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Ukraine bids farewell to flying ace killed in collision

Andriy Pilshchykov died last week with two other pilots during a training flight over the northern Zhytomyr region
Andriy Pilshchykov died last week with two other pilots during a training flight over the northern Zhytomyr region - Copyright AFP/File Phill Magakoe
Andriy Pilshchykov died last week with two other pilots during a training flight over the northern Zhytomyr region - Copyright AFP/File Phill Magakoe

The cap of a Ukrainian fighter pilot known as “Juice” sat atop his flag-draped casket Tuesday as mourners gathered to pay homage to the 29-year-old considered legendary by the country’s air force.

Andriy Pilshchykov died last week with two other pilots during a training flight over the northern Zhytomyr region, prompting tributes from across the country for not only his talents but efforts in pushing the West to provide Ukraine with F-16 jets.

“He wanted to fight bureaucracy, so that we could have American-style pilot training –- no wasting time, just improving your skills,” reserve Lieutenant Colonel Oleksandr Dovgal told AFP. 

Pilshchykov was inspired to modernise the air force after attending training in the United States, he added.

“(US soldiers) gave him the call sign Juice because he absolutely did not drink alcohol but only drank juice,” Dovgal said.

The Ukrainian anthem, sung by mourners who included relatives and servicemen, echoed through the 20th-century Catholic cathedral on the banks of the Dnipro river.

Pilshchykov was part of Ukraine’s 40th tactical aviation brigade, also known as the “Ghosts of Kyiv”, which protected the skies over the capital. 

“On the day he died, he took me to Zhytomyr… and told me he hoped to be back in two hours. And he never came back,” his girlfriend Melaniya Podolyak told AFP. 

Ukraine’s air force commander Mykola Oleshchuk laid a bouquet of flowers near the coffin and offered condolences to Pilshchykov’s mother.

He “wasn’t only a fighter pilot” but “a legend”, Oleshchuk said, his voice full of emotion. 

– Modern dream –

More than 100 deployments, dozens of Russian command posts destroyed and dozens of enemies “eliminated” — “this is his contribution to our victory”, Oleshchuk said. 

Speaking perfect English, Pilshchykov was also a tireless representative for Kyiv to US lawmakers in order to obtain F-16 jets for strengthening the Ukrainian fleet, which dates from the Soviet era, and to advance its counteroffensive against Russia. 

“He really wanted our air force to be modern and he did a lot to get us these F-16s,” Dovgal said, adding the young pilot was also “very nice and easy-going”. 

Over the weekend, Ukrainian officials praised the pilot’s contribution to the war effort. 

Air force spokesperson Yuriy Ignat said Pilshchykov was a young officer with “mega knowledge and mega talent”.

“(Pilshchykov) was courageous, principled, uncompromising, actively spoke in the Western media, in particular on the issue of providing Ukraine with modern F-16 aircraft,” his brigade said.

The crash is a blow for Kyiv after having secured assurances this month from Western allies, including the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, that they would provide the US-made F-16s.

President Volodymyr Zelensky led tributes to the crash victims in an address Saturday, praising them as defenders of “Ukraine’s free sky” and vowing an investigation into the cause of the disaster.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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