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Ukrainian Fighter Pilots, Firing U.S. Missiles, Get Back in the Fight

As the Ukrainian air force plays a role in the Kherson counteroffensive, a UA pilot describes missions and looking ahead to better fighter jets.
Posted at 8:51 PM, Aug 31, 2022

Flying MIGs for Ukraine's air force, in skies where they are outgunned and outnumbered by Russia's fighter jets, might be the most dangerous job in the world. 

Newsy sat down with a Ukrainian fighter pilot who asked us to identify him by his callsign.   

JUICE: Juice is my callsign.  

It was given to him by the American pilots who trained him. 

He talked about the dangerous role his country's pilots are playing in the war. 

NEWSY'S JASON BELLINI: How deadly has this war been for Ukraine's air force?  

JUICE: Unfortunately, we have a lot of losses during this war actually due to our technical disadvantages. My unit lost a few guys as well during the first two weeks. 

He says sometimes one jet will act as a decoy to attract Russian missiles. 

JUICE: It's too dangerous. But we need to do these types of missions. And, of course, our guys are ready to die for that because they are supporting our ground units of the front lines just to secure the attack jets at the low altitude.

BELLINI: That sounds like a suicide mission. 

JUICE: Almost. We're just trying to do it to create some tricks against them and just to force them to shoot these missiles from the largest distances.

Until recently, their role has been largely invisible.  

But this week, Ukraine's air force released a video giving a rare look at a potent new weapon. 

A Ukrainian MIG-29 pilot shot footage of combat operations. He disclosed what had previously only been suspected: that Ukraine has adapted American high-speed anti-radiation missiles known as HARM missiles to fire from their Soviet MIGs. This is something no other air force in the world has done. 

JUICE: Fortunately we're we received the HARM missiles from the United States and use them effectively to destroy a ground based air defense.   

At the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive this week Ukrainians were captivated by a rare video on social media of their fighter pilots firing missiles in the skies over Kherson. 

It could be a sign of Ukraine's success in taking out Russian air defenses, which, until now, have made frontline air support missions too risky. 

JUICE: It's very dangerous for us because the Russians, unfortunately, have the great advantage in technologies and in quantity. They have much more powerful radars and they have much better missiles. They could shoot you from a much wider distance. 

BELLINI: What's the most frightening experience you've had in the air?

JUICE: You're trying to find the cruise missile, which is flying to your to your city, and you're not able to do that because of your radar, because of your systems on board. And you're understanding that it will kill people.

BELLINI: Have you been in dog fights? 

JUICE: It's the 21st Century. Dogfights are not common. 

They're far more likely to be shot out of the sky from afar by an enemy that does not need to engage close up. Superior Russian technology allows them to target Ukrainian pilots from beyond visual range, a deadly technological advantage. 

With Ukrainian pleas for western jets refused so far, Ukrainian fighter pilots took the rare step of launching a public crowdsource campaign called "Buy Me A Fighter Jet." 

"Buy me a fighter jet," says a voiceover in the campaign video. "It will help me to protect my sky filled with Russian planes that bomb my land, kill my friends, and destroy our homes and everything I have ever known." 

JUICE: If we have modern fighter jets, we'll save more people.  We will save more cities. We will save more ground units and we'll win this war much quicker.  

BELLINI: Will you shoot down more Russian jets? 

JUICE: Definitely. First of all, much more cruise missiles. 

BELLINI: If the U.S. were to give you an F-15 how quickly could you learn how to fly it?

JUICE: Our estimated term is three to six months.  

That's the dream of a top gun whose fighter jet is his entire life. 

BELLINI: Are you married? Do you have children? 

JUICE: No, I'm single. No children, I hope. Yeah. It's pretty usual fighter pilot stuff. 

Ukrainian fighter pilots like himself hope to become the stuff of legends.