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Ukrainian Pilot ‘Juice’ Among Three Killed In Jet Collision, Says Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Three Ukrainian military pilots, including one nicknamed Juice who campaigned for the supply of F-16s, were killed on Friday when two combat training aircraft collided over a region west of Kyiv, Ukraine’s air force said.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is counting on swift training of crews to fly F-16 fighter jets promised by western allies, said in his nightly video address that the three men included Andriy Pilshchykov, callsign Juice, “a Ukrainian officer, one of those who greatly helped our state”.

Air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat described Pilshchykov – who was fluent in English and aged 29 when Reuters interviewed him in December – as a “mega talent” and leader of reforms.

“You can’t even imagine how much he wanted to fly an F-16,” Ihnat wrote online. “But now that American planes are actually on the horizon, he will not fly them.”

The air force announced the crash on its Telegram app. “We express our condolences to the families of the victims. This is a painful and irreparable loss for all of us,” it said.

Pilshchykov came to prominence as Juice in the very first stages of the war, pleading for American jet fighters when the under-equipped Ukrainian air force was battling to help repel Russia’s ultimately failed efforts to capture the whole country including Kyiv, the capital.

Ukraine has been forced to prosecute its aerial defence using ageing Soviet-era fighter jets such as the Mig-29, which Pilshchykov flew. Speaking as Juice in an interview with CNN two months ago, he said Ukrainian pilots were already trying to master the basics of F-16 flying in advance, using improvised flight simulators and whatever unclassified manuals they could find.

“I believe that in four to six months we can learn to fly it, it’s realistic,” Juice told CNN. “Our transition training will be pretty freakin’ easy.”

In 2022, he and another Ukrainian pilot, callsign Moonfish, met with reporters in Washington as part of a push for Ukraine to receive western fighter jets and equipment. Juice was supposedly given the nickname by American pilots during a joint training exercise, because he would not drink alcohol.

Zelenskiy offered condolences to the pilots’ families and added: “Ukraine will never forget anyone who defended the free skies of Ukraine.”

Zelenskiy noted that the third Saturday in August is also when Ukrainian military and civilian aviation celebrate their professional day, and said the introduction of F-16s would mark a “new level” for military aviation.

“This will also bring civil aviation back to the Ukrainian skies, as it will move us closer to victory and provide Ukraine with greater security,” he said.

Radio Svoboda shared video of blackened, mangled aircraft remains being removed from a field far from the frontlines at the village of Sinhury, about 10km (six miles) south of Zhytomyr and about 150km (90 miles) west of Kyiv.

In the video, a man said he heard an explosion in the air above the school building and then two planes fell in smoke and flames. A woman described seeing two planes flying at a distance from one another then coming closer and closer to each other before the crash.

Military analyst and former pilot Roman Svitan, in an interview posted by online outlet Espreso TV, said the crash was “most likely” related to formation flying. He said the standard distance was 50-70 metres but that sometimes planes flew practically on top of each other at a distance of 3-4 metres.

He said the L-39 was at once a fighter, an attack aircraft, a bomber and a training plane but that in formation flying, especially at low altitudes, “there’s no time for ejection”.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office announced a criminal investigation had been opened into whether flight preparation rules were violated. “It is too early to discuss details. Certainly, all circumstances will be clarified,” Zelenskiy said.

The L-39 – also known as the Albatross though never given an official Nato name – is a Czech-made single-engined trainer and light fighter that is cited as the most widely used aircraft of its kind in the world.

With Reuters

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