A 30-ton Mi-26 helicopter, operated on a NATO contract by the Moldovan firm Pecotox Air, was hovering with a load of supplies near the town of Sangin in southern Afghanistan on July 14, when Taliban fighters fired on it with a rocket-propelled grenade. The crew of an accompanying helicopter saw the rocket sheer off the Mi-26's tail boom, causing it to crash. All six Ukrainian crew members on board died, as did an Afghan boy on the ground.
Less than a week later, on July 19, a civilian Mi-8 operated by a Russian company crashed at the NATO base in Kandahar, killing 16 passengers. The two crashes were the latest in a spate of fatal aviation incidents in southern Afghanistan in mid-July, underscoring the dangers faced by civilian aviators working on behalf of the U.S. and NATO in the contested region -- and by their passengers. The incidents also highlight the murky role Eastern European military contractors, who some might call "mercenaries," play in world conflicts.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s left thousands of former military helicopters scattered across the former Soviet republics. With the steady expansion of military and humanitarian operations in the Balkans, the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa over the past two decades, these abandoned helicopters found a new role. Small operators snapped up the choppers, and then offered them to NATO, the EU, the U.S. and aid agencies on a contract basis. Contract aviators also filled a niche staffing custom air forces, bought whole by embattled governments such as Chad's.