The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

He pleaded for F-16s for Ukraine but died in a crash before he could fly one

Lilia Pilshchikov, sitting, the mother of Ukrainian pilot Andrii Pilshchikov, and his girlfriend, Melania Podoliak, to the right, are surrounded by family members and comrades during his funeral Tuesday in Kyiv. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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KYIV — The young Ukrainian pilot, Andrii “Juice” Pilshchikov, was scheduled to take an English exam that would have allowed him to begin his long-awaited training on U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets.

For more than a year, Pilshchikov, 30, had lobbied Washington to send the modern planes to Ukraine, even meeting U.S. senators to explain how F-16s could turn the tide in the war against Russia. In those planes’ absence, he flew Soviet-era MiG-29s, which he said in an interview with The Washington Post last year reduced Ukrainians to “just targets” for the Russians.

But before Pilshchikov had the chance to take the test, he and two other Ukrainian pilots — Viacheslav Minka and Serhiy Prokazin — were killed last week when two L-39 training jets collided in northwestern Ukraine in what the Ukrainian Air Force described as an accident during a combat mission.

Ukrainian troops are trying to take occupied territory back from Russia despite a debilitating deficit in air power against the invader’s more advanced air force and its arsenal of long-range missiles. The crash Friday eliminated three highly skilled pilots in a single incident, leaving a pall of grief over the country, where the national mood had already darkened amid the challenges of the slow-going counteroffensive.

The pilots’ deaths also set off anger at the United States for what some critics in Ukraine see as an unnecessary delay in sending the F-16s.

Pilshchikov was the pilot who tried to explain to the world that the old Soviet-era jets “are like flying coffins,” said Daria Kaleniuk, 36, executive director of Ukraine’s nongovernmental Anti-Corruption Action Center.

At Pilshchikov’s burial in Kyiv on Tuesday, Kaleniuk recalled that last week, he had sent a text to a group chat celebrating the U.S.’s decision to train some Ukrainian pilots in the United States.

The crash soon after showed “that every day of delay in decision-making somewhere in America is causing more deaths,” Kaleniuk said. If the training “started a year ago,” she said, “I bet Juice would be alive.”

Asked about those remarks, Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, said the Defense Department offers its “deepest condolences” to the families and loved ones of “the many Ukrainians who have lost their lives as a result of Russia’s needless war of aggression.”

The United States, Ryder said, has “rushed an unprecedented amount of critical battlefield capabilities” to the Ukrainian military to enable them to defend their nation and recover territory from Russian forces. “We will continue to do so,” he said, “for as long as it takes in support of the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom.”

Tetiana Shevchenko, a close friend of Pilshchikov, said “he flew on a plane that is probably older than him.”

Shevchenko, who also works at the Anti-Corruption Action Center, acknowledged that there are “no safe flights.” But “the delay with the planes,” she said, “leads to the fact that we lose the best.”

“Last year, we asked to start training before the decision on the transfer of the aircraft,” she added. “It is only starting now.”

Wagner chief Prigozhin is buried in secret as Kremlin seeks to avoid unrest

The pilots killed last week belonged to the 40th Brigade, which gained stardom in Ukraine last year after a legend circulated that a pilot known as “The Ghost of Kyiv” had single-handedly eliminated dozens of Russian planes in the first weeks of the war. Ukraine’s Air Force later said the “Ghost” was a fictional version of the collective work of the entire brigade.

Pilshchikov, a fluent English speaker who had trained in California, was supposed to have some rest and then take his English exam, said Andrii Snizhko, an officer in his brigade. “Unfortunately,” he said, “death breaks all our plans.”

Inside a church on the east bank of the Dnieper River in Kyiv, Pilshchikov’s mother, dressed in black, and his girlfriend, dressed in a black and olive green traditional Ukrainian shirt, watched solemnly as mourners placed flowers around the closed casket.

Some who attended the funeral did not know Pilshchikov personally but saw him as a symbol of the Ghost of Kyiv’s heroism.

“We respected him and were thankful to him,” said Natalia Duniasheva. The 52-year-old dentist struggled to hold back tears as she credited the 40th Brigade with stopping Russian forces from occupying the capital last year.

Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation said this week that it would investigate the cause of the crash that killed the pilots, including a thorough examination of the black boxes, the condition of the aircraft and whether flight preparation rules were followed.

On Facebook, the brigade said that Minka had more than 200 hours of combat flying and that Prokazin had more than 100. Minka “devoted a large part of his service to instruction,” the post said. Prokazin spent 24 years as a pilot and was remembered for his “ability to come to help in difficult situations.”

Ukrainian fighter pilots in old jets take on better-equipped Russians

Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat, who attended the funeral Tuesday, lauded Pilshchikov in a Facebook post as “a young officer with mega knowledge and mega talent.”

Helicopter pilot Anton Mykhailyuk, 32, said he met Pilshchikov soon after Russia launched its invasion in February 2022. Pilshchikov had been obsessed with aviation since his childhood, he said, and was positive but also “very strict.”

“He was very young, but he did a lot,” Mykhailyuk said outside the church in Kyiv. “Maybe more than commanders.”

Mykhailyuk’s father, Oleksandr, 61, also a pilot, said he had flown alongside Pilshchikov. The two men flying the L-39s with the young pilot last week were highly experienced on those planes, he said; they were among those who “had the most flight hours in the brigade” from flying above other aircraft on combat missions. “It’s an enormous loss,” Oleksandr Mykhailyuk said.

Adam Makos, an American military historian who co-founded the U.S.-based nonprofit “Wingmen for Ukraine,” helped organize Pilshchikov’s interviews with Western journalists and then his visit to Washington last year with a fellow pilot who goes by the call sign “Moonfish.”

Like many military pilots, they often obscured their faces in public to avoid being identified. But in Washington, Makos said, “they took off their masks and looked the senators in the eyes and told them how desperate Ukraine’s needs were.”

“They told them what they had seen, what they had gone through,” he said. “Juice told them that day: A lot of people doubt that we can master these Western aircraft. But I promise you it will not take us years like others say. We can do this in months.

“The sheer strength of his conviction convinced them it could be done,” he added.

Slow counteroffensive darkens mood in Ukraine

President Biden initially insisted Ukraine did not need F-16s, but eventually reversed course and approved the transfer of the U.S.-made fighter jets. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week visited the Netherlands and Denmark. Both countries’ leaders have promised to send F-16s to Ukraine — a delivery that Zelensky said will “give new energy, confidence, and motivation to fighters and civilians.” Norway also made a pledge.

Days later, Washington announced it would allow Ukrainian pilots to train in Tucson after plans to conduct the training in Europe faced potentially long delays.

On Telegram, Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, addressed Pilshchikov after his death.

“You dreamed of flying an F-16, and … did a lot to ensure that Ukraine received these aircraft,” Yermak wrote. “The sky will be ours, as you dreamed.”

Morgunov reported from Stuttgart, Germany. Dan Lamothe contributed to this report from Washington.

What to know about Ukraine’s counteroffensive

The latest: The Ukrainian military has launched a long-anticipated counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, opening a crucial phase in the war aimed at restoring Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and preserving Western support in its fight against Moscow.

The fight: Ukrainian troops have intensified their attacks on the front line in the southeast region, according to multiple individuals in the country’s armed forces, in a significant push toward Russian-occupied territory.

The front line: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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