We Haul It All

For armored vehicles, fossilized pachyderms, and other oversize loads, your best bet is the Russian Mi-26 helicopter.

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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.

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