We Haul It All
For armored vehicles, fossilized pachyderms, and other oversize loads, your best bet is the Russian Mi-26 helicopter.
- By John Croft
- Air & Space magazine, July 2006
(Page 2 of 3)
The leviathan was the product of nearly two decades of research and development at the Mil Design Bureau in Russia, one of several government facilities that, in the era when all military and civilian aviation industries were owned by the state, would design or modify an aircraft, create a prototype, then turn the production process over to industry. The Mi-26 was perhaps the zenith in the illustrious career of Marat Tishchenko, protégé of Mikhail Mil, who founded the design bureau, known as OKB Mil, in the late 1940s. Since its founding, OKB Mil has developed 15 helicopter types and 200 variants. By 1999, Mil had produced more than 30,000 helicopters, accounting for one of every four in the world.
Tishchenko joined the OKB as an engineer in 1956 and advanced through increasingly key engineering roles until he became the head of the design bureau upon Mil’s death in 1970. Soon after, the Mi-26 project was launched.
I first met Tishchenko at the University of Maryland several years ago. Now 75, he is a tall, lean, soft-spoken man with bushy white eyebrows and white hair. He comes to the university four months every year to advise students on an American Helicopter Society-sponsored competition, one that the school has won every year since 1998, when Tishchenko signed on. Sometimes I would spot him in the hall outside his office, pacing back and forth, leaning forward as if fighting a headwind, hands clasped behind his back, oblivious to his surroundings.
The primary role of the project he led was military—in particular, carrying a 28,000-pound amphibious armored personnel carrier—but the Mi-26 was also designed to meet a civilian requirement for airlifting bulky cargo. According to Jane’s, about 300 Mi-26s have been built, and a few dozen have been exported to as many as 20 countries, including Belarus, Cambodia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, Kazakhstan, North and South Korea, Mexico, and Peru.
Back in Afghanistan, Chuck Jarnot found an outfit through the Internet, Skylink Aviation in Toronto, that claimed to have access to a civilian Mi-26. Skylink had connections with a Russian company, Sportsflite, that owned three Mi-26T civilian versions it called Heavycopters. One, based in Tajikistan, was doing construction and firefighting work but could be flown south to Afghanistan to do Jarnot’s bidding for about $300,000.
Jarnot’s request was run-of-the-mill for the people who operate Mi-26s in civilian heavy lift, where just about every job is an oddball. In October 1999, an Mi-26 was called in to haul a 25-ton block of ice encasing a nicely preserved 23,000-year-old wooly mammoth from Siberia’s tundra to a lab in Khatanga, Siberia, where scientists were eager to study and to perhaps try cloning the find. Thierry Lakhanisky says he heard through the grapevine that the load was so great the helicopter had to be returned to the factory immediately after the lift to check for structural excesses that could have warped the airframe and rotors. Lakhanisky himself has used an Mi-26 to haul immense silos and towers for industrial customers and, in 1997, a pack of 125 skydivers during an international skydiving “boogie” in Vichy, France.
Everyday jobs include humanitarian work—last February, Russia had three Mi-26s delivering supplies to earthquake victims in Pakistan—as well as hauling equipment for firefighting, logging, mining, and oil exploration. John Lazzaretti, vice president of marketing for Columbia Helicopters in Oregon, worked alongside a Skytech Mi-26 in the oil exploration business in Papua, New Guinea, in the early 1990s. He recalls the first time he saw the behemoth flying out of Port Moresby, its internal hold loaded with graders or dump trucks destined for remote drilling sites for Chevron. Particularly impressive was the technique used to get airborne: Lazzaretti says pilots would tilt the helicopter up on its nosewheel and roll forward on the 200-foot landing strip, gaining speed until descending out of sight into the valley below. “Pretty soon you’d see it start to rise up,” he recalls. “You could almost count the blades going by.”
The Mi-26’s size was not merely the embodiment of a “bigger is always better” mentality but the result of sound engineering principles. Its family tree took root in 1953, when the Soviet military tasked OKB Mil to come up with a rotorcraft that could carry 25,000 pounds over 150 miles. The result, the Mi-6, was at the time the largest production helicopter in the world, with a total weight of nearly 90,000 pounds, more than 16,000 pounds heavier than the CH-53E. Code-named “Hook” by NATO, the Mi-6 set several records; for instance, achieving 211 mph on a closed-circuit course.
In addition to its military applications—including recovering Soyuz spacecraft capsules after they parachute to Earth—the Hook was key for civilian oil exploration in western Siberia. Tishchenko says it was the first helicopter to include a rear door for loading and an electrical de-icing system for the rotors. Though the project got started before Tishchenko joined the bureau (he was still in school), he knows enough about it to characterize it as “extremely advanced” at the time. Igor Sikorsky’s son Serge told Tischenko that his father called the Mi-6 “not one step forward, but two steps forward” in rotary-wing technology.
If the Mi-6 and, by association, the Mi-10, a long-legged flying crane version, were two steps forward, then the next iteration in heavy lift was one giant leap. In 1960, after most of the design challenges of the Mi-6 had been conquered, the Russian military asked Mil to build a monstrous heavy lifter with double the cabin space and payload of the Mi-6, then the world’s largest and fastest production helicopter. The primary purpose was to move military equipment and mobile intercontinental ballistic missiles to remote locations after handoff from an Antonov An-22 transport.