Similar to his pre-flight practice, a veteran Ukrainian pilot ran along the body of a Mi-8 helicopter and caressed the metal skin of a heavy transport aircraft. Brought good luck to him and his crew.
They will need it. The besieged steel mill in their destination, the brutal city of Mariupol, was a death trap. Some other crew did not bring it back to life.
Still, the mission was essential and even desperate. Ukrainian troops were pinned, lacking supplies, and piled up dead and injured. Their last ditch stand at the Azovstal iron mill was a symbol of the growth of Ukraine's rebellion in the war with Russia. They were not allowed to perish.
The 51-year-old pilot, identified only by his name Oleksandr, flew in one mission to Mariupol and was the most difficult flight in his 30-year career. I thought. He said he took the risk because he didn't want to feel that the Azovstal fighter was forgotten.
In the burnt debris of the plant, the injured were told that a miracle might come to the medical station from the underground bunker that provided shelter from death and destruction above. started. Among those who were said to have been on the list of evacuation was his junior sergeant, whose left foot was shredded by a mortar and forced to amputate on his knees.
"Buffalo" was his name. He has experienced many things, but another deadly challenge is imminent. It's an escape from Azovstal.
March, April, and Ukraine celebrated as one of the most heroic feats of military covert operations in war. It may be. Some ended in a catastrophe. As Russian air defense guns caught up, each was increasingly at risk.
The full story of the seven supply and rescue missions has not yet been told. However, from two injured survivors, an exclusive interview with a military intelligence officer who flew on the first mission, and a pilot interview provided by the Ukrainian Army, AP Communications is one account of the last flight from a rescuer's perspective. And was rescued.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mentioned the mission and its deadly costs only after the surrender of more than 2,500 defenders remaining at the Azovstal ruins began.
The tenacity of Azovstal's fighters frustrated Moscow's goal of quickly occupying Mariupol and prevented Russian troops from being relocated elsewhere. Zelenskyy tells Ukrainian broadcaster ICTV to allow pilots to adventure across enemy fronts, fly food, water, medicine and weapons, allow plant defenders to fight, and fly injured. He said he bravely confronted Russia's air defense.
Military intelligence said one helicopter was shot down and the other two were considered missing because they never returned. He said he wore civilian clothes for his flight, thinking he could blend in with the population if he survived the clash: "We have it a one-way ticket. I knew it might be. "
Zelensky said: "These are absolutely heroic people who knew the difficulties and knew that they were almost impossible .... We lost a lot of pilots."
If Buffalo had given way, he wouldn't have lived to evacuate. .. During a street fight in Mariupol on March 23, a 120mm mortar tore his left foot, bloody his right foot, and to avoid the pain after rubbing his back with a shrapnel. Life was over soon.
At the age of 20, he spoke to the Associated Press, provided he was not identified by name, when thousands of Azovstal iron advocates were taken prisoner or dead. Said he didn't want to appear to be asking for publicity. He followed the path of Russian tanks, aiming to destroy them with armor-piercing NLAW missiles fired from his shoulders on the last day of the first month of the invasion, when the war was shortened. rice field.
Thrown next to the wreckage of a burning car, he hid himself in a nearby building and "decided to crawl into the basement and die quietly there," he said.
However, his friend evacuated him to the Illich Steel Works. The Illich Steel and Ironworks collapsed in mid-April as Russian troops firmly held the strategic ports of Mariupol and the Sea of Azov. Three days have passed before healthcare professionals can amputate in an underground bomb shelter. He considers himself lucky. The doctor still had an anesthetic when his turn came under the knife.
When he came, his nurse told him how disappointed he had lost his limbs.
He got through the awkwardness with a joke: "Do they return the money for 10 tattoo sessions?"
"There were lots of tattoos on my feet "He said. One remains, a human figure, but his legs are gone now.
After the surgery, he was transferred to the Azovstal iron factory. With an underground tunnel and a 24-kilometer maze of bunkers, a fortress covering nearly 11 square kilometers, the plant was virtually impregnable.
However, the situation was harsh.
"There was constant bombardment," said 22-year-old corporal Vladislav Zahorodnii, who was shot through his pelvis during a street fight in Mariupol and shattered his nerves.
He evacuated to Azovstal, where he met Buffalo. They already knew each other. Both were from Chernihiv, a northern city surrounded by Russian troops and bombarded.
Zahorodnii saw the missing leg. He asked Buffalo how he was doing it.
"Everything is fine, I'm going to the club soon," Buffalo replied.
Zahorodnii was evacuated from Azovstal by helicopter on March 31 after three unsuccessful attempts.
It was his first helicopter flight. The Mi-8 fired on the way, killing one of the engines. The other left them floating in the air for the rest of the 80-minute early morning dash to the city of Dnipro on the Dniepru River in central Ukraine.
He will mark his rescue with a round tattoo of a mortar on his right forearm: "I remembered it," he said.
Buffalo's turn is the following week. He was ambiguous about leaving. On the other hand, he was relieved that the declining share of food and water would spread to others who could still fight. On the other hand, "I had a hard time. They stayed there and I left them."
Still, he almost missed the plane.
Helicopter ammunition cargo was first unloaded. After that, the injured boarded.
But it's not Buffalo. Left in the back corner of the truck, he was somehow overlooked. He couldn't give an alarm because the mortar blast hurt his throat, and he was still too hoarse to hear the helicopter rotor hoop-hoop-hoop.
"I thought to myself,'Well, not today,'" he remembered. "And suddenly someone shouted,'You forgot the soldier in the truck.'"
"Everything in my life," he said to the crew, "I fly a helicopter. I was dreaming. It doesn't matter if we arrive. My dream has come true. "
His In the cockpit, waiting times seemed tremendous to Oleksandr, and minutes felt like hours.
"Very scary," he said. "Explosions have been seen around and the next shell may reach your location."
In the fog of war, a pilot talking to Buffalo and a journalist is recorded by the army while the whole picture of a secret mission is still emerging. The shared video interview was on the same flight. However, the details of their accounts are consistent.
Both gave the same date: the night of April 4-5. Alexandre remembered being fired at the ship when he plunged from Mariupol. He said the blast threw the helicopter "like a toy." But his escape strategy freed them from trouble.
Buffalo also remembers the blast. The evacuees were later told that the pilot had avoided the missile.
Oleksandr bombarded the helicopter at 220 km / h and flew up to 3 m above the ground, except when jumping over power lines. The second helicopter on his mission did not get it back. On the return flight, the pilot wirelessly informed him that he was out of fuel. That was their last communication.
Buffalo was in Gurney, watching the terrain passing through the porthole. "We flew over the fields under the trees, very low," he said.
They arrived safely at Dnipro. Upon landing, Olexandre heard the injured calling for a pilot. He expected them to yell at him for swinging them violently during the flight.
"But when I opened the door, I heard everyone saying'thank you'," he said.
"Everyone applauded," recalls Buffalo, who is currently rehabilitating with Zaholodney at Kieu's clinic. "We told the pilot that they had accomplished the impossible."