Remembering Sergei Volodin who made first courageous flight over Chernobyl radiation hot zone
The aftermath of the explosion at reactor no. 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near the now-abandoned town of Pripyat on April 25-26, 1986 involved what was arguably the largest clean-up operation in the history of mankind.
It is estimated that as many as 300,000-350,000 workers — which included power plant operators, emergency workers initially, and then military personnel and non-professionals in the latter stages — were involved in the operation, which lasted seven months. They were called 'liquidators' and their contributions to ensuring that the disaster was contained were heroic, to say the least, with their efforts recognized with a unique 'clean up' medal.
But they were undoubtedly aided by the work of men like Sergei Volodin, a helicopter pilot, who on the day of the explosion, was tasked with flying around the power plant with a dosimeter — a device that measures exposure to ionizing radiation — and measuring the radiation levels.
Volodin began flying helicopters from the Soviet Air Force base in Kiev in 1976, but for the most part, the job was mundane. He spent years flying bureaucrats and generals around the country in an MI-8 helicopter that was equipped with lounge chairs, a toilet, and even a bar.
On the rare occasion, he would fly by the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, flicking on the dosimeter out of sheer curiosity. As expected, the device didn't as much as flicker. But all that would change on the night of April 25.
Volodin, who was a captain at this point, and his crew fatefully had the emergency rescue shift for the Kiev area that night, and as a consequence of the government hastily assembling an emergency commission to tackle the disaster, his helicopter was the first on the scene.
He was instructed to fly around the town of Pripyat with an army major on board to take dosimeter readings and map the radioactivity in the area. But because little was still known about the fatal effects of radiation, both did not wear the necessary protective clothing and sported just shirtsleeves.
The explosion aside, the night was a clear one, though Volodin immediately began suspecting something was terribly wrong when he flew toward the plume of smoke and steam rising up from reactor no. 4 and saw strange-looking, viscous droplets of liquid on the canopy.
When he snuck a peek at his dosimeter, he couldn't believe his eyes: the reading had quite literally gone off the scale. The device was built to measure radiation up to 500 roentgen per hour — above that point, neither the equipment nor humans are supposed to work — and when he tinkered to set it at its maximum, it did little to help the accuracy.
Volodin later learned the plume he flew through was emitting radiation at 1,500 roentgen per hour. To put that into context, the human body absorbs a fatal amount of radiation if it has been exposed to a field of 400 roentgen for 60 minutes, meaning he would have been dead had he spent any more than 15 minutes in and around the plume.
But unaware of the dangers at the time, Volodin established radiation readings for the map, then flew technicians from the plant around the reactor to assess the damage, and later a photographer, so the damage could be assessed in full. By all accounts, he should have been a dead man, and he admitted himself that he had taken such a high dose that "we thought we were already dead."
The message was repeated when he and his crew were hospitalized in the Kiev cardiology ward and he was told in no uncertain terms that he would never fly again. And because the doctors had no idea how to treat someone who had absorbed so much radiation, they told him to drink as much wine and vodka as he liked.
He stayed admitted till May, at which point he returned to fly in and out of the disaster zone for another five months. Volodin eventually retired from his post in 1991 and took up a desk job, at which point he was quoted as saying, "I have a strange illness. I'm afraid of flying."
HBO's upcoming historical drama miniseries, 'Chernobyl', is set to tell "the true story of one of the worst man-made catastrophes in history and the brave men and women who sacrificed to save Europe from unimaginable disaster." It is scheduled for a May 6 release.