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Plane-spotting in the weeds, unwanted fame, and the Ghost of Kyiv made out of Lego. Andrii Pilshchykov's mother tells the story of her son's life

Friday, 22 September 2023, 05:30

There is no one person who can represent Ukrainian resistance to the Russian armed aggression. Millions of people are working to bring Ukraine’s victory closer; their faces are the mosaic of the war.

On the other hand, if you ask a Ukrainian who they think represents modern Ukrainian aviation, most likely they would say it is the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’. And though the Ghost of Kyiv is not a single person but a collective name for the pilots of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade, their legend has become entwined with one particular image, that depicted in a Kyiv mural: a pilot wearing a helmet giving a thumbs-up in his plane’s cockpit.

The photograph the mural is based on was taken before Russia’s full-scale invasion, and shows the pilot known as Juice.

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This moniker is what you would hear if you asked Western officials, military or civilian, who represents Ukrainian aviation for them.

Juice’s real name is Andrii Pilshchykov. He was only 30 when he died, on 25 August this year, in a collision of two Ukrainian planes in Zhytomyr Oblast. Several days after his death, the Netherlands and Denmark agreed to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets and Ukrainian pilots started training to operate the aircraft.

Pilshchykov’s efforts are part of the reason why Ukraine will receive the F-16s. In 2022, he joined a lobbying group that advocated for Western countries to give F-16s to Ukraine; he attended meetings with US officials and gave dozens of interviews to Western media.

US policy-makers and foreign audiences saw a charismatic Ukrainian military pilot who was very good at his job and convincingly explained not only why Ukraine desperately needs the F-16s, but also that Ukrainian pilots would quickly be able to master the use of the Western aircraft.

Andrii "Juice" Pilshchykov next to the mural dedicated to the Ghost of Kyiv
Photo: Suspilne.News

"Many people have written to me since Andrii’s death saying they were sorry about the lost opportunities," Anrii’s mother Liliia Averianova, a researcher at the Kharkiv National University of Radio Electronics. Those are not just words of sympathy for the mother who is living through a tragedy, but a recognition of how much Juice meant for the future of Ukraine’s Air Force.

Liliia Averianova told Ukrainska Pravda how Andrii decided he wanted to become a military pilot; why he decided, some months before the full-scale invasion, not to renew his contract with the Armed Forces of Ukraine; why it’s quite unlikely that he would have been happy about his posthumous promotion to the rank of major; and why one of the most famous people lobbying for Ukraine to be given F-16 fighter jets was not part of the first group of pilots trained to fly them.

What follows is Liliia Averianova’s account.

Plane-spotting in the weeds

When did Andrii fall in love with the skies? 

Maybe the death of his second cousin, Vladyslav Popov, played a decisive role. Popov was the best navigator at the Kharkiv Aviation Plant and flew the An-74 aircraft, which was chartered for transportation in Africa. The aircraft crashed during a landing in Chad, killing six crew members.

Though there was a large age gap between them, Andrii and Vladyslav were inseparable. I think Vladyslav’s death traumatised Andrii, who was only 13 at the time.

Andrii developed an interest in some items that Vladyslav had left him and some old black-and-white photographs. He found plane-spotting websites, where people post photos of aircraft, and started posting some himself. Vladyslav’s friends found him through those sites and took him under their wing. Maybe it was they who helped inspire in him a desire to find out more about aircraft.

Andrii started plane-spotting. He would go to the Kharkiv Aviation Plant or wait in the weeds by the Chuhuiv airfield, trying to blend in with the grass to avoid getting caught. He’d take pictures of the aircraft taking off there. Sometimes he ended up being the only person to get a snapshot of a particular aircraft. I used to ask him to at least bring more water with him on these excursions: it was unbearably hot there.

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When AirForces Monthly, a UK-based magazine, published an article on the Ukrainian aviation industry, its editors found Andrii’s photos and used them for the article. They simply could not find other photos of the aircraft they were interested in. Things like that kept Andrii motivated.

He even wore military fatigues and combat boots to school; he got special permission to do so, even though no one in our family was in the military. His dad designed space simulators for Star City [an area in Moscow Oblast, Russia, which has since the 1960s been home to the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center - ed.]. Everyone thought that since Andrii was good at technical thinking, he would become an aircraft designer or something like that. His temperament was not particularly suited to the military. I told him that his temperament would make it difficult for him to follow orders.

˳ ʼ:         .  ,    ,   ,      .
Liliia Averianova: Andrii never took extra English classes. Everyone asked him where he learned English and he’d say going to school was enough.
Photo: Oleksii Klimov

I think it was in ninth grade [around age 15-16 – ed.], when Andrii was already a well-known plane spotter, that he started talking to like-minded people in other cities. They told him that UK-based spotters were coming to Ukraine to take pictures of planes and other aviation-related things.

Those spotters didn’t realise that Andrii was only a schoolkid. One of the UK visitors was a staff member at the House of Lords. Talking with native English speakers was a real shock for Andrii, but the visit eventually grew into a friendship with the more mature fellow enthusiasts.

When Andrii was issued his international passport and no longer had to ask my permission to do anything, the first thing he did was sign up for parachuting lessons in the [Kharkiv] Aero Club [at the Korotych airfield]. Of course he didn’t tell me about it.

One evening he got home and I realised that he was no longer a little boy or a schoolkid, but a tired grown man. The feelings and emotions he was experiencing really changed him.

I think he felt he needed to test himself, to see whether he’d be able to handle that. He knew that parachuting was an important skill for pilots. But I had no idea he wanted to be a pilot in the military.

From civil to military aviation

Andrii entered the Civil Aviation Institute to specialise in Aircraft Maintenance. There, he encountered household chores, the People’s Druzhyna [a Soviet-era ‘People’s Guard’ - ed.], and other Soviet-era traditions. And that didn’t add to his optimism.

In the second semester, he developed an apathy for studying. I engaged him in conversation and asked him: what’s the matter? He said, "Mom, don’t you understand? I want to go to a military university as a pilot." This was in the spring of 2011.

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Andrii Pilshchikov was nearsighted. He had to undergo laser vision correction to become a military pilot
AUTHOR: VOLODYMYR VOROBIOV. PHOTO: LILIIA AVERIANOVA

When he graduated, we looked at the flight book, at how many hours and on what planes he flew, and calculated that the state had spent UAH 7 million (US$182,767.62) on aviation fuel alone. I’m not even talking about the cost of training, food and everything else. This highlights how important it is to protect the health of pilots and create safe training conditions at their training bases.

"The guy is going to war"

I wasn't scared in 2022, I was scared in 2014 when it all started [war with Russia - Ukrainska Pravda].

Andrii was already in his 3rd year, and they were allowed to live at home. On 6 March, they had an order from the university to return to the barracks. And for the first time, I saw a guy go to war.

Kharkiv Air Force University had become a citadel. If they hit the road with tanks, the Russians would be in the city centre in an hour, and the first thing they would see is this university.

It was a shock. I saw how the university was preparing for defence. There was no body armour, no helmets. This situation was similar to what had taken place during the Euromaidan [uprising in Kyiv in 2013 – ed.], where people had to defend themselves with their bare hands.

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One of them

The 2018 exercises were a huge breakthrough [in October 2018, Ukraine hosted the Clear Sky multinational military exercise, which involved about 1000 representatives from 9 countries; the exercise was led by commanders from Ukraine and the United States - Ukrainska Pravda].

In 2018, Andrii became very friendly with some American pilots. Andrii emulated American pilots, putting on not the uniform they were given, but a flight jumpsuit. He had to be one of them so that they could see something similar to their aviation in Ukraine. 

Maybe it was a bluff on his part, but a constructive bluff. Andrii did his best to show the Americans that we were no worse.

After meeting the American pilots, Andrii learned many joyful and joyless traditions. One day, the crew in which a friend of his served was lost, and Andrii experienced for the first time the tradition of burning a piano [in Vinnytsia Oblast during Exercise Clear Sky 2018, a Su-27 plane crashed, and Ukrainian and American pilots were killed; to pay tribute to the memory of the deceased crew, the military burned a piano at the Starokostiantyniv Air Base – Ukrainska Pravda]. He sent me a video, and I thought: God forbid I live to see a piano being burned for him.

[To honour the memory of American pilots who die on a mission, their brothers-in-arms burn a piano on the runway. After the plane crash in Zhytomyr Oblast, the military also said goodbye to Andrii Pilshchykov, Viacheslav Minka and Serhii Prokazin. The Albinoni Adagio was played on a piano set up on the runway, and then the instrument was burned Ukrainska Pravda.]

@air.force.ua # #🇺🇦 # #juice #pilot #aviation ♬ Summertime Sadness (Wren Remix) - Wren

I play the piano, I have one at home. But now, the first thing to do when I return to Kharkiv is to remove it from our house.

How he came by the alias 'Juice'

His alias, Juice, came a bit later. 

In 2019, Andrii and several guys from other brigades were invited to an air base in California. He was taken up in an F-15 and experienced what it was like. He saw the characteristic gestures pilots exchange with each other, and when he returned, he taught the guys to use them. 

His nickname was given to him at a party. The pilots began to discuss what they knew about Andrii. And they remembered that he does not drink alcohol but always orders juice.

It is a tradition that before receiving one’s alias, the pilot must pass a test – eat a raw egg with the shell. He had never done that in his life. But Andrii nevertheless put the egg in his mouth, nibbled and swallowed.

So they gave him the name Juice. As far as I know, this was the only time a Ukrainian pilot was given an alias exactly in accordance with American traditions.

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The relationship between the Ukrainian and American pilots went beyond military service. The group have rallied around and founded Wingmen for Ukraine - a fund to support Ukrainian pilots. Their friendship has been effective.

Andrii is a volunteer by nature. We were saving money for his apartment, and one day, he told me he was thinking of buying war bonds. And I answered: the best investment of your money would now be to save your guys' lives. 

There was a situation with a helicopter pilot who hit his head hard on the glass while braking. Andrii gave the money he had saved to buy helmets for his brothers-in-arms. He did it without hesitation.

"Who needs you?"

His 5-year contract was due to expire in 2021, and he needed to renew it. In general, it probably would have been nice for him to continue serving.

But Andrii saw a lot from the inside. He observed all sorts of atypical work for pilots that went beyond what was specified in the regulations, but no one addressed these violations. Overtime hours, when young people had to stay on duty around the clock, while senior officers went home. There were many problems in interpersonal communication, when people took advantage of their high position and simply hated on the guys. 

And that is not even to mention the salary, which was lower than that of a bus driver in Kyiv: it was around 21-25,000 hryvnias [roughly US$565-670 – ed.] and not a penny more. Although when he was compiling his list of problems [after he left the service, Pilshchykov wrote a long report on the shortcomings of the Air Force, see photo – ed.], he said: "Mom, salary is the last among the problems."

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List of reasons why Pilshchikov decided not to extend his contrac

Five people from their group alone decided not to renew their 5-year contracts. Letting such people go says something. 

The commander of the Air Force [Serhii Drozdov from 2015 to 2021 – ed.] wanted to get them to sign another contract. He understood that letting five young pilots go was scandalous, and he wanted to settle the matter using strong pressure.

This general told Andrii: "Who needs you?! You'll quit and sell frozen hake at the market stall." This is what he said to a young man with excellent skills!

Moments of such disregard are a terrible thing. As a result, guys just leave the armed forces.

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"He just got under their skin"

After the full-scale invasion, Andrii kind of mobilised himself. He re-joined his brigade [the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade] in the same position he had held before he was discharged. 

Could he have avoided going to war? Formally, he had every reason not to go. But, of course, he would never have "ducked out".

When Andrii went to Washington [to advocate for the provision of F-16s to Ukraine], the target audience – congressmen and senators who were themselves military men – saw in him someone like themselves. They were experts, and he was an expert.

He knew how to speak to anyone – he was so passionate! And the Americans believed in the Ukrainian Air Force. They concluded that everyone here was like Andrii. He had got under their skin.

When he gave his first interview with CNN, he had a shaggy beard. They wrote that he must have been an actor, because pilots can't fly with a beard. But I'd like to see an actor who can talk about such a topic without any notes!

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Juice told US officials that the Ukrainian army is in critical need of Western combat aircraft
PHOTO: LILIIA AVERIANOVA

The leadership did not like Andrii's publicity. I'm not talking about the commander of the Air Force, I'm talking about a lower level. 

I looked it up: the last time he appeared on state-owned channels was in February this year. He was simply isolated, prevented from carrying out the mission he was supposed to conduct on behalf of Ukraine. If you appear on foreign channels but not Ukrainian ones, the question arises: why?

Andrii was the only one of his cohort who was really qualified and at the same time a charismatic speaker from within military aviation who appeared on many information channels. Now, no one has taken his place.

He was personally acquainted with the commander of the US Air National Guard. It is very bad for Ukraine and for aviation that we have lost the opportunity for such a multifaceted and highly effective communication with our Western partners. 

I really hope that Andrii made some irreversible changes in the Air Force. The main thing now is not to waste his achievements but to support them, so that something new can grow out of it.

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"He would not have been happy with a major's rank"

All the time Andrii was fighting, they wanted to force him to sign a contract. Many opportunities depended on signing a contract during combat operations, such as further military ranks, awards, trips abroad, etc. 

Andrii did not want to serve under a contract on principle. He enlisted and maintained this status for greater freedom of action, which was ultimately decisive in obtaining an F-16 – yet Andrii was not included in the first group of those who went to be trained on the F-16.

He should have already been abroad [then Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov announced the start of training for Ukrainian pilots on F-16s on 19 August, and Pilshchikov was killed on 25 August – ed.]. But there was a fundamental reluctance, because he refused to sign a contract [one of the criteria for selecting pilots was that they be under contract with the Armed Forces; Pilshchykov was to be included in the second group to receive F-16 training]. He said: "Mom, I don't care if I go or not; the main thing is that at least someone goes." But it was clear that he wanted to go.

Andrii's groupmates who are contract soldiers are already lieutenant colonels. Andrii said that if you are above the rank of captain, you are already a part of the military system forever. He did not want that. He probably would not have been happy with the rank of major to which he was posthumously promoted.

***

Now I regret that we didn't talk much. We used to text. I thought that if I called him, I would freak him out that something had happened. 

Maybe there is something that I did not tell him. Something he didn't tell me. Something I didn't hear.

But he has such a huge group of friends. I see now how intensively and with whom he communicated. It's a great group of young volunteers and progressive young people. And now they are telling me everything.

  ,   Lego-  ,   ϳ. ³   -
The idea to create a Lego figure of the Ghost of Kyiv was suggested by Andrii Pilshchykov. He also sent the manufacturer the details of the Ghost's costume
SOURCE: INSTAGRAM OF THE_BRICK_MOCS

I recently sent a letter to the US company Brickmania in which I gave them permission to use information about Andrii. As you may know, they previously created a Lego figure of the Ghost of Kyiv. Now there is a good initiative to make a Lego figure of Juice in an F-16 jet. 

This is how they want to fulfil his dream – so that Andrii may be in this fighter jet.

Rustem Khalilov, Ukrainska Pravda  

Translation: Olya Loza, Yuliia Kravchenko and Myroslava Zavadska 

Editing: Monica Sandor 

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