The 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union recalls the deaths and illnesses of thousands exposed to radiation, the devastation of the area around that nuclear plan — and the bravery of hundreds of helicopter pilots who worked to contain the disaster.
A series of problems during tests at the Ukraine plant on April 26, 1986, led to a rupture, steam explosions and a fire in reactor No. 4 that released radiation across the then-Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia; a radioactive plume drifted over the western Soviet Union and Europe. Hundreds of thousands were relocated from contaminated areas, and some predict the death tool from effects of radiation exposure will reach 4,000. Today, a roughly 20-mi (30-km) “exclusion zone” remains in place around the plant and is largely uninhabited.
More than 200,000 emergency workers fought the fire and struggled to shield nuclear material exposed by it and the preceding blasts. They included about 600 Soviet pilots who flew thousands of flights to dump lead, sand, clay and concrete on reactor No. 4 in an attempt to seal off radiation. In the process, they exposed themselves to dangerous levels of it.
The many helicopter pilots who flew at Chernobyl were epitomized by Anatoly Grishchenko, a civilian test pilot who flew a Mi-28 during the operation. He died in Seattle on July 2, 1990, while being treated for leukemia that was widely considered to have been a result of his radiation exposure. “In the fraternity of helicopter pilots, Grishchenko’s pinpoint flying and control of his enormous loads during the three-day struggle to contain the reactor made him an international aeronautical celebrity,” the Los Angeles Times said in an obituary.
The Times credited U.S. helicopter pilot Cap Parlier, then director of testing at McDonnell Douglas testing in Mesa, Arizona, with driving efforts to arrange a bone-marrow transplant for Grishchenko in Seattle.
For his work at Chernobyl, Grishchenko was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. Shortly after his death, he was awarded the Flight Safety Foundation’s Heroism Award.
Photo courtesy of Russian Helicopters