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Opinion: Remembering ‘Juice,’ the young fighter pilot who embodied the Holy Grail of aviation

Opinion by Nolan Peterson

(CNN) — In March last year, while artillery thundered from not far away, I sat down at the desk in my Kyiv apartment and logged onto Zoom for one of the most extraordinary interviews of my life.

A bearded young man with unkempt hair appeared on the computer screen. In idiomatic, slightly accented English, the 29-year-old Ukrainian fighter pilot said, “Man, I’ve had one hell of a day.”

The pilot’s name was Andriy Pilshchikov — better known by the call sign “Juice.” It was just a few weeks into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and he’d just finished a combat sortie in his MiG-29 and was due to fly again shortly.

Yet, Juice still made time to speak with me, a journalist curious to understand how Ukraine’s underdog air force was pulling off one of the greatest air combat upsets in history. I suspect Juice was so open with me partly because I’m a former US Air Force pilot, and he was eager to compare notes, so to speak, about our combat experiences.

I was quick to point out that my previous counterinsurgency “milk runs” in Afghanistan back in 2009 and 2010 – where we enjoyed unquestioned air superiority – had nothing in common with the extraordinary, lethal dangers that Juice and his fellow Ukrainian pilots faced each time they went up against their Russian enemies.

“Maybe it’s stupid, but we don’t give a s**t about technologies,” Juice told me, referring to the limitations of his Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet against Russia’s more modern warplanes. “We’re just trying to do everything we can with what we’ve got. It’s our land, it’s our families, it’s our cities. We are defending them. That’s the main motivation for us.”

Before Russia’s full-scale war, many military experts assumed Russian air power would swiftly overwhelm the Ukrainian air force and gain control of Ukraine’s skies. Yet, one month after the invasion, while ground battles still raged on Kyiv’s outskirts, Ukraine’s indefatigable pilots had spoiled Russia’s plans for air superiority.

“We succeed in this because the Russians are surprised, they are f***ing surprised … because they were not expecting resistance in the air at all,” Juice explained at the time.

Some 18 months after our conversation, Juice, a member of the Ukrainian air force’s 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade, died with two other Ukrainian pilots when a pair of L-39 jets collided west of Kyiv on August 25. They died as heroes and will be rightly remembered as such.

“He was one of the most caring and loving people I have ever met,” Melaniya Podolyak, Juice’s girlfriend, told me. “Before and after any sortie he would message me and make sure I was doing okay. Me, not him!”

“This hurts like hell,” she added, “but I’m so grateful we got to spend time together. At his last moments, he knew he wasn’t alone.”

During our March 2022 interview, I must confess that I was in awe of Juice — and quite thankful, too, since pilots like him were protecting the skies over Kyiv, sparing us from the devastation that Russian tactical bombing inflicted on less fortunate cities such as Mariupol.

I also felt a fair amount of professional reverence for this young fighter pilot, since he embodied the Holy Grail to which every aviator aspires. Juice possessed a magical mix of skill, grace under pressure and ice-cold confidence; a cocktail of traits that the writer Tom Wolfe famously described as “the right stuff.” For his part, Juice put it more modestly. “As professionals, we should keep calm and keep our minds cold,” he said.

In this age of rapidly advancing military technologies, Juice and his fellow Ukrainian fighter pilots have proven the importance of the human element in air combat. Day after day, they used creativity and courage to stay in the fight, despite their technological and numerical disadvantages against Russia.

After the Russians destroyed many ground-based navigation aids, Juice said he sometimes flew combat missions using a handheld Garmin GPS unit — the same kind you might use on a cross-country road trip.

He told me that his fellow pilots sometimes flew so low to stay under the Russians’ radars that they came back with street signs embedded in the bellies of their jets. And yet, Ukraine’s pilots have endured, and to this day the Russian air force has never achieved anything close to air superiority over all of Ukraine.

“Let me be clear: We trained the Ukrainian pilots as the experts, but there is no substitute for aerial combat. They are the experts now,” Jonathan “Jersey” Burd, a former California National Guard F-15C pilot who flew training missions with Juice prior to the 2022 invasion, explained to me.

Despite his uplifting bravery, it was hard to overlook the many burdens weighing on Juice’s young shoulders. He referred to combat against the Russians as a “one-way ticket.” Yet, without sugarcoating the air war’s emotional strain, he often joked about the lethal dangers he faced.

To the uninitiated, Juice’s upbeat, even cavalier demeanor seemed at odds with his daily reality. The truth is, such humor is often a purposeful defense against the crushing levels of stress that combat pilots absorb in wartime. The joking, the nonchalance, the sterile vocabulary — it’s all part of a well-honed fighter pilot culture, which ingrains the mental resilience needed to survive.

“All of us are ready to fight,” Juice said of his comrades. “Even with our losses, we are still doing our job in this real combat mood, real fighter pilot mood, with crazy jokes. We have great morale. But it’s also limited, because we don’t want to die.”

Emotional compartmentalization is among the fighter pilot’s most essential skills, especially in combat, when there is little time to reflect on one’s mortality. For his part, Juice mourned the loss of his fellow pilots but did not dwell on their demise — there would be time to honor the dead after the war is won, he said.

“Before we met, he was scared to commit to a serious relationship exactly because of what happened today,” Podolyak told me after Juice died. “He always told me he’d hate it if I suffered. But he took that chance with me. One day, he just called me out of the blue, in the middle of the night, and told me he loved me and that he couldn’t wait to tell me any longer.”

“I’m eternally grateful for the honor,” she added.

Beyond their fears and sorrows, there is another emotion, unique to war, which Ukrainian fighter pilots must now also control each time they fly. It is their rage, provoked by the Russian pilots who continue to bomb and kill Ukrainian civilians. “Sometimes you respect your opponent, but not in this case,” Juice told me of his Russian enemies.

Apart from his piloting skills, Juice was a stellar communicator, and he frequently gave interviews to Western outlets, underscoring the importance of F-16s for Ukraine’s air force.

The American-built F-16 — colloquially known as the “viper” among US pilots — wields better radars and more advanced weapons than the Soviet-era jets currently in Ukraine’s inventory. In our conversations, Juice insisted that F-16s would dramatically improve the ability of Ukrainian pilots to defend Ukrainian civilians from Russian missile strikes, as well as to provide better air cover for Ukrainian ground troops fighting to liberate Russian-occupied land.

“We need to start as soon as possible,” Juice told me in March 2022, explaining that Ukrainian pilots would only need a few months of training to become proficient in the F-16.

As of this writing, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway have all pledged F-16s for Kyiv. For its part, the US military plans to start training Ukrainian pilots to fly the supersonic fighters this October. 

In the end, Juice nearly touched his elusive goal. He was to be among the initial cadre of Ukrainian pilots slated for F-16 training. His death is a tragedy for Ukraine’s air force, and it’s a damn shame that Juice will never pilot an F-16 into combat.

But the outcome of his hard work and advocacy will soon be snarling at supersonic speeds within Ukraine’s airspace and doing victory rolls over downed Russian warplanes.

American fighter pilot culture is rife with rituals and traditions, and Juice wanted Ukraine’s air force to adopt one in particular — the call sign “naming” ceremony. Juice’s own callsign, in fact, was awarded to him while in California for a training exercise with the US Air National Guard. (His teetotaling preference for juice over alcohol had earned the ribbing of his Ukrainian and American counterparts.) No doubt, Ukrainian pilots will speak Juice’s name with reverence for generations to come.

There’s another American fighter pilot tradition that Ukrainian aviators have now adopted. It’s a mantra of sorts, meant to honor fallen pilots and their spirit of derring-do. It comes from an old song dating back to the Korean War, which goes like this:

Oh, hallelujah, Oh, hallelujah

Throw a nickel on the grass — save a fighter pilot’s ass.

Oh, hallelujah, Oh, hallelujah

Throw a nickel on the grass and you’ll be saved… 

So, to Juice and his fellow Ukrainian warriors now fallen from the sky — a nickel on the grass for you, brothers.

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