ERR in Donbas takes a flight in Ukrainian combat helicopter
Fierce battles continue to rage in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian ground forces defending the under-siege city of Bakhmut need constant air support, missions which ERR's Ukraine correspondents were able to get an inside view of.
The helicopters fly at a very low altitude, of only a few meters, to avoid enemy strikes, only rising above trees and power lines. Immediately after completing a task, the pilots launch chaff, to act as a decoy to possible enemy incoming fire.
The pilots spoke to ERR correspondent Anton Aleksejev and cameraman Kristjan Svirgsden, about their role and experiences.
One, Oleksandr, said that: "Our task today is no different from what we did yesterday, or what we do every day."
"We obtained information that the enemy's manpower and equipment were congregating at a certain location. We were given the coordinates, plotted the flight route and undertook the task, using two helicopters and hitting the target very accurately."
"The infantry has benefited from the result and is very satisfied and has already thanked us," Oleksandr added.
Immediately after landing, the maintenance team gets to work. Refueling, and the quick reloading of new missiles is carried out at pace, since a new sortie could be called within a few minutes.
Everyone involved fully comprehends that every flight might be their last.
"Naturally we have fear, but together with fear comes vigilance and a focus on completing the task. Only fools do not experience fear. When we are tasked with something, however, once we are sitting in the cockpit and flying out on a sortie, then the fear tends to dissipate. All that remains is the major desire to do our job as well as we possibly can," Oleksandr went on.
The crew carry a small, hand-stitched rag doll as an aid here, and somewhat of a lucky charm.
"Actually, this is not just a doll, but our talisman," Oleksandr added.
"It is our guardian angel, and was given to me by my eldest grandson. This dolly always flies with us. He has been with me on other missions already, in Africa, Afghanistan, and now he helps us protect Ukraine," Oleksandr continued.
Pilots are well-mannered people, ERR reports. They have a habit of greeting their enemies, as well as their friends. Ahead of the next mission, Oleksandr painted "From Estonia, with love" on one of the missiles, promising to deliver it to the recipient.
At the same time, and as the fact that he has grandchildren might suggest, Oleksandr is not a young man – he will be 60 in a couple of months' time, in fact.
At that age, people have often already retired, but at the same time, how can an ace of this caliber be replaced?
Oleksandr said: "I retired [from the military] for the first time back in 1999. Following that I worked in civil aviation, and among other things for the UN. But after that I came back to the army and I was happy to see how many young lieutenants we have who already have experience and who are very motivated. We have a very good new cadre following us. We have enough pilots to protect our Ukraine."
The original in-flight video and interview (with commentary in Estonian and Ukrainian) can be seen by clicking the video player below.
Aleksejev and Svirgsden have been providing regular reportages from Ukraine for ERR, since the current invasion began, over a year ago.
*Editor's note: ERR News uses Ukrainian conventions when rendering proper names into English, so Donbas, Odesa, Kharkiv etc. as well as obviously Kyiv.
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Editor: Andrew Whyte, Marko Tooming