Russian helicopter pilot downed in Syria saved numerous lives over 25-yr service

A still image taken on July 10, 2016 from a video posted by Islamic State's affiliated news agency Amaq purportedly shows the moment a helicopter is shot down east of Palmyra in Syria. © Reuters
Veteran helicopter pilot Ryafagat Khabibulin, who died in battle in Syria’s Homs, was among Russia’s most decorated and renowned military pilots. He had taken part in multiple operations in the North Caucasus over the last 25 years.

Ryafagat Khabibulin (b. 1965) graduated from Air Force school in 1988 and was stationed in Poland with the 55th combat helicopter regiment, where he trained to replace helicopter pilots taking part in the Afghanistan campaign.

In February 1989, all Soviet troops were withdrawn from the country and Khabibulin continued to train with senior officers, as some 85 percent of the pilots in his unit had served missions in Afghanistan. They taught the younger pilots the tactics and tricks of warfare in the mountains.

In 1992, Khabibulin’s helicopter squadron was redeployed back to Russia, in the southern Krasnodar region.

In autumn 1992, pilots of the 55th squadron flew missions to curb the conflict in the North Caucasus between the Ingush and the Ossetians.

The squadron then took part in putting an end to the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia. In 1993-1994, Ryafagat Khabibulin spent the whole148 days of the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict on missions.

During the 1994 campaign in Chechnya, Khabibulin's helicopter came under fire from militants. Ninety-seven bullet holes were later found in the aircraft's fuselage. Everybody onboard was killed except the pilot, who suffered a fragmentation wound to the face and had his right thigh shot through. Close to blacking out, in a cabin full of smoke and spilled fuel, Khabibulin managed to secure the aircraft. He spent the next eight months in hospital.

Despite serious injuries, Khabibulin stepped back into the ranks and continued service in Chechnya until 1996.

From Chechnya, Khabibulin returned to Abkhazia. He monitored the truce there, only to return to Chechnya in 1999, when Chechen militants led by Shamil Basaev attacked nearby Dagestan, thus beginning the second Chechen campaign.

By that time he was one of the most experienced military helicopter pilots in Russia. After the active phase of the operations was over, Lieutenant-Colonel Ryafagat Khabibulin was regularly deployed to Chechnya where his squadron operated from the Khankala airfield.

When Georgia attacked South Ossetia in August 2008, Khabibulin went on sorties in the Ossetian Mountains. During one, his helicopter evacuated 12 wounded soldiers from the battlefield.

In his numerous rescue missions, many of them in extreme weather conditions or under fire, Khabibulin saved the lives of at least 40 wounded soldiers. He received numerous commendations for his skill.

His last assignment came this spring, when he was deployed to Syria as pilot-instructor.

Lieutenant-Colonel Ryafagat Khabibulin and weapons system operator Evgeny Dolgin died in combat in the Syrian province of Homs on July 8, when their Mi-25, after having fired on a group of advancing Islamic State militants, was hit with a missile in their tail and crashed to the ground.

Later, the Defense Ministry announced: "The skillful actions of the helicopter pilots pushed back the terrorist attack and thwarted their effort to pierce through the Syrian Army defenses" in the area.

Ryafagat Khabibulin and Evgeny Dolgin are now to be posthumously decorated with top state awards.

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