In the spring of 2002, high in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Chuck Jarnot found himself in need of a really big lift.
Jarnot, at the time the senior U.S. Army aviation liaison officer between the Third Brigade, 101st Airborne Division and the 10th Mountain Division, was charged with tidying up after Operation Anaconda, an attempt in early March to drive al Qaeda and Taliban fighters out of the Shahi-Kot Valley and surrounding mountains. It ended three weeks later with eight U.S. and several hundred enemy soldiers killed, and two damaged Special Forces Boeing MH-47E Chinook helicopters stranded on the slopes above Sirkhankel at 8,500 and 10,300 feet.
Given his background—a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida—Jarnot was the go-to guy for figuring out how to get the Chinooks off the mountain. The obvious solution was to make the downed helicopters as light as possible and airlift them to Kabul, a 45-minute helicopter flight to the north. With fuel drained and rotor blades and all non-essentials removed, the Chinooks each weighed about 26,500 pounds.
Jarnot checked a Jane’s All the World Aircraft reference book and tinkered with the numbers, adjusting the computed sea-level performance for the debilitating effects of altitude on helicopter performance. The largest lifters in the U.S. military’s stable—the Chinook and the Sikorsky CH-53E Sea Stallion—could each lift about 20,000 pounds at 8,500 feet, less at the higher elevation.
Though the helicopter at 10,300 feet turned out to be too badly damaged to salvage, there was an option for saving the other: Find a Russian heavy lifter known as the Mi-26. Rarely seen in the West, the Mi-26, according to Jane’s, is the “largest ever production helicopter.” Jarnot took the idea to his commanding officer. “If you got the cash, we can get on the Internet and try to outsource the job,” he told the commander, adding, “Jane’s showed the Mi-26 had enough oomph to get it off the mountain.”
Oomph is what the Mi-26 is all about. Since its introduction in 1980, it has been the undisputed rotary-wing heavy-lift world champion. With a cargo hold as capacious as that of a C-130 Hercules, the helicopter at sea level can lift as much as 20 tons in the cabin or on an external sling. That’s more than four tons over what the U.S. military’s largest lifter, the CH-53E, can haul, and more than seven tons over the capacity of the Boeing Vertol 234 civilian variant of the Chinook.
The Mi-26 is so large it wreaks havoc with one’s sense of scale. Most striking is the helo’s main rotor system, which spans 105 feet and stands nearly 27 feet tall. Each of the eight blades is more than 30 inches wide, and the tail rotor is about the size of the main rotor on a Robinson R22 trainer.
To see one up close, I went to Brussels to meet Thierry Lakhanisky, the young chairman and CEO of Sky-tech Heavy Lift Helicopter Services and one of the few operators of civilian Mi-26s in the world. A computer scientist by trade, Lakhanisky learned to fly helicopters in the United States, then started Skytech in Belgium at age 21. At one point in the 1990s, he had a few dozen helicopters, but now leases just seven heavy-lift Russian helicopters.
Skytech had two Mi-26s on the ramp at Charleroi Airport. They loomed over us as we walked toward them, and I began to sense how gigantic they are by how long it took to reach them. We pulled a cabin door down, and I felt as though we were stepping up into a building. Lakhanisky’s wife, struggling for the right translation, had called the spartan interior “rude.” Actually, the word was not far off, for the machine and its designers put the priority on hard, heavy work.
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.