When Nikolai Antoshkin first flew a helicopter over the wrecked, burning carcass of the exploded Chernobyl nuclear power plant in April 1986, he felt a tickle in his throat, a taste of iron on his tongue, and then the overwhelming urge to vomit.

It was not the only time Antoshkin, the Russian air force colonel-general who has died aged 78 after contracting coronavirus, would fly over and around the exposed reactor core. In the initial weeks following the nuclear disaster, he devised, designed and led a daring effort to smother the fire and stop it belching massive amounts of fatal radiation across the European continent.

Reactor number four at the nuclear plant in Soviet Ukraine exploded on April 26, blowing apart its protective lid and spewing radiation into the atmosphere. It remains the world’s worst civil nuclear disaster, measured by casualties, cost or environmental impact.

Communist party leaders in Moscow initially froze as they wrestled with the vast scale of reputational, not radioactive, damage. But as apparatchiks dithered, denied and did all they could to suppress news of the accident, in Chernobyl men like Antoshkin got to work.

He led a team of airborne “liquidators” — the name given to the thousands of soldiers and civilians who were hurriedly sent to the disaster site and ordered to stop the radiation leakage and clean up contaminated areas. They had only rudimentary protection, and little or no warning of the radiation pouring out of the glowing wreckage.

With mangled metal and debris surrounding the exposed reactor core, and fears rising that the fire inside it could increase the amount of emitted radiation, those in charge ordered it to be sealed off from the air. So they turned to Antoshkin to command a fleet of 100 helicopters loaded with bags filled with sand, boron and other materials to smother the core from above.

Hovering 200m above the smoking mass, Antoshkin said the reading on his dosimeter went off the scale — he told his pilots that the exposure was 1,500 roentgen, easily enough to kill someone. When he spoke to scientists on the ground, he was told it was probably more than double that level.

“I told them it doesn’t matter, the order must be carried out, the order for the sake of the life of people and all living things,” Antoshkin said in a television interview in 2016. “Hanging over the reactor, looking into this hell, tied with a safety belt over the side of a helicopter, throwing 60, 80 or 100kg bags and, figuratively speaking, to look into the face of death: it is not so easy.” Yet survive he did, to the relief of his wife and two children.

Antoshkin flew sorties, organised schedules and devised new firefighting techniques. He commandeered 10,000 parachutes and filled them with the sand mixture to be dropped from helicopters. They meanwhile had to manoeuvre delicately in order to hit the core below while avoiding flying directly over it, where the air temperature touched 200 degrees Celsius and smoke billowed. “We worked from sunrise to sunset,” he said.

Two weeks and 5,000 airdropped tons later, the fire was out and the mound of sand and boron encasing the core had cut the level of emitted radiation by around 100 times.

Born on December 19, 1942 into a family of peasants living in a one-street hamlet in Bashkortostan, a region in the southern Urals 1,200km east of Moscow, Nikolai Timofeevich Antoshkin was drafted into military service aged 19 and graduated from pilot school in 1965. He took part in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, border conflicts with China a year later, and fought in Afghanistan. He was head of the air force headquarters in Kyiv, now Ukraine’s capital, when the disaster happened.

After retiring from the air force in 1998, Antoshkin was elected to Russia’s parliament in 2014. For his actions at Chernobyl, he was ordained Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest honour. “Nikolai Timofeevich selflessly served our Motherland,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of Russia’s parliament. “Risking himself, he saved the lives of people, eliminating the consequences of the . . . accident.”

Many years later, Antoshkin recalled: “When I arrived at Chernobyl the sun was beginning to set but you could recognise the fire from the reactor and the smoke rising 400m, 600m up into the sky . . . The wind was already blowing the radiation here and there.” He then foresaw his heroic role. “Since the invention of flight . . . there has been no war, accident or tragedy solved without aircraft . . . I immediately knew they would ask us to help. And I was ready.”