THE VAST transport helicopters looked like mechanical flies. Yet hovering 600ft above the ground, the 110-ft long aircraft were still dwarfed by the burning nuclear reactor as it spewed hundreds of tons of radioactive material from its devastated core. It was May 5, 1986, 10 days after the catastrophic nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine, and the turn of 26-year-old flight navigator Andrei Mizko to fly over the stricken reactor. Hanging beneath his Soviet Mi-6 heavy transport helicopter – capable of lifting 12 tons – was Colonel Mizko’s payload: a cargo parachute filled with lead.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, military helicopter crews and support staff had been called in from all over the Soviet Union to fight the fire steadily engulfing the reactor.

Their role – graphically portrayed in Chernobyl, the epic HBO series that has become the most talked about TV drama in the UK since Game Of Thrones – was to release the material over the breached and smouldering core with split-second accuracy in a desperate bid to prevent the potential wrecking of the northern hemisphere.

Indeed, thanks to the success of the drama, the courage and sacrifice of the helicopter crews and their ground staff are finally being recognised.

As he flew over the ghost town of Pripyat, just two miles from the reactor near the Ukraine-Belarus border and now abandoned, Colonel Mizko was struck by the eerie sight beneath him.

“The first flight will always be with me, it remains in my memory in the greatest possible detail,” he explains.

“It was a clear day and we were flying above a city that had been evacuated, a city with 50,000 adults and 17,000 children, yet everyone had gone.

“Its life had been totally sucked out and it was in a frozen state, as if a pause button had been pushed.”

He recalls seeing beneath him a car, a yellow Lada, with an open door, as if the occupants had just got out. 

Bed linen drying on balconies was fluttering around, animals were running free.

“It was as if all the people had been extracted in a split second,” he recalls. 

And looming ahead was the terrifying sight of the “unwrapped” reactor.

Over the next 22 days he was sent 11 times to dump his cargo at minimum speed from the aircraft – the length of a Boeing 737 – in an attempt to contain the spread of radiation.

It was an almost suicidal mission – his only protection against a potentially lethal dose of radiation was a fabric dust mask held in place with elastic over his ears.

His ground crew had also folded a sheet of lead on to his seat in a vain attempt to limit his exposure to the radiation.

“Our mechanics had to bodge protective gear by hunting for anything they could line our seats with,” he says.

“We were lucky to find anything at all.We had to fend for ourselves, we were disposable. But I was a military pilot and I was given a task.

“It was my job to follow orders and my whole mind was concentrated on fulfilling that task. We never questioned the need to do the drops. Throughout that time, the most emotional part and the biggest reward was when we would pass over the reactor and the commander-in-chief, who was co-ordinating the flights from a hotel roof, would declare, ‘Well done boys, good hit’.

“I wasn’t focused on the dangers.

“We believed we were a valuable asset, part of the Soviet elite, certain questions do not have an answer.”

He is referring to official figures stating that each member of the 592 helicopter crews pulled from every corner of the Soviet Union to help with the cleanup operation was allowed to receive a maximum 25 “roentgens” of radiation, plus an additional unit for every flight made, before being grounded.

“One roentgen per flight,” he says with feeling, through an interpreter for Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline, the charity that brought him to the UK to give a talk earlier this week to highlight those still living with the after effects of the clean-up operation.

He says: “It would have been comical if it were not so sad.

“It was just an arbitrary number, a digit on the record that said we were able to continue to fly.”

Later the exposed reactor would be enclosed by a concrete sarcophagus reinforced with steel, to prevent further leakage of radiation.

To this day, an exclusion zone 38 miles across circles the plant.

But in the immediate aftermath, using helicopters was the only way to stem the spread of radioactivity, by dumping hundreds of tons of lead, sand, clay and boron into the burning graphite core.

All of the aircraft used in the first fortnight of the operation were so contaminated by radioactive material they had to be grounded.

Many of the men who flew, loaded and serviced them became ill or died from the radiation.

Colonel Mizko, now aged 59, was grounded due to illness nine years after working at Chernobyl.

“The alarm bells first rang for me in 1991. I experienced issues with my blood vessels but could not admit to this because it would have led to an automatic grounding.”

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What if the fire at the Chernobyl reactor had not been contained?

The core was burning at 2000 degrees centigrade and giving off nearly twice the radiation released by the bomb in Hiroshima every single hour – 48 bombs-worth every 24 hours.

Had the helicopter crews not dumped materials into the reactor to slow the nuclear reactions, radioactive particles would have continued to be pumped into the atmosphere spreading contamination across the entire continent.

It is likely the UK would be a highly contaminated place, and the number of casualties and affected people across Europe would have extended into the hundreds of millions.

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But by 1995, he was decommissioned and transferred to a ground support unit as his health continued to deteriorate.

By 1997, he was seriously concerned about his blurred vision.

“When I went to the hospital a medical committee was immediately convened and I was told this condition was normally found in patients in their 70s,” explains Colonel Mizko, who is divorced with a son of 33 and a three-year-old granddaughter.

“This was just the beginning. It progressed into fits that caused me to foam at the mouth and I have serious problems with my heart.”

However, this heroic man remains under pressure to prove his disabilities are linked to the work he did at Chernobyl, even though his brave actions helped to save more than 50 million lives.

Today he receives a government medical subsidy of £13 a month.

He hopes to receive a ruling on compensation in August from the courts in his home city of Kiev.

“I am still having to fight through the courts to prove my disabilities are linked to the work I did there.”

Of the 200,000 people who worked as “liquidators” in Ukraine alone – the human bio-robots who cleared the site and created the famous concrete sarcophagus over the reactor – 85,000 are severely disabled and 5,000 have died.

Of the 731st Battalion, the support ground staff who serviced and loaded the helicopters on the ground, more than half are dead.

As part of the official Soviet cover-up of the disaster, hospitals were ordered not to allow future tracking of medical consequences.

Colonel Mizko says: “Records were classified, and health issues recorded against other causes.”

This has made it difficult for historians to measure the human impact but Colonel Mizko recently came across a Russian website created by members of the Chernobyl helicopter crews.

He explains: “If a person passes away the forum marks their picture with a black bezel. The head of our unit is in black and I have seen many members of my flying unit, younger than me, already in black.

“The feelings are impossible to convey. You have an ID to say you are a liquidator, yet the attitude is ‘close the door behind you’.”

But the Colonel remains clear about the necessity of the operation itself. “There was no one else to do this job. We were carrying out this mission for the world and, regardless of our health issues, we do not regret our involvement.

“Future generations must remain aware of the invaluable lessons that have been learned at Chernobyl.”

• Jane Warren is the author of Igor: The Courage Of Chernobyl’s Child, which is available for £9.99, including P&P, through Chernobyl Children’s Lifeline. All proceeds go towards the work of the charity. To donate to the charity or order a copy of the book, go to www.ccll.org.uk or call 01420 511700.

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