18 July 2015

Syrian pilot details helicopter operations

Mohammed Najib, Ramallah and Jeremy Binnie
12 July 2015

Col Aboud's Mi-14P after it crashed in Idlib province. The main difference between the Mi-8/17 and the Mi-14 is that the naval variant has a boat-like hull and retractable landing gear so it can land on water. Source: Sham News Network

The Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) is suffering from a serious shortage of Mi-17 transport helicopters, according to Colonel Ali Aboud, a pilot who was captured by the Jabhat al-Nusra jihadist group after his helicopter crashed in March.

Jabhat al-Nusra, which is Al-Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, allowed Al-Jazeera to have an interview with Col Aboud that the Arabic news channel aired on 8 July. The pilot said he was being treated well, but described his experience in detention as difficult and asked SyAAF intelligence chief Major General Jamil Hasan to organise a prisoner exchange that would secure his freedom.

Col Aboud said he was an Mi-17 pilot for 27 years, but three years ago he was transferred to flying naval helicopters. He said the Syrian military had been forced to use its naval helicopters to support its ground forces because the SyAAF had only 45 operational helicopters after 90% of them had crashed or been destroyed.

Video footage of the aftermath of the crash that resulted in his capture shows he was flying an Mi-14P, the naval variant of the Mi-8/17.

The captured pilot said 30 Russian-made naval helicopters are operated out of Humaymim Naval Air Base outside Latakia and are used either for transportation or dropping improvised 'barrel' bombs. "Every helicopter can carry up to three explosive barrels," he said.

He added that the airstrikes are carried out from an altitude of 5,000 m to avoid short-range air defences and that helicopter crews use iPad applications to calculate wind speed, aircraft speed, and their distance from the target to ensure accurate bombing results.

The barrel bombs are produced in 200 kg, 500 kg, and 1,000 kg sizes at workshops that have been set up for the purpose at various Syrian airbases, Col Aboud said.

The captive pilot admitted that the Syrian regime allowed the use of barrels containing chlorine when bombing areas that are completely controlled by opposition groups, but he denied he had carried out such missions, saying his helicopter was not suitable. However, he added that some crews dropped chorine bombs without knowing their contents.

He said targets are selected by Syrian intelligence on the basis of human intelligence sources. The helicopter crews are usually told they are attacking armed groups, their weapons, or other assets, but the pilots accept that civilians might be killed during the strikes. Special newsletters are distributed at the airbases detailing the damage inflicted on rebel groups during the strikes, but do not mention civilian casualties.

Col Aboud said that Iran and Russia are providing weapons to the Syrian military. He said Russian technicians were present three years ago to help the Syrians operate their helicopters, but denied that Russia and Iran currently have any pilots or advisors operating alongside Syrian personnel.

While the SyAAF is short of helicopters, he indicated that it still has sufficient numbers of MiG-21, MiG-23, and MiG-29 jet fighters.

He said the SyAAF has 500 pilots, 80% of who are members of the minority Allawi sect that dominates the al-Assad regime, with the remaining 20% recruited from Syria's Sunni Arab majority. He said that morale remained "very high because they are defending their lands", although most military personnel he knows hopes the war will end soon.

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