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 3 of 3)
At Mil, where Tishchenko would become second in command of the project, under Mil himself, engineers did numerous configuration studies from 1960 to 1964 for what they would call the V-12 helicopter. They ultimately chose a side-by-side rotor configuration over a tandem-rotor, a three-rotor design, and even a ramjet-powered version with the engines on the tips of the rotors. (U.S. inventor Stanley Hiller experimented with a similar design in 1948.) To speed up development and minimize surprises, the Mil team used as many Mi-6 components as possible, including the engines, rotor, and power train and control parts.
Mil built two V-12 prototypes, the first in 1967. The company made more than 150 test flights, and in August 1969, the craft set a world record—lifting 88,636 pounds to an altitude of 7,398 feet. The second prototype was displayed at the Paris Air Show in 1971, the same year the project was cancelled. “When the tests got to the end, no missile,” Tishchenko says. Nonetheless, the experience of building a highly stable twin-rotor helicopter with a maximum weight of nearly 215,000 pounds, capable of carrying a 61,000-pound payload, would prove priceless for what lay ahead for Tishchenko.
His next project, starting in the early 1970s, was to rejuvenate the Mi-6 design while doubling its lifting capacity. The result was the Mi-26 (called Halo by NATO). Now head of the design bureau and in charge of about 5,000 employees, Tishchenko had planned on using Mi-6 components for the new helicopter. He soon realized, however, that “to achieve the required performance of the helicopter, its components should use the latest achievements in their design,” as he wrote in a technical report on Mil heavy lifters in 1996. Tishchenko ultimately selected a single-rotor configuration powered by two 11,400-shaft-horsepower Lotarev D-136 turboshaft engines. The key to making it work was to produce a transmission light enough but strong enough to deliver all that power to both main and tail rotor, a feat the Mil bureau accomplished in-house. On February 21, 1978, the Mi-26 made its first flight.
Twenty-four years later, Jarnot and the U.S. military would be the beneficiaries of the immense amount of engineering work that went into Mil’s heavy-lift helicopters. Six weeks after Jarnot placed a call to Skylink, a Heavycopter Mi-26 showed up to reclaim the Chinook from the mountain. Jarnot says the eastern European crew “snatched it with a hook” and flew it to Kabul, then later to Bagram Air Base in Parvan, Afghanistan, for shipment to Fort Campbell in Kentucky for repairs.
Six months after that, Jarnot, as the security force task manager at Bagram, attended a meeting where Army officials regretted having to dissect an Army CH-47 Chinook that had made a hard landing about 100 miles north of the base at a 4,000- foot elevation. The Army had considered lifting the damaged aircraft back to base with a CH-47D and a CH-53, but both proved incapable of the lift. “Why not use an Mi-26?” Jarnot recalled saying, a suggestion that was met with laughter and snickers. When he added “We did this six months ago, General,” the room fell silent. Soon after, using Jarnot’s contacts in Canada, the Army welcomed another Heavycopter to Bagram, this time paying $350,000 for the job.
The snickers weren’t unusual for people who come from countries like the United States, where experience with Russian aircraft is limited. Only a handful of Mils operate in the United States, and the Mi-26 is not among them.
Operators familiar with Mil helicopters, on the other hand, say that the equipment is quite safe and reliable, but that the parts often have shorter lifetimes than Western or European equipment. Getting the parts and the people to install them seems to be the biggest challenge. Columbia Helicopters’ Lazzaretti recalls that when an Mi-26 had mechanical problems in New Guinea, the operators found themselves in negotiations with maintenance experts in Russia, discussing how much it would cost to bring them to New Guinea to fix it. “When they were down for maintenance, they were down for weeks,” he says. “The Russian attitude was ‘We built these things to be put out in the field; if anything goes wrong, kick it off to the side and get another.’ ” In the early 1990s, Columbia had considered teaming with a Russian company to bring Mils to the United States, but ultimately decided against it. “The Russian equipment is powerful stuff; it’s well built,” Lazzaretti says, “but if we can’t have the parts control to keep them flying, we’re not interested in having them.”
Tishchenko thinks one of the reasons the Mi-26 hasn’t made it here is that U.S. helicopter manufacturers don’t want the competition, a particularly pertinent notion when it comes to the U.S. military’s new Joint Heavy Lift program. The military wants a helicopter that can lift a minimum of 40,000 pounds for 1,000 miles, and U.S. manufacturers would like to build an aircraft to fill that role. Though the requirements are slightly beyond what the Mi-26 can handle, Tishchenko thinks the goals are surely within the realm of an enhanced Mi-26, a product he continued to work on as a consultant with Mil after he retired in 1991.
Its capabilities, says Jarnot, make the Mi-26 the 800-pound gorilla in the room any time Joint Heavy Lift programs are discussed. Of course, at this point Jarnot’s a bit biased, having twice seen the unequalled strength of the Mi-26 and, more recently, having met its designer. After attending a lecture Tishchenko gave in Philadelphia last summer, Jarnot managed to get seated next to him at dinner. He pulled out his pictures of the MH-47E rescue in Afghanistan. One of those pictures is now in a frame on a wall of Jarnot’s home—autographed by Tishchenko.