May 20, 2010: A U.S. Air Force pilot became the first American to fly a Russian helicopter gunship (an Afghan Mi-35) in combat. Major Caleb Nimmo serves with a multi-national (Czech Republic, Hungary and the U.S.) organization that helps train Afghan pilots and maintainers. The American air force has a large fleet of helicopters, including those used for rescuing pilots downed in enemy territory.
While Afghanistan has lots of older pilots, who learned how to fly in the 1980s, there is still a need for training on modern communications and navigation equipment. This is what Nimmo and other foreign pilots assist with. The Afghan pilots learned how to fly on Russian helicopters, and thus it’s easier, and cheaper, for the Afghans to buy and operate Russian helicopters. American pilots like Nimmo have found it easy to adjust to the Russian choppers, although they already have long experience with the more modern Western electronics now installed in these aircraft.
The Mi-35 is the export version of the most recent version of the Mi-24 helicopter gunship. This is a twelve ton helicopter gunship that also has a cargo area that can hold up to eight people, or four stretchers. The Mi-24/35 can carry rockets, missiles bombs and automatic cannon. It is used by over thirty countries, and has a pretty good reputation for reliability. The design is based on the earlier Mi-8 transport helicopter.
Afghans also use a lot of similar Mi-17s. This is the export version of the Russian Mi-8, a twin-engine helicopter, roughly equivalent to the U.S. UH-1. But the Mi-8/17 is still in production and is the most widely exported (2,800 out of 12,000 made) helicopter on the planet. The Mi-8 is about twice the size and weight of the UH-1, but only hauls about 50 percent more cargo. However, the Mi-8 had a larger interior, and can carry 24 troops, versus a dozen in the UH-1. The UH-1 was replaced by the UH-60 in the 1980s, while the Mi-8 just kept adding better engines and electronics to the basic Mi-8 frame. The UH-60, while weighing ten tons (compared to UH-1s’ 4.8 tons), could carry as much as the 12 ton Mi-8. But the Mi-8 costs about half as much as a UH-60, and the larger interior is popular with many users.