Text: Miro Barič
The Azovstal steelworks were shelled for several months.
The port city of Mariupol in the south of Ukraine was a target of shelling on February 24, the first day of the Russian aggression. The city
was surrounded by the Russian troops on March 2nd. More than two
months of street fighting followed. The Ukrainian soldiers in the city
were not completely isolated though. To supply them, and evacuate
the wounded the Ukrainian AF completed seven secret missions where the helicopter pilots flew more than 100 km over the enemy-held
territory at night and only several meters above the ground.
The first of total seven evacuation flights took
place on March 21. The last mission took place
on either April 5 or 7, depending on the source.
It was stated previously that the last flight to
Mariupol took place a month later, sometime
in the beginning of May. This is hardly probable
though. In the beginning of April the Ukrainian
troops still controlled the large areas of the
city. By the middle of the month however they
had to retreat into two large industrial complexes – steelworks Ilyich and Azovstal. In the
second half of April the Ukrainian soldiers only
stood defense in the second factory. It’s virtually impossible that a flight to Azovstal under
such circumstances would have escaped the
attackers‘ attention and did not draw their artillery fire.
The missions were flown under the utmost
secrecy and the participants were allowed to
speak to media only after the very last defenders of Mariupol surrendered in the second
half of May. Even though the world’s audience learned about many of these heroic deeds
the precise details about the places and times,
where from and when the evacuation flights
took place remained widely unknow up until
One of the most detailed and therefore most
valuable testimonies came from the member
of the Ukrainian defense intelligence, code named Flint, who not only participated in the first
mission but also had taken part in its preparation from the beginning. The plan was a brain
child of General Major Kyryl Budanov, chief of
the defense intelligence. The first flight was
supposed to sortie before March 21 but had to
be postponed three times due to the various
reasons. One of them was the intelligence information about the Russian AA defense along
the route to Mariupol which changed constantly. The Russians may have „sensed something“
since the concentration of the enemy’s air force over the besieged city suddently increased.
Another reason was the effort to keep the mission top secret. The flight was being prepared
at Dnipro airbase and a lot of people took part
in it – technicians, refuelling personnel, military police... There was clearly an increased
traffic of people and had the enemy had his
„eyes“ nearby they could not have missed that
the operation was getting ready. Therefore
even before the actual mission, in the order
to camouflage the events the desinformation
operation was implemented. „A soldier called
his wife and told her he will be home soon
because the upper command cancelled the
planned operation. And I had the conversation
with some one and told him the operation was
cancelled“ stated Flint for the on-line magazine The War Zone. After these information were
released the participants in the first flight returned to the airport, loaded the helicopters
and departed in a fake direction to conceal the
actual course. The third problem to overcome
before the mission was to find the pilots willing to fly it. Several pilots who were approached turned down the offer. „They thought it
was impossible“ said Flint. Finally they found
the first pilot who was willing to fly to Mariupol – due to the personal reasons. „His wife
was a military nurse in Azovstal. She cared for
the seriously wounded soldiers. The main mission objective was to evacuate these gravely
wounded soldiers and herself from that factory“ stated Flint.
In civilian clothing and unarmed
Before the flight all dressed into civilian clothing and removed all military identifications.
In case of a crash that would help them cross
the front line back to the Ukrainian territory
unnoticed. They also removed all the armament and equipment from the helicopters in
order to reduce weight as much as possible.
They made room for the cargo of the anti-tank
missiles NLAW and Javelin, AA rockets Stinger
and satellite communication systems Starlink.
Loading a wounded man into a Ukrainian Mi-8 helicopter at a pre-war exercise.