Ukrainian fighter pilots describe their desperate air war against Russia

In a conflict that has so far defied many expectations, it is no exaggeration to say that the performance of the Ukrainian Air Force in its response to the Russian invasion was one of the most more surprising. Rather than being wiped out on the ground and in the air in the early days of the war as many had predicted, Ukrainian air power instead refused to yield in the face of a much larger and more technologically advanced adversary. Amid the fanciful claims of aerial victories released by Ukrainian officials, it is unclear exactly how the Ukrainian Air Force not only survived against all odds, but managed to prevent the Russian Aerospace Forces, VKS, from achieve air superiority. Now, a pair of interviews with serving combat pilots has shed light on how the Ukrainian Air Force is fighting back.

The first is an article published today in the New York Times which includes an interview with a Su-27 Flanker pilot, identified only as Andriy. Meanwhile, another Ukrainian Air Force pilot, identified only by his callsign “Juice”, approached CNN Anderson Cooper during a video interview.

Su-27 pilot Andriy talks about undertaking a rapid reaction alert task, including nighttime scrambles to meet incoming VKS jets. Without even performing full pre-flight checks, the Flanker rolled out of a hangar, indicating that at least some of the Ukrainian jets are being kept out of sight of potential attackers, possibly in reinforced aircraft shelters for additional protection, rather than operating from the flight lines.

“Every time I fly, it’s for a real fight,” says Andriy. “In every fight with Russian planes, there is no equality. They always have five times more planes in the air. Andriy, who is 25, is said to have flown 10 missions in the war so far and has more than one aerial kill to his credit.

“My main task is to hit airborne targets, to intercept enemy jets,” Andriy explained. “I had situations where I was approaching a Russian aircraft at a close enough distance to aim and fire. I could already detect it, but I was waiting for my missile to lock on while at the same time from the ground, they tell me that a missile has already been fired at me.

Reflecting on the downing of a Russian plane, he said: “I am happy that this plane is no longer bombing my peaceful towns. And as we see in practice, that’s exactly what Russian jets do.

Apparent wreckage of an R-27 (AA-10 Alamo) air-to-air missile fired during the air war in Ukraine. These weapons are used by both Russia and Ukraine:

Andriy apparently survived this encounter by performing evasive maneuvers to defeat the incoming missile, though he likely used his jet’s self-protection systems as well. These include a radar warning receiver to alert the pilot to radio frequency threats and chaff and flare cartridges to spoof incoming missiles.

“I just 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 those more experience than me, are already dead.

While the described scenario shows the Su-27 pilot rushing to launch his aircraft from a hangar, only receiving information about the target(s) once they are airborne, the exact operating locations remaining of the Ukrainian Air Force have not been officially disclosed. Airbases and airports have come under heavy bombardment, particularly Russian missile strikes, and the Air Force appears to have responded to this ongoing threat through the use of distributed operations. These may include the use of smaller airstrips in the west of the country, longer partially damaged runways or portions of highways. Operations from the road is something the Ukrainian Air Force has practiced in the past, as shown in the video below, which shows a Su-27 hitting a traffic sign:

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