Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky provided the first information about secret missions only after more than 2,500 Ukrainian defenders who remained in Azovstal began surrendering to Russian invading forces in May. He told ICTV that the pilots were flying behind the enemy line to deliver food, water, medicine, weapons and transport the wounded to the Ukrainian fighters.

Some of the expeditions ended tragically. According to a member of the military secret service, the Russians shot down one machine and two others did not return, the army considers their crew missing. Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost “many pilots”.

The AP now spoke to two evacuated fighters, a member of the military intelligence service, and also used the pilot’s testimony provided by the Ukrainian army in describing the events.

The 51-year-old Ukrainian army veteran and pilot, who only wanted to act as Oleksandr, flew to Mariupol for only one mission, but considers it the most difficult year of his thirty-year career. Russian forces surrounded Ukrainian troops there, running out of supplies and, conversely, accumulating the dead and wounded.

Their last defiance in Azovstal became an increasingly symbol of Ukraine’s defiance of invading Russia. Oleksandr now explained that he took a risk because he did not want the Ukrainian defenders to feel forgotten.

The helicopter with the wounded then started burning

One of them was a junior sergeant who introduced himself under his pseudonym Buffalo, as he did not want to attract public attention while thousands of his comrades-in-arms are in captivity or dead. On March 23, a mortar bullet ripped Buffal’s left leg during a street fight, injuring his right and piercing shrapnel’s back.

The 20-year-old soldier crawled into hiding in a nearby building, and his comrades-in-arms evacuated him to Ilyich’s Ironworks and Steelworks in Mariupol.

Doctors amputated his leg in the underground anti-aircraft shelter there. After the operation, he was transferred to Azovstal, a metallurgical complex with many underground tunnels and bunkers, where, however, the conditions were terrible.

“The shelling did not stop,” said Corporal Vladislav Zahorodny, a 22-year-old corporal who was shot in the basin during the fighting in Mariupol. He was evacuated from Azovstal at the end of March. The helicopter with the wounded then started to burn and lost one of the engines, thanks to the other, the pilot took them to the Dnipro in 80 minutes.

“You forgot the soldier”

Buffalo’s turn came a week later. According to the AP, the soldiers pulled him out of the bunker on a stretcher and loaded him on a truck that took him to the landing zone. Then they unloaded the ammunition from the helicopter and carried the wounded on board. Buffalo stayed in the back corner of the car. He couldn’t draw attention to himself because he also had an injured throat and couldn’t shout over the helicopter’s rotors.

“You forgot the soldier’s truck!” It said suddenly, and he got into the helicopter. The crew member then took his hand and told him not to worry about getting home.

In the cockpit, Oleksandr seemed like hours. ‚ÄúVery scary. You see explosions around you and another grenade can reach you, “he described. He then flew the helicopter at 220 kilometers per hour and in some places moved only three meters above the ground, lifting the machine while avoiding power lines. The second helicopter, which took part in the same mission, did not return.

Its pilot announced on the radio that he was running low on fuel. After landing in the Dnieper, Oleksandr heard the evacuees calling the pilots. He expected them to scold him for throwing at them on the flight. “Thank you,” he said as he opened the door.

In the fog of war, and given that the full picture of these secret missions is still emerging, it is not possible to write with certainty that Bufallo and pilot Oleksandr were in the same flight, the AP warned. However, the details of their statements agree.

For example, they both gave the same date: the night of April 4-5. Oleksandr described that a ship fired at them as they flew over the waters at Mariupol. According to him, the pressure wave struck the helicopter like a “toy”. Buffalo also recalls the explosion. Evacuees were later told that the pilot had avoided the missile.