A UTAir crew will be honored on Monday with the Sikorsky Humanitarian Award for rescuing UN peacekeepers from enemy fire in the Congo. The honor is “presented to the person(s) who best demonstrate(s) the value of helicopters to society by saving lives, protecting property and aiding those in distress.”
On Nov. 29, 2009, UNO-838, a UTAir Aviation Mil MI8-MTV helicopter landed at Congo’s Dongo Airport after performing a liaison flight for the UN mission there. Shortly after landing and shutdown, the helicopter came under fire. Several UN peacekeepers were seriously injured. While still under fire, pilot Sergey Ignatov and his crew–copilot Yuriy Chigaev, flight engineer Vyacheslav Alberti and load master Dmitriy Shmidt–wasted no time restarting the helicopter and getting 23 peacekeepers, as well as the wounded, back onto the helicopter. Ignatov lifted off with the Mil still taking fire, including two shots to the fuel tanks. Leaking fuel, the crew safely flew to, and landed at, another airfield.
In recognition of the flight, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev awarded Ignatov the Order of Courage and the remainder of the crew Medals of Nesterov. Instituted by the Russian Federation in 1994, the Medal of Nesterov is awarded to members of the Russian Air Force and civilian aviation workers for acts of courage or merit. Ignatov was also awarded the Russian Helicopter Industry Association Pilot of the Year Award in 2010.
Russia’s UTAir is the largest contract supplier of helicopter and fixed-wing flight services to the United Nations, flying more than 50 helicopters on UN missions in Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sudan, Chad and the Congo. UTAir operates one of the largest civil rotary-wing fleets in the world, with 330 aircraft, including a wide variety of mostly Russian-built models, ranging from the heavy-lift Mi-26 to the coaxial utility Ka-32. The majority of the fleet, 233 unitsconsists of Mi-8s. UTAir helicopters are operated worldwide, but most fly in northern Russia in support of EMS, oil-and-gas and forestry ions.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the second-largest country in Africa and one of the most violent places on Earth. Civil wars and ongoing guerilla actions are part of the deadly, dangerous, daily life. Living conditions are often primitive and, although United Nations aircraft are typically emblazoned with the large UN logo, that does not dissuade combatants from firing upon them. More than 5.4 million people have been killed in Congo since the start of the 1998 war that involved nine nations and more than 20 armed groups. The bulk of the deaths came from diseases and malnutrition spread by refugee conditions. The 2003 peace accords have not been successful in quelling the fighting in the Eastern Congo.
The Sikorsky Humanitaran award will be presented at tonight’s Salute to Excellence Awards banquet.