THREE Ukrainian fighter pilots have died in a horrific mid-air crash, including a prominent aviator who led the international push for F-16s.
Andriy Pilshchikov was one of three dead in the crash of two L-39 planes over the Zhytomyr region west of Kiev on Friday.
Desperate to become an F-16 pilot, he was killed in northern Ukraine before the long-awaited US fighter jets arrived.
His death came shortly after the US announced it would begin training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets at an Air National Guard base starting in October.
Pilshchikov carried the call sign Juice and was frequently interviewed in western media.
He was nicknamed by US pilots because when they were in a bar together, he drank fruit juice instead of alcohol.
Juice, flying a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet, defended Ukraine’s airspace against a well-equipped Russian air force during the first weeks of the invasion.
His grieving girlfriend Melaniya said: “Thank you for hugging me again yesterday before your flight. I will do everything I promised.”
She posted a heartbreaking picture of the couple lying on the grass together.
Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, said: “‘Juice’ has been the driving force behind F-16 endorsements from day one – we must recognize and perpetuate his legacy.”
The Ukrainian hero, who served with the 40th Tactical Air Brigade, posted: “Every day Russians drop a few dozen of these bombs on Ukrainian troops on the frontlines and civilians in the surrounding areas.”
“And there is nothing easy to resist… except modern warplanes.”
“Who’s going to tell me that? f 16 Isn’t our counter-offensive crucial?”
Many Ukrainians accuse the West of delaying the arrival of the F-16s.
The State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) of Ukraine is investigating the circumstances of the crash.
The Russians tried to take advantage of the collision between two Ukrainian fighter jets.
According to the SBI, a possible “flight rule violation” is being investigated.
The Ukrainian armed forces have expressed their condolences to the victims.
“This is a painful and irretrievable loss for all of us,” it said in a statement.
“We also ask that you be careful and compassionate about the timing of disclosures of sensitive information, consistent with established procedures and ethical standards.”
A fellow pilot, Pavel Potseluiev, paid a warm tribute to the dead aviator.
“You dreamed about the F-16 and waited for news of its arrival. You loved your bird and literally lived in heaven.”
“We haven’t known each other long, but I appreciate you for the important life lessons.”
His work will “drive important changes for the next generation of pilots”.
The tribute ended with, “Rest In Peace, Callsign Juice. Now you literally hold up our sky.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed his condolences to the families of the pilots, adding: “Ukraine will never forget anyone who defended Ukraine’s free airspace.”