The veteran Ukrainian army pilot stroked his palm along the fuselage of his Mi-8 helicopter, caressing the heavy transporter’s metal skin to bring luck to him and his team, like he did before each trip.
They’d require it. Their last destination, a besieged steel plant in Mariupol’s brutalised metropolis, was a death trap. Some of the other crews did not return alive.
Nonetheless, the task was critical, if not desperate. Ukrainian troops were locked in, with supplies running out and casualties mounting. Their desperate struggle at the Azovstal mill became a symbol of Ukraine’s defiance in the battle with Russia. It was impossible to let them die.
The 51-year-old pilot, who has only been recognised by his first name, Oleksandr, flew only one mission to Mariupol, which he described as the most challenging flight of his 30-year career. He took the chance because he didn’t want the Azovstal fighters to be forgotten, he explained.
‘DID NOT WANT AZOVSTAL FIGHTERS TO FEEL FORGOTTEN’
Word began to reach the wounded in the charred hellscape of that plant, in an underground bunker-turned-medical station that gave cover from the death and damage above. A junior sergeant who’d been torn by mortar shells, butchering his left leg and forcing its amputation above the knee was among those notified he was on the list for evacuation.
In Ukraine, a series of clandestine, against-the-odds, terrain-hugging, high-speed helicopter sorties to reach the Azovstal defenders in March, April, and May are being hailed as among the four-month war’s most heroic military exploits. Some of them ended in disaster, and each one became riskier as Russian air defence batteries caught on.
The seven resupply and rescue missions’ whole tale has yet to be told. The Associated Press has pieced together the account of one of the last flights from the perspectives of both the rescuers and the rescued, based on exclusive interviews with two wounded survivors, a military intelligence officer who flew on the first mission, and pilot interviews provided by the Ukrainian army.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy first learned of the operations and their horrific cost after more than 2,500 defenders who remained in the Azovstal ruins began surrendering.
The perseverance of the Azovstal fighters had thwarted Moscow’s goal of quickly taking Mariupol and preventing Russian soldiers from being redeployed elsewhere. According to Zelenskyy, pilots braved “strong” Russian air defences to fly beyond enemy lines, bringing in food, water, medicine, and ammunition so the plant’s defenders could continue fighting, as well as flying out the injured.
One helicopter was shot down, and two others never returned and are now considered missing, according to the military intelligence officer. “We were conscious it may be a one-way ticket,” he added, explaining that he dressed in civilian clothes for his flight in the hopes of blending in with the people if he survived a crash.
“These are incredibly heroic people who knew what was difficult, who knew it was nearly impossible,” Zelenskyy said. We lost a large number of pilots.”
WOULD NOT HAVE LIVED
Buffalo would not have survived the evacuation if he had his way. His life would have ended swiftly to spare him the misery he endured after 120mm mortar rounds ripped his left leg apart, wounded his right foot, and strewn shrapnel across his back during stret battle in Mariupol on March 23.
The 20-year-old spoke to The Associated Press anonymously because he didn’t want it to appear that he was seeking attention at a time when thousands of Azovstal defenders are held captive or killed. On the last day of the invasion’s first month, he was on the trail of a Russian tank, aiming to kill it with his shoulder-launched, armour-piercing NLAW missile when his war was cut short.
He dragged himself to cover in a nearby building after being tossed next to the debris of a blazing automobile and “thought it would be safer to crawl into the basement and silently die there,” he claimed.
But his friends managed to get him to the Ilyich steel mill, which fell to Russian forces in mid-April as they tightened their grip on Mariupol and its important port on the Sea of Azov. In an underground bomb bunker, three days elapsed before medics were able to amputate. He considers himself fortunate in that anaesthesia was still available when it was his turn to go under the knife.
LIMB, TATTOOS LOST
When he regained consciousness, a nurse expressed her regret that he had lost the limb.
“Will they return the money for 10 tattoo sessions?” he joked, cutting through the awkwardness.
He explained, “I have a lot of tattoos on my leg.” Only one remains, a human figure, but its legs have vanished as well.
He was taken to the Azovstal plant after the surgery. The factory was essentially impenetrable, with a 24-kilometer (15-mile) maze of underground tunnels and bunkers encompassing over 11 square kilometres (more than 4 miles).
However, the situation was bleak.
“There was incessant shelling,” recalled Vladislav Zahorodnii, a 22-year-old corporal who was hit in the pelvis during street fighting in Mariupol, tearing a nerve.
He was evacuated to Azovstal, where he met Buffalo. They were both from Chernihiv, a city in the north that was surrounded and battered by Russian forces.
The missing leg was discovered by Zahorodnii. He inquired about Buffalo’s well-being.
Buffalo answered, “Everything is OK; we’ll go clubbing soon.”
After three failed attempts, Zahorodnii was evacuated from Azovstal by helicopter on March 31.
It was his first time in a helicopter. On its way out, the Mi-8 caught fire, killing one of its engines. The other kept them in the air for the rest of the 80-minute early morning run to Dnipro, Ukraine, on the Dnieper River.
He’d acquire a mortar-round tattoo on his right forearm to commemorate his release: “I did it not to forget,” he added.
The following week, it was Buffalo’s turn. He had mixed feelings about leaving. On one side, he was happy that his part of the depleting food and water would now go to others who could still fight; on the other hand, “there was a horrible sense.” They stayed, and I abandoned them.”
Despite this, he was on the verge of missing his flight.
Soldiers carried him out of his subterranean bunker on a gurney and loaded him into a truck that rumbled to a pre-determined landing zone. He was wrapped in a jacket by the military.
The ammo package from the chopper was unloaded first. The wounded were then taken aboard.
Buffalo, though, is an exception. He’d been forgotten about in the rear corner of the truck. Because the mortar bursts had wounded his larynx, he couldn’t raise the alarm because he was too hoarse to be heard over the helicopter rotors’ whoop-whoop-whoop.
“I said to myself, ‘Well, not today then,'” he said. “Then someone said, ‘You forgot the soldier in the truck!'”
Buffalo was positioned crosswise from the others, who had been loaded side by side, because the cargo bay was full. A crew member grasped his hand and assured him that they would make it home safely.
“I’ve always wanted to fly a helicopter,” he informed the crew member. It makes no difference when we arrive; my dream has come true.”
MINUTES FELT LIKE HOURS
The wait in Oleksandr’s cockpit seemed interminable, the minutes passing like hours.
“It’s quite frightening,” he stated. “You see explosions all around you, and the next shell could hit you.”
It’s impossible to be certain that Buffalo and the pilot who spoke to journalists in a video interview filmed and provided by the military were on the same flight because of the fog of war and the incomplete image of the secret missions that is still developing. However, the details of both accounts are identical.
Both gave the same time and date: April 4th and 5th. Oleksandr remembered being shot at by a ship when they flew over Mariupol’s waters. He described the chopper being flung around “like a toy” by a blast wave. His evasion techniques, on the other hand, got them out of difficulty.
Buffalo also remembers a big bang. Later, the evacuees learned that the pilot had evaded a missile.
Except for jumping over power wires, Oleksandr cranked up the chopper to 220 kilometres per hour (135 miles per hour) and flew as low as 3 metres (9 feet) above the ground. A second helicopter on his mission never returned; its pilot radioed him on the return trip that he was out of fuel. It was the last time they spoke.
Buffalo had been observing the area via a porthole while on his gurney. “We glided beneath the trees, across the fields.” He said, “Very low.”
They arrived at Dnipro safely. Oleksandr heard the wounded calling for the pilots as they landed. He was expecting them to scream at him for throwing them around so forcefully on the plane.
“However, as soon as I opened the door, I heard guys saying, ‘Thank you,'” he explained.
Buffalo, who is currently recuperating with Zahorodnii at a Kyiv clinic, recalled, “Everyone clapped.” “We told the pilots they had accomplished the unthinkable.”