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Ukraine's Zelenskyy pays tribute to legendary pilot 'Juice' who died in midair crash

Andriy Pilshchykov served in the division tasked with countering Russian attacks on Kyiv in the first two months of the war.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has paid tribute to a fighter pilot who was credited with protecting Kyiv in the early days of the Russian invasion before he died in a midair crash during a combat mission. 

Maj. Andriy Pilshchykov, who went by the call sign “Juice,” helped Ukraine “a lot,” Zelenskyy said in a Telegram post, adding that the collision that killed two other pilots, Maj. Vyacheslav Minka and Maj. Sergey Prokazhin, was a “disaster.”

“Ukraine will never forget anyone who defended Ukraine’s free sky,” Zelenskyy added. “May they always be remembered!”

Pilshchykov, a member of the 40th Tactical Aviation Division, was tasked with countering Russian attacks on the nation’s capital during the Kyiv offensive in the first two months of what Moscow calls its “special military operation.” 

Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat said in a separate post on Facebook that Pilshchykov was “a young officer with remarkable knowledge and mega talent,” adding that he “dreamed of F-16s in the Ukrainian sky.”

Pilshchykov, Ihnat said, “gave dozens of interviews to Western media, because he knew English well, and most importantly — he understood the subject matter of conversation, what can and should be talked about for Ukraine.”

The Ukrainian air force said in a statement that the pilots were killed Friday, after two L-39 combat trainer aircraft collided in midair over the Zhytomyr region in northern Ukraine. An investigation has been launched, it added.

News of Pilshchykov's death came less than a week after Danish and Dutch lawmakers announced that they both would supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets after Washington gave the green light in August to transfer the powerful U.S.-made warplanes. 

Denmark promised 19 of its jets, while the Netherlands pledged 42 last Sunday.  

The fighters are undoubtedly an upgrade for a country that has been using ageing Soviet-era combat planes and has been forced into waves of vulnerable ground assaults.

Though Ihnat, the air force spokesperson, said the F-16 will “completely change the course of combat actions,” analysts have warned that they might not make a significant impact on the battlefield, with the timeline for their deployment unclear and a lack of air support already a major handicap for the Ukrainian military’s assault against Russian defenses.

Mechanics, engineers and pilots need to be trained over several months to operate the advanced jets, meaning it could be until next summer at the earliest for squadrons to be ready for battle. 

Moscow has repeatedly condemned the promise of F-16s as an escalation of the conflict. 

President Joe Biden's decision to authorize allies to begin training Ukrainian pilots in how to operate the warplanes came in May — before authorization was given to use them in the war.

Pilshchykov and the 40th Tactical Aviation Division primarily used Russian-made MiG-29s, twin-engine fighter aircraft designed by the Soviet Union, which first entered use in 1983.