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.
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.
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.