Anatoly shows off a few of the armor plates that protect him when he flies an old Soviet helicopter on combat missions against Russia.
“This is a joke, it’s not a weapon,” said the 39-year-old fighter, who has flown some 300 missions in the past year.
At a time when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is seeking modern weapons from Western allies, pilots of dilapidated Soviet-era helicopters fighting in eastern Ukraine admit that Russia is technologically superior to them.
Anatoly drives a helicopter built in 1986 in the Soviet Union. This ship was primarily a cargo ship, but deployed in combat operations in the Ukraine, despite lacking armor.
It is decorated with the drawn hand of a Cossack riding a dragon and the message: “Fight and seek victory. God will help you.”
In operations, the Mi-8s were armed with the Mi-24, a smaller, more maneuverable model.
The helicopters take off from the field, kicking up the straw as the blades begin to spin.
Mi-24 fighter pilot Vladyslav is dressed in a woolen coat and cap. He covered his face with a scarf when he spoke to AFP.
“It is terrible that they have invented new ways to attack us, to destroy our helicopters,” he said, speaking in English.
Ukrainian low-flying helicopters hide from the Russians, but Moscow’s forces can launch an attack with its fighters from a distance of 140 kilometers, he explained.
– ‘Just need a rocket’ –
Scouting officers illuminate them with lasers.
“Let them reach us,” he said.
The only protection is the few flares they shoot to confuse the rocket’s heat detectors.
Vladyslav looked at his Mi-24 fighter and decided: “The helicopter is 35 years old and I can say that the helicopter is “young” because the Mi-8s are 45 years old.”
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Such a ship is working with old metal work and Ukraine does not have the capacity to produce new gearboxes, engines or plates. Even the fuselage is vulnerable.
“We only need a rocket to reach us and a helicopter shot,” he said.
For that, you need to have Black Hawks and American Apaches.
“These helicopters are very similar to our Mi-24 and Mi-8 (…) and new types of weapons,” he explained.
Andriy, who drives an old Mi-8, agrees.
“It’s better to have what the United States and Europe have,” he said.
He said the problem was not only the use of helicopters, but also the use of reconnaissance to detect enemy fighters.
– ‘True hell’ –
“The first month was a real hell. We didn’t know where the enemy air defenses were,” Andriy remembered.
Even now, Russia “sees half of Ukraine,” said Anatoly, who says Ukrainian forces only see “the surest of all things.”
Vladyslav stated that he covered his face to hide his identity, since he knew the Russians were looking for the helicopter pilots.
“We are like a treasure in the army,” he said, explaining that fighter pilot training involves 8.1 million dollars.
“We lost many colleagues and many helicopters. I can’t tell you how much it cost,” he said.
Some senior Western officials are questioning giving Ukraine its latest fighter jet that Kyiv is demanding, as its pilots are to be trained later.
“It’s only half a year,” Vladyslav said, noting the similarities between the Black Hawk and Apache helicopters they fly between.
For Anatolius’ reason is simple: “When you want to live, learn quickly.”