Whirring Into Action in Ukraine’s Skies

On a snowbound field, three Soviet-era helicopters were being readied for battle. Pilots and crew checked the flight plan for their next target, while technicians loaded slim gray rockets into launcher pods and stacked flares into racks behind the exhaust.

One year into the war, against all the odds, Ukraine’s helicopter brigades are still operational. Every day of the week, multiple times a day, they go into battle against enemy forces, launching rocket attacks along the front lines in support of ground troops and occasionally slipping under Russian air defenses to fly covert missions into enemy territory.

Far from being knocked out in the first days of the invasion, Ukraine’s helicopters and jets have kept flying, remaining an inspiring and useful element of the war effort.

In a rare opportunity, the 18th Sikorsky Brigade, the foremost of Ukraine’s four helicopter brigades, gave reporters access to a combat unit for two days recently. Officers and pilots described how the Ukrainian brigades moved their aircraft at the onset of the war to evade Russian strikes, and how they adapted their tactics to fighting a much more powerful and better equipped adversary.

“We go where we should not go,” said Oleksiy, 38, a colonel and deputy commander of the brigade. He gave only his first name in keeping with military protocol. “The main task is to destroy the enemy by fire.”

Compared with the well-documented ground war in Ukraine, where destroyed tanks and armor have been so visible, much less is known about the aerial war, partly because there is less photographic and video evidence. But Russian jets attacked targets intensively in the first weeks of the war, and Ukrainian and Russian jets battled each other numerous times in the skies above.

Both sides also used helicopters for critical tasks because of their mobility. Russia landed troops in the first days in at least two locations, and Ukraine flew rescue missions into the besieged Azovstal plant in Mariupol. Yet helicopters have also proved vulnerable as the fighting primarily turned into an artillery war on the open plains of eastern Ukraine, and tasks were limited to firing rockets from Ukrainian lines.

The Ukrainians fly aging Russian-made helicopters — mainly the Mi-8 and the Mi-24, both used as attack helicopters — that were designed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s.

“These are helicopters from the last century,” said Oleksiy, who has eight years of combat experience, five of those spent on peacekeeping missions in Africa, holding off guerrilla groups. Their weapons, unguided, Soviet-era rockets, “are very outdated and don’t meet the requirements of modern combat.”

“We do not have long-range precision weapons,” he added. “In modern combat, any aircraft — a helicopter, a plane — should be viewed as a high-precision weapons carrier.”

Like many in the Ukrainian military, he and his men sense they could push the Russians out of Ukraine with smarter weapons. “We must move away from Russian helicopters,” he said.

Ukraine has not publicly requested western helicopters, instead emphasizing its need for sophisticated artillery and tanks. The United States sent about a dozen Russian-made transport helicopters in June that it had originally purchased for Afghanistan before the Taliban took over. In November, Britain said it was sending three Sea King helicopters and promised to train 10 Ukrainian military crews to use them.

One consolation for the Ukrainians is that their Russian adversaries are flying similar machines whose design has not advanced much in recent decades, but Russia has a big advantage in the volume of helicopters and ammunition. “Most of their weapons are also from Soviet times,” Oleksiy said, “but you can’t underestimate the fact they have a lot of this Soviet metal.”

Russia’s overwhelming firepower has forced the Ukrainians to find other ways to fight.

“We are smaller, so we should use a smart approach,” said Roman, 34, one of the most experienced pilots from the 16th brigade, who has been seconded to the 18th, in an interview between combat flights. “We do the best we can.”

That has entailed retraining, constantly adapting to conditions and also some daring in their operations. The brigade keeps its helicopters in plain sight, on the wide, snow-swept steppe of eastern Ukraine, using temporary airfields, moving frequently for security.

They have developed a method of attack flying below the tree line, less than 30 feet from the ground, hugging the contours of the land at up to 150 miles per hour. The low altitude is treacherous, but avoids radar detection.

Then right at the front line they make a sudden ascent to fire a burst of 30 to 40 rockets before veering away, back the way they came.

They attack in pairs, sometimes in a pack of four. They can fire on Russian positions without flying too close to them, but it tests pilots and machines to their limits, and for dangerous seconds on the ascent exposes them to Russian anti-air defense systems.

Approaching enemy lines, Ukrainian jets and helicopters run the gamut of Russian attacks, from radio-electronic interference to antiaircraft missiles fired from jets and from the ground.

“Every operation, every sortie is a heroic flight,” Oleksiy said. “Many of the militaries of other countries would not undertake these flights in the face of such countermeasures.”

A pilot from the 18th Brigade, Ivan, 31, was hit by Russian air defense just as he unleashed his payload of rockets in June last year. He recalls everything turning black, but managed to turn the helicopter.

“You have thoughts, but you feel nothing and see nothing,” he said as he recounted his ordeal in an interview. “You understand that something is happening. I realized that, most likely, I was hit.”

He crashed in a forest that was pockmarked with craters and smoking from shell fire. His co-pilot was killed, but Ivan and the engineer were thrown through the front of the cockpit as the machine burst into flames, he said.

Badly concussed, with his head sliced open, a fractured spine and a broken leg, he managed to crawl to check on his engineer, who complained of broken collarbones. Swimming in and out of consciousness, he sent their coordinates to his brigade. Under shellfire just yards from Russian positions, they lay motionless when a reconnaissance drone passed overhead, unsure whose it was, until Ukrainian medics rescued them.

The Ukrainian helicopter brigades have all lost men and machines, although how many remains a military secret. But their survival and continued operations a year into the war is a major success, military analysts said.

When the invasion came, the aviation brigades were prepared. They had heeded Western warnings of the pending Russian invasion and were ready to evacuate their main bases and disperse their helicopters and engineering crews for safety, the deputy commander Oleksiy said.

“We had a defined plan of action in case of a missile strike, a ground offensive, where to go, which sites, where our logistics units would meet us,” he said. “There was no panic. Everything was rehearsed.”

Nevertheless, pilots recalled the first days of the war as chaotic and dangerous, plagued by cases of friendly fire. Civilians were calling in sightings of Russian troops, and helicopters were sent to attack multiple locations. One of the biggest battles was for the Hostomel airport, just north of Kyiv, the capital, where Ukrainian forces aided by attack helicopters repulsed a Russian attempt to seize the airfield.

Critically for Ukrainian aviation, the Russians never secured air superiority over Ukraine thanks to its effective air-defense systems. Both sides have continued to fly jets and helicopters, although they have come to avoid venturing deep into each other’s territory for fear of being shot down.

One of the striking exceptions was a run of daring flights that Ukrainian helicopters made into the Azovstal steel plant, a last holdout of Ukrainian troops in the besieged city of Mariupol.

“It’s impossible,” Oleksiy said, recalling his first reaction to the Azovstal plan. But pilots volunteered, and they succeeded in flying undetected across 70 miles of Russian-held territory into the steel plant, ferrying in ammunition and evacuating the wounded.

“The first missions were successful because the enemy couldn’t imagine that the Ukrainians would dare,” Oleksiy said. “After they realized we were doing it, how we were getting there, the missions started taking losses.” The flights ended after the loss of three helicopters, only days before the Ukrainians surrendered.

By chance, part of Ukraine’s helicopter force was on a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo when Russia began its invasion last year. It was unable to return for several months, but when it did, it added experienced pilots and more helicopters to the depleted force.

These days, the Sikorsky brigade has settled into a practiced routine. Pilots are up before dawn, although some later than others, one pilot joked. Most pilots declined to be interviewed or asked that their names and photographs not be published for security reasons.

They are often in the sky on the day’s first combat mission at first light, weather permitting, and can make up to 10 flights a day, returning to refuel, rearm and wait for the next task. Drinking instant coffee in their canteen last week, they rose in unison when the order came.

“We are always near our ‘iron horses,’” said Ivan, the pilot, who is back on duty but not flying until he fully heals. “They tell you the location and what to do.”

Western training has allowed for more initiative by crews to choose their routes and tactics, he added.

The pilots remain confident about their abilities but are acutely aware of their limitations. One pilot said he wanted to ask NATO pilots if they pushed their helicopters to such extremes. They covet Western flying machines: “Black Hawks,” said one. “Apaches,” said another, “a lot of them.”

Evelina Riabenko and Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from eastern Ukraine.

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