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.