Ukrainian attack helicopters rain missiles on Russian targets near Bakhmut

Three Mi-8 attack helicopters take off from a secret base in Ukraine and steer at low altitude for the long-running battle for Bakhmut against Russian forces.

As the eastern city approaches, one by one suddenly rears up, unleashes their missiles, makes a sharp bank, and returns to base, scraping the ground.

The goal is “an enemy fortification line consisting of ground troops, armored vehicles and an ammunition depot,” pilot Petro told AFP news agency after the 30-minute mission.

The fortress is near Severodonetsk, which the Russian army took last spring, northeast of Bakhmut, where Ukrainian soldiers are almost surrounded but are still holding their ground despite heavy casualties on both sides.

Since the Russian invasion just over a year ago, Ukrainian helicopter pilots have flown their aging Mi-8s and larger Mi-24s on daily combat missions.

At just 23, Petro doesn’t look particularly good in his ill-fitting flak jacket, but he’s already flown around 50 combat missions.

From an unidentified base for security reasons, while his helicopter is being refueled and reloaded with fresh missiles, he undergoes the final assault of the morning.

“Before the flight, we use special apps to choose the flight route to keep the lowest possible altitude,” says Petro.

“For example, if we see 180 meters high, that’s too high, then we look for lower places and find 130 meters, 100 meters.

“The goal is to fly lower than the level of the general landscape so as not to be visible on Russian radars, and they don’t know we’re coming,” says Petro, wearing a hoodie that covers everything but his eyes.

– Thirty Missiles –

An AFP camera installed in the cockpit throughout the mission captures impressive footage.

At around 200 kilometers per hour, the earth races past just a few meters under the chassis.

Only when the missiles are launched does the helicopter jack up, programmed to a distance of 6,100 meters.

“When we’re 6,200 meters from the target, we tilt up 20 degrees…then we launch the rockets, 15 on each side,” explains Petro.

In the video, the missiles shoot out of the Mi-8 at the moment of firing, leaving plumes of black smoke.

The helicopter immediately dives into a tight left turn and drops low for the return flight.

The Mi-8, each with pilot and co-pilot, open fire one after the other.

The way back is different from the way there “so as not to fall into a trap” and attract Russian anti-aircraft systems.

At the front, infantry units were informed of the timing of the attack and then sent up a drone to check the result.

If the target was not hit, another attack based on corrected data should follow.

“At the beginning of the war 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.”

The outdated weapon system is neither guided nor equipped with targeting, which means that it is only accurate to within 100-200 meters.

– ‘Fear disappears’ –

The toughest operation to date came on March 6 last year in the Mykolaiv region in the south.

“We were four helicopters and the target was a long convoy of military vehicles” heading for the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe and now occupied by Russia.

“We saw the target from about two kilometers away. We had reports that it wasn’t moving, but it was actually moving and we saw it all of a sudden,” he recalls.

The Ukrainians came under fire.

“Two of our helicopters were destroyed, the third damaged and I was lucky to be in the fourth. I wasn’t hit…only two of us made it back to base.”

About 30 Ukrainian helicopter pilots have died since the invasion, a military source said.

For Petro, “the most difficult thing is the preparation, making the decision what to do during the flight, which direction to take towards the destination, because we don’t know the landscape before the flight, we can’t be sure of anything.

But fear does not go into the attack.

“As soon as you turn on the engine, the fear goes away because we have been trained for it and we have confidence in ourselves, in our decisions. This is how we start the flight without fear.”

Petro dreams of flying the state-of-the-art US Black Hawk, but he doesn’t denigrate the Mi-8, remarking “It’s not perfect, but it’s good, we know it well.”

Social media is full of shared videos of Ukrainian helicopter missions, and pilots are often seen as heroes.

But Petro thinks of the soldiers who “suffer much more than we do, even if they greet us and support us from the ground”.

“You are always in position. Even if we risk a lot, it doesn’t take us much time to complete an order. When I see the local guys supporting us, I know exactly why I’m here.”

epe/fjb/bp/js/gw Ukrainian attack helicopters rain missiles on Russian targets near Bakhmut

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