‘He dreamed of F-16s’: Ukrainian Air Force leads tributes to pilot ‘Juice’

By Mariya Knight and Heather Chen, CNN

CNN  —  The Ukrainian Air Force has paid tribute to a well-known pilot who belonged to the “Ghost of Kyiv” unit after he died in a plane crash during a combat mission.

Andriy Pilshchikov, who went by the call sign “Juice”, and two other pilots died in the incident on Friday, August 25, when two L-39 combat trainer aircraft collided in the air, according to the Ukrainian Air Force.

“(Juice) was not just a pilot, he was a young officer with mega knowledge and mega talent. He dreamed of F-16s in the Ukrainian sky,” said Ukrainian Air Force spokesperson Yurii Ihnat in a statement Saturday.

“He was an excellent communicator (and) the driving force behind reforms in the Air Force aviation, a participant in many projects,” he continued.

“He devoted his short but very bright life to combat aviation,” Ihnat added, saying he had “done a tremendous job on this matter.”

He campaigned for F-16s

A MiG-29 pilot, Pilshchikov was part of a unit known as the “Ghost of Kyiv” that defended central and northern Ukraine at the outset of the war. He had campaigned for the supply of F-16s, the Air Force said.

“You can’t even imagine how bad he wanted to fly the F-16s,” Ihnat noted, adding that it was unfortunate that Pilshchikov would not be able to fly them given that “American planes were on the horizon.”

In an interview with CNN in June, Pilshchikov explained why he believed that it was important for Western nations to provide Ukraine with American fighter jets.

“Our counteroffensive could be much more effective and much safer for our guys on the ground,” he said.

Pilshchikov was on a combat mission near the city of Zhytomyr, about 140 kilometers (87 miles) west of Kyiv, when the incident occurred, according to the Air Force.

The Air Force expressed condolences to the families of the deceased, saying that “this is a painful and irreparable loss for all of us.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the plane crash that took three pilots’ lives “a disaster” and noted that Pilshchikov “helped his country a lot” and “would never be forgotten.”

“The investigation into what happened is ongoing. It’s too early to talk about the details. Of course, all the circumstances will be clarified,” Zelensky said.

In an interview last year with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Juice said he got his nickname during a trip to the United States. He said his friends came up with the nickname, because he doesn’t drink alcohol and was always asking for juice instead.

Portuguese Air Force F-16 military fighter jets participate in NATO's Baltic Air Policing Mission in Lithuanian airspace near Siauliai, on May 23, 2023.

Ukraine maintains that it urgently needs F-16s to combat Russian air superiority.

In a historic agreement hailed by Zelensky, countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark are to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets.

This week, the US announced it would begin training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 jets in October.

“Following English language training for pilots in September, F-16 flying training is expected to begin in October at Morris Air National Guard Base in Tucson, Arizona, facilitated by the Air National Guard’s 162nd Wing,” Pentagon Spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Thursday.

Ukraine had put forward a list of 32 pilots ready to begin training on F-16 fighter jets but most did not have a strong enough command of English language yet, another US official said.

In 2022, Pilshchikov met with American government officials and was “in constant contact with Californian pilots,” the Air Force noted.

“He was the main driving force behind an advocacy group promoting many decisions on the F-16,” Ihnat said, noting that Pilshchikov had “talked about the urgent needs of the Ukrainian Air Force” and said many of his ideas “yielded incredible results.”

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