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The Untold Story of the Ukrainian Helicopter Rescue Missions During the Mariupol Siege

23 minute read
Spencer is chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute (MWI) at West Point, codirector of MWI’s Urban Warfare Project and host of the “Urban Warfare Project Podcast.” He served for 25 years as an infantry soldier, which included two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of the book “Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connection in Modern War” and co-author of “Understanding Urban Warfare.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Liam Collins is executive director of the Madison Policy forum and a fellow at New America Foundation. He was the founding director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and served as a defense advisor to Ukraine from 2016 to 2018. He is a retired Special Forces colonel with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and South America. He is co-author of the book Understanding Urban Warfare.

On February 24, 2022, 5:30 am Moscow time, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced to the world that Russia was initiating a “special military operation” to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine. In reality, Russia was launching a full-scale invasion to overthrow Ukraine’s democratically elected government. Bombs began to fall on cities across Ukraine the moment Putin ended his speech. While the air campaign continued, Russian forces descended on Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Sumy, and other large cities.

A major portion of Putin’s force also converged on Mariupol. Prior to the invasion, Mariupol was Ukraine’s tenth-largest city with an estimated population of 431,000. More importantly, it was one of Ukraine’s largest ports that serviced approximately 2550 ships and 17 million tons of cargo annually. Located on the Sea of Azov, it was the largest city along the “land bridge” that connected the Donbas, Ukrainian territory that Russian-led separatists seized in 2014-2015, with the Crimean Peninsula that Russia had illegally annexed in 2014. 

Russian forces rapidly attacked the city from three directions. Russian forces and Russian-controlled military forces from the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics advanced on Mariupol from the city’s northeast. Russian Naval Infantry advanced on the city’s west, after having conducted an amphibious landing on February 25. Russian forces originating from Crimea and advancing through Berdyansk had reached Mariupol’s west and began initial assaults into the city on February 27. By March 2, less than a week into the war, Russian forces had surrounded Mariupol by land and sea. With the rest of the country under siege, the limited Ukrainian forces now trapped in the city were left to defend it without any hope of reinforcements or resupply.

The Russian attackers quickly pushed the greatly outnumbered defenders into a large industrial zone along the city’s southeastern coastline that included the Azovstal steel plant. The plant’s many underground passages and bunkers offered an ideal location for the defender’s headquarters and as much of a rear area as possible for a surrounded force. The remnants of disparate defending forces fell under the command of Lt. Col. Denys Prokopenko (call sign “Redys,” pronounced “Red-Is”), the regimental commander of Ukraine’s National Guard Azov Regiment. This force included what remained of his Azov Regiment and elements from the 12th National Guard Brigade, 36th Separate Marine Brigade, Border Guards, KORD Special Police (similar to U.S. SWAT), Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and Territorial Defense Forces. 

Over the next couple weeks, the situation in Mariupol looked more and more grim. Prokopenko’s small force, numbering approximately 3,000 with varying levels of military training, was surrounded by approximately 20,000 Russian forces. The Ukrainian defenders lacked the necessary weapons to hold back the advancing Russian armor and mechanized infantry units and were being constrained into a smaller and smaller space. Their ammunition was running dangerously low, casualties continued to mount, and they had little ability to treat wounded soldiers and no ability to evacuate them. Medical personnel were forced to conduct amputations without painkillers and infections became deadly. The Ukrainian defenders maintained their morale against these immense odds, but morale alone would not be enough. Even highly motivated soldiers require ammunition and medical supplies to sustain a fight.

A secret and dangerous mission

Even though Ukrainian leaders knew that Mariupol was lost, holding onto Mariupol was strategically important. The small number of defenders were tying up tens of thousands of Russian forces and preventing Russia from moving them to support offensive operations elsewhere. At this point in the war, it was not clear that Ukraine would hold Kyiv and if the capital fell, so would the nation. Defending Kyiv was the priority, so the Ukraine’s military leadership could dedicate little to support Mariupol’s defenders. 

Thus, Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov, the chief of the Main Directorate of Intelligence within Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, developed an audacious, and what many might consider a foolhardy plan to reinforce the desperate defenders. His plan: Conduct a resupply mission into Mariupol by helicopters that had to fly through advanced Russian air defense systems. According to retired U.S. Army Aviation Colonel Jimmy Blackmon, “This mission would require practiced skill for highly trained and proficient crews. It’s not a mission you would consider for an aviator’s first combat experience.”

The infiltration flight would take 80 minutes, 42 of which would be flown over enemy-controlled territory. Sometimes it is said that for military operations “speed is security,” and this mission followed that age-old adage. The helicopters would fly at maximum speed and minimum height, below the tree line many areas, to minimize their exposure to Russian air defenses. They would be flying what pilots call nap-of-the-earth. Flying so low would reduce their risk to enemy air defense systems but would put them at risk from rocket propelled grenades—the weapons that Somalis used to shoot down U.S. helicopters in Mogadishu in 1993.

If they were lucky, they would avoid trees, powerlines, missiles, and rockets to reach their objective: The Azovstal steel plant where the Ukrainian defender had established their headquarters. As hard as getting in might be, getting out might be even tougher because they would have to fly a similar flight path home, with the Russians now alerted to their presence. It would be similar climbing Mount Everest, where far more die during the descent than during the ascent.

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The Ukrainians conducted their first helicopter resupply mission on March 21, 2022 when two Mi-8 helicopters launched from an airfield outside Dnipro, 82 kilometers northwest of Mariupol. After taking off, the helicopters headed southeast before continuing to the coast. As planned, they flew low and fast…maybe too fast as one of the helicopters damaged its wheel when it hit a tree. Luckily, this was the only damage they sustained as they were able to complete the mission and deliver critically needed ammunition, medical supplies, and Starlink internet terminals.

The Ukrainians launched their second resupply mission a few days later. This mission looked much like the first, but the Russians would not be caught by surprise a second time. The Russians hit one of the helicopters with missile, but luckily for the Ukrainians it failed to explode. The missile did, however, pierce one of the helicopter’s engines, forcing the pilots to shut it off. Despite the gaping hole in the side of aircraft, the pilots were able to continue flying, albeit slower, and limp back to Dnipro along with approximately twenty wounded soldiers that had been loaded onto the helicopter at the Azovstal steel plant. 

Pilot VitaliyCourtesy of Vitaliy

The pilot and the third mission

Vitaliy served as a helicopter pilot in the Ukrainian Army in the early 1990s. His combat experience, however, only included flying transport missions during peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia. He served his mandatory service time and then left the military to fly commercially for the next two-plus decades. Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, Vitaliy was mobilized on March 14.

On March 22, Vitaliy and other pilots were summoned to Kyiv for training. Vitaliy did not find the training to be particularly unique, but he was a bit surprised when he was asked to fly at night using night vision goggles, something he had not done in a very long time. 

On March 26, Vitaliy was partnered with a co-pilot and a flight engineer and ordered to fly to an airfield outside Dnipro. When Vitaliy asked, “Why Dnipro?” He was given no answer, just that it would be a simple mission. It was clear that they had a mission planned for him, but they did not seem particularly keen to share the details, so Vitaliy did not ask any more questions. 

The following day, Vitaliy and his crew arrived at the airfield outside of Dnipro. Immediately after landing, Vitaliy once again asked about the mission. The short reply, “You are going to Mariupol,” told him all he really needed to know. He knew this would be nothing like the transport missions that he had flown more than 20 years earlier. This would be a combat mission against a military that was ranked as the second most powerful in the world. The crews that had flown on one of the two previous missions were there and they talked Vitaliy and his crew through the map and showed them some videos. The command element then provided them additional details about the mission. They would fly directly into Mariupol using two Mi-8s, deliver supplies, pickup casualties, and then fly out, refueling on the way back.

Soldiers from the Intelligence Directorate explained the mission and briefed the crews with the details of the Russian air defenses. They told the crews that the helicopters would be loaded with weapons and medicine only. Upon landing, they would keep their engines running and have only ten minutes to unload the supplies and onload critically wounded fighters. Additionally, one intelligence officer would ride in each helicopter. This last part Vitaliy found surprising. In all his previous missions, he had never flown with an intelligence officer onboard. He could have guessed possible reasons for such an unorthodox move. Maybe the officer was there to gather intelligence that would be useful for future resupply missions or for the operational fight. Perhaps, he was there to deliver intelligence and directives to Mariupol’s defenders. Maybe he was there to ensure, by threat of force, if necessary, that the flight crew did not abort the mission prematurely. Given the responses that he received from previous questions, Vitaliy thought it best not to ask and thus, he was never certain as to the officer’s purpose.

On the night on March 27, they loaded the helicopter with the carefully manifested ammunition and medicine. But almost as soon as they finished loading, they were told that they needed to carry an additional 200 kilograms of medicine. They had carefully calculated the helicopter’s maximum weight-carrying capacity and were now being directed to carry 200 additional kilograms. Something had to give. They could not reduce the payload, nor could they eliminate anyone from the crew. Thus, Vitaliy decided that their only option was to remove the helicopter’s weapons. They would have to fly defenseless, an extremely risky proposition given a helicopter on the previous mission had been hit by enemy fire. But the crew understood the dire circumstances being faced by the brave defenders of Mariupol. Those fighters were at risk every day. They would only be at risk for a single mission, although that risk seemed almost astronomical.

After loading the helicopter, they had to wait. Like any pilot who has ever flown what had a strong possibility of being a one-way mission, the anticipation killed Vitaliy. He prayed to God, “Let’s make it tomorrow.” Late in the night, the command element told Vitality the mission would go the following day. The command element provided the mission brief which directed the flight path, the exact time and location they needed to cross the enemy’s frontline (so that artillery could create a distraction to cover the crossing), the current enemy composition and disposition to include their air defenses (that included Pantsir-S1 air defense units but not Buk anti-air missile systems), and precise landing spots for each aircraft inside Mariupol’s Azovstal steel compound. 

After placing the updated enemy air defense positions on a map overlay, Vitaliy determined the flight path they were given would not work, so he changed it, notifying the command element so that the artillery fires required to support the infiltration would remain synchronized. After completing their mission planning, they went to sleep. After waking up, they made a final call with the ground commander, Lt. Col. Prokopenko. When Prokopenko stated, “all clear,” they knew the mission was a go. Shortly before takeoff, they were given one final instruction: This was not a two-helicopter mission, it was two missions with one helicopter each.

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An experienced pilot like Vitaliy knew what this meant. Even if the two helicopters were infiltrating and exfiltrating together, if something should happen to one of the helicopters, the other must continue the mission even if they could help the downed crew. This ran counter to everything he had been trained but he understood that this was one of those rare times when the mission of delivering supplies and evacuating the wounded trumped everything else, including a helicopter and its crew.

Like the previous missions, the flight would be approximately 80 minutes, with half of it over enemy-controlled territory. Vitaliy and his crew flew started in hours of darkness, but it was dawn by the time they reached the sea. Tensions climbed when they crossed into Russian-controlled territory and remained high until they exited nearly 90 minutes later.  They flew the first segment under night vision goggles, approximately ten to fifteen meters above ground level. Once the sun began to rise, they were able to ditch their night vision goggles and fly closer to the ground. 

Vitaliy saw some enemy positions during the infiltration flight, but the more immediate threats were obstacles such as trees and powerlines. Vitality did not know if the Russians were asleep, confused, or just in awe at a passing Ukrainian helicopter. All that mattered was that Vitaliy and his crew did not receive any fire. The flight was eerily quiet and lacked the chatter Vitaliy was used to when flying transport missions. The only comments made during the flight was Vitaliy asking his flight engineer, “How long to the sea?” Once they got closer, Vitaliy asked him to, “Count it down by kilometers.” They did not even talk when they saw Russian positions. Since they had ditched their defensive weapons, there was nothing they could have done anyway.

Once Vitaliy reached the sea, he flew so low he thought he was touching the water at times. Since the buildings at the Azovstal steel plant stretched many meters into the sky, Vitaliy knew that it would be impossible to miss. But a heavy fog covered the entire coastline, so now he was not so sure. Eventually, he saw the plant’s prominent pipes poking through the fog and felt some relief. As he approached the plant, Vitaliy saw the large power lines, 30 to 40 meters in height, that pilots from the previous missions had described. Vitaliy climbed out of the low sea level flight path high enough to clear the wires and then immediately dove back down into the plant to make his landing spot. It was likely the most dangerous part of the flight, due to being so exposed and vulnerable, during daylight hours right in front of the Russians besieging the plant. To make matters worse, this was the third time that helicopters had flown this same approach, so surprise was seemingly lost.

Ukrainian Azovstal service members are seen within the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works complex in Mariupol
Service member of the Ukrainian armed forces is seen within the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works complex in Mariupol, Ukraine, in this handout picture taken May 7, 2022. Dmytro Orest Kozatskyi—Azov regiment press service /Handout via Reuters

Vitaliy felt relief after he cleared the powerlines and completed the dive, but the mission would only get harder. Vitaliy now had to rapidly identify the exact landing spot within the complex compound and then hit the landing while avoiding the plant’s vertical obstacles that seemed to be everywhere. Additionally, being allowed only ten minutes on the ground, if he landed in the wrong location, he might be forced into leaving before all the supplies could be offloaded or the casualties onloaded. Staying any longer not only risked additional exposure to enemy fire, but more importantly, they only carried enough fuel for a limited time on the ground. If they stayed too long, they would not be able to make it back. Upon identifying the correct landing sport, Vitaliy felt what must have been at least the tenth sigh of relief and then proceeded to land at the exact coordinates he had been given. 

Immediately after landing, fighters seemingly appeared out of nowhere and immediately started offloading the supplies. After such a stressful flight, Vitaliy needed a short break, so he stepped out of the helicopter and hugged many of the fighters. He remembered embracing one fighter, turning to look at his copilot and by time Vitaliy turned his head back, the fighter was gone. Vitaliy had never met any of the fighters before, but he immediately felt an immense respect and brotherhood for them. With high-risk missions like this that served a common purpose, it is not uncommon for people to feel an intense kinship with people they have only briefly or may have never met and that is what Vitaliy was experiencing.

Once Mariupol’s fighters had off-loaded the ammunition and medicine, they rapidly loaded their severely wounded into the helicopter while its engines were still running. Vitaliy heard one of fighters frantically screaming, “Do it faster!” Vitaliy approached the leader and said, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. We are here. We will take everyone.” Vitaliy was willing to risk additional time on the ground to get as many wounded out as the helicopter could hold. After the last casualty had been loaded, Vitaliy looked at his watch. They had been on the ground twelve minutes.

After liftoff, Vitaliy pushed the aircraft to its limits, flying it as fast as it could go. During the exfiltration flight, Vitaliy only wanted to know when he was out of enemy territory. They flew directly to a site on the Ukrainian side of the front that had been established to refuel the helicopters—a forward arming and refueling point (FARP) in military parlance. To maximize the carrying capacity of the aircraft, they only carried enough fuel to make it to the friendly lines. Thus, they had to refuel to make it back to the airfield. The fuel consumption for the flight had been meticulously calculated. Vitaliy had spent an extra two minutes at the Azovstal plant, but he knew this was within the small buffer of fuel reserve that had been built into the mission. Once they reached the refuel site, they turned the engines off and felt a huge rush of relief. After refueling, they flew back to the Dnipro site where a massive convoy of ambulances was waiting to evacuate the casualties. 

The volunteer fighter

The aircrews were not the only ones willing to risk their lives to get to Mariupol. While Vitaliy’s helicopter was loaded with only ammunition and medical supplies, some of the sorties also carried volunteer fighters to help reinforce Prokopenko’s defense. Ruslan Serbov, callsign “David,” was one such fighter. Ruslan had previously served in the Azov Regiment, Prokopenko’s unit that was currently leading the defense of Mariupol, and as a member of the Presidential Guard unit. When the Russians invaded, Ruslan was living in Kyiv. 

At the end of March, Ruslan saw a message in a closed Telegram room asking for volunteer fighters to join the Azov unit in the defense of Mariupol. He had read the news of the Russian attack so he knew that the city’s defenders had been cut off weeks earlier and were facing a much larger Russian force that surrounded the city. Yet, Ruslan did not hesitate despite the great risk. He followed the instructions from the Telegram group and immediately took a train from Kyiv to Zaporizhya where he met Ukrainian intelligence officers and other volunteers. After a quick assessment, he along with other volunteers conducted some quick refresher training. By early April, they moved him to Dnipro to be flown into Mariupol on one of the secret helicopter missions. 

Ruslan was likely flown in on the fourth or fifth mission. On the night of his flight, he was so nervous that he could not sleep. He remembers lifting off at 2 AM, April fifth, and the harrowing nap-of-the-earth flight on the way in. He swore the helicopters were touching the water when they flew over the sea. He had given himself a “50/50 chance” of surviving the flight. he figured if the Russians did not get the aircraft, powerlines or trees would. His aircraft included the standard crew—pilot, co-pilot, flight engineer, and intelligence officer—along with three other volunteer fighters and a bunch of ammunition and medical supplies. 

After landing, he was immediately assigned to the Azov Regiment’s 1st battalion. A few hours later, they moved him to a building within the Azov steel plant compound and assigned him to stand guard on the fifth floor of the building. The following morning, he observed a small team of Russians moving and immediately engaged them with his rifle. The fellow soldiers in his position told him that he should not have engaged them. They were only sent out to bait the Ukrainians into shooting at them, so that it would give away their position. After giving away their positions, the Russians would launch artillery strikes or use tanks or other higher caliber weapons such as artillery to eliminate them. Ruslan described the Russians using “waves of humans” as cannon fodder. They seemed to care little for the soldiers’ lives and only viewed them as a tool to identify Ukrainian defensive positions. 

Ruslan said the fighting was fierce and, at times, desperate. On the evening of May 15, he was part of a squad that was attempting to rescue a wounded soldier in the open between a giant ore pile and the railroad tracks within the steel factory compound. But it was a trap. As soon as they reached the solder, Russians ambushed them with heavy machine gun fire and anti-tank munitions. One of the anti-armor rounds hit Ruslan. He believed it had been fired from a MATADOR 90-mm man-portable, disposable anti-armor system. It was a weapon system meant for vehicles, not humans.

The round hit him in his left leg, severing his foot (he showed us a photograph of his severed foot still inside its boot that a fellow solider had taken the following day) and peppered his entire lower body with shrapnel. It knocked Ruslan unconscious. He drifted in and out of consciousness before he awoke in a dark bunker under the Azovstal plant. The bunker was full of severely wounded soldiers. Ruslan was in immense pain and lacking the necessary medical supplies to treat him, he asked his friend, “Shoot me.” But his friend replied, “Not today.” 

The following morning, someone told Ruslan that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had ordered the defenders to surrender in a negotiated deal with the Russians. As happens all too often in war, Ruslan was injured only hours before the call had been made.

Despite the surrender, Ruslan was not immediately returned to Ukrainian hands. The details as to how the two sides would exchange prisoners of war were included in the agreement. Prior to being returned, the Russians transported Ruslan to the Donetsk Hospital to treat and stabilize him. But Ruslan described the hospital as having only very basic medical supplies and equipment and not much better than the bunker that had been treated in after being injured. Being one of the more severely injured prisoners of war, Ruslan was one of the first to be exchanged. After being returned, Ukrainian doctors were forced to amputate most of his leg due not only to the injury but also due to an infection that had resulted from the sub-standard treatment that he had received. 

He later authored the book, Mariupol: The Book of the Brave, that describes his fight in Mariupol. In the eyes of many Ukrainians, Ruslan is a hero. He conducted an extremely risky flight just to get to Mariupol, and then fought for many weeks, against great odds, against a vastly superior foe. Yet, Ruslan is adamant that he is no hero. In his book and in our conversations with him, he stated, “I am not a hero. All the heroes are dead. I was just lucky.”


The story of these missions is not their brazen audacity, but the bravery of the pilots and soldiers involved. The military leadership must have factored the psychological ability of the crews to conduct the operation, because they never allowed a pilot to fly the mission a second time. While having an experienced pilot that had flown the route previously offered immense benefit, they obviously felt that the stress of flying the mission a second time was too great. It was the rare case where it is better not to know what you are up against, because if you did, you probably would not even try. .

Each flight team experienced a similar yet unique experience to that of Vitaliy and his crew. All the helicopters survived the first four missions. The Ukrainians lost their first helicopter on the fifth mission after Russians shot down one of the helicopters during exfiltration. On the sixth mission, the Ukrainians had an Mi-24 attack helicopter fly near enemy air defenses to distract them. Unfortunately, it did not work as the Russians successfully engaged both Mi-8s during exfiltration. Luckily, both were able to crash land into Ukrainian controlled territory. The composition and fate of the seventh mission remains unknown, at least publicly. All that is certain is that it was the final resupply mission.

Ukraine Azovstal Surrender Anniversary
A Ukrainian soldier stands inside the ruined Azovstal steel plant prior to surrender to the Russian forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, May 16, 2022. Dmytro Kozatski—Azov Special Forces Regiment of the Ukrainian National Guard Press Office via AP

In total, the Ukrainians flew missions consisting of a total of 16 helicopters. They delivered over thirty tons of precious cargo and 72 reinforcement soldiers, and evacuated 64 critically wounded soldiers. They lost three helicopters during exfiltration, but all 16 helicopters were able to deliver their payloads to the defenders of Mariupol.

After the seventh mission, the Intelligence Directorate assessed that it was too risky to conduct any more resupply missions. But by this time, the valiant defenders of Mariupol had helped Ukraine achieve its strategic objective and its first real victory in the war: Ukraine had successfully defended its capital. The last Russian forces withdrew from the Kyiv region on April 6, around the time of the fifth resupply mission.

No doubt it was a difficult decision, but with ammunition and medical supplies running out and no ability to resupply them, President Zelensky saw no other option than to order Prokopenko to surrender. Zelensky knew these stubborn fighters would never surrender on their own and to fight to death with ammunition nearly exhausted served no tactical, operational, or strategic purpose. A surrender would allow these heroes to live and fight another day.  

Many know that the defenders of Mariupol held out for an unimaginable 83 days. But few know the story of the seven resupply missions. And while it can never be known how much longer the resupply missions allowed the defenders to hold out, it is almost certain they would not have made it to 83 days without them. Likewise, Russia made most of its gains during the opening weeks of the war. So, it will never be known how significant of an impact the 3,000 fighters had on the larger war by tying up tens of thousands of Russian fighters, but it is reasonable to conclude the impact was significant. At a minimum, it prevented the Russian’s from capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia, at least according to a military statement. In the end, Lieutenant General Kyrylo Budanov’s secret resupply missions may have been extremely risky, but they were never foolhardy because he knew the capability and will of the Ukrainian people.

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