Ukraine fighter pilot: I could learn to fly western jet within three months

A Ukrainian fighter pilot who shot down five Iranian drones in one day has said he could learn how to fly a western jet within a few months – and help his country act as “a safe shield for the world” against Russian aggression.

Maj Vadym Voroshylov, a well-known figure in his homeland, said he believed it would take “up to three months to learn all the combat tasks” given his years of experience of flying in a Soviet-era MiG-29.

Engineers could learn how to repair a jet like an F-16 in a similar time, the Ukrainian pilot added, because “ground crews can be trained simultaneously”, in an interview as part of Ukraine’s latest lobbying campaign for military aid.

On Tuesday, the UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak, said at a press conference he would consider whether the UK could become the first western nation to donate combat jets to Ukraine – but then warned it could take “three years” to learn to pilot an RAF Typhoon.

That prompted Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, standing next to Sunak on a surprise visit to the UK, to say the country had experienced pilots who could learn faster: “Come on, we will be sending you pilots who’ve already trained for two and a half years.”

Ukraine has already identified nearly 50 pilots who would be allowed to leave the country for training and had initially sought to obtain the popular US made F-16 because there are over 3,000 operating worldwide.

But that effort was set back when the US president, Joe Biden, said last week he did not want to supply Ukraine with F-16 fighters for now, prompting Zelenskiy to take his lobbying campaign to the UK, where he is seeking RAF Typhoons.

In his speech to Britain’s parliament, Zelenskiy hailed King Charles III with a reference to his brief period flying RAF planes half a century ago. “In Britain, the king is an air force pilot,” Zelenskiy said. “And in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”

Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle (left), is presented with a Ukrainian fighter pilot’s helmet by Voldoymyr Zelenskiy.
Speaker of the House of Commons, Lindsay Hoyle (left), is presented with a Ukrainian fighter pilot’s helmet by Voldoymyr Zelenskiy. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

He also presented Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, with a white fighter pilot’s helmet inscribed with the message: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.”

Voroshylov said that he would tell a reluctant leader like the US president that Nato standard planes would dramatically improve Ukraine’s military prospects in a war that is expected to drag on throughout this year and possibly beyond.

“Look how many targets we have hit with old Soviet equipment. Imagine what we would do if we had F-16s. Give us these planes and we would be become a safe shield for the entire democratic world,” the pilot said.

Ukraine will not say how much of its small airforce it has left after a year of fighting the Russian invasion, but its pilots survive by operating from rough, dispersed runways amid tight operational security. Voroshylov said on a video call he was not able to reveal his own location.

The country’s military says its fighters can still operate about 10 missions a day, but the worry is that it will eventually run out of combat jets or spare parts, some of which are rumoured to have come from Poland in secret.

Its pilots still rely on Soviet-era MiG-29s and Su-27s – and Yuri Ihnat, a spokesman for the country’s airforce, said its newest airframe dates back as far as 1991, the year the country won its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Voroshylov, 29, said pilots like him desperately needed newer western fighters, partly because they came up against Russian jets armed with longer range missiles, meaning they often had to abort their missions to prevent themselves being shot down.

“Right now, Russian pilots in Su-30s and Su-34s are armed with R-77 missiles which have a range of around 75km [46 miles]. We can only shoot back with missiles that have a range of around 40km. So when they shoot at us, we have to fly away and hide the planes amongst the landscape,” the Ukrainian pilot said.

Ukrainian jets fly towards enemy positions on bombing runs as low as “20 metres above ground”, Voroshylov said, to evade detection by radar. After firing at Russian soldiers on the ground from a safe distance, a pilot would turn sharply and fly away at a height of 200 metres until they were back towards the centre of the country.

Voroshylov, who uses the callsign Karaya, became a public figure in Ukraine after he was forced to eject after a dramatic 24 hours in the air on 12 October, when debris from the fifth Iranian Shahed drone he had shot down in that time “got into both engines”, smashed out the cockpit glass and left blood running down his face.

Up-down control was also lost, and the pilot quickly realised he would have to eject as fire broke out as he headed for the central city of Vinnytsia. Using the only remaining left-right steering he banked away from the town, and “when the fire was reaching my feet” he “made the decision to direct the plane into a field”.

Finally Voroshylov ejected, from a height of about 1,500 metres, as he was a long way from the frontline. As he parachuted to safety, he took a selfie of his bloodied face to assess his own condition and to it send back to base because “when a plane disappears from the radar everybody is super tense, waiting for a signal” that its pilot is still alive.

The image was officially released in December, after the pilot had been decorated by Zelenskiy, and became something of a viral sensationas an image of Ukrainian defiance. After a period of rehabilitation, another Mig-29 has been assigned to Voroshylov, and he said he was flying again.