainian Mil Mi-8 helicopters brought medical supplies and ammunition before flying away with injured personnel. While information regarding how these flights were performed has not been provided, not all were successful. But those that were successful are likely to go down in history as some of the most daring missions to be performed in a war zone.  

A pilot who participated in these flights, known only as Yevgeny, was interviewed by Zapiski Pilota, a YouTube channel hosted by pilot, Vladimir Vasilyev. Yevgeny’s real identity has been kept secret as have some of the flight details.   

Stirring reeds  

According to Yevgeny, most combat missions performed by Ukrainian pilots take place at extremely low altitudes. “Flying at treetops is normal. The cases when we climb to [the altitude of] 30 or so meters are the scariest,” he says. “Me and my mate, who recently started flying as my wingman, we have a saying about that ‘to stir some reeds’. So, it is normal to touch the grass or the treetops with the front wheel while flying.”  

Power lines can cause serious peril and, according to Yevgeny, the only way to avoid them is to use your map well, especially during bad weather when the lines are almost invisible.  

The flight to Mariupol was no exception. While the exact route must be kept secret to this day, Yevgeny revealed that more than 100 kilometers out of the 160 flown were located over territory guarded by Russian air defenses.   

The flights were carried out at dawn, often under cover of darkness and bad weather. Pilots used night vision goggles and the flights were performed with a crew of two, the usual flight mechanic being excluded to save weight.   

“When you [talk] about this to commercial pilots, when you tell them the altitude at which you flew, they say it is impossible,” Yevgeny says.  “But, as they say, you have to contort yourself if you want to live.”  

Yevgeny flew to Mariupol once, as part of a mission with at least two other helicopters.  

“We used everything we could. The terrain, the best route. The route could not be repeated, because there were several of these flights – over five of them were successful. All the helicopters that flew there reached the target successfully, they brought their cargo – medicines, ammunition - not a single [one] of them was shot down on the way there. On the way back, yes, some were shot down. 

“It was a special operation commanded by the GUR [Defense Intelligence of Ukraine]. It’s as much their achievement as it is ours. Everybody, including the ground crew and other personnel, understood what a task this was. Everybody understood the level of danger, but they also understood why this is being done. The people that were there [in Mariupol – ed. note] had no antibiotics, they had no means to get basic medical help, and there were hundreds of them. Everybody understood why it is necessary, and that helicopters are the only way.” 

Under fire  

Several special landing sites were prepared in Mariupol. These sites were changed between flights as the previous locations had been immediately targeted by Russian artillery. After landing, Yevgeny explains, the cargo was quickly unloaded, and 20 injured soldiers, as well as one attending person, were taken on board. The procedure was performed within 10 minutes and, by the time they took off, shelling had already begun.   

Mariupol was within reach of Russian artillery, as well as overlapping air defenses. According to Yevgeny, even the landing zone was within range of at least two or three anti-aircraft missile systems. After arriving, the pilots had little choice but to fly home.  

“Three minutes after take-off we got into an ambush. The aircraft was shot at, a missile struck the left engine. Thank God the missile did not detonate. Probably somebody above understood that we are performing good work, and that the truth is on our side. The missile bounced off, left a huge hole, and the engine stopped. It was at the altitude of three meters or so and at the top speed.”  

The Mi-8 can fly on one engine, but, according to Yevgeny, the procedure demands that the damaged engine is properly shut off. However, there was no time.  “After I heard the bang, I started maneuvering and saw bursts of fire on the right side. Some kind of anti-aircraft fire, like a swarm of bees. The second pilot started firing flares and, since it was still dark, I thought we [were] on fire.”  

However, there was nowhere to land, and a crash-landing would have been fatal. So, Yevgeny continued the flight. One of the accompanying helicopters saw the attack and steered away, avoiding the ambush. However, another, Yevgeny’s wingman, disappeared. While heavily damaged, Yevgeny’s helicopter remained airborne, but it was still more than 100 kilometers deep into enemy territory.  

“We were jumping over power lines, over trees, jumping and jumping. Several minutes later we saw an enemy column, we had to circle around it,” Yevgeny explains. “It was an unpleasant situation.” 

However, according to Yevgeny, there was no room for panic. Only after landing in a safe zone, having travelled for one hour and eight minutes using one engine, did Yevgeny finally realize the enormity of the situation.  

“When I climbed out of the helicopter, did a walkaround and saw the extent of everything that happened, only then I got scared. But first of all, I was scared for my wingman who [had] disappeared,” Yevgeny says.   

Truck with missiles  

According to Yevgeny, the Ukrainian Air Force continues to operate Mi-8s every day. However, the roles the helicopter performs have shifted. Due to the lack of attack helicopters, Mi-8s had to switch to a combat role, despite not being designed for the task.  

Yevgeny says: “Now we are performing a lot of attack missions, probably around 90% of all of missions Mi-8 performs are fire missions. It’s like putting a rocket launcher on a Kamaz [truck] and firing at tanks.”