One of Ukraine’s most celebrated fighter pilots and two other airmen have been killed in a mid-air crash.
Andrii Pilshchykov won fame taking part in dogfights over Kyiv during the early phase of Russia’s invasion.
The Ukrainian military called the airmen’s deaths “painful and irreparable” losses, and paid tribute to Pilshchykov as a pilot with “mega knowledge and mega talent”.
The crash involved two L-39 training planes flying over northern Ukraine.
An investigation is under way into whether flight preparation rules were not correctly followed, resulting in Friday’s crash in Zhytomyr Oblast. The region is west of the capital, Kyiv, and hundreds of miles from the frontline.
President Volodymyr Zelensky confirmed the deaths in his nightly video address, saying that his country would “never forget anyone who defended the free skies of Ukraine”.
Last autumn, as Russia launched hundreds of cruise missiles and drones at Ukraine, Pilshchykov – who flew under the call-sign “Juice” – spoke to the BBC about the pressure he felt as a MiG-29 fighter pilot tasked with trying to intercept the deadly weapons before they struck.
“Intercepting the cruise missiles, your mission is to save the lives on the ground, to save the city. If you are not able, it’s a terrible feeling that somebody will die. Somebody will die in minutes and you didn’t prevent that,” he said.
He also spoke of his lifelong “dream” to join the Ukrainian air force which he saw as his “mission”.
Melaniya Podolyak, a friend of Pilshchykov, also confirmed his death, posting an image of his air force badge on social media.
The crash and deaths are a major upset for Ukraine as it prepares to receive up to 61 F-16 fighter jets from its allies, in a bid to step up its counteroffensive.
On Thursday, the Pentagon confirmed that English-language training for Ukrainians on operating F-16s would begin in Texas in September, with flight training expected to begin in October in Arizona. Meanwhile, other Western allies are preparing to start training Ukrainians later this month.
The training to fly F-16s is expected to take around five months.
The American decision earlier this year to supply F-16 jets represented an about-turn. This is because the US and its Nato allies – who had earlier ruled out the move – had feared this would lead to further escalation with nuclear-armed Russia.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force, Yurii Ihnat, paid tribute to Pilshchykov in a statement posted on his Facebook page.
“A year ago in the USA, Andrii met with American government officials, brought up the urgent needs of the Air Force, was in constant contact with Californian pilots, and was the main driver of an advocacy group promoting many decisions on the F-16s [supply],” Ihnat said.
“During the war, he gave dozens of interviews to Western media because he knew English well, and the most important was the topic of conversation: what can and should be talked about for Ukraine!
“You can’t even imagine how he wanted to fly on an F-16… but now that American planes are actually on the horizon, he will not fly them.
“Andrii Pilshchykov was not just a pilot, he was a young officer with great knowledge and great talent.
“He was an excellent communicator, the driver of reforms in Air Force aircraft, a participant in many projects. I often supported his crazy ideas, which gave incredible results!”