After the firefighting and containment operations, the helicopters were so radioactive, they were abandoned at the site. Some were later buried. The bottoms of the fuselages, which had been exposed to the open reactor core, were a particular concern. After the helicopters were abandoned in fields, the grass under them turned yellow, witnesses said.
It was a harrowing experience for the pilots. In total, 28 liquidators, including members of the firefighting team on the ground, died from radiation poisoning within days or weeks of their exposure. The longer-term toll among the pilots, from cancer or other diseases, is uncertain. One helicopter pilot, Anatoly Grishchenko, died of leukemia in 1990 after attributing it to radiation.
But General Antoshkin made it through. Despite his exposure, he went on to a three-decade career in the Russian Air Force, then served in Parliament with the governing United Russia party before contracting the virus late last year.
Information on survivors was not immediately available.
Nikolai Timofeyevich Antoshkin was born on Dec. 19, 1942, in a village in the southern Ural Mountain region of Bashkortostan, according to an official biography. He was drafted into the military at 19 and chosen for flight school.
He fought in several of his country’s wars, including the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the border war with China in 1969 and in Afghanistan in 1979, according to the biography, published by RIA, the state news outlet.
But he won his highest honors, including the Hero of the Soviet Union award, for the flights over Chernobyl, in recognition of the extraordinary risks.
“Risking his own life, he saved the lives of others,” Mr.
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