LVIV, Ukraine – Every night, Ukrainian pilots like Andriy stroll in an undisclosed hangar, waiting, waiting until the tension is broken with a shouted one-word command: “Air!”
Andriy hurries into his Su-27 supersonic jet and taxis quickly towards the runway and gets airborne as quickly as possible. He takes off so fast that he does not yet know his mission for the night, even though the big picture is always the same – to bring the fight to a Russian air force, which is far superior in number, but which so far has not managed to gain control of the sky over Ukraine.
“I do not carry out any checks,” said Andriy, a Ukrainian Air Force pilot who, as a condition of giving an interview, was not allowed to disclose his last name or rank. “I’m just leaving.”
Nearly a month into the fighting, one of the biggest surprises of the war in Ukraine is that Russia has not defeated the Ukrainian air force. Military analysts had expected that Russian forces would quickly destroy or paralyze Ukraine’s air defenses and military aircraft, but none of them has happened. Instead, Top Gun-style air battles, rare in modern warfare, are now raging across the country.
“Every time I fly, it’s for a real fight,” said Andriy, who is 25 and has flown 10 missions in the war. “In any fight with Russian jets, there is no similarity. They always have five times more” planes in the air.
The success of the Ukrainian pilots has helped protect Ukrainian soldiers on the ground and prevented wider bombings in cities as pilots have intercepted some Russian cruise missiles. Ukrainian officials also say the country’s military has shot down 97 stranded Russian planes. That figure could not be confirmed, but the crumpled remains of Russian fighter jets have crashed into rivers, fields and houses.
The Ukrainian Air Force operates in almost total secrecy. Its fighter jets can fly from airstrips in western Ukraine, airports that have been bombed but still maintain enough runway for takeoffs or landings – or even from highways, analysts say. They are far in the minority: Russia is believed to fly about 200 excursions a day, while Ukraine flies five to ten.
Ukrainian pilots have an advantage. In most of the country, Russian planes fly over territory controlled by the Ukrainian military, which can move anti-aircraft missiles to harass – and shoot down – planes.
“Ukraine has been effective in heaven because we operate on our own country,” said Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force. “The enemy flying into our airspace is flying into the zone of our air defense systems.” He described the strategy as luring Russian planes into air defense traps.
Dave Deptula, a senior researcher at the US Air Force Academy and the main attack planner for the Desert Storm air campaign in Iraq, said the impressive performance of the Ukrainian pilots had helped address their disadvantages in numbers. He said Ukraine now has about 55 operational fighter jets, a number that are swindling from shootings and mechanical failures as Ukrainian pilots “stress them to maximum performance.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly appealed to Western governments to rebuild the Ukrainian air force and has asked NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over the country, a step Western leaders have so far refused to take. Slovakia and Poland have considered sending MiG-29 fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots could fly with minimal additional training, but no transfers have yet been made.
“Russian troops have already fired almost 1,000 missiles at Ukraine, countless bombs,” said Mr. Zelensky in a video speech to Congress on March 16 and appealed for more flights. “And you know that they exist and you have them, but they are on earth, not in Ukraine – in the Ukrainian sky.”
Mr. Deptula said it is critical to transfer these jets to Ukraine. “Without resupply,” he said, “they will run out of planes before running out of pilots.”
Pilotless drones are also a tool in the Ukrainian military arsenal, but not in the struggle for control of the airspace. Ukraine flies with a Turkish-made armed drone, the Bayraktar TB-2, a flying propeller plane that is deadly effective at destroying tanks or artillery pieces on the ground, but which cannot hit targets in the air. If Ukraine’s air defenses fail, Russian jets can easily pick them off.
As in other aspects of Ukraine’s war effort, volunteers play a role in the air battles. A voluntary network looks and listens for Russian jets, calls coordinates and estimated speed and altitude. Other private Ukrainian pilots have removed updated civilian navigation equipment from their aircraft and handed it over to the Air Force, if useful.
Air-to-air combat has been rare in modern warfare, with only isolated examples in recent decades. For example, U.S. pilots have not flown extensive air combat since the first Iraq war in 1991. Since then, U.S. fighter jets have only participated in two cases of air-to-air combat, once in the Balkans and again in Syria, according to Mr. Deptula.
In the night sky, Andriy said he relies on instruments to distinguish the positions of enemy aircraft, which he says are always present. He has shot down Russian jets, but was not allowed to say how many or of what type. He said his targeting system could fire at planes a few dozen miles away.
“I mostly have tasks to hit airborne targets, to intercept enemy jets,” he said. “I’m waiting for the missile to lock on to my target. Then I hit fire.”
When he shoots down a Russian jet, he said, “I’m glad this plane will no longer bomb my peaceful cities. And as we see in practice, that’s exactly what Russian jets do.”
Most of the air battles in Ukraine have been nightly, as Russian planes attack in the dark when they are less vulnerable to air defense. In the air battles over Ukraine, Andriy said, the Russians have flown a number of modern Sukhoi jets, such as the Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35.
“I had situations where I approached a Russian plane to a close enough distance to aim and shoot,” he said. “I could already detect it, but was waiting for my missile to lock, while at the same time they told me from the ground that a missile had already been fired at me.”
He said he maneuvered his jet through a series of extreme shores, dives and climbs to deplete the fuel supplies from the missiles that came after him. “The time I have to save myself depends on how far away the missile was fired at me and what kind of missile,” he said.
Still, he said in an interview on a clear, sunny day: “I can still feel a great adrenaline rush in my body because every flight is a battle.”
Andriy graduated from Kharkiv Air Force School after deciding to become a pilot as a teenager. “Neither me nor my friends ever thought we were going to face a real war,” he said. “But that’s not how it turned out.”
Andriy has moved his wife to a safer part of Ukraine, but she has not left the country, he said. She spends her days weaving homemade camouflage for the Ukrainian army. He never tells family members when to go on duty, he said, calling only after returning from a night flight.
“I only have to use my skills to win,” Andriy said. “My skills are better than the Russians. But on the other hand, many of my friends, and even the more experienced than me, are already dead.”