The ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ and His Quest for the F-16

Juice in a MiG in the photo of the “Ghost of Kyiv” that went viral during the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. ANDRII PILSHCHYKOV AND LILIIA AVERIANOVA
Juice in a MiG in the photo of the “Ghost of Kyiv” that went viral during the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. ANDRII PILSHCHYKOV AND LILIIA AVERIANOVA

Summary

Ukraine needs modern jets to protect cities, soldiers and civilians. Andrii ‘Juice’ Pilshchykov had a plan to acquire them.

Kyiv, Ukraine

A helmet covers the face of the MiG pilot but not his personality. He lounges in his fighter jet as if it’s an armchair and flashes a plucky thumbs-up. The legend of his aerial prowess went viral in the hours after Russia invaded Ukraine: The “Ghost of Kyiv" was slapping Russian planes out of the sky like clay pigeons. The Ghost turned out to be part fog of war, part composite of Ukraine’s pilots, and part propaganda to bolster Ukrainians’ will and erode Russian morale. But the truth about the airman in the famous photo is more remarkable than fiction.

His name: Andrii Pilshchykov, better known as “Juice," the call sign bestowed on him by his pals in the U.S. Air Force. Juice, who was 29 when Russia invaded in 2022, became “a patron saint of Ukrainian aviation," says retired U.S. Air Force Col. Rob Swertfager of the California Air National Guard, whose engagement with the Ukrainian military dates to 2002. Juice played an “instrumental" role in shifting the Ukrainian air force “from the Soviet doctrine to the Western air-force doctrine," Col. Swertfager says. “I don’t know of anyone who had more impact."

The story begins with a kid from Kharkiv with planes on the brain. Juice built model jets and attended aviation events with grown-ups who “didn’t expect to see a schoolboy" tailing along, says his mother, Liliia Averianova. He mastered English to read more about planes and participate in online aviation forums. The British magazine AirForces Monthly published a photo he had taken when he was 16 or 17 at the Kharkiv airfield.

Juice yearned to become a fighter pilot and got permission from his high-school principal “to come to school in a military uniform," his mother recalls. She had her doubts. “He was a little bit myopic," she says. “His nature is very freedom-loving, and he does not do well in terms of submitting or subordination." She told him: “You cannot go to the army because you do not obey." True to form, he defied her, saving up for laser eye surgery and enrolling as an air-force cadet in 2011. He eventually became an officer and pilot in the Vasylkiv Tactical Aviation Brigade.

Ukraine’s air force was in a state of disarray. The Soviet breakup in 1991, less than two years before Juice was born, left Ukraine with one of the largest air forces in the world but without the means to maintain it. In 1994, under pressure from the U.S. and in exchange for Western security guarantees, Ukraine agreed to surrender its nuclear weapons and destroy the strategic aviation assets capable of delivering them. That included more than 200 heavy bombers and long-range reconnaissance and refueling planes, says Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s strategic industries minister.

That left Ukraine with more than 1,400 fighter jets, bombers, transport planes and other tactical aircraft, including hundreds of MiGs and Sukhois, and some 900 helicopters. But Ukraine couldn’t afford maintenance, and spare parts were made in Russia, so it “massively wrote off and sold off the planes as they became obsolete, and used some of them as spare-parts donors," Mr. Sak says. To cover its gas debts, Ukraine gave Russia some of the planes and missiles now used to attack Ukraine.

Ukraine’s remaining planes were aging with no prospect of modernization, and Soviet-era equipment “made it possible to preserve former Soviet culture, traditions, and strategy," Mr. Sak says. “Together with the corruption, it deprived the Ukrainian military aviation of any hope for the future." A Ukrainian fighter pilot who uses only his call sign, “Moonfish," when speaking to the Western press was one of Juice’s close friends. He says that “not only the structure but all the approaches to flight, to tactics, was just Soviet-based, which would not work against the same Russian forces who still employ these tactics." They were “just outdated."

Juice got to see the alternative. His superiors noted his superb English and enlisted him to help host foreign delegations. He served as a primary liaison as the U.S. and Ukraine planned a major joint flight exercise, Clear Sky 2018. The next year he trained with Americans in Fresno, Calif.

Juice “fit in perfectly with us from the California Air Guard," Col. Swertfager says. He was the first Ukrainian pilot to receive an official call sign from Americans—“Juice," because he was “a complete teetotaler," his mother explained.

He imbibed U.S. military culture and was impressed by the blunt, nonretributional debriefs between U.S. pilots and their senior officers. He brought that ethic home: Juice “wasn’t like, ‘I won’t be doing that because you ordered me,’ " Moonfish said. “It’s just whenever he saw something stupid, he would definitely speak up."

Juice consulted his American mentor about how to pick his bureaucratic battles. “He had the skill set to speak from experience," Col. Swertfager says. “I think he nested himself well and had a support system inside the military that allowed him to be a disrupter." But the post-Soviet stagnation was hard to dislodge. When his contract ran out in 2021, Juice walked away “in protest because of the reticence to modernize the military," his friend Adam Makos, an American military historian, says.

Juice returned immediately when Russian missiles hit the capital. On Feb. 24, 2022, he grabbed “my own body armor, my own infantry helmet—not a pilot’s helmet—and my own AR-15," he later recounted. He rushed to the Vasylkiv Air Base, southwest of Kyiv, which he described at the time to Col. Swertfager as “like the last fort for us."

As Fred Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute explains, if the Russians could seize control of the capital’s airfields, they would gain “positions to the southeast and southwest of Kyiv well before their ground forces got there, which would have disrupted the entire Ukrainian defense and likely led to the fall of Kyiv." The Ukrainians fended them off.

But the battle for Ukraine’s skies had only begun. Russian pilots have better radars, so they can strike Ukrainian pilots before the Ukrainians even see them. Unlike the Ukrainians, they have missiles capable of self-guidance at the final stage of flight. At some point after firing, a Russian pilot can “turn away and fly to drink some vodka on his base and to celebrate one more aerial kill," Juice explained in a May 2023 video interview.

Early in the war Russia gained air dominance in Mariupol and dropped bombs that destroyed up to 90% of its structures. The West gave Ukraine ground-based air defenses to prevent another such bombardment, but that limited resource is now dwindling. Air Defense Officer Col. Denys Smazhnyi says it’s “critical" to get more antiaircraft missiles. The eastern Ukrainian city of Avdiivka fell last weekend as Russians established localized air superiority and hammered Ukrainian troops with glide bombs, rendering their defensive positions untenable.

Juice understood that Ukraine desperately needed modern fighter jets. Unlike ground-based systems, these planes can intercept missiles “on the border" and protect civilians far from the front, “near big cities or near some critical infrastructure objects," Juice explained last May. The planes would also fill a vital need at the front. In a September interview, Brig. Gen. Serhii Holubstov, the aviation chief of Ukraine’s Air Force, told me that getting modern fighter jets with comparable or superior radar and missile capabilities is “the minimum that will allow us to facilitate the success of our counteroffensive."

Western delays in arming Ukraine allowed Russia to entrench defensive lines, including with mines and antitank fortifications. The U.S. would never attempt to break through such a gnarly front without air power, but that’s what the West expected Ukraine to do, with predictable results. During the 2023 counteroffensive, the lack of air support left Ukraine’s ground troops exposed. Modern jets could have provided cover by destroying artillery deeper in the Russian rear. Instead, Russian planes had to worry only about ground-based missiles as they targeted Western-provided tanks and armored vehicles at the front.

Ukrainians were unable to exploit their limited breakthroughs fully because they lacked modern fighter jets to cut off the arrival of Russian reinforcements. Modern jets would also have allowed Ukraine to suppress enemy air defenses and more aggressively target the command, supply and logistics lines that propped up the Russian front.

Early in the war Juice foresaw these needs and helped develop a checklist for which specific plane Ukraine should seek: It should be available, capable, affordable and maintainable, among other considerations. The F-16 was “an optimal solution," he concluded. The Swiss army knife of fighter jets, the F-16 can fire just about anything the U.S. and its allies could provide. The London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies estimates there are some 3,000 F-16s worldwide, so planes and spare parts abound.

Inside Ukraine, Juice and others worked to convince the Defense Ministry and political leaders that they should push specifically for the F-16. Meanwhile, his American ties made him a valuable source of reliable information for the U.S. government, Col. Swertfager said. If someone at the Pentagon “wanted an answer that’s not classified, I would literally call up Juice and have an answer in five minutes for our leadership to make decisions. It allowed us to help them more. I can’t foot-stomp that enough."

In the summer of 2022 Juice and Moonfish came to the U.S. to meet lawmakers. He struck them as “the epitome of a patriot," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) says. “We became fast friends," former Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R., Ill.), an Air National Guard pilot, says. Mr. Kinzinger felt “something at the pit of my stomach as I realized that of all the pilots I have known in my life, Juice was the most likely to die in service to his country."

Six senators who met with the Ukrainian fighter pilots later sent a letter urging Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and then-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley to consider giving Ukraine “fourth-generation fighter aircraft and necessary flight training" in future military aid packages. Juice “made a very powerful case for the need for F-16s," and “the letter that we sent was the direct result of this very impactful meeting," Sen. Dan Sullivan (R., Alaska) says.

Juice also gave interviews to American media, including these pages. One English-language virtual broadcast aimed at a Western audience was hosted by Melaniya Podolyak, now 28, a Ukrainian blogger. She grinned and bantered while peppering Juice with sharp questions. He was at his best with her, providing many of the quotes in this article. Afterward, Ms. Podolyak’s co-host texted her that “I was kind of a third wheel in that interview," she recalled. Soon after, Juice asked her on a date, and “we almost missed the curfew because we got to talking."

Juice often appeared for interviews kitted out. That wasn’t for dramatic effect; several people close to him say he often took calls between missions, many of them dangerous. “Every mission can be the last," he acknowledged. Ukraine kept a roster of “the best-prepared guys" to receive Western training, and “unfortunately during the last year or maybe less, we lost at least three guys," he said last spring.

A fourth would soon follow, just as Juice’s advocacy began yielding results. In mid-August the U.S. gave permission for third countries to provide Ukraine F-16s. Days later, Denmark and the Netherlands announced plans to do so after Ukrainian pilots had completed training. On Aug. 24, the Pentagon said it would begin training Ukrainians to fly and maintain F-16s.

On Aug. 25, Juice met Ms. Podolyak in Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv. The first cohort to train on the F-16s had already left, and Juice was scheduled to be in the next group. The couple planned to marry in May and discussed how they would manage the distance. Then Juice left for work while Ms. Podolyak met a friend for coffee.

“It was around 4. He should have been free by then," she recalls. “I messaged him, and for the first time he didn’t respond." An unknown number rang, and the caller said Juice had crashed. “I was in complete disbelief," she said; training in Western Ukraine was much safer than Juice’s frequent missions. But Ms. Podolyak received a second call from a friend in the military, who was already weeping. “It was complete hell from then," she says.

The Ukrainian government said two combat training jets “collided while performing a training flight." Juice “was just in the back seat, along for the ride, to help them out, wasn’t even scheduled to fly," Col. Swertfager says, recounting conversations with Juice’s comrades. Juice died from catastrophic injuries sustained “as a result of the ejection and unsuccessful landing," Ms. Averianova, his mother, says. Two other pilots were killed.

“Any commemorations of him would make no sense and be of no importance until we see the results of what he was fighting for," Ms. Averianova says. Saturday marks two years since Russia launched its full invasion, and Sunday is six months since Juice’s death. Ukraine is still waiting for F-16s as Juice’s fellow pilots undergo training in the West.

“Instead of my son, I want to fly on the first plane," Ms. Averianova told the commander of the air force. “He told me yes," she reports with a sad smile.

Ms. Melchior is a London-based member of the Journal editorial board.

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