Kyiv, Ukraine — As is customary before each flight, the experienced Ukrainian Army pilot strokes the fuselage of his Mi-8 helicopter and the metal hull of the heavy transport plane, bringing good luck to him and his crew .
They will need it.Their destination – a steel mill besieged in a brutal city Mariupol – is a death trap. Some of the other crew members did not come back alive.
Still, the task remains vital, even desperate. Ukrainian troops were suppressed, their supplies were running low, and the dead and wounded were piling up.Their last stop at the Azovstal factory is a growing symbol UkraineContempt in the war against Russia. They cannot be allowed to perish.
The 51-year-old pilot – known only by his name Oleksandr – has only flown one mission Mariupoland he Consider it the most difficult flight his 30 years of career. he took a risk, he say, because he Don’t want Azovstal warriors to feel forgotten.
In that hellish landscape of scorched plants, in an underground bunker turned medical post that provided shelter from death and destruction, the wounded began to hear news that a miracle might be around the corner.in those who tell he On the evacuation list was a junior sergeant shredded by a mortar shell, with cuts to his left leg and amputation above the knee.
“buffalo” is his name. He’s been through so much, but another mortal challenge looms: escaping from Azores.
In March, April and May, we are celebrating a series of secret, contrarian, terrain-clinging high-speed helicopter missions to reach the Azov Stahl Defender. Ukraine As one of the most heroic military feats of the Four Months War. Some ended in disaster; each became more and more dangerous as Russian air defenses became popular.
The full story of the seven supply and rescue missions has yet to be told. But from exclusive interviews with two wounded survivors; military intelligence officials on the first mission; and interviews with pilots provided by the Ukrainian military, The Associated Press has pieced together the narrative of the final flight from the perspective of rescuers and those rescued.
The tenacity of Azovstal fighters thwarts Moscow’s goal of quick occupation Mariupol And prevent Russian troops there from being redeployed elsewhere. Zelensky Ukrainian broadcaster ICTV told Ukrainian broadcaster ICTV that the pilots risked “robust” Russian air defenses across enemy lines, flying in food, water, medicine and weapons so that the defenders of the plant could continue to fight and fly out the wounded.
The military intelligence official said one helicopter was shot down and the other two never returned and are believed to be missing. he Say he dressed in casual clothes his fly, think he If you can integrate into the crowd he Survived crash: “We knew it could be a one-way ticket.”
“These are absolutely heroic people, they know what’s difficult, they know it’s almost impossible,” Zelensky said. “We lost a lot of pilots.”
if buffalo once his method, he will not be evacuated. his Life will be over soon enough for a rainy day he pain he Suffered after a 120mm mortar shell ripped apart his left leg, bleeding his right foot, pepper his Came back with shrapnel in the battle of Trit Mariupol March 23.
The 20-year-old was interviewed by The Associated Press on the condition that he cannot be identified by name, says he don’t want it to look he When thousands of Azovstal defenders are imprisoned or killed, they are seeking publicity. he Been tracking a Russian tank for the purpose of using his On the last day of the first month of the invasion, shoulder-fired armor-piercing NLAW missiles his The war was cut short.
but his friends evacuated he The Ilyich steel plant subsequently collapsed in mid-April as the Russian army tightened its grip on Ilyich Mariupol and its strategic port on the Sea of Azov. Three days later, paramedics were amputated in an underground dugout. he Consider yourself lucky: While the doctor was still under anesthesia his Turn around and walk under the knife.
he Interrupt the embarrassment with a joke: “Will they refund the money for 10 tattoos?”
“I have a lot of tattoos on my legs,” he Say. One still exists, a humanoid, but its legs are now missing too.
after surgery, he was transferred to the Azovstal factory. A stronghold covering nearly 11 square kilometers (over 4 miles) with a 24 kilometers (15 miles) labyrinth of underground tunnels and bunkers, the factory is nearly impregnable.
But the situation is dire.
“The shelling kept going,” said Corporal Vladislav Zahorodnii, 22, who was shot through the pelvis and torn a nerve during a street fight. Mariupol.
Evacuated to Azovstall, he met buffalo There. They already knew each other: they were both from Chernihiv, a northern city besieged and heavily attacked by Russian troops.
Zahorodnii saw the missing leg.he asks buffalo How is he doing.
“Everything is fine, we’ll go clubbing soon,” buffalo Reply.
On March 31, Zahorodnii was evacuated from Azovstad by helicopter after three failed attempts.
This was his first helicopter flight. The Mi-8 caught fire during takeoff, destroying one of its engines.Another kept them in the air for the remainder of the 80-minute early morning sprint to the city of Dnieper on the central Dnieper Ukraine.
He would mark his relief with a mortar round tattoo on his right forearm: “I do it so I don’t forget,” he said.
buffaloIt’s the next week. He was conflicted about leaving. On the one hand, he was relieved that his dwindling share of food and water would now be distributed to others who could still fight; on the other, there was a sense of pain. They stayed there and I left them. “
Still, he nearly missed his flight.
Soldiers hauled him out of his deep cover on a gurney and loaded him into a truck, which rumbled towards a prearranged landing zone. The soldier wrapped him in a jacket.
The helicopter’s ammunition cargo was unloaded first. The wounded were then carried aboard.
but not buffalo. He was left in the back corner of the truck and somehow ignored. He couldn’t sound the siren because the mortar blasted his throat, and he was still too hoarse to hear himself in the whirring of the helicopter’s rotors.
“I thought, ‘Well, that’s not today,'” he recalls. “Suddenly someone shouted, ‘You forgot the soldiers in the truck!'”
Because the cargo space is full, buffalo Place cross with others who are loaded side by side. A crew member took him by the hand and told him not to worry, they would go home.
“My whole life,” he told the crew, “I’ve dreamed of flying a helicopter. It doesn’t matter if we arrive – my dream has come true.”
In his cockpit, the wait seemed endless to Oleksandr, and minutes felt like hours.
“Very scary,” he Say. “You’re going to see explosions around you and the next shell may reach you.”
In fog of war, full picture of secret mission still emerges, impossible to be absolutely certain buffalo The pilot who spoke to reporters in a video interview recorded and shared by the military was also on the same flight. But their account details match.
Both give the same date: April 4th-5th evening. Oleksandr recalls being fired on by a boat as they swoop down from the sea Mariupol. The shock wave threw the helicopter around “like a toy”, he Say.but his Escape drills got them out of trouble.
buffalo Remember the explosion. The evacuees were later told that the pilot avoided the missile.
Oleksandr increased the helicopter’s speed to 220 kilometers (135 miles) per hour and flew as low as 3 meters (9 feet) above the ground — except when jumping over wires.second helicopter his The mission never came back; on the return flight, the pilot radioed he That he Not enough fuel. This is their last communication.
“But when I opened the door, I heard someone say, ‘Thank you,'” he Say.
“Everyone clapped,” recalls buffalo, is now recovering with Zahorodnii at the Kyiv clinic. “We told the pilots that they did the impossible.”
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