LVIV, Ukraine — Every night, Ukrainian pilots like Andriy hang around an undisclosed aircraft hangar, waiting, waiting, until the tension is broken with a shouted one-word command: “Air!”
Andriy rushes into his Su-27 supersonic jet and hastily taxis towards the runway, taking off as quickly as possible. He takes off so fast that he does not yet know his mission for the night, even if the overview is always the same: to lead the fight against a Russian air force vastly superior in numbers but which has not ‘now failed to gain control. of the skies over Ukraine.
“I don’t do any checking,” said Andriy, a Ukrainian Air Force pilot who, as a condition of being granted an interview, was not allowed to give his surname or rank. “I just took off.”
Nearly a month after the fighting began, one of the biggest surprises of the war in Ukraine is Russia’s failure to defeat the Ukrainian Air Force. Military analysts expected Russian forces to quickly destroy or cripple Ukraine’s air defenses and military aircraft, but nothing happened. Instead, Top Gun-style dogfights, rare in modern warfare, now rage over the land.
“Every time I fly it’s for a real fight,” said Andriy, who is 25 and has flown 10 missions during the war. “In every fight with Russian planes there is no equality. They always have five times as many planes in the air.
The success of the Ukrainian pilots helped protect Ukrainian soldiers on the ground and prevented wider bombardments in cities, as the pilots intercepted some Russian cruise missiles. Ukrainian officials also said the country’s military shot down 97 Russian fixed-wing planes. This number could not be verified, but the crumpled remains of Russian fighter jets crashed into rivers, fields and houses.
The Ukrainian Air Force operates in near total secrecy. Its fighter jets can fly from airstrips in western Ukraine, airports that have been bombed but retain enough runways for takeoffs or landings – or even from highways, analysts say. They are vastly outnumbered: Russia is thought to fly some 200 sorties 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 efficient in the sky because we operate on our own land,” said Yuriy Ihnat, spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force. “The enemy who flies into our airspace flies into the zone of our air defense systems.” He described the strategy as luring Russian aircraft into air defense traps.
Dave Deptula, senior fellow at the US Air Force Academy and lead attack planner for the Desert Storm air campaign in Iraq, said the Ukrainian pilots’ impressive performance helped counter their numerical disadvantages. He said Ukraine now has about 55 operational fighter jets, a number that is shrinking due to downings and mechanical failures as Ukrainian pilots “force them to peak performance”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly called on Western governments to replenish the Ukrainian air force and asked NATO to impose a no-fly zone over the country, a measure that Western leaders have so far refused to cross. Slovakia and Poland have considered sending MiG-29 fighter jets, which Ukrainian pilots could fly with minimal additional training, but no transfer has yet been made.
“Russian troops have already fired nearly 1,000 missiles at Ukraine, countless bombs,” Zelensky said in a video address to Congress March 16, calling for more planes. “And you know they exist, and you have them, but they are on earth, not in Ukraine – in Ukrainian skies.”
Mr Deptula said the transfer of these jets to Ukraine was essential. “Without resupply,” he said, “they will run out of planes before they run out of pilots.”
Unmanned drones are also a tool in the Ukrainian army’s arsenal, but not in the battle for control of airspace. Ukraine flies a Turkish-made armed drone, the Bayraktar TB-2, a propeller-driven aircraft that is deadly effective in destroying tanks or artillery pieces on the ground but cannot hit targets in the air. If Ukrainian air defenses fail, Russian aircraft could easily eliminate them.
As in other aspects of Ukraine’s war effort, volunteers play a role in air battles. A network of volunteers monitors and listens to Russian jets, calling out coordinates and estimated speed and altitude. Other private Ukrainian pilots removed state-of-the-art civilian navigational equipment from their planes and handed it over to the Air Force, in case it might be needed.
Air-to-air combat has been rare in modern warfare, with only isolated instances in recent decades. American pilots, for example, have not conducted intensive dogfights since the first Iraq War in 1991. Since then, American fighter jets have only participated in two air-to-air combats, once in the Balkans and another in Syria, according to Mr. Deptula.
In the night sky, Andriy said he relies on instruments to discern the positions of enemy aircraft, which he says are still present. He shot down Russian jets but was not allowed to say how many, or what type. He said his targeting system could shoot planes a few dozen miles away.
“My main task is to hit airborne targets, to intercept enemy jets,” he said. “I wait for the missile to lock onto my target. After that, I press fire.
When he shoots down a Russian plane, he declares: “I am happy that this plane does not bombard my peaceful cities any more. And as we see in practice, that’s exactly what Russian jets do.
Most air combat in Ukraine has been at night, as Russian planes attack in the dark when they are less vulnerable to air defenses. In dogfights over Ukraine, Andriy said, the Russians flew a range of modern Sukhoi jets, such as the Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35.
“I had situations where I approached a Russian aircraft at a close enough distance to aim and fire,” he said. “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.”
He said he maneuvered his jet through a series of extreme tilts, dives and climbs in order to deplete the fuel reserves of the missiles coming after him. “The time I have to save myself depends on the distance the missile was fired at me and the type of missile,” he said.
Yet, he said in an interview on a clear, sunny day, “I can still feel a huge adrenaline rush in my body because every flight is a struggle.”
Andriy graduated from the Kharkiv Air Force School after deciding to become a pilot as a teenager. “Neither I nor my friends ever thought we would have to face a real war,” he said. “But that’s not how it happened.”
Andriy moved his wife to a safer part of Ukraine, but she did not leave the country, he said. She spends her days weaving homemade camouflage nets for the Ukrainian army. He never tells his family members when he’s on duty, he said, only calling after returning from an overnight flight.
“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 with more experience than me, are already dead.