As is his custom before each flight, the veteran Ukrainian military pilot ran his hand along the Mi-8 helicopter’s fuselage, stroking the heavy carrier’s metal skin to bring him good luck. and crew.
They will need it. Their destination – a besieged steel mill in the devastated city of Mariupol – is a death trap. Some of the other crew didn’t bring it back to life.
However, the mission is survival, even despair. Ukraine’s military is gripped, their supplies are depleted, the dead and wounded are piling up. Their final placement at the Azovstal plant is a growing symbol of Ukraine’s defiance in the war against Russia. They cannot be allowed to die.
The 51-year-old pilot – identified only by his first name, Oleksandr – has flown only one mission to Mariupol, and he considers it the most difficult flight of his 30-year career. He took the risk, he said, because he didn’t want the Azovstal warriors to feel forgotten.
‘DO NOT WANT AZOVSTAL FIGHTERS TO FEEL FORGET’
In the infernal setting of that factory, in a medical station turned into an underground bunker, shelter from death and devastation above, the wounded begin to believe in a miracle. may come. Among those who were told he was on the evacuation list was a junior sergeant who was crushed by mortar shells, had his left leg amputated, and had to be amputated above his knee.
Buffalo” was his guerrilla name. He had to go through many things, but another deadly challenge came: escaping from Azovstal.
A series of covert, antagonistic, off-road, high-speed helicopter missions to reach Azovstal defenders in March, April and May is being celebrated in Ukraine as one of the heroic feats most of the military derring battle among the four-man-month war. Some end in disaster; each became more and more risky as the Russian anti-aircraft batteries began to operate.
The full story of the seven resupply and rescue missions remains untold. But from exclusive interviews with two injured survivors; a military intelligence officer flying on the first mission; and pilot interviews provided by the Ukrainian military, the AP news agency compiled the account of one of the last flights, from the perspective of both rescuers and those rescued.
Only after the more than 2,500 defenders that remained in the Azovstal ruins began to surrender did Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy make the first announcement of their missions and their deadly cost.
The tenacity of the Azovstal warriors failed Moscow’s goal of quickly capturing Mariupol and preventing Russian troops there from redeploying elsewhere. Zelenskyy told Ukrainian TV station ICTV that the pilots bravely overcame Russia’s “strong” air defenses by venting beyond the enemy’s front lines, flying in food, water, medicine and weapons. gas so that the factory’s defenders could fight and fly the wounded.
The military intelligence officer said one helicopter was shot down and the other two never returned, and are considered missing. He said he wore civilian clothes for his flight, thinking he might blend in with the population if he survived a crash: “We know it could be a one-way ticket .”
“These are completely heroic people, people who know what is difficult, who know that it is almost impossible,” says Zelenskyy. … We have lost a lot of pilots.”
DO NOT LIVE
If Buffalo had his way, he wouldn’t have lived to be evacuated. His life would soon be over, to relieve him of the pain he endured after 120mm mortar rounds tore through his left leg, his right foot bled and shrapnel in the back during the battle at Mariupol on 23 March.
The 20-year-old spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, saying he doesn’t want to sound like he’s seeking publicity when thousands of Azovstal’s defenders are in captivity. or dead. He tracked down a Russian tank, aiming to destroy it with a shoulder-launched, armor-piercing NLAW missile on the last day of the first month of the invasion, when his war was over. .
Thrown next to the wreckage of a burning car, he dragged himself into a nearby building and “decided that he would rather go down to the basement and die quietly there,” he said.
But his friends evacuated him to the Ilyich steel mill, which fell in mid-April as Russian forces tightened their siege of Mariupol and its strategic port on the Sea of Azov. Three days passed before paramedics were able to amputate the leg, in a bomb shelter in the basement. He considers himself lucky: The doctors were still under anesthesia when it was his turn to undergo the surgery.
LIMB, TATTOOS LOST
As he came around, a nurse told him she was sorry he lost his limb.
He overcame the dilemma with a joke: “Will they pay back for 10 tattoos?”
“I have a lot of tattoos on my legs,” he said. One remains, a humanoid, but its legs are now gone.
After the surgery, he was transferred to growing Azovstal trees. A stronghold of nearly 11 square kilometers (more than four miles), with a 24 kilometers (15 mi) long maze of underground tunnels and bunkers, the factory is practically impregnable.
But the conditions were grim.
“There was constant shelling,” said Vladislav Zahorodnii, a 22-year-old corporal.
Evacuating to Azovstal, he met Buffalo there. They already knew each other: Both were from Chernihiv, a city in the north besieged and ravaged by the Russians.
Zahorodnii had his missing leg amputated. He asked Buffalo how he was doing.
“Everything’s fine, we’ll be going to the club soon,” Buffalo replied.
Zahorodnii was evacuated from Azovstal by helicopter on March 31, after three failed attempts.
It was his first helicopter flight. The Mi-8 caught fire on its way out, killing one of its engines. The other kept them in the air for the remainder of their 80-minute early morning flight to the city of Dnipro on the Dnieper River in central Ukraine.
He will mark his rescue with a circular tattoo on his right arm: “I did it not to forget,” he said.
Next week it’s Buffalo’s turn. He was not happy about leaving. On the one hand, he was relieved that his dwindling portions of food and water would now be passed on to others who could still fight; on the other hand, “there is a feeling of pain. They stayed there, and I left them.”
However, he almost missed his flight.
Soldiers pulled him into a gurney out of his deep bunker and loaded him into a rumbling truck to a pre-arranged landing site. The soldiers wrapped him in a coat.
The helicopter’s ammunition depot was unloaded first. The wounded were then brought on board.
But not Buffalo. Left in the back corner of the truck, he was somehow overlooked. He couldn’t raise the alert because the mortar blast had wounded his throat, and he was still too hoarse to hear the whirring of helicopter rotors.
“I thought to myself, ‘Well, not today,’” he recalls. “And suddenly someone shouted, ‘You forgot the soldier in the truck! “
Because the cargo hold was full, Buffalo was placed horizontally against the others, who had been loaded side-by-side. A crew member took his hand and told him not to worry, they’ll get home.
“My whole life,” he told the crew member, “I dreamed of flying helicopters. It doesn’t matter if we get there – my dream has come true. ”
MINUTES LIKE HOURS
In his cockpit, the wait seemed unstoppable to Oleksandr, minutes feeling like hours.
“Very scary,” he said. “You see explosions all around and the next bullet could reach your location.”
In the fog of war and with the full picture of covert missions still looming, it is not certain that Buffalo and the pilot spoke to journalists in a video interview recorded by the military. and share on the same flight. But their account details match.
Both of them have the same date: the night of the 4th and 5th. Oleksandr recounted being shot by a ship as they swooped into the waters off Mariupol. A wave blasted the helicopter around “like a toy,” he said. But his escape campaigns have kept them out of trouble.
Buffalo also recalls an explosion. The evacuees were then informed that the pilot had dodged a missile.
Oleksandr shot the helicopter at 220 kilometers (135 miles) an hour and flew as low as 3 meters (9 feet) off the ground — except when jumping over power lines. A second helicopter on his mission never returned; on the return flight, its pilot radioed him that he was running out of fuel. That was their last communication.
In his gurney, Buffalo watched the off-road slide through a window. “We flew over the fields, under the trees. Very low,” he said.
They reached Dnipro safely. As he landed, Oleksandr heard the wounded calling for the pilots. He expected them to scold him for hurling them roughly during the flight.
“But when I opened the door, I heard people say, ‘Thank you,’” he said.
“Everybody clapped,” recalls Buffalo, now starting over with Zahorodnii at a clinic in Kyiv. “We told the pilots they did the impossible.”