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One of Ukraine’s most famous fighter pilots who played a prominent public role in pushing western allies to provide Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets has died in a training exercise.
The aviator, publicly known by his call sign “Juice”, was killed on Friday in a crash which also claimed the lives of two other pilots, Ukrainian authorities said.
His death came just days after the Biden administration dropped its longstanding reservations and approved the transfer of dozens of the US-made multipurpose fighters from the Netherlands and Denmark.
Norway has since also pledged some of its F-16s and other countries including the US, Poland and Romania are to help train Ukrainian pilots to fly them.
Juice was among the fighters who defended Ukraine’s skies in the early weeks of Russia’s full-scale invasion last year and had hoped to be among those trained to fly F-16s.
“We are sad to announce that on August 25, 2023, a terrible plane crash occurred . . . the crews of two L-39 training and combat aircraft collided in the sky,” Ukraine’s air force said in a statement on Saturday.
“Among the dead is a well-known pilot of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade with the call sign Juice,” the air force said. “This is a painful and irreparable loss for all of us.”
In his daily address to the nation, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy identified Juice as Andriy Pilschykov.
“He is one of those who so much helped our country,” he said. “Ukraine will never forget everyone who protected the free skies of Ukraine.”
Juice was a regular interviewee for many media outlets. He explained how Ukrainian pilots — flying an ageing fleet of Soviet aircraft — prevented Russia’s much larger and more advanced forces from achieving air superiority.
They undertook missions to intercept incoming Russian missiles and drones targeting cities and infrastructure as well as military targets.
Juice, who was fluent in English and a native of the eastern Kharkiv region, argued for F-16s to provide cover for Ukraine’s ground troops against Russian fighter jets’ longer-range radar and missile systems.
“Juice was the driving force behind the F-16 advocacy from day one — we have to recognise and immortalise his legacy,” said Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister, who worked on the initiative closely with pilots and officials.
“He was an extremely good guy . . . so loved by so many,” Sak added.
In a Facebook post, Pavlo Potseluiev who knew Juice wrote: “You dreamt of F-16s and waited for news about their transfer. You loved your bird and literally lived in the sky.”
Juice, who flew a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet, was one of Ukraine’s younger breed of pilots who received western training in the years after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014.
In an interview earlier this year he told the FT that he was given the nickname which became his call sign by US pilots during a joint training exercise, because he drank fruit juice rather than alcoholic beverages when they were at a bar together.
Recently, he had become frustrated at how long it was taking for western allies to provide advanced military jets to Ukraine.
“If we wait six months more, we will get to the moment when we will have only reservist grandpas, not young pilots with good knowledge, good training,” he told the FT in February.
But he responded positively when it was announced that the US had finally approved a request to send the first batch of F-16s to Ukraine.