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Inside the cockpit of a Ukrainian fighter jet – and the call for western F-16s
We get a rare look into what one pilot says was the most dangerous mission of his career – the mission to retake Snake Island from the Russian military.
We’re back after a short hiatus! We spent time resting up, catching up on reporting, visiting friends and family. Thanks for being supportive of us as we spent a little time recovering!
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In the spring of 2022, ‘Rocket’ climbed into the cockpit of his fighter jet, a Ukrainian Su-27.
Most of the time, being a pilot is like being like many other military service members – waiting for orders; training; boredom.
But now the excitement was about to kick in.
He had orders to help liberate a particularly important strategic piece of Ukrainian territory. The immediate plan was to head south, to the area around the now-infamous Snake Island.
It’s a tiny piece of land that has been woven forever into Ukrainian lore, a place where a defiant Ukrainian service member challenged the might of the invading Russian military – “Russian Warship, Go F*** Yourself!” became a rallying cry for a nation.
As his jet takes off and heads towards danger, Rocket is greeted by a dizzying array of controls and instruments: to the untrained eye, it’s an overwhelming amount of information – spinning dials and countless buttons, all with a specific purpose known only to a select few.
As he flies, he monitors these instruments to determine his heading, altitude, speed, and fuel. On his right, he sees a heads-up-display where the status of his weapons are shown. And below that, he sees a system that shows what enemy radar might be searching for him.
His immediate mission was to use those weapons: cover advancing Ukrainian bombers, while firing unguided missiles and dropping bombs on enemy positions – all to liberate the island.
“The main goal was to free our lands from the enemy [so that we could safely] deliver Ukrainian grain to Africa,” Rocket said. The tiny speck, its size just 0.17 sq km, is in the far southern reaches of Ukraine’s territories in the Black Sea, and controlling it would also help with coordinating aviation in the region, he said.
In the back of his mind he is mentally prepared to hear the sounds of danger: when a colleague on the ground might yell out over the radio that a missile has been fired at him: “launch detected, anti-missile maneuver, heading 270!”
On that day, he doesn’t hear it. The bombers he is escorting do get fired on, but he completes his mission safely.
“This one was the craziest and [most] dangerous mission,” he said.
The Russian technological advantage in radar and weaponry was in full effect. Outnumbered and outgunned, Oleksii said he felt like he was equipped with a pistol, facing off against an enemy with a sniper rifle and drone.
Rocket ultimately did approximately ten missions to help with the liberation of the island, wrested from Ukrainian control on the first day of Russia’s full scale invasion.
In June 2022, Ukraine said it had retaken the strategic island territory; Russia claimed that it withdrew from the island in a “gesture of goodwill."
Oleksii is Rocket’s real first name. He has a calm, mature demeanor well beyond what you might expect from his 26 years on earth. From a young age, it seemed like he might be predestined for a military life – his father is a colonel in the Ukrainian military, in charge of artillery forces.
After the 8th grade, he entered a military school. But he remembers the defining moment when he figured out what path his life would take. When he was around 18 years old, in 2014, Russia illegally annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea.
“All doubts about my future profession disappeared,” Oleksii said.
The best pilots in training – like Oleksii – were chosen to fly the Sukhoi Su-27, a Soviet-era plane first produced in 1985 and among the best the Ukrainian Air Force has to offer. During the Cold War, it had been designed as a competitor to the American F-15. With a max speed of more than Mach 2, twice the speed of sound, Oleksii’s plane has a range of some 3,000 kilometers.
Somewhere along his training pipeline, Oleksii got his callsign – traditionally awarded to aviators by their colleagues. The Su-27 pilot received the nickname ‘Rocket,’ not for his speed or agility, but because it was the name of a character others felt he took after, a raccoon from the popular movie series ‘Guardians of the Galaxy.’
Now Rocket is on a list of potential Ukrainian pilots who could receive F-16 training from western allies. The F-16s would put Ukraine's air force on somewhat equal standing with Russia's, he added, rather than the current cat and mouse games which the Ukrainian military is currently forced to play.
Since the full-scale invasion began, 'Rocket' ultimately took part in more than 80 combat missions.
For the first few months of the full-scale invasion, he was mainly flying to intercept cruise missiles hurtling over Ukraine. In more recent times, Ukraine has been provided more advanced weapons and he’s now involved in more air-to-ground missions. But it also involves more risk: in the last few months, he has been fired on in about 80 percent of his missions.
He keeps an ear out for warnings that he’s being targeted. The sounds can be alarming, but the thing that scares ‘Rocket’ the most is silence. The Ukrainian pilot has been conditioned to periods of high stress and danger.
And yet nothing feels worse than the realization that you’re not hearing back on the radio from a friend, because he’s been shot down.
“I lost him on [the] radio that day but I didn’t know that it was [him]. It is difficult to explain my feelings about it,” he said, about the day a friend was killed.
At first, he said, “I didn’t believe [it].”
In May, a friend he had known from military training was killed in action, shot down on the outskirts of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.
His colleague, callsign ‘Nomad,’ had been training in the United States but rushed back this past spring to rejoin the war effort. He had performed seven flights under his belt in the last few months. On his eighth, ‘Nomad’ was killed.
"As long as you remember about them, they live [on] in somebody," Oleksii said. "He was a real warrior. His wife was always telling him, maybe we [can] stay in the United States a [while] longer... but he was striving to get back to the battle."
Oleksii is speaking out now to appeal for western equipment and training because he's worried that over time allies will lose their focus. He wants to remind people outside of Ukraine that it's not merely soldiers dying in this war, but that families, civilians, animals, the environment are all suffering as a result of the violence.
“I'm pretty confident that [the Russian military] won't stop this,” he said. “And this is why they have to be stopped exactly at the front lines that they have now created.”
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Good morning to readers, Kyiv remains in Ukrainian hands.
The Ukrainian government has been desperately appealing to its western allies for F-16 fighter jets for pilots like ‘Rocket.’
The head of the U.S. Air National Guard said Tuesday that Ukrainian pilots could be trained on F-16s by the end of 2023, though it will be longer than that before they can fly combat missions.
HOW F-16s WOULD CHANGE THE BATTLEFIELD: They’re especially useful for air-to-ground missions, allowing the Ukrainian military to attack targets as they push forward in counteroffensives.
“The current challenge is that Ukraine’s Soviet-era air force desperately needs more and better aircraft to outcompete Russia in a war of attrition,” said Seth Jones, the Director of the International Security Program at the Washington, D.C. think tank CSIS. “Combat losses in the past several months have cost it well over 50 combat aircraft out of an original fleet of approximately 124 combat aircraft.”
The Dutch and the Danish militaries are leading the efforts to provide F-16 jets, as well as train Ukrainian pilots on how to use them. The U.K., the U.S., and Belgium are also involved in the training.
MOSCOW MISSILE PRODUCTION ABOVE PRE-INVASION LEVELS: The Russian military has been able to bypass efforts to limit its wartime production – by routing components through countries such as Armenia and Turkey, the NYT reports. Using $$ from high energy prices, Russia has been able to procure microchips, processors, and circuit boards for its guided weapons. It’s not just missiles: before the invasion, Russia could produce ~100 tanks per year. Now it's on track to produce double that amount.
“Officials fear that increased missile stocks could mean an especially dark and cold winter for Ukrainian citizens,” according to the newspaper.
KIM/PUTIN SUMMIT: Kim Jong Un met with Putin at a Russian spaceport, as the Russian leader sought even more weapons and ammunition for his full-scale invasion. The decision to meet at a spaceport, the AP said, suggests that Kim is looking for assistance in spy satellite technology.
UKRAINE STRIKES RUSSIA IN CRIMEA: The Ukrainian military said it had hit Russian naval targets in Sevastopol, in occupied Crimea. It claims it hit a large landing vessel and submarine. Russia's defense ministry said that a shipyard had been attacked with ten cruise missiles.
Hi folks – it’s Tim here.
Our team spent the last two weeks off in various ways. I spent some of it visiting my grandmother in Hong Kong – at 93 years young, she’s a hero of mine. Orphaned during World War II, fighting poverty and hunger, she found her own way to Hong Kong.
When I walked through the door of her apartment, she told me that she had missed me so much that she dreams about me.
I told her that I was working in Ukraine.
“Be careful,” she told me in Cantonese. “There’s a war going on there!”
I don’t hesitate at all in saying my grandmother is cooler than your grandmother. Happy to fight about it!
I took my grandmother out for lunch, and guess what? The news in Hong Kong is the same as it is everywhere else — the television on the wall showed… F-16s.
The time off gave me some time to reflect. As I’m looking around at the folks in Ukraine that I’ve had the opportunity to meet over the last 18+ months of full-scale war, it is really striking to me that people – even very solid people I thought never would – are beginning to bend and break.
The stress really sneaks up on you, and without time to be introspective, you don’t realize the terrible mental toll that the daily images of death and destruction take.
I had my hospitalization, but many others have had other breakdowns. Outbursts, violence, destructive drinking… I’m hearing story after story of how people are reaching their limit.
We are trying every day to balance our work with sustainability – in terms of health, in terms of finances, in terms of sanity.
I looked at the news one time recently and saw that a hotel I had stayed at in Zaporizhzhia had been bombed. It is a reminder of the risks of the job. I’m not an adrenaline junkie by any means at all – I’ve just come to the conclusion that the reporting I’m doing in Ukraine is some of the most important I’ll ever get to do.
Thank you for being a subscriber – I’ve always said that readers can’t take the dangers away for us, or reduce the anxieties of being in a war zone.
But they can help us get the safety equipment we need, and to keep gas in the car to keep reporting. They help us worry less about the money side.
And, as Forrest Gump once quipped, “that’s one less thing.”
Today’s Dog of War is this enormous pup named Osman, who came barreling down the sidewalk the night before a category ten typhoon hit Hong Kong (I have impeccable timing in travel).
Stay safe out there.