The Mil Mi-26 is the largest helicopter in the world, and it's an absolute monster. It can lift over 20 tons, cruise at over 150 MPH, and its main rotor has eight blades. One of our readers takes a closer look.
Dear America (or perhaps you prefer 'MURICA!),
It come to attention that you now have big helicopter, no? You say CH-53K is big stronk helicopter! Give ridiculous name "King Stallion!" Made with very advanced carbon fiber with three big engine, make powerful stronk fuel hog embodiment of 'MURICA! Like your SUV with rotor on top, no? Silly 'MURICA! Mother Russia beat you at helicopter game long ago!
You think of Halo, you think of ultimate bro game where good friend act like teamkilling dick. In Mother Russia, Halo is mighty symbol of glorious helicopter achievement. How mighty and glorious? Try largest and most powerful helicopter in world! Look at Mighty Russia Halo pulling puny little capitalist twin-rotor!
In Soviet Russia, Helicopter not lift You, You Lift Helicopter! With Mighty Russia Helicopter! Look at Mighty Halo lift airliner as seen from good friend at English Russia! And, uhh...ok, I better quit now before it gets too out of hand and Jalopnik decides to not run this one...uuuuuuuuuu.
The Soviets recognized the military advantages of helicopters early on, particularly for a helicopter large enough to carry things like the infamous Scud missile and the similar FROG-7 (that's Free-Range Over Ground, nothing to do with turning into a prince if you kiss it). At the same time, the helicopter can be used for resource exploitation in the vast expanses of Siberia. That necessarily resulted in a very large helicopter - large enough to immediately qualify as the largest in the world. In many cases, engineers would do a hard cost-benefit analysis, see what necessary compromises might need to be made, and come up with a design that might be able to do some of the drafted requirements some of the time or with heavy modification in order to avoid the complexities that come with a machine that can be labeled as the world's largest helicopter. In the late 1950s, the Soviets took a hard look at these requirements and said, of course we build largest helicopter! We Mother Russia!
Image credit "ShinePhantom" on Wikipedia
The Mil Moscow Helicopter Plant (the primary supplier of Soviet/Russian helicopters, then and now) came up with what was essentially a grossly enlarged version of their popular Mi-8 medium-lift utility helicopter. Pictured above, it was called the Mi-6, with NATO assigning it the codename "Hook." As can be seen, it was fitted with stub wings which provided additional lift in forward flight, particularly important when at full load. It was widely exported and served in militaries all over South America, Africa, Europe and Asia. Egypt, Iraq, and potentially Laos, Indonesia and Vietnam all used them in combat. The Egyptian and Iraqi copters in particular showed the vulnerabilities of such a large beast on the frontlines before they could even get into the air; many Egyptian Army "Hooks" were caught and bombed on the ground by the Israeli Air Force in the opening days of the Six-Day War, and Iraqi "Hooks" suffered losses and operational attrition against the Islamic Iranian Air Force and Army before being finished off by Coalition forces in Desert Storm. Notwithstanding, the Mi-6 proved that size has its benefits and was a highly praised utility helicopter that did indeed find good use in Siberia. It consequently spawned a specialized variant, the Mi-10 (NATO code name "Harke") which featured a very interesting, "cut-down" fuselage (dumping dead weight for more payload) and tall landing gear for palletized loads slung neatly and snugly underneath the fuselague including whole shipping containers. A sub-variant specialized for the "flying crane" role, the Mi-10K, reduced the landing gear height and introduced an operator's station underneath the nose so that someone can see what was actually going on with that sling load.
Image credit Sergey Krivchikov on Wikipedia
Both the "Hook" and "Harke" represented, at best, solidly 60s technology, and their heavy-lift titles were being encroached upon by Western designs, namely the Sikorsky S-80, known as the CH-53E Super Sea Stallion in military service. Eventually it was time to move on. In the interim Mil developed the truly monstrous V-12, usually mistakenly called the "Mi-12" and given the NATO codename "Homer." The "Homer" was the largest helicopter ever made, using not one but two full-size Mi-6 rotors and was envisioned being able to carry strategic nuclear missiles. No production examples were made as it was deemed too big to be practical. In 1986 Mil rolled out the Mi-26, which was labeled the "Halo" by NATO. It's hardly an unfitting codename - though slower than many smaller (and later) helicopters, it's still capable of hitting around the 200 MPH mark. Moreover, it easily took back the heavy lift crown with a total capacity of over 20 tons and an internal volume said to be comparable to a C-130 Hercules. The Mi-26 can be fairly described as a "super-refined" Mi-6 leveraging off the V-12 program (if you squint, you can see a good bit of V-12 after a crash weight-loss program) and with the best updates and technology the Soviet Union can offer at the time, including an 8-blade main rotor which still remains unique in the manned helicopter world. The V-12 legacy also gives it a rather porpoise-shaped fuselage (apparently, its crews think it looks more like a flying cow).
Flying the Mi-26 reveals the limitations of 80s Russian technology. It has no less than four instrumented piloting stations, twice more than any modern Western aircraft designer would ever dare dream of, and each one is wallpapered with "steam gauge" dials. The fancy computer screen Multi-Function Displays Western pilots are now accustomed to are few and far between. Then again, most Western pilots aren't accustomed to swallowing entire fully-loaded fuel tankers or eight-wheeled "Scud" missile launchers into the cargo hold either.
The first operational use of the Mi-26 came very shortly after its public reveal - they were used in emergency response and recovery operations over the Chernobyl disaster along with Mi-6s, including spraying radiation-neutralizing chemicals (you can see more at English Russia). They've also been extensively used in UN operations where the super heavy-lift capability became an invaluable asset. Mi-26s have been exported all over the world including Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and India. The Indian Army has become particularly fond of the Mi-26 and taking advantage of its raw power for extreme high altitude operations in the Himalayas, setting a number of records. The Indian Army is also one of the early adopters of the latest variant, the Mi-26T2, primarily identifiable from a spotlight added underneath the right pilot's station.
Despite its amazing capability, its sheer size and complexity can be very taxing. Reportedly, Peru and Mexico have removed their "Halos" from service, in the latter case having two out of their entire fleet of three helicopters crash. India declined additional Mi-26 purchases in favor of Boeing CH-47 Chinooks. A Russian Mi-26 was shot down over Chechnya in a very visible incident, highlighting the vulnerability of such large helicopters in combat roles.
Nonetheless, the Mi-26 remains an important staple of the Russian Army. No doubt as tensions increase between Ukraine and Russia, we'll continue to see Putin parade these huge beasts around everywhere as appropriate symbols of Russian military might and power projection.
Opening image credit Alex Beltyukov on Wikipedia