(Image: Péter Daczi; a graveyard of abandoned helicopters)
In the aviation world, no aircraft is more versatile than the helicopter. Able to take off and land vertically, helicopters are ideally suited to congested areas, and can operate in remote locations and amid harsh terrain. The concept dates to at least 400 BC, when children in China played with bamboo-copters that generated lift by spinning a stick attached to a rotor. It was evident in the 15th century designs of Leonardo da Vinci, and by 1861 the word “helicopter” had been coined by Frenchman Gustave de Ponton d’Amécourt. The first flights followed half a century later.
Since those early years, ‘choppers’ have been adapted to all manner of duties. From search and rescue (SAR) and cargo to passenger transport, special ops and combat, the helo, with its ability to fill a multitude of roles, is as important today as ever before. But like all aircraft, emerging technologies soon render older models obsolete, and years of heavy use place great strain on airframes. Even the most cutting-edge rotorcraft are one day destined for the scrap heap. This article examines a series of abandoned helicopters that have come to the end of their days, from combat wrecks and bare hulks awaiting recycling to large helicopter graveyards and more. Since these photographs were taken, a small number have been refurbished for museum display, while others have been broken up.
Helicopter Graveyard at Buriakivka, Ukraine
(Image: Arkadiusz Podniesiński)
In 2015, we recounted the harrowing tale of the liquidators, a group of people who risked their lives in the massive clean-up operation that followed the April 26, 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, Ukraine. In that article, we also featured the vast rescue vehicle graveyard, where the radioactive hulks of helicopters, military and civilian vehicles sat in silent storage for years, too contaminated to scrap. In recent years, many of those vehicles have finally succumbed to the breaker, and the notorious Rassokha Equipment Cemetery is largely gone. But another lesser-known machine graveyard can be found at Buriakivka, several miles north across the river. Among the derelict hulks at Buriakivka are the abandoned helicopters pictured (above and top).
(Image: Arkadiusz Podniesiński)
These wrecked Mil Mi-24 Hind gunships are understood to have been used in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster to measure the level of radiation in the air around the nuclear power station. The Soviet-era choppers were reportedly flown over the crippled reactor multiple times, and were deemed too contaminated to recover once their mission was completed. The abandoned helicopters were photographed in 2011, their broken fuselages dumped near deep trenches containing buried equipment from the ghost town of Pripyat.
Abandoned Helicopter Graveyard in Hungary
(Images: Péter Daczi)
More withdrawn Mil Mi-24 Hind carcasses, crammed together on the grass of a neglected military facility in Hungary. The abandoned helicopters belonged to the Hungarian Air Force, which operated the Mi-24D and other models of the formidable Soviet-era gunship until the disbandment of the attack helicopter battalion’s 86th Wing. The defunct machines are pictured here awaiting recycling. Their location is understood to have been near Budapest, though they may now have been scrapped.
The Mil Mi-24 Hind first entered service in 1972 and remains operational with more than 50 nations worldwide. Known to Soviet pilots as the “flying tank”, around 2,300 Mi-24s (and its export versions, the Mi-25 and Mi-35) and estimated to have been built. In addition to its primary role as an attack helicopter, the powerful gunship also fills secondary troop transport duties, with room for eight soldiers or passengers. The type has also seen extensive combat in various conflicts, from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s to the Gulf War (1991), Sierra Leone, Crimea and the ongoing Syria Civil War.
Abandoned helicopters at Kinel-Cherkassy Air Base, Russia
Take a trip across Russia on Google Earth to the Samara region, and keep your eyes peeled for an abandoned airfield, its crumbling structures heavily overgrown and derelict dispersals home to nothing but four stripped-out helicopter hulks. Photographer seleste_rusa paid a visit to Kinel-Cherkassy air base and abandoned helicopter graveyard up close. The cannibalised rotorcraft stood on the disused taxiway of an old Soviet military wasteland long since left to the elements.
Crashed AH-64 Apache Helicopter Gunship, Iraq
(Image: US Government)
On or around March 30, 2003, this AH-64 Apache attack helicopter reportedly crashed on landing at Tactical Assembly Area SHELL in central Iraq. The US Army gunship, assigned to A/Company 2-101st Aviation Regiment, is understood to have been on active operations in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom when it came down in the desert. The Boeing AH-64 Apache is one of the world’s most formidable attack helicopter and has been in production from 1983 to the present day. Prior to Boeing, it was manufactured by Hughes Helicopters and McDonnell Douglas.
Helicopters Under Restoration at the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum, USA
This membership-supported museum near Reading, Pennsylvania features a superb collection of vintage aircraft, many restored to flying condition and regulars on the airshow circuit. But like many facilities of its kind, the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum (MAAM) also housed a small aircraft boneyard in a corner of the site. There, the stripped-out hulks of a Sikorsky H-34 Seahorse and Piasecki H-21 Shawnee awaited restoration. In recent years, however, the helicopter shells have been cleaned up and are now awaiting their turn for restoration.
(Image: Daniel Berek)
These rotary hulks are now being refurbished as display items. The above image shows Sikorsky UH-34J Seahorse N46922. Having been towed out of the boneyard and onto the tarmac, the old machine is now poised for some TLC.
Abandoned Mi-8 Helicopters (Location Unknown)
(Image: Péter Daczi)
Photographer Péter Daczi, who explored the Mi-24 graveyard in Hungary (above), also snapped this row of retired Mil Mi-8 Hip choppers. Parked on a neglected concrete ramp with their rotors removed, tires deflated and twin-engine intakes exposed to the elements, it’s possible these mothballed helicopters could be in long-term storage. Though their condition suggests they’ve been withdrawn from service, and are likely of little use other than a source of spare parts to keep other Mi-8s in the air. Another product of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the Mil Mi-8 medium transport helicopter first flew in 1961. Along with the newer Mi-17, it’s one of the most-produced helicopters in the world, with a staggering 17,000 machines rolled off a production line that remains active today.
Abandoned Soviet Helicopter Graveyard in Moscow, Russia
(Images: Alan Wilson)
Before they were cleared to make way for the regeneration of a derelict airfield at the heart of Moscow, these abandoned Soviet helicopters were part of one of the most impressive airplane graveyards yet featured on Urban Ghosts. The abandoned helicopters were photographed at Khodynka Aerodrome, which closed in 2003. The facility was home to a large number of stored aircraft, from withdrawn choppers to corroding high-performance fighter jets. The stored craft remained at the site, quietly corroding away and drawing countless photographers, until around 2016, by which time the former Khodynka Aerodrome had been completely redeveloped. The abandoned helicopters and other decaying Soviet hardware are understood to have been moved to Lukhovitsy, in Moscow Oblast.
Scrapped USMC Boeing CH-46 Sea Knight, Okinawa
(Image: Defense Logistics Agency)
The Boeing Vertol CH-46 Sea Knight was introduced back in 1964, and became both the US Navy and Marine Corps’ standard medium-lift utility helicopter until it was eventually retired by those branches of the United States Armed Forces in 2004 and 2015 respectively. Rugged and robust, with a service history to be proud of, this former USMC chopper has no chance against the mechanical digger that’s busy tearing it’s decommissioned hulk apart for scrap.
Mil Mi-2 Hoplite Helicopter Graveyard at Chernoye, Moscow
(Images: Alan Wilson)
This maintenance facility at Chernoye Airfield in Moscow is home to an impressive helicopter graveyard, which exists within a broader aviation boneyard containing other derelict Soviet-era aircraft types. It’s understood that while some of these withdrawn rotor craft have or will be refurbished, most are destined for the scrap heap. These photographs by Alan Wilson reveal a corroding collection of Mil Mi-2 Hoplites, a small transport and close air support helicopter manufactured in Poland between 1961 and 1998.
More Defunct Choppers at Chernoye, Russia
(Images: Alan Wilson)
Alongside the forlorn Hoplites and various other piston-driven fixed-wing relics, a motley collection of heavier Mi-8s and ‘9s, as well as Mil Mi-4s sit partially dismantled on the concrete. Only time will tell what becomes of them. These photographs were taken in 2012 and reveal the extensive fleet stored outside Chernoye’s Moscow Aviation-repair plant ROSTO.
Abandoned Helicopters at Predannack Airfield, UK
(Images: Ben Salter)
South of Mullion on Cornwall’s windswept Lizard Peninsula (the most southerly point of the British mainland), the old wartime night-fighter base at Predannack has become an aircraft cemetery of sorts in recent decades. At the southern tip of this bleak airfield sit a handful of rusting hulks, among them several abandoned helicopters, which are now used for crash rescue training by Royal Navy firefighters. Battered Westland Wessex (the British designation for the Sikorsky H-34) and Sea Kings offer realistic training aids alongside fixed-wing types like (Sea) Harriers, a Jaguar and a Canberra, some of them more battered than others.
Scrapped Mil Mi-24 Hind Gunship Graveyard, Totskoye, Russia
From the Flickr page: “Once awesome Hind gunships, these hulks, reduced under the Conventional Forces Europe Treaty are now just so much scrap metal.” The abandoned helicopter graveyard seen in the photograph lay on a military base in Trotskoye, a rural locality in Orenburg Oblast near Samara, Russia’s sixth largest city. The image reveals a row of spares-recovered Hind gunships awaiting scrapping, in compliance with post-Cold War international arms reduction treaties. Captured in 1994, these old combat hulks are now long gone.
Abandoned Westland Whirlwind Helicopter XP346, UK
(Images: True British Metal)
A British licensed-built version of the American Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw, the Westland Whirlwind formed the backbone of the Fleet Air Arm and RAF’s anti-submarine and search and rescue roles before being replaced by the more modern Wessex and Sea King helicopters. This withdrawn Whirlwind (serial number XP346) was photographed effectively abandoned at Long Marston, a defunct aviation museum that had acquired the old Royal Air Force machine in 1988. XP346 first flew in 1962 and was retired to ground duties in 1983, under the maintenance serial 8793M. Happily it’s since moved on again, and in 2014 was noted as preserved in Honeybourne, Warwickshire.
Derelict Wessex XP150 at the Fire Service College, UK
(Image: True British Metal)
Meanwhile, this corroding Westland Wessex HAS3, serial number XP150, has been at the Fire Service College at Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire, England, since 1993. The abandoned helicopter, which still wears the faded tail code “LS”, made its maiden flight in 1962 and was grounded in 1984. XP150 is now used to instruct firefighters in the art of crash rescue training, and stands close to an equally unfortunate Hawker Hunter GA11, WT804.
The Helicopter Museum’s Boneyard, Weston-super-Mare, UK
As we’ve seen above, it isn’t unusual for aviation museums to have their own boneyard out the back, generally to serve as a storage facility for airframes awaiting restoration or serving as spare parts for other items in the collection. The Helicopter Museum in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, features more than 80 choppers and auto-gyros from across the globe, so it’s not surprising that a respectable helicopter graveyard can be found on site, its inmates a varied collection of rusting rotary craft.
Abandoned Helicopters on Gotland, Sweden
(Images: Jens Dahlin)
According to photographer Jens Dahlin, these abandoned choppers, along with other Swedish military aircraft, were part of the Kåremo Flight Museum until it closed down. The collection was reportedly moved to Gotland in the Baltic Sea, where it sits neglected near the island’s only commercial airport, Visby. Among the corroding hulks are the American-built Bell UH-1 Iroquois ‘Huey’ and distinctive, tandem-rotor Piasecki H-21, better known as the ‘flying banana’, which had been operated by the Swedish Navy.
Abandoned Puma Helicopter Wreck, UK
(Images: Jon Wickenden)
This forlorn, empty shell of a former Chilean Army SA330L Puma H255 helicopter looks out of place amid the picturesque woodland of southern England. But this location isn’t as peaceful as one might expect, nor is the old chopper completely abandoned. Located near the Sussex market town of Horsham, the gaunt hulk now provides set dressing on a paintball course. All useful components from Puma H255-1 were removed before its arrival at Horsham. This spares recovery work may have been carried out at Cotswold Airport, where the decommissioned helicopter was spotted in 2004.
Scrap Harbin Z-5s in Albania
(Images: Rob Schleiffert)
These gutted metal carcasses are barely recognisable as the former military transport helicopters they once were. The scrap pile of Harbin Z-5 craft – Chinese-built versions of Russian Mi-4 Hounds – was photographed at an air base in Albania, and reflects the unsentimental way that many countries dispose of their out-of-service aircraft.
Chernobyl Helicopter Graveyard (& Other Rescue Vehicles), Ukraine
On April 26, 1986, when a reactor block exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power station, radioactive particles thrown into the atmosphere were poised to wreak havoc on the region for years to come. More than 30 people were killed in the explosion and hundreds more in its aftermath – a tragedy with consequences that persist to this day. Meanwhile, one of the most poignant monuments to victims of the Chernobyl disaster lies in the vast rescue vehicle cemetery parked amid the barren tundra of northern Ukraine. There, dozens of contaminated fire engines, trucks, military helicopters and armoured vehicles endure, looted and vandalised despite the exclusion zone around them. At its core is an abandoned helicopter graveyard comprising some 30 derelict rotor craft which tried in vein to extinguish the burning reactor with more than 4,000 tonnes of sand.
Skytech Helicopters at Zeebrugge, Belgium
Previously owned by the Belgian heavy-lift helicopter company Skytech, these massive Russian-built Mil Mi-26 craft are among the largest and most powerful helicopters ever produced. These photographs are understood to date to 2010, when the big choppers were in the process of being transported from Belgium to Russia, via the port of Zeebrugge. Apparently in need of some TLC, but otherwise internally intact, they are now reported to be in the hands of a private collector.
Redundant Westland Wessex Helicopter in Leicestershire, UK
(Image: Mat Fascione)
Photographed in 2007 by Mat Fascione, this old Westland Wessex helicopter hulk is now part of an outdoor pursuit centre in Shawell Wood, Leicestershire, UK. It’s unclear whether the wreck remains on site today.
Derelict Helicopter Hulk in a Forest (Location Unknown)
(Image: Rolf Rudak)
Another derelict helicopter carcasses sitting in woodland, this photograph was taken by Rolf Rudak in June, 2016. Unlike most of the abandoned rotorcraft featured in this article, the machine still has its rotor blades installed, though pretty much everything else appears to have been stripped out. The location of this wreck is unknown.
Mothballed Helicopter Boneyard in Arizona, USA
(Image: Rob Raine/USAF; US Navy Sikorsky CH-53E departs the Boneyard)
(Images: Bing Maps)
It likely goes without saying that the world’s most impressive helicopter boneyard is located at Davis-Monthan AFB in Arizona, the famous desert “Boneyard” where the American military’s withdrawn aircraft go to retire. Once there, they’re either stored for possible reuse, harvested for spare parts or recycled – often after spending many years in mothballs in the hot, dry climate. Though there are many more fixed-wing aircraft at the Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) than choppers, a quick search of Bing Maps turned up plenty of rotorcraft too.