Aviation News Journal
The Mil Mi-8
Text by Divan Muller
As the media continues to report on the war currently raging in Eastern Europe, Russian and Ukrainian Mil Mi-8s frequently feature in photographs and videos, transporting troops, special forces and even politicians. Let’s take a closer look at this seemingly ubiquitous helicopter type.
The early days
From its beginning, the policy at Mikhail Mil’s experimental construction bureau was to build tough, powerful helicopters. During his lifetime, Mikhail Mil’s helicopters shattered numerous world records. The Mi-4, for example, was three times more powerful than its Western counterpart, the Sikorsky S-55. The original Mi-8 prototype, known as the V-8, had four rotor blades and one engine. It was soon decided that further development and production variants would have twin engines. Mil used the opportunity to redesign the main rotor hub to hold five blades. The new engines were designed to be particularly durable while operating in severe climates and extreme weather conditions. Comprehensive avionics, huge clamshell doors and rugged landing gear helped to turn the design into a more capable helicopter. Finally, during the mid 1960s, the V-8 (renamed Mi-8) entered production in an answer to massive orders from Soviet and Warsaw Pact countries. By then NATO had already given the new helicopter the report name, ‘Hip’. At the time, no-one could have imagined that Mi-8s would eventually be serving with over fifty air forces across the globe.
An Mi-8 in United Nations colours operating in southern Africa - Divan Muller
Mi-8s in action
Helicopters by their very nature are versatile. Mi-8s, for example, have been used for firefighting and search and rescue missions, off shore work, electronic- and anti-submarine warfare (ASW), reconnaissance and, of course, to transport cargo, passengers, troops or VIPs.
Mi-8s have also been converted into assault helicopters. The first occurrence was in 1967, when Soviets armed Mi-8s with rockets and machine guns for use in close support exercises. Later, when Soviets entered Afghanistan, heavily armed Mi-8s played a significant role in the initial stages of the war. In addition to normal transport duties, Hips, as they were known to NATO, were also equipped to lay anti-tanks mines and smoke screens. A 1985 US Marine Corps document described Mi-8s, along with Mi-24 ‘Hinds’, as the true work horses of the conflict. The Mi-24 itself was loosely based on the Mi-8, and was frequently seen escorting troop-carrying Mi-8s into combat. This was often the case in Southern Africa, where Mi-8s were used to deliver supplies to Angolan ground forces participating in its ‘Border War’ against South Africa.
Hips have seen much action in Africa, but mainly in providing humanitarian aid. Polish Mi-8s in Ethiopia and Indian Air Force operations in the war-torn Sierra Leone showed the more humane side of the Mi-8.
The Yom Kippur War of 1973 clearly illustrated the versatility of these helicopters. In fact, the war started when more than 100 Mi-8s invaded Israel. Most of these helicopters carried commandos, while the rest were heavily armed with rockets, machine guns and bombs. Later on, more Mi-8s arrived to resupply commandos and to evacuate the wounded.
A typical war load of an Mi-8 TVK (gunship) would consist of six 57 mm rocket pods (192 rockets in total), a 0.5 inch (12.7 mm) machine gun and four anti-tank missiles. Alternatively, the helicopter could be armed with 250 kg bombs, torpedoes, napalm, anti-personnel bomblets, anti-tank mines and, strictly speaking, even chemical or biological weapons.
An Afghan Air Force Mi-17 near Kandahar Airfield in 2013 - Capt. Anastasia Wasem / USAF
It has been said that one in every four helicopters in the world is a Mil. In fact, over 12 000 Mi-8s and Mi-17s have been produced, making it the most numerous helicopter type in the world. Some sources estimate that the actual total Mi-8s produced could be as high as 17 000. In case you’re wondering: the Mi-17 is the improved export variant of the Mi-8 MTV series. These helicopters are powered by twin 1 900 shp Isotov TV3-117 turbo shafts (such as those used by Mi-24 ‘Hinds’), specifically providing abundant power for ‘hot and high’ conditions. Mi-17s can be identified by the tail rotor being positioned on the left of the tail boom, whereas Mi-8s have their tail rotors on the starboard side. Civilian Mi-8s usually have big, square windows and can accommodate up to 32 passengers.
During the 1970s, Russia’s ASW Mi-4s were becoming obsolete, causing Mil to look to the Mi-8 for a solution. Firstly, the Hip’s fixed landing gear was replaced by retractable wheels, while the whole lower fuselage was shaped to resemble a boat’s hull. Engines were replaced with powerful TV3s and the tail rotor moved to the left of the tail boom. The helicopter was equipped with a radome and sonar and could be armed with torpedoes and depth charges. The resulting aircraft became known as the Mi-14, with ‘Haze’ as the NATO report name. More than a hundred of these ASW helicopters served with the Soviet Navy, with more examples being exported to countries such as Cuba and Libya.
In terms of size, the Mi-8 is about one metre shorter than a DC-3, while standing about half a metre taller than the well-known Dakota. Two TV2 engines enable the Hip to take off with a maximum take-off weight of 12 000 kg (13 000 kg with TV3 engines) and fly at speeds exceeding 130 kts when necessary. However, the Mi-8 did not become a great aircraft because of performance specifications typed on a piece of paper, but because it impacted the outcomes of wars, conflicts, and crises. From African jungles to Asian snow-capped mountains and Middle East deserts – the Mi-8 has truly made its mark in history.