Air Transportation: February 16, 2002

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: Russian forces in Chechnya continue to lose helicopters at an alarming rate. The rebels say they are shooting them down, or sabotaging them. But in reality the choppers are falling apart. Russia has not been able to buy new helicopters for the last ten years, and spare parts for the existing ones are in short supply. Moreover, in Chechnya, it's faster and safer to move troops and supplies around by helicopter. So the machines are worked hard, and the maintenance crews are not numerous, or skilled enough, to keep the helicopters together.

For example, a Mi-24 "Hind" and a MI-8 "Hip" operated by the Federal Border Guard Service were caught in bad weather while flying along the Vladikavkaz - Tuskhoroi - Vladikavkaz route on 3 February 2002. The Mi-8 was supposed to collect some sick border guards from a post on the Russo-Georgian section of the Chechen border. 

The MI-8 landed in Beslan (North Ossetia) while the MI-24 commander told ground control in his last radio exchange that he was at an altitude of 1,500 meters and starting to descend, although he did not indicate the aircraft's exact position. At 2:40 p.m. (1240 GMT) and at an altitude of 600 meters contact was lost. 

The search resumed at 7:15 a.m. Moscow time (0415 GMT) on the 4th. Nearly 300 paratroopers and an AN-12 Cub search-and-rescue airplane, along with six border service, Defense Ministry and Interior Ministry helicopters, were engaged in the search. 

Colonel General Yevgeny Bolkhovitin (North Caucasus regional border guard department head) and a group of officers also left for the crash site. The search was stopped for the night due to bad weather but resumed at dawn on the 5th, at about 7:30 a.m. Moscow time (0430 GMT).

Originally the search covered only the vicinity of Khankala, but was expanded throughout Chechnya. A total of 1,000 Border guard troops, North Caucasus Federal troops, Defense Ministry aviation and Interior Ministry troops were involved in the search, along with about 20 aircraft. 

At around 14.30 on 7 February, one of the Mi-8s involved in the search for the missing Hind gunship crashed right after takeoff, about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) of the Khankala base. Of the three crew, two doctors and five rescue workers on board, early reports claimed that only one survived. Colonel Alexander Drobyshev, head of the Russian Air Force press service, told Interfax that "the helicopter crashed spinning from the height of 50 meters. It exploded the moment it hit the ground". The flight engineer was taken to the hospital in grave condition.

Later reports said that the pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer survived with injuries. Investigating officials said that an explosion caused the crash but did not elaborate. Rebels say they hit the helicopter with a missile and also claimed to have been responsible for the missing Hind, as well as Hip Mi-8s lost on the 27th and 29th. - Adam Geibel

 


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