Who is ‘Juice’? The ‘mega talent’ Ukrainian pilot killed in mid-air plane crash

Ukraine is mourning the loss of three fighter pilots killed as two training aircraft collided in the skies some 90 miles west of Kyiv.

Singled out for particular praise by president Volodymr Zelensky and Ukraine’s airforce is Captain Andriy Pilshchykov, a pilot who went by the military callsign “Juice”.

The late pilot, who was 30 years old when the crash occured over the western Zhytomyr region on Friday, had become known not just for his defence of Ukraine, but also for his passionate advocacy for the United States to provide Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets.

The Mig-29 pilot first won fame in Ukraine as he took part in “dogfights” with Moscow’s fighter jets in the skies above Kyiv during the initial months of Russia’s invasion, according to Ukrainian news outlets.

Andriy Pilshchykov was described as a ‘mega talent' (EPA/40th Tactical Aviation Brigade handout)
Andriy Pilshchykov was described as a ‘mega talent' (EPA/40th Tactical Aviation Brigade handout)

As Russian air sorties over Kyiv grew fewer, Pilshchykov continued to defend Ukraine’s skies as he sought to intercept Russian cruise missiles and drones before they struck targets on the ground – and by last May had already racked up 500 hours of combat flights.

Last summer, he was one of two Ukrainian pilots chosen to travel to Washington to lobby members of the US Congress to provide Kyiv with F-16 fighter jets, which Joe Biden’s administration eventually agreed to do in May.

“Juice” also gave multiple interviews with Western media outlets, speaking to Sky News, the BBC, CNN and Washington Post to name a few, as he fought Ukraine’s case to be provided with the jets.

In one interview with the BBC, he said of his missions: “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.”

‘Juice’ spoke to the BBC, CNN and other outlets (BBC screengrab)
‘Juice’ spoke to the BBC, CNN and other outlets (BBC screengrab)

In another broadcast with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, he said: “All of us are ready to fight, just with our jets, with our guns, even just in the fields with rifles.

“So our people, including me, we are ready to fight Russians, and we are ready to defend our country, to defend our people in absolutely any ways. But we need tools, effective tools, to do this efficiently.”

His call sign, “Juice”, was reportedly given to him by US pilots during a joint training exercise because he did not drink alcohol, and air force spokesperson Yuriy Ihnat hailed him as a “main driver of an advocacy group promoting many decisions on the F-16s”, who was “in constant contact with Californian pilots”.

Speaking to The Guardian, Mr Ihnat also praised “Juice” as a driver of reforms in the air force was “trying to bring Nato standards into Ukraine … and even western traditions, such as the burning of pianos to honour a fallen pilot”.

His death has struck a chord in Ukraine, where official footage on Sunday appeared to show troops lined up on a runway to commemorate Pilshchykov and his two fallen comrades Major Viacheslav Minka and Major Serhii Prokazin, as a piano played a sombre lament and was set alight in tribute.

Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office has opened a criminal investigation into whether flight preparation rules were violated prior to the fatal crash on Friday, which involved two L-39 training aircraft.

As he vowed that the investigation would clarify the circumstances of the crash, Mr Zelensky hailed “Juice” in his nightly address on Saturday as “one of those who helped our country a lot”, adding: “Ukraine will never forget anyone who defended Ukraine’s free sky. May they always be remembered.”

Mr Ihnat, of Ukraine’s air force, described Pilshchykov as a “mega talent”, adding: “You can't even imagine how much he wanted to fly an F-16. But now that American planes are actually on the horizon, he will not fly them.”

‘Juice’ was described as a ‘mega talent' (Ukrainian air force via the BBC (screengrab))
‘Juice’ was described as a ‘mega talent' (Ukrainian air force via the BBC (screengrab))

Writing on Facebook, Mr Ihnat added: “Andriy 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.”

Nolan Peterson, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank was among Western commentators to pay tribute to the pilot, saying: “The stories he told me about flying his MiG-29 in combat against Russia are the stuff of epics. He is a hero and will be rightly remembered as such.”