DRA Air Force Mil Mi-8MT during the Soviet Afghan War (TASS)

Mil Mi-8 ‘Hip’: A Helicopter that should be as Famous as the UH-1 Huey

Although tougher to master and less graceful in bearing than fixed wing airplanes, helicopters comfortably hold their own in the public perception and popular culture. The Bell H-13 Sioux scout won recognition as an aerial ambulance in the Korean War drama MASH. The brutish Mi-24 attack helicopter has played both the villain and saviour aircraft in films and video games like 9th Company, Blood Diamond, Charlie Wilson’s War and Metal Gear Solid. Utility helicopters — aerial buses employed for infantry transport, supply and medevac are exemplified by the Bell UH-1 Huey and Sikorsky UH-60 Blackhawk owing to their participation in the Vietnam War and the USA’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is another utility helicopter that has somehow been overlooked by the Average Joe despite its worldwide acceptance in military and civilian applications: the Soviet designed Mil Mi-8 ‘Hip’.

This seems unfair as the Mi-8 is a symbol, provoking diverse reactions depending on the period and one’s standpoint. It was designed in the years of de-Stalinization when the Soviet Union was taking small steps to reach out to the rest of the world and improve the lives of its citizens. In Afghanistan, the Mi-8 paralleled the Huey’s Vietnam experience as a staple of air assault operations and a vital lifeline for replenishing isolated garrisons. It performed a heroic role in the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the Soviet effort to stall the shattered reactor’s radioactive gasps. The ubiquity of the ‘Eight’ in South Asia and the Middle East made it a natural choice for the CIA when it took the first steps towards retaliating against al-Qaeda after the 9/11 atrocities. In the Syrian civil war however, Mi-8s are a perpetrator of the Assad regime’s war crimes, indiscriminately showering insurgents and civilians alike with shrapnel filled barrel bombs.

Innovation in the Post-Stalin period

Based in Tomilino, a town in the Moscow oblast whose scientific community designed semiconductors and cosmonaut space suits, Mikhail Leontyevich Mil’s Moscow Helicopter Plant (Moskovskiy Vertolotnyy Zavod) had good reason to be proud of itself as a rotary winged aviation pioneer in the late 1950s. Since its founding in 1947, its OKB (Opytnoye Konstruktorskoye Buro: Experimental Design Bureau) had created the Soviet Union’s first mass produced helicopter in 1951, the Mil Mi-1 (NATO: Hare). This light transport was followed by the country’s first helicopter with hydraulically aided flight controls, the medium Mi-4 (NATO: Hound). Work had already commenced on the heavy Mi-6 (NATO: Hook) since its conception in 1952, which would be the Soviets’ first turboshaft engine helicopter. Their only existing competitor, Kamov, was content to focus on the naval market with its co-axial rotor products; Yakovlev had washed its hands off helicopter design entirely after two commercially dismal projects.

ML Mil (1909–1970) (Wikipedia.ru)

By 1957 Mil was casting his sights on the Mi-4’s replacement. A popular and reliable enough design notwithstanding, it was desirable to explore the possibilities of a medium lifter with two turboshaft powerplants, offering lighter weight, higher thrust, lower maintenance hours and safety than the Mi-4’s single piston engine. The Council of Ministers was not wholly enthusiastic about Mil’s proposal though: the state budget was prioritizing other military and civil projects like gaining nuclear parity with the USA, the space program and guided missile development. Mil got around their objections by claiming that the new aircraft was just an upgrade to the Mi-4 or at least, was going to share as many common parts as possible.

The progressive evolution of the Mi-8 before its acceptance for production. (Data source: Airvectors.net and Russianarms.ru)

The resulting V-8 prototype (vertolyot: helicopter) bore little resemblance to its predecessor though, even if both featured rear clamshell doors and a four bladed main rotor. The Mi-4 followed the same layout as the US Sikorsky S-55 (H-19) and S-58 (H-34), housing a nose mounted engine in front of the passenger compartment and under the cockpit. The V-8 lined up the cockpit and passenger cabin in a rectangular ‘bus’ fuselage, its single Ivchenko AI-24V powerplant mounted directly above the latter, requiring a much shorter driveshaft than the Mi-4. The AI-24V itself was an adaptation of the Antonov An-24 cargo plane’s AI-24 powerplant, reduced to 1900 shp since helicopters have lower torque tolerances than a fixed wing aircraft.

Mil’s preference for two engines on his new aircraft were boosted when Premier Nikita Khrushchev returned from his historic September 1959 visit to the USA. Khrushchev had been impressed enough by his aerial tours on President Eisenhower’s S-58 to buy three of them. While demonstrating the Mi-4 to Khrushchev, Mil appealed to Khrushchev’s desire to showcase the Soviet Union’s technological prowess and provide a higher margin for safety for VIPs, especially if Eisenhower accepted his invitation to visit the Soviet Union. Although Eisenhower ultimately refused the invitation to protest the shoot down of a U-2 spyplane in May 1960, Mil had the largesse to proceed with the follow-on V-8A prototype in the same month. The V-8A was to be powered by the first Soviet turboshafts not adapted from fixed wing aircraft: two 1250 shp TV2–117s and a compatible gear box by Sergey Izotov, who had just been promoted to Chief Designer of the Leningrad based State Machine Building Plant 117. Additionally, the V-8A would adopt a five blade rotor for cutting felt vibration, setting a precedent in all production models. The wheel spats of the V-8 were dispensed with and double chamber shock absorbers in the landing gear displaced the original single chamber ones. After more evaluations with military and airline seating arrangements — the production Mi-8T (Transportnaya — transport) and its civilian counterpart, the Mi-8P (Passazherskiy — passenger) began assembly at Tatarstan based State Factory 387 at Kazan in 1964 and 1965 respectively. Following their penchant for awarding names starting with the letter ‘H’ to Soviet helicopters bearing absolutely no relation to their function or appearance, NATO intelligence analysts called it the ‘Hip’.

Apart from obviously civilian colour schemes and cushier accommodation, Mi-8Ps are distinguished by square windows; Mi-8Ts and nearly all further military variants possess round windows which give the fuselage greater resistance to battle damage and the stresses of evasive manoeuvres expected of a wartime environment.

A Belated Acceptance of the ‘Eight’

As the Soviet military was initially in no hurry to replace the Mi-4s on their rolls, civilian concerns in the USSR quickly pressed the Mi-8P into the national economy. As airliners, the new helicopters connected communities across the vast Union who lacked suitable runways for airplanes or highways for ground vehicles. Other commercial roles included ferrying surveyors and prospectors to potential natural resource sites, forest fire suppression, flying construction cranes and ambulances.

The Mi-8 was one of the few medium size helicopters you could drive a truck into. (Naukatehnika.com)

Several factors would propel the military Mi-8T to dominance in the Soviet helicopter fleet. First, the Mi-8T offered more potential than the Mi-4 since it carried 50% more troops (24 vs 16) or 2/1/2 times more cargo internally (4 tons vs 1.6 tons). Safety features like de-icing for the engine inlets and rotors were appreciated by crews and passengers alike. The Mi-8’s TV2–117A engines were too powerful for the existing gear box and rotors, so their maximum 1500 shp output was muzzled to 1250 shp by a limiter. Should an engine croak from damage or malfunction, the limiter would permit the remaining one to operate on maximum power to carry on flying.

The popularity and heavy demand for the Mi-8 for export customers and Soviet ‘client states’ had resulted in State Factory 99 at the Buryatian town of Ulan Ude being commissioned to share production from 1970 onwards. (Buryatia is a Siberian locale bordering northern Mongolia). The increase in military spending under Leonid Brezhnev, who ascended the Soviet Premiership in 1964 after Khrushchev’s ousting may also have played a role in the Mi-8’s quantitative rise.

Known variants of the Mi-8T, distinguished from later marks by its right side tail rotor. (Data source: Airvectors.net and Russianarms.ru)

The US Army’s massive use of helicopters in Vietnam attracted much interest amongst the Soviets and hastened the development of the latter’s own air assault vision. With the Mi-4’s low numbers, the Soviet military had to restrict air assaults to company strength insertions extending no more than 50 km beyond their own front line during a conventional war; this limit might be lowered to 15 km if the ground forces were to benefit from artillery coverage. With larger capacity Mi-8Ts being produced at two factories, the Soviet military could envision deploying battalion or brigade sized air assault penetrations of 70–100 km when teamed up with heavy Mi-6s.

Helicopter borne infantry did not require the same level of specialized training as airborne forces. Helicopters could transport and land infantry in more cohesive formations compared to VDV (Vozdushno Desantnye Voyska: air landing forces) paratroopers who inevitably got dispersed; they could use low level flight and terrain masking to avoid increasingly lethal air defence weapons which would easily pick off fixed wing aircraft flying straight and level to deploy paratroopers safely.

At the start of the Cold War, Soviet military helicopters belonged to the Frontal Aviation (Frontovaya Aviatsiya), the arm of the Soviet Air Force (VVS — Voyenno Vozdushnye Sily) concerned with tactical and operational air support of the Army. However, at the end of the 1970s they were moved to the revived Army Aviation, a service which had been dissolved in May 1942.

Mil Mi-8PPA electronic disruptor. For obvious reasons it is nicknamed the ‘Mill’. (Naukatehnika.com)

The largest concentration of Mi-8Ts were found in the Transport Helicopter Regiments of a Front, a gigantic Army Group equivalent organization that was mobilized by a Military District when ordered to war. These regiments comprised two heavy lift squadrons and two medium lift squadrons; the latter fielded a total of 32 Mi-8Ts. They were the formations most likely to support VDV and DShB (Desantnaya Shturmvaya Brigada — Air Assault Brigade) operations. The Front also possessed an Electronic Warfare Helicopter Squadron; these were home to the Mi-8SMV, Mi-8PP and Mi-8PPA electronic disruption aircraft. A General Purpose Helicopter Squadron performed tasks such as command, liaison, VIP transport, reconnaissance and logistics; this formation may allocate Mi-8VKP, Mi-8VzPU and Mi-8IVs with their extra comms equipment as command ships for the Front’s ground force components.

Source: FM-100–2–3

Attack helicopter regiments belonging to Fronts or Armies were authorized one Mi-8T squadron along with their two Mi-24 squadrons. Some Motor Rifle or Tank Divisions may contain an organic helicopter squadron fielding a mix of six light Mi-2s, four Mi-8Ts, two Mi-8 command variants and six or more Mi-24s.

Although the Mi-8T had many positive features, problematic quirks existed. The aircraft only had a narrow side door on the port (left) side; the KO-50 kerosene heater and its associated intake extending from the starboard external fuel tank precluded a right-side door. The ‘Eight’s clamshell hatches were only openable from the outside — no big deal at a home base, but not conducive for rapid exit (or boarding) in a contested landing zone (LZ). This was partly mitigated by Soviet air assault practice which mandated landing a safe distance from a hostile objective and driving there. (Opposite to the American practice of landing as close as possible to an objective because they lacked robust air portable vehicles). The aircraft toted an impressive weapons array in its Mi-8TV (voruzhonniy — armed) guise but its size, lacklustre agility and thin hide made it rather unsuitable as a gunship.

The Mi-8T’s first documented use in a major conflict was in Egyptian and Syrian service during the Yom Kippur War against Israel in 1973. On 6 October, the first day of the war, Syrian commandos air lifted by Mi-8Ts stormed the strategic Mount Hermon overlooking the Golan Heights north of Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt committed its Mi-8Ts to dropping off commandos beyond the Suez Canal to raid the Israeli garrisons holding the Bar Lev Line and ambush incoming reinforcements. Israeli F-4E Phantom II jet fighters, normally tasked with ground attack missions, pounced on them like hungry racoons at an unlocked steak diner. Since the Egyptians were wisely flying low at night to avoid detection, the Israelis were compelled to use their 20mm cannons to gun down the ‘Eights’ because air to air missiles were incapable of locking onto slow aircraft lost in the ‘ground clutter’. On one occasion an F-4E swatted an ‘Eight’ into the ground by blasting past it on afterburner. As many as eighteen Mi-8Ts (theoretically carrying a maximum total of 432 commandos) were sent to their graves in just one night by fighters and air defences, costing 20% of Egypt’s pre war fleet of ninety airframes, but the Israelis saved their garrisons from being overrun.

Mil’s Second Generation Mi-8MT in the Graveyard of Helicopters

A fallen Mi-8MT in Afghanistan. Unlike the Mi-8T, this model did not receive mission specific suffix names when carrying rocket stub wings or mine dispensers. (Zen.yandex.ru)

Just as Vietnam was memorialized as a helicopter war for the US military, Afghanistan created a parallel experience for the Soviet Union. Both countries boasted few developed roads in the rural regions, necessitating alternatives to ground transport. The similarities ended there though: Afghanistan was a land seemingly designed by nature to murder helicopters. A significant portion of the country was covered in mountains for aircraft to crash into, particularly during winter storms, or get embraced fatally by crosswinds. The majority of Soviet and DRA (Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the Soviet client regime) airfields were located 1000–1800 meters (3281–5906 feet) above sea level and almost every spot that could be landed on created blinding dust storms. Southern Afghanistan’s temperatures reached 45-52⁰ C in the summer; the north got by on 40-45⁰C. All these conditions combined to retard helicopter performance whose engines had to work harder to claw at the thin air while choking on the same dust that disoriented air crew during take offs and landings.

It was fortunate that by the time the Soviet 40th Army began its intervention to prop up the Afghan communist regime in 1979, the Mi-8MT had largely replaced the earlier Mi-8T as a basic transport. In production since 1977 and marketed as the Mi-17 for export customers, it was powered by TV3–117MT turboshafts generating 1900 shp; during an emergency shut down, the remaining engine would reach its maximum 2200 shp output. An updated VR-14 gearbox to handle the additional power and an Ivchenko AI-9V auxiliary power unit (APU) for aiding start up was mounted above the engines, adding a smaller third exhaust pipe on the left. These new automotive components were derived from the maritime Mi-14 (NATO: Haze). The Mi-8MT switched the tail rotor from right to left; this arrangement benefitted the aircraft’s handling and performance. To deal with the choking dust that was the bane of aerial operations, they received PZU (pyl’nyy zashchitnoye ustroystvo: dust protection device) caps to plug their engine intakes; their shape gave them the nickname of ‘mushrooms’. Even though the Mi-8MT offered 47% more engine power than its predecessor, it was still forced to fly at half passenger capacity in the Afghan theatre.

The Mi-8MT/Mi-17 spawned the largest number of sub types, including a bewildering array of EW and ELINT platforms whose capabilities remain classified. (Data source: Airvectors.net and Russianarms.ru)

The war was a guerrilla conflict fought by mujahideen militants in a landscape totally hostile to mechanized warfare and no clearly defined frontlines to overrun with tanks. The Motor Rifle Divisions constituting the Soviet Army’s core fighting strength were relegated to manning static checkpoints and patrolling the makeshift roads connecting Soviet and DRA garrisons. From 1984 onwards Soviet paratroopers and air assault infantry were leading most offensive actions against the mujahideen and the Mi-8MT was their primary transport.

As the Mi-24 gunship was in heavy demand across the Afghan theatre, ‘Eights’ were expected to contribute to fire support and defend themselves. The original loadout of armed Mi-8MTs inherited from the earlier Mi-8TV was a forward firing 7.62mm PKT machine gun fitted to the nose and two stub wings with an astounding six UV-32–57 rocket pods (192x 57mm S5 rockets) and four 9M17M Falanga-M radio command guided anti-tank missiles. Cradle mounts permitted embarked infantry to brace their personal weapons when shooting out of the windows.

Combat experience and the need to save weight showed that anti-tank missiles were dead weight because the muj did not possess armoured vehicles. These missiles were frustrating to shoot from a moving aircraft since they were MCLOS (manual command line of sight) directed, requiring the user to track the missile all the way to target. Both the PKT machine gun and anaemic S5 rockets were incapable of penetrating the hardened mud walls of Afghan village buildings that the Soviets did not want to waste missiles on.

In response to these shortcomings, Mi-8MTs received UPK-23–250 gun pods housing two 23mm GSh-23L cannons and B-8V20A rocket launchers with 80mm S8s. Flank defence was provided by rigging a combination of PKB (a PK derivative with spade grips), NSV Utes 12.7mm heavy machine guns or AGS-17 Plamya 30mm automatic grenade launchers to the side door or cut outs in the rear clamshell doors. 9M17P Falanga-P ATGMs with SACLOS (semi automatic command line of sight) guidance with an 80% hit probability over Falanga-M’s 30% were also introduced for the occasions a fortified embrasure demanded extra care.

As the muj prized Soviet helicopters as high priority targets, defensive properties were urgently required. Infrared suppressors were fitted over the engine exhausts to mask their emissions from heat seeking missiles; ASO-2V flare dispensers and the SOEP-V1A Lipa infrared jamming device were tacked on to the fuselage and behind the main rotor mast respectively. Steel ‘cheeks’ welded below the canopy and further plating for the crew seats, passenger compartment bulkheads and critical systems impacted aircraft performance but were far preferable to being forced down and enduring enthusiastic mutilative torture by the muj.

Along with air assault, command, artillery correction, night illumination and resupply, ‘Eights’ were responsible for seeding known muj supply caravan routes with the infamous PFM-1 ‘butterfly’ anti-personnel mines. Constructed of polyethylene and painted sand (over their original green) to escape detection by metal detectors and eyesight, a single Mi-8AD/Mi-8MT seeded 8352 of these 80g limb shredding explosives: the resulting minefield measured 2000m long and 15–20m wide. Prior to a mining sortie, conventional bombs were targeted at passes to trigger landslides, collapse trees and block escape routes; mines were then dispersed into the newly created chokepoints to channel the muj into kill zones.

According to The Soviet Afghan War by the Russian General Staff, a total of 329 Soviet helicopters were lost in Afghanistan. 174 were ‘armed helicopter transports’ which were presumably all Mi-8s of various models. A factor impacting losses attributed to enemy action and accidents was not just the severe terrain and weather in Afghanistan but the crushing physical and psychological burden placed on air crew who averaged six — eight sorties per 24 hour cycle and 600–800 flights annually.

Containing a Nuclear Catastrophe

While Mi-8s faced a tough adversary in the Afghanistan theatre, the helicopters and their crews faced a far different menace back in their homeland in 1986. On the early morning of April 26th, Reactor Number 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine exploded during a safety drill, triggering an environmental and public health disaster as radioactive contaminants and debris were blasted into the air and settled on the ground. The first ‘Eight’ that set off on a radiation surveillance mission twelve hours after the incident inadvertently got exposed to a lethal dose when its pilot flew into the toxic steam cloud emanating from the plant.

The ruptured reactor was too hot to be extinguished by conventional fire suppressants — water and foam simply evaporated into steam and dozens of fire fighters who approached the breach in unprotected trucks were fatally irradiated. The scientists and government officials decided on using helicopters to pour powdered boron into the burning fissure in the short term until they could gather enough clay, lead and dolomite as a radiation absorbing material to stanch the fire. Nearly eighty Mi-8s, Mi-6s and massive Mi-26 heavy transports were drafted from Kiev, Ukraine and even flight schools by the second day of the disaster with further reinforcements arriving from across the USSR in the following days.

A Mi-8T overflying the remains of Reactor No 4, Chernobyl. (Souzchernobylnsk.ru)

In their haste to fight the reactor fire, the first few flights of ‘Eights’ flew directly overhead with their crew chiefs exposing themselves to the radioactive draft and smoke to toss sandbags out of the open cargo holds by hand. As the lead, clay and dolomite suppressant became available, the helicopters slung their loads in used braking parachutes scrounged from jet fighter regiments; even more parachutes were requisitioned from VDV regiments. Since the Mi-8s’ bomb sights were not designed for dropping sling loads and it was too dangerous to fly lower than 200m over the reactor ‘volcano’, their release commands were directed by a ground observer sitting in the Polesia, a hotel in the nearby Pripyat city serving as a makeshift control tower.

Few of the helicopter crews or the soldiers stuffing their cargo holds with sandbags wore NBC suits; the aircraft performing these missions were toxic enough to leave shadows of dead grass underneath when parked for the night at airfields, decontamination hose downs notwithstanding. Dosing themselves with potassium iodine tablets and pastila (a toothpaste like radiation medicine), the crews of the Mi-8s and other helicopters laid sheets or bags of lead along their aircraft interiors as a shield from the radioactive particles infesting the atmosphere.

Most of the Mi-8s that participated in the Chernobyl quenching operation were too radioactively soiled to return to their original bases; they and their larger brethren were simply left to decompose in fields next to hundreds of likewise compromised ground vehicles.

Russian’s Indispensable Offering

The ultra-modern Mi-8AMTSh. Note the flat tail ramp and ‘dolphin’ nose. (A Kalaev)

In 1980 Mil and Kazan Plant created a proposed replacement, the Mi-18. The new aircraft lengthened the Mi-8’s fuselage and moved its fuel tank bulges under the cabin floor, affecting a sleeker appearance. Coupled with retractable undercarriage, the Mi-18 would increase speed and load capacity while lowering fuel consumption. Unfortunately the unstable Soviet economy and the end of the Soviet Afghan War dulled further interest from the military.

Indian Air Force Mi-17 drops NSG commandos on Nariman House during the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. (Wikipedia)

Too late for the Afghan theatre, Kazan’s installation of the TV3–117VM brought about the Mi-8MTV (vysotnyy — high rise or altitudinal). These engines produced the same output as the TV3–117MT of the previous Mi-8MT but offered superior ‘hot and high’ performance, raising the aircraft’s maximum ceiling from 5000–6000m (16405–19685 feet). The dissolution of the Soviet Union and communism in December 1991 turned Kazan and Ulan Ude from state to private enterprises; this led to the latter developing the Mi-8AMT nestling the same engines as Kazan’s MTV but an entirely separate branch of follow on variants. Sub variants of both the Mi-8MTV and AMT offer a redesigned nose (dubbed ‘Dolphin’, a reference to the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin), a powered rear boarding ram instead of the curved clamshell doors for rapid ingress/egress under fire and have moved the kerosene heater extension to make room for a much needed right side door. The most well known and modern Ulan Ude military variant, the Mi-8AMTSh, boasts advanced Shturm-V or Ataka anti-tank missiles in addition to the Vitebsk ECM complex; its ferocious armament options have earned it the same unofficial nickname as the BMPT-72 tank support vehicle: Terminator.

Mi-8MTV family variants, including a break down of their inconsistent export names. (Data source: Airvectors.net and Russianarms.ru)

Even though Mil has begun offering the Mi-38 since its certification in 2015, the Mi-8 is too popular to be replaced and continues to serve globally. Even the US military and CIA, who have plenty of capable ‘Made in the USA’ helicopters to choose from, have favoured the Mi-8 for discreet roles. The most celebrated ‘American Hip’ was the CIA Mi-8MT that Team Jawbreaker flew into Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not only did the ‘Eight’ offer better ‘hot and high’ performance than a Blackhawk and make a smaller target than a Chinook, it hid the presence of Americans from Taliban and al-Qaeda lookouts owing to its dominant presence in Central and South Asia. The only visual hint about its true ownership was the identification number ‘91101’. Retired in 2012, 91101 is currently living a secluded existence in the CIA’s museum which is closed to the public.

Family of Mi-8AMT helicopters offered by Ulan Ude Aviation (Data source: Airvectors.net and Russianarms.ru)

A far less heroic use for the ‘Eight’ has been its complicity in the war crimes of the government forces in the Syrian civil war, which began when President Bashar al-Assad resorted to massive violence to crush opposition protests. As the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) was mostly configured for challenging its Israeli counterpart in air superiority rather than air to ground missions, it possessed scarce precision air to ground ordnance. As the rebel factions seized more air defence weapons from pilfered regime arsenals and defectors, SyAAF jets were loath to perform low level attacks with ‘dumb’ bombs. To address the shortage of aircraft and conventional ordnance, SyAAF Mi-8Ts and MTs have become the main conveyance for al-barmil (Arabic: the barrel): airborne delivered IED canisters stuffed with explosives, shrapnel and topped with a detonator. Given the difficulty and risks of aiming a can heaved out of the ‘Eight’s cargo bay by hand while flying above the reach of man portable air defence systems (MANPADS), barrel bombs are intended as terror weapons aimed at collectively punishing entire cities with any rebel presence.

Syrian Arab Air Force Mi-17 on an al-barmil drop. (Aviafora.com)

Post Script: A Tale of Two Choppers

PLA soldiers set off for Sichuan following its 2008 earthquake. (BBC/AFP)

As the Soviet Union and Russia’s most prolific utility helicopter, the Mi-8 deserves a head to head comparison with America’s most iconic helicopter, the Bell UH-1 Iroquois: universally beloved as the ‘Huey’, it lived an almost parallel existence but is far more recognizable in pop culture outside of Russia. While the ‘Eight’ was created on Mikhail Mil’s own initiative and only gradually accepted by the Soviet military, the Huey was designed as a direct response to a US Army requirement for an aerial ambulance. Both these aircraft became the centrepiece of their countries’ air assault tactics. The Mi-8 emphasized carrying capacity and power, outclassing the UH-1 Huey which would have struggled even more than its Soviet counterpart in Afghanistan. The Mi-8’s size can be credited to its suitability for accommodating the apparatus of 15 or more electronic warfare variants compared to just three rare EW Huey types (EH-1H, EH-1X and the experimental JUH-1 SOTAS).

Source: Russianarms.ru and ‘UH-1 Huey in Action’

However, as it was originally intended as a medevac ship, the Huey with its large sliding doors on both sides was more tactically flexible for rapid boarding and disembarking air assault infantry and stretcher parties; excluding the latest MTV and AMT variants, the Mi-8’s rear cargo doors could only be opened from the outside, cutting entry options to just a left side door in an emergency. The Mi-8’s size precludes it from operating from ships, explaining the dominance of petite Kamov Ka-25 and 27s in the Soviet and Russian navies.

The UH-1 Huey’s overwhelming fame, even amongst people who do not study aviation or military history can be explained through cultural and societal factors. Bell’s helicopter was created in an open society while the Mi-8 was born in a secretive authoritarian state. The true names of Cold War era Mi-8s were not known before the fall of the USSR, leading to NATO’s convention of nicknames for all Soviet equipment. Both the Mi-8 and UH-1 became icons for unwinnable wars that traumatized both the superpower nations; however the Vietnam War received substantially more press coverage than the Soviet Afghan War, propelling the Huey to levels of fame that occluded other US helicopters and its Soviet counterpart. Middle Eastern and African militaries and mercenaries gave the Mi-8 a good work out in the Yom Kippur War, Lebanon, the Iran — Iraq War and several African civil wars but Western media coverage of these major regional conflicts either gave more attention to other weapons systems or ignored them altogether. The Mi-8’s media notoriety in the Syrian Civil War can be credited to recordings by Syrian civilians, rebels and regime aviators on smart phones and personal movie cameras as much as journalists who are not being monitored (or murdered) by Assad’s forces.

The dominance of American pop culture globally translates to the Huey’s stardom in TV, movies and books like Nam: Tour of Duty, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, We Were Soldiers and the bestseller Chickenhawk. Most people living beyond Russia’s borders including this author would struggle to name more than one movie or TV show that features the ‘Eight’ in a starring or background role apart from HBO’s Chernobyl.

Dysfunctional middle aged man. Biographer on weapons of death.

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