On 11th April 2021, the aerobatic group ´Berkuts´ (Беркуты, English: Golden eagles) celebrated the 29th anniversary of its foundation. The team, being a part of the 344th Centre for Combat Employment and Retraining of Personnel of Army Aviation in Torzhok (344-й Центр боевого применения и переучивания лётного состава армейской авиации), is the only Russian helicopter aerobatic group and also the sole helicopter team in the world, flying their displays with real combat rotorcraft.
Although the team was established on 12th April 1989, the official birthday of ´Berkuts´ is celebrated on 11th April, on the anniversary of their first public display in 1992. Its foundation and growth are due to B.A. Vorobyov (a commander of the 1038th training centre until 1989 and then a commander of the 344th training centre) and his deputy, Y.E. Ignatov.
At this point it is important to mention a little bit more about Maj. Gen. Boris Alekseyevich Vorobyov, who was a real legend of Soviet (and then Russian) helicopter aviation. His adventure with aviation started already in 1966, and in 1982 he graduated with honours the Gagarin Air Force Academy. During his military career Vorobyov had flown all types of the Soviet-made helicopters and between 1983 and 1984 was deployed to Afghanistan, in a role of the squadron commander. He was also one of godfathers of Ka-50 ´Black Shark´ helicopter, being its test and display pilot. The godfather of the ´Berkuts´ team has gone down in history of aviation, by performing an oblique loop with this type of rotorcraft. And it was also the ´Black Shark´ that became fatal for Vorobyov. On 17th July 1998 he died in a crash that occurred during a test flight of the Ka-50 in Torzhok.
In their first years, the ´Berkuts´ were flying with Mi-24 combat helicopters and the team consisted of just three pilots. As already mentioned, the first public display was flown on 11th April 1992 at Kubinka airfield, to honour the Cosmonautics Day. Shortly thereafter, the group was enlarged to four ´Hinds´.
The next years brought another significant public performances – a display flown over Poklonnaya Gora at the 50th anniversary of the V-Day in Europe, the 850th birthday of Moscow, several participations in the Victory Parade over the Red Square and many displays flown at domestic aviation shows, sports events and patriotic celebrations.
In 2012, the team received new combat helicopters, six Mi-28N and one Ka-52. On daily basis, the aircraft used by the ´Berkuts´ are performing the usual duties within the 344th training centre. Exactly the same applies to the team crew, being the flying instructors at Torzhok. Flying as the aerobatic team is their additional task, done with passion and without any extra pay.
´Berkuts´ flying display contains some elements of combat training, as covering a landing zone of airborne forces, search and rescue operation or helicopter aerial combat. In addition, usual flying performance of the team includes solo aerobatics performed with both Mi-28N and Ka-52.
The unique nature of the ´Berkuts´ is largely due to flying their display with real combat rotorcraft, that are on regular basis used by helicopter units of the Russian Army Aviation. They are also painted in regular camouflage, with a small additions as the group´s emblem and a side strip with Russian national colours. During the display, the ´Berkuts´ are flying in a formation of six helicopters with a total weight exceeding 70 tonnes.
The only other helicopter acrobatics team in Europe – Patrulla ASPA of the Spanish Air Force – is flying much smaller Eurocopter EC120 Colibri light helicopter. And there is currently no other group in the world flying a display with combat helicopters, although they were quite popular several years back.
Mention may be made here of Zespół Pokazowy Skorpion (Scorpio display team), an unofficial Polish Air Force group of four Mi-24 helicopters, performing their displays between 1991 and 1998; as well as Mi-24 display team of the Czech Air Force (commonly referred as ´Hinds´), that flown up to four helicopters in the early 1990s. Sadly, none of those groups persisted throughout the years of air force reductions and military budget cuts.
The same almost happened to the sole Russian helicopter display group. Both the ´Berkuts´ and the 344th training centre went through a difficult time and were close to be disbanded. Luckily, in this case no final decision was made and the team survived until today. It is perhaps only to be regretted that due to its specifics – using the real combat aircraft, being flown by active military personnel, the ´Berkuts´ team is performing their displays only on the territory of the Russian Federation.
Regrettably, the history of the group also includes a few tragic moments. Apart from the already mentioned death of its founder, the ´Berkuts´ have lost three other pilots, but only one of them, I.V. Butenko, was killed in relation to the team´s activity (on 2nd August 2015 in Ryazan, when his Mi-28N crashed during a display). Two other team members were killed when performing their military duty: M.I. Ilyukin died in a crash of Ka-27PS helicopter in 1997 and V.M. Cimbalov was shot down in Mi-24 over Chechnya in 1995.
According to the group´s web site, the ´Berkuts´ team currently consists of: A.F. Popov (team commander and leader), E.L. Kozachek, D.V. Minyailo, A.A. Stopychev, Y.V. Shevchenko and D.D. Archipov.
The ´Berkuts´ team has celebrated their 29th birthday with a training flight, being a rehearsal to this year´s Victory Parade in Moscow. And this will be the first opportunity to see the team´s performance during the 2021 season.