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Kyiv holds funeral for 'Juice,' one of Ukraine's ace fighter pilots

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Today in Kyiv, a funeral was held for one of Ukraine's ace fighter pilots. He went by the call sign Juice and had become a public figure advocating for Western military assistance. More on the impact that Juice's death is having on Ukrainians from NPR's Brian Mann in Kyiv.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: In the early weeks of the war, I interviewed Juice as he and other Ukrainian pilots scrambled successfully to prevent Russia from gaining air superiority.

ANDRII PILSHCHYKOV: We were waiting for much more effective threat from the Russian air force side.

MANN: Ukraine's tiny fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29s held off Russia's larger fleet of newer, more sophisticated jet fighters. But right from the start, Juice told me his country needed better equipment. They needed F-16s.

PILSHCHYKOV: It's great problem to fight with their fighters for us because they have an advantage in this technology. Unfortunately, our jets are not capable to be effective against them.

MANN: At the time, Juice wasn't allowed to tell me his real name for security reasons. Then over the weekend, Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, announced in an emotional video address that Juice, full name Captain Andrii Pilshchykov, aged 30, was dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "Juice helped our country a lot," Zelenskyy said, describing his death as a catastrophe in the sky. Two other pilots were also killed in the collision Friday between jet airplanes used for training exercises. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL TOLLING)

MANN: Tuesday morning in Kyiv, Pilshchykov's casket was carried by an honor guard into a cathedral.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing in non-English language).

MANN: As priests in red robes chanted prayers, members of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade draped Juice's coffin in the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag. Members of his family and community placed roses and asters next to his officer's cap.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: One of his fellow MiG pilots, who declined to give his name for security reasons, said he met Pilshchykov nearly a decade ago at university and flew a lot of combat missions with him. I asked him to describe Pilshchykov's talent as a fighter pilot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: "Oh, it's not easy," he said. "Words cannot describe it. He was a very smart guy, just a great pilot." Juice gained fame when he was put forward by Ukraine's military as a spokesman calling on the West to donate F-16 jets to Ukraine. He lived long enough to see the U.S. finally agree to allow countries, including the Netherlands and Norway, to contribute dozens of the more advanced fighters.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

MANN: His fellow Ukrainian pilot told NPR Juice was supposed to take the English-language test this week to prepare for F-16 training. "It's very sad. His dream to fly F-16s almost came true," the pilot said. Unfortunately, things happened as they happened.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in non-English language).

MANN: After his death, Ukraine's air force granted Pilshchykov a posthumous promotion to the rank of major. The two other pilots killed in the crash, Vyacheslav Minka and Sergey Prokazin, were also honored. This accident was a symbolic loss, but also devastating in practical terms. Ukraine is now in desperate need of enough aviators to fly the F-16s expected to arrive next year. Brian Mann, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.