As war losses mount, Ukraine honors a veteran jet fighter pilot who died in collision
KYIV, Ukraine — During a somber ceremony in Kyiv on Tuesday morning, Ukraine's military along with family and friends held a funeral for Andrii Pilshchykov.
The ace jet fighter pilot, age 30, known by the call sign "Juice," flew dozens of combat missions in the early days of Russia's invasion that began in February 2022.
He was killed Friday west of Kyiv in a collision between two training aircraft. Two other pilots, Viacheslav Minka and Serhii Prokazin, also died.
In an emotional video released over the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the accident a "catastrophe in the sky" and said an investigation is underway.
Pilshchykov "helped our country a lot — a lot," Zelenskyy said.
During the early weeks of the war, NPR interviewed Pilshchykov as he and other Ukrainian pilots scrambled to prevent Russia from gaining air superiority.
"We were waiting for a much more effective threat from the Russian side," he said.
Remarkably, Ukraine's tiny fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 planes managed to hold off Russia's larger fleet of newer, more sophisticated jet fighters.
But right from the start, Pilshchykov said his country needed more advanced U.S.-made F-16s to win the war.
"It's a great problem to fight with their fighters for us because they have an advantage in this technology," he said. "Unfortunately our jets are not capable to be effective against them."
During Tuesday's ceremony, at the Partiarchal Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Pilshchykov was honored by fellow members of his 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade.
While priests chanted prayers, a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag was draped over the aviator's coffin. Members of his family and the public placed asters and roses next to his officer's cap.
"He was a very smart guy, just a great pilot," said one of Pilshchykov's fellow pilots, who declined to give his name for security reasons.
"It's very sad. His dream [to fly F-16s] almost came true. Unfortunately things happened as they happened," he said.
After his death, Ukraine's air force granted Pilshchykov a posthumous promotion to the rank of major.
In the end, one of "Juice's" biggest contributions to the war effort may have been advocating in interviews, like the one with NPR, for Western militaries to donate F-16 jets to Ukraine.
He lived long enough to see the U.S. finally agree to allow countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway, to contribute dozens of the more advanced fighters. That decision came earlier this month.
The Biden administration has also agreed to train a small number of Ukrainian pilots.
Ukraine is now in desperate need of enough aviators to fly the F-16s expected to arrive next year. Which means this accident was a symbolic loss, but also devastating in practical terms.
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