Three Mi-8 helicopter gunships rise from a secret Ukrainian base and head to low altitude for Bakhmut’s protracted battle against Russian forces.
As the eastern city approaches, one by one, the helicopters soar, launch rockets, bank sharply back to base, and skim the ground.
After a 30-minute mission, the pilot Petro told AFP that the target was “an enemy fortified line consisting of ground forces, armored vehicles and ammunition depots.”
The fortress, northeast of Bakhmut, near Severodnetsk, which Russian forces overran last spring, where Ukrainian soldiers are nearly surrounded, is still holding out amid heavy losses on both sides. .
Since the Russian invasion just over a year ago, Ukrainian helicopter pilots have flown aging Mi-8s and larger Mi-24s in their daily combat missions.
At just 23 years old, Petro doesn’t look like he’s wearing an ill-fitting bulletproof vest, but he’s already done about 50 combat missions.
While his helicopter is refueled and fitted with a new rocket, he drives through the morning’s latest attack from a base that he cannot identify for security reasons.
“Before the flight, we use a special app to select the flight path and keep the altitude as low as possible,” says Petro.
“For example, if the altitude is 180 meters, that’s too high, so if you look lower, you’ll find 130 and 100 meters.
“The aim is to fly lower than the general countryside so they don’t show up on Russian radar, and they don’t know we’re coming,” says Petro.
– 30 rockets –
AFP cameras installed in the cockpit capture impressive footage throughout the mission.
Earth passes just a few meters below the chassis at a speed of about 200 km/h (125 mph).
The helicopter will only retreat at the moment the programmed rocket is launched at a distance of 6,100 meters.
“At a distance of 6,200 meters from the target, we raise the rear by 20 degrees and fire 15 rockets on each side,” Petro explains.
In the video, a rocket is launched from the Mi-8 at the moment of launch, leaving behind a plume of black smoke.
The helicopter immediately swoops down, makes a sharp left turn, and descends for low-flying flight.
Mi-8s, each with a pilot and co-pilot, fire one after another.
The return route will attract Russian anti-aircraft systems, unlike the outgoing route “so as not to fall into a trap”.
On the front lines, infantry units were told when to attack and sent drones to check the results.
If the target is not hit, another attack based on corrected data should follow.
“When the war started, we didn’t have drones. Missions were more complicated and less effective,” Petro admits.
“But in the summer we started getting drones and other equipment. Today we are more effective.”
Older weapon systems are not equipped with guidance or targeting and are only accurate to within 100-200 meters.
– “Fear disappears” –
The most difficult mission to date took place on March 6 last year in the southern Mikolaiv region.
“We were four helicopters and the target was a long convoy of military vehicles,” he said, heading to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, now occupied by Russia, in Zaporizhia.
“The target was visible from about 2 km away. We were told it was not moving, but it was in fact moving and suddenly we could see it,” he recalls.
Ukrainians were attacked.
“Two of our helicopters were destroyed, the third was damaged and I was lucky enough to board the fourth one. I was not hit… Back to base was There were only two.”
About 30 Ukrainian helicopter pilots have died since the invasion, military sources said.
For Petro, “The most difficult thing is the preparation, deciding what to do during the flight and in what direction to go towards the target. .
But fear does not go into attack.
“Once you switch on the engine, the fear disappears because we are trained for it and we are confident in ourselves and our decisions, so we start flying fearlessly. increase.”
Petro dreams of piloting a state-of-the-art American Black Hawk, but he doesn’t want to disparage the Mi-8, saying, “It’s not perfect, but it’s good. We know it all too well.” said.
Social media is flooded with shared videos of Ukrainian helicopter missions, and pilots are often considered heroes.
But Peter thinks of the soldiers “who suffer far more than we do, even if they greet us and support us from the ground.”
“They’re always in place. They take a lot of risks and it doesn’t take long to get the job done. When I see the boys supporting us on the ground, I’m here.” I can see why you’re here.”