Despite all the predictions, the Ukrainian Air Force has already survived 67 days of war with Russia and was successful in protecting the largest part of the Ukrainian sky. However, it cost the lives of many pilots, though the names of only nine of them are publicly known. At the same time, the Ukrainian Air Force has many more pilots than fighter jets even despite the recent efforts of Western allies to supply spare parts in order to repair older aircraft.
Senior pilots were the first to engage in unequal battles
In the first days of the invasion, when the air defense was not yet as strong and organized as now, Ukrainian pilots had to enter many battles in which they had a disadvantage. Their stories are told by relatives and colleagues and published by the media or Ukrainian Air Force.
On 2 March 2022, two Ukrainian MiG-29s pilots flew to intercept Russian fighters. There were only two Ukrainian fighter jets against 12 Russian ones. Ukrainian pilots didn’t retreat and destroyed three Russian aircraft. However, in that air battle one of the Ukrainian pilots, major Oleksandr Brynzhala, was killed.
“Initially, we thought there were only four of them. But they attacked from several directions with 12 aircraft at the same time! – Volodymyr, the pilot of the second Ukrainian plane, said. – Everything happened instantly. In close combat, our chances are somewhat equal, although the quantitative and technological advantage is still on their side. Oleksandr shot down two enemy planes, I shot one. Unfortunately, for Oleksandr this fight was the last. He was a brave and very professional pilot!..”
After losing too many aircraft in close battles, Russians changed tactics in the air, he adds.
“Now they do not dare to fly close to us, nor enter the area of our air defense. They launch air-to-air missiles from maximum range and then escape. They continue the tactics of terror, launching cruise missiles from the territory of Belarus.”
The pilot explains: it seems that there are no rules in this war. In fact, there are always rules but sometimes they are cruel:
“For more than a month, Russian pilots were “on duty” over the Chornobyl nuclear power plant. We could not shoot them down – otherwise, the fragments could fall on the sarcophagus over the destroyed reactor and damage it.”
By the Decrees of the President of Ukraine, Major Oleksandr Brynzhala was awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine and the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky of III degree.
“I always knew that my father was a Hero. – said his daughter Olena. – He gave his life for us, for Ukraine. My mother also serves in the Armed Forces, and my brother and grandfather have combat experience… We were happy when our father was talking about his inspirations to the cadets to whom he passed his experience… Answering our worries Olexander always confidently replied: “All is well! We are winning!”
Another Ukrainian pilot who received the title of Hero of Ukraine is major Stepan Chobanu. On 24 February 2022, he managed to save his aircraft from a Russian missile strike and continued to perform combat tasks. On 28 February, his Su-27 was the first to take off and enter the air battle over Kropyvnytskyi, diverting the fire of Russian aircraft to himself. He was attacked by missiles and killed. His actions allowed the rest of the aircraft to take off avoiding Russian missiles and successfully relocate to the reserve airfield. Chobanu retired in 2010 but after the Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2014 decided to return to active duty.
Oleksandr Oksanchenko is another pilot who was killed in an air battle on 25 February 2022, diverting Russian aviation towards himself. He was granted the honorary title of the Hero of Ukraine.
He was one of the best Ukrainian pilots performing flights at international air shows – SIAF, The Royal International Air Tattoo, International Airshow-2017, and Czech International Air Fest among others. In 2018, Oksanchenko left the Armed Forces, but continued to serve in his home 831st Tactical Aviation Brigade of the Air Force of Ukraine in Myrhorod as a civilian pilot-instructor. When Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he joined the ranks of defenders and took the helm of a SU-27 fighter jet.
Many other pilots have also sacrificed their lives
Dmytro Chumachenko, commander of the aviation squadron of the Sevastopol Tactical Aviation Brigade, was killed in an air battle over the village of Tryhirja, in the Zhytomyr Oblast. Dmytro’s wife recalled their conversation about ejection from an aircraft that unfortunately became a prediction:
– And how to eject?
– You have a handle underneath that you need to pull.
– What about the aircraft?
– You’re thrown out, aircraft crashes… But you can not think about ejection. Our task is to save people and, if possible, an aircraft. I have to, first of all, direct the aircraft to a place where there are no houses, and only then can think about myself.
– But you may not have time to eject…
Major Dmytro Kolomiyets also received the honorary title Hero of Ukraine for sacrifying his life to allow other pilots to take off. During the first hours of the invasion on 24 February 2022, he was fighting with Russian planes in the air over Khmelnytska Oblast, where he was killed before others managed to join.
Major Yevhen Lusenko was killed on 9 March during an air battle with two Russian aircraft, one of which he downed. However, then he was hit by a Russian missile.
Major Stepan Tarabalka also became a Hero of Ukraine. He died during an air battle with overwhelming Russian forces on 13 March 2022.
While this is only the publicly available information, the exact number of casualties among Ukrainian pilots and the number of aircraft that have been downed or damaged remain known. According to the Pentagon, recent spare parts supplies from the West could increase the Ukrainian Air Force by 20 repaired planes. But the actual number of Ukrainian aircraft is definitely several dozens fewer than the on-paper number of 98 aircraft recorded before the war. At the same time, there are many more pilots than available aircraft in Ukraine, according to an interview with a pilot with the operative name Juice.
“The estimated average cost of one plane is $25 million. One plane can save thousands of innocent lives. Help us protect our loved ones. Our pilots, who right now are courageously fighting the invader, use the following types of aircraft: Su-25, Su-27, Su-24, MiG-29. We will also be able to quickly master and successfully protect our skies on the following aircraft: F15, F16, F18,” the campaign description says.
Ukrainian pilots have combat experience since 2014 and have been trained with NATO
According to pilot Juice, Ukrainian pilots could learn on F16 or F18 “in a few weeks,” which is ambitious but not impossible given the much faster working pace in war time, when lives are at stake.
Most of experienced Ukrainian pilots have already acquired combat experience, not only during the current hot phase of war but also in 2014-2015 when Russia started hostilities in Donbas.
“Older pilots who had seen combat in this campaign have since shared their knowledge with new graduates joining the air force, like Juice. Since 2014, the training has emphasized flexible tactics and keeping aircraft on the move, reducing the chance of the enemy catching them on the ground as part of their air interdiction efforts,” Thomas Newdick wrote in his extensive article after conversations with Ukrainian pilots.
The Ukrainian Air Force also learned during exercises with the US Air Force, particularly the Clear Sky drills. The largest of these drills took place in 2018, in which the F-15Cs of the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing participated together with the Polish and Ukrainian Air Force.
Ukrainian pilots say they can be trained to use modern aircraft very fast and then use them in the decisive moment:
Ukrainian Air Force pilots say they've been able to fend off Russians but need more advanced technology
"Russians have control of a little part of Ukrainian sky, and that is where brutal bombings of peaceful cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv are happening" pic.twitter.com/hRZ1tPqcoT
— Euromaidan Press (@EuromaidanPress) March 24, 2022
According to Juice, the Ukrainian Air Force are trying to push Russians away but still can’t engage them equally and safely.
“Even if you’re trained, even if you’re very smart, unfortunately, if you don’t have the right tools, you can’t be effective,” Juice contends. “That’s why we’re trying to ask the West to provide us with some new stuff. New jets, new ground-to-air defenses among others.”
Ukrainian army can win the war – but only with the support from the Western allies against the army of Russian invaders.