A Ukrainian helicopter pilot has given a detailed account of a daring mission to fly deep into Russian-held territory and rescue some of the injured in Mariupol’s Azovstal plant.
The steel plant became the last bastion of resistance by Ukrainian forces in the eastern port city, but dozens of badly wounded people were trapped there for weeks.
The pilot, in an interview released by the Ukrainian military, said that there had been a number of flights to deliver badly needed supplies to Azovstal — and in some cases, the crews had received just a few hours notice.
He said the main difficulty was layers of anti-aircraft defenses.
“There were three different anti-aircraft missile systems that covered the landing area,” he said, and according to all calculations, the missions should have been impossible.
The pilot, whose identity is disguised during the interview, added that, like President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “In 90% of cases, everyone understands that they will not come back … But we all realized what was going on there. That people didn’t even have medicine there to provide some basic care, there was no ammunition. It was extremely necessary to do it. That is why everyone took this risk.’”
Video of one mission showed views from the helicopter flight deck as the aircraft flew very low over the sea and Mariupol’s docks, as well as a brief shot of a helicopter on the ground at the Azovstal plant.
“At that moment, when we were already in Mariupol, and there was a landing, unloading of people and cargo, there was such a feeling of euphoria,” the pilot said.
However, the pilot said that three minutes after takeoff on the return journey, his helicopter was hit by a man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) missile and one engine failed. But he decided against making an emergency landing with 20 wounded on board. “How to pick them up, how to evacuate them? We would need another helicopter,” he said.
The pilot said he managed to fly to the designated landing site.
“Unfortunately, the other helicopter behind was less fortunate and the whole crew died,” he said.
More: A video was published Wednesday by a Telegram channel linked to the Ukrainian security services that showed helicopters flying supplies into Azovstal.
“This unique special operation was carried out by specialists of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Ministry of Defense and the Azov Regiment. 16 Mi-8 military helicopters loaded with the necessary equipment flew to the defenders of Mariupol blocked by Russia in Azovstal,” it said.
“There were 7 such missions in total. Each time, helicopters successfully delivered food, drinking water, medicines and ammunition to the defenders of the city to a depth of more than 100 kilometers [from Ukrainian-held areas],” it added.
Zelensky referred to the previously undisclosed missions on May 20: “Unfortunately, a large number of people died, our pilots. Absolutely heroic people who knew that it was difficult, that it was almost impossible to fly to Azovstal and bring there medicine, food, water, pick up the bodies of the wounded.”
“A large number of weeks pilots on helicopters [flew], knowing that 90% of them will not come back. Imagine what these people were doing — they were flying there. We lost a lot of pilots,” Zelensky said.