A Short History of the—Eventually—Awesome Hind Helicopter
Mi-24 had a lot of problems early on
Russia’s Mi-24 attack helicopter is more than 47 years old. It’s high time we busted some of the more widespread myths regarding the gunship that has gone by many names. Crocodile. Drinking Glass. Devil’s Chariot. Hind.
In a celebratory press release following its 45th anniversary in 2014, Russian Helicopters—part of the state-owned Rostec corporation, which is now responsible for production of the latest Mi-35M version of the Hind—explained that the helicopter “was conceived and built in record time, with development starting in 1968.”
That’s not quite true, as we’ll see.
Nor is altogether accurate that the Hind has always boasted “high levels of efficiency and reliability and … sound construction,” to quote Russian Helicopters CEO Alexander Mikheev.
While it’s true that today the Hind is in service with a greater number of operators than ever before, the helo’s path to service was actually a pretty rocky one. The initial Hind prototype flew for the first time on Sept. 19, 1969, but it wasn’t until 1976 that the Soviet army formally adopted the helicopter.
The Mi-24 needed extensive design changes before it was ready for front-line use. The helicopter’s outward appearance changed radically along with its combat role. The menacing-looking Mi-24 was so radical that Soviet planners struggled to figure out exactly what to do with the aircraft.
It’s popular to describe the Hind as a “flying tank,” but “flying infantry fighting vehicle” is a more accurate description. Inventor Mikhail Mil’s initial mock-up of the V-24—which would become the Hind—was actually similar to the U.S. Army’s UH-1 Huey of Vietnam fame.
The V-24 did, however, establish the key features of the 2,300 or so production Hinds that followed—two main flight crew, armor protection, accommodation for seven or eight fully armed troops, a gun, plus rockets and guided missiles.
A flying infantry fighting vehicle was a pretty radical concept—and at first, the Soviet Defense Ministry was reluctant to back the project. But Mil won over the ministry. In the course of three different mock-ups and five iterations of the forward fuselage, Mil eventually settled on a 10.5-ton design powered by a pair of turboshafts.
At this early stage, the military demanded that the Hind carry a 12.7-millimeter heavy machine gun in a chin turret, plus high-tech Shturm guided missiles.
In a hurry to get the new rotorcraft ready for service, Mil elected to borrow components from existing designs. The main dynamic components—including engines and the main and tail rotors—came from the Mi-14 maritime helicopter.
Otherwise, the Mi-24 was a major departure. The two primary crew—a pilot and a gunner—sat in tandem under a “greenhouse” canopy with flat glass panels. There was also room for a third crewman, a technician. The troop compartment was in the center fuselage and featured back-to-back seating.
The Mi-24’s swift development meant the aircraft was ready long before its planned Shturm missile was. As a result, the Hind initially packed the older Falanga-M—a fairly primitive radio-controlled missile.
Early flight trials uncovered the first major design shortcoming. The Mi-24’s stub wings, meant to provide lift as well as carry weaponry, had an adverse affect on stability. As a result, Mil added new stub wings with a downward angle.
Another problem related to the original missile installation, which relied on pylons fixed to the lower fuselage. These interfered with the line-of-fire of rockets launched off the stub wings. They also prevented the cabin doors from opening. Rectifying this, Mil relocated the missiles to the tips of the stub wings.
In its original form, the cockpit was also too cramped for the weapons guidance system, forcing Mil to graft a longer and more pointed nose onto the prototypes helos.
First of the line
The Mi-24A was finally ready for production in 1970. Mil’s company eventually produced around 240 copies. Soon the next problem emerged. Hovering in a crosswind could result in the Mi-24 rotating uncontrollably on its vertical axis. After a number of accidents, Mil moved the tail rotor from the starboard side of the tail to the port side.
Equally significantly, the interim Falanga-M missile with its manual guidance system hit its target just 30 percent of the time. Combat doctrine was shifting and planners now saw the Mi-24A increasingly as a rotary-wing close air support aircraft, rather than an armed troopship. But the inadequacies of the Falanga-M rendered the Mi-24A redundant in the CAS role.
In practice, Soviet Mi-24As stuck mostly to aircrew training and tactics development. Examples nonetheless made their way to export customers including Afghanistan, Vietnam, Libya and Ethiopia.
A first bid to increase the firepower of the Hind came with the Mi-24B, which added a Gatling-type four-barrel 12.7-millimeter machine gun in a powered chin turret. At the same time, the helo gained the enhanced Falanga-P missile with semi-automatic guidance.
Targeting accuracy improved with the addition of low-light-television and infrared sensors under the nose. The Mi-24B retained the greenhouse flight deck of the Mi-24A.
Enter the gunships
In the event, the Mi-24B failed to make it into full service. The original cockpit configuration offered limited visibility and, in early 1971, a major redesign gave the Hind the stepped-tandem cockpit configuration that remains a hallmark of the design to this day.
The first of the new-look models with the gunship-style forward fuselage was supposed to be the Mi-24V, which would also introduce modified landing gear and the option of underwing fuel tanks.
Unfortunately, the long-awaited Shturm missiles were still unavailable, so Mil devised the interim Mi-24D gunship with the less-than-perfect Falanga-P. The Mi-24D began production in 1973 and entered Soviet service in 1976. Mil also developed an export version, the downgraded Mi-25. The company produced around 650 Mi-24Ds and Mi-25s.
In 1973, the Shturm-V was finally ready and the first example of the definitive Mi-24V appeared. With its superior range, flight speed and accuracy, the semi-automatic-guided Shturm allowed the Mi-24 to excel in the close air support role.
The Mi-24V also boasted up-rated engines for hot and high operations as well as improved communications avionics. The Mi-24V went into production in 1976, and around 1,400 examples of this and the export Mi-35 rolled off the assembly line in the decade that followed.
Based on hard lessons Soviet pilots learned in Afghanistan, later Mi-24Vs featured a radar homing and warning system, infrared-suppressing exhaust nozzles, plus an infrared jammer and launchers for infrared countermeasures to spoof heat-seeking missiles.
In the early days of the Mi-24 project, Mil had envisaged a cannon-armed gunship with a hard-hitting, twin-barrel 23-millimeter weapon. But the Defense Ministry had insisted on a smaller gun.
In 1975, as the Mi-24 mutated from a flying fighting vehicle to flying artillery, Mil returned to the cannon idea. The resulting Mi-24P was essentially a Mi-24V without the four-barrel gun turret and a rapid-firing twin-barrel 30-millimeter weapon mounted on the starboard side of the forward fuselage.
The new version entered production in 1981 and also yielded the Mi-35P export equivalent. Mil built around 620 examples.
The Sukhoi Su-25 fixed-wing CAS aircraft carried the same gun. In Afghanistan, the two types performed a similar role supporting troops on the ground.
While the 30-millimeter cannon was a formidable weapon, it was also heavy, carried too little ammunition and generated plenty of recoil. In an effort to provide a definitive gun armament, Mil went back to the drawing board, and in 1985 produced the Mi-24VP.
This had a lighter 23-millimeter twin-barrel cannon in a remote-controlled turret in the nose. But the turret was unreliable. Entering production in 1989, the Mi-24VP never appeared in significant numbers.
Operations in Chechnya revealed to the Russians the importance of a night-vision capability. Thus the Mi-24PN. Mil took off-the-shelf technologies, including a night vision sighting system and color cockpit displays, and converted no more than 18 examples starting in 2004.
Today, the Hind is a success and shows few signs of diminishing. Low-rate production continues. In recent years, Russian Helicopters has won orders for older versions of the helicopter from Armenia, Indonesia, Myanmar and Peru.
For those customers with the money and the requirement for additional capabilities, Russian Helicopters offers the Mi-35M. This latest Hind version introduces a true night and all-weather capability and more potent guided weapons. Russia, Azerbaijan, Brazil and Venezuela have ordered the Mi-35M.
The Mi-35M brings the venerable Hind firmly up to date. It includes the main rotor of the more modern Mi-28 gunship, an X-shape low-noise tail rotor, shortened stub wings and non-retractable landing gear.
New weapons options include the Ataka-V air-to-ground missile and the Igla-V air-to-air missile. Revised avionics include an electronic flight instrumentation system, new navigation system with GPS and an observation and targeting payload that features a forward-looking infrared sensor TV camera and laser rangefinder.
The Mi-24 and its many variants have only sporadically seen service in their originally intended “flying fighting vehicle” role, and instead the helo has carved a niche for itself as a rugged and affordable CAS platform. As such, it has almost certainly seen action in more different conflicts than any other postwar combat aircraft.
This article originally appeared on Oct. 16, 2014.