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Ukraine is asking allies for modern aircraft — an upgrade to its Soviet-era equipment

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Since war began, Ukraine has asked for modern weapons from the West. Some have arrived, but often, forces have to make do with Soviet-era equipment. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley met a helicopter brigade that remains an inspirational force in Ukraine's war effort, despite its old aircraft.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: As dawn breaks in eastern Ukraine, three Soviet-era helicopters sit shrouded in fog on a potholed tarmac at an undisclosed location in the middle of black, plowed fields.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: A crew does last-minute checks on launcher pods loaded with dozens of slim, gray rockets. There are flares stacked in racks behind. Vitali, who's not allowed to give his last name, is spokesman for the 18th Army Aviation Brigade that flies these aging choppers.

VITALI: Every mission, it's very dangerous, but we don't have another choice. We must do our work because we want to live in the free country, and we want to live like a free people.

BEARDSLEY: These Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters were used by the Soviet army in Afghanistan. Today, they'll attack Russian forces along the eastern front in Donbas. Vitali says the pilots get around the lack of modern anti-aircraft early warning systems by flying low to avoid Russian radar. The pilots have many tricks to compensate for the lack of technology, he says, though he can't disclose them.

VITALI: They made a lot of missions that some pilots from abroad just tell that it's impossible. But our pilots do it.

BEARDSLEY: These helicopter units played a role in keeping Kyiv's Hostomel airfield from being taken in the beginning of the war. And they succeeded in flying undetected through Russian-occupied territory to deliver ammunition and evacuate the wounded from Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant last spring.

VITALI: We have seven flights - 16 helicopters go to Mariupol - but we lost only three.

BEARDSLEY: Vitali won't provide more details on casualties.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE STARTING)

BEARDSLEY: After a three-hour delay to let the fog lift, visibility is essential. The pilots climb into their cockpits. The copters are painted with blue-and-yellow bug eyes and look like giant insects taking to the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER BLADES WHIRRING)

BEARDSLEY: The sun is now glinting off the windshield. The weather is good. They're about to take off to go help in the battle of Bakhmut.

(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER BLADES WHIRRING)

BEARDSLEY: In an hour, they reappear over the horizon. Now we can talk to the pilots.

ROMAN: Oh, you always feel like - it's maybe not happiness but some kind of satisfaction. It feels that like, yes, today is the day when I did something to bring the victory to make it closer to us.

BEARDSLEY: That's Roman, 36. He's the same age as his helicopter. He says they're using unguided rockets, too, which means they have to get very close to their targets.

ROMAN: We do our best using the old munition, but we need new one because Russians use the same copters, and they have more.

BEARDSLEY: Roman dreams of flying a U.S.-made Apache or a Blackhawk.

VITALY: After take off...

BEARDSLEY: Forty-six-year-old pilot Vitaly says he's afraid before each mission. But after takeoff, adrenaline and determination take over. He says you normally only realize how close you've come to getting shot down by a Russian fighter jet when the mission is over.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

BEARDSLEY: GoPro footage from the sortie shows the rockets firing as the copter swoops in low over the ground. Vitaly was flying U.N. peacekeeping missions in Africa and was set to retire when the invasion began. His cousin was killed by the Russians in Bakhmut this month.

VITALY: (Non-English language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: "I just hate them," he says. "They came here with a sword, and they will die here by the sword."

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, in Donbas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.