First Ukraine pilots trained to fly Western jets in France

A Ukrainian trainee puts on his helmet ahead of a flight with a French instructor onboard an Alpha Jet trainer aircraft at an air base in southwest France (Christophe ARCHAMBAULT)
A Ukrainian trainee puts on his helmet ahead of a flight with a French instructor onboard an Alpha Jet trainer aircraft at an air base in southwest France (Christophe ARCHAMBAULT)

At a secret location in southwestern France, a young Ukrainian pilot kept a tight grip on the controls of an Alpha Jet trainer aircraft.

The pilot -- who was not allowed to speak to journalists -- is a part of a 10-strong group of Ukrainians who have been undergoing accelerated six-month training in France using simulators and the twin-engined aircraft.

Aged 21 to 23, the Ukrainians are undergoing the same training as French pilots but in half the time -- learning how to navigate, target and shoot.

"We are doing everything to ensure that this happens as quickly as possible," the commander of the base told journalists on a recent visit.

France had used the Alpha Jets to train French pilots for more than 40 years. Last year they were replaced by Pilatus PC-21s, turboprop advanced trainers.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has implored the West to send advanced military jets to strengthen Ukraine's Soviet-era air force.

Kyiv's Western allies have promised to send F-16 supersonic fighter jets to Ukraine, with the first expected soon, and Ukrainian pilots have been training in the West for months to fly the aircraft.

In mid-May, Zelensky told AFP that Ukraine needed 120 to 130 F-16s to achieve air parity with Russia.

France has pledged to train 26 Ukrainians over the next two years, a major effort for its air force which prepares around 30 French pilots every year.

In early June, President Emmanuel Macron said France would transfer Mirage-2000 fighter jets to Ukraine, which will require a different type of final training for pilots and mechanics.

Authorities have not released any details on the number of aircraft or the planned training programme.

- 'Bumpy ride' -

On the day the journalists visited the French air base the first group of Ukrainian trainees were learning to fly at low altitude at speeds of 700 kilometres per hour.

"It's going to be a bumpy ride," the squadron's commander warned just before take-off.

"The lower you fly, the later you're detected. Flying at this altitude allows us to understand speed" and its dangers, said the lieutenant-colonel.

Around the students were a score of instructors and former French pilots.

Their programme in France includes 80 flight hours on the Alpha Jet and 50 simulator sessions.

It marks a new stage in the Ukrainians' F-16 training, entrusted to a coalition of 11 of Ukraine's allies which was set up in July 2023 and includes the UK, Canada and European countries.

Before arriving in France, the Ukrainians underwent initial training in the UK.

After France the trainees will head to another country, possibly Romania, for the final four-month phase of the programme to pilot F-16s.

During their stay in the UK, the Ukrainians were trained using Grob fixed-wing aircraft to break away from the Soviet culture in which "the pilot is the executor of someone who controls him on the ground", said the commander.

The aim is to "acquire the initiative, autonomy and decision-making skills that are the strength of the Western system".

The Ukrainian pilots will not be ready before the end of the year, at best.

"An F-16 is more complex than an Alpha Jet," said one instructor, who has flown in Afghanistan, the Sahel region of Africa and the Central African Republic.

"It goes faster, it accelerates faster, the weapons system is more complex."