THREE Ukraine fighter pilots have been killed in a horror mid-air crash including a prominent ace who led the international push for F-16s.
Andriy Pilshchikov was one of three to die in the crash between two L-39 aircraft over Zhytomyr region, west of Kyiv, on Friday.
He was desperately keen to be an F-16 pilot but was killed in northern Ukraine before the long-awaited US warplanes arrived.
His death came just after the US revealed it will start training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets, beginning at an Air National Guard base in October.
Pilshchikov had the call sign Juice and had been interviewed widely on Western media.
He was given the nickname by US pilots because he drank fruit juice rather than alcohol when they were at a bar together.
Juice, who flew a Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jet, defended Ukraine’s skies in the early weeks of the invasion against a well-equipped Russian Air Force.
His grief-stricken girlfriend Melaniya said: “I thank you for giving me one more hug yesterday before your flight. I will do everything as I promised.”
She posted a heartbreaking picture of the couple lying together in the grass and a photo of his badge with his call sign captioning it “forever”.
Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defence minister, said: “‘Juice’ was the driving force behind the F-16 advocacy from day one — we have to recognise and immortalise his legacy.”
The Ukrainian hero – who served with the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade – had posted: “Every day, Russians drop a few dozen of these bombs on Ukrainian troops on the front lines and civilians in the nearby areas.
“And there is no easy to resist it… except modern fighter jets.
“Who wants to tell me that the F-16 is not a critical need for our counteroffensive?”
Many Ukrainians accuse the West of dragging its feet over the arrival of F-16s.
Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigations (SBI) is investigating the circumstances of the crash.
Russians sought to exploit the fact that two Ukrainian warplanes had collided.
It is being probed over a possible “violation of flight rules”, according to the SBI.
The Ukrainian armed forces sent condolences to the victims.
“This is a painful and irreparable loss for all of us,” read a statement.
“We also ask you to be careful and sympathetic to the timing of the disclosure of sensitive information in accordance with established procedures and ethical standards.”
A fellow pilot Pavel Potseluiev said a warm tribute to the dead airman.
“You were dreaming about the F-16 and waiting for news of their arrival. You loved your bird and literally lived in the sky.
“We didn’t know each other long, but I appreciate you for the important life lessons.”
His work would “drive important changes for the next generation of pilots”.
The tribute ended: “Rest in peace, Callsign Juice. Now you are literally holding up our sky.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky offered condolences to the pilots’ families and added: “Ukraine will never forget anyone who defended the free skies of Ukraine.”