Twisting his Sukhoi Su-25 in a tight, low turn, the young Ukrainian pilot threw his pursuer off his tail, but only for a few seconds: his “Frogfoot”, a ground-attack aircraft, was no match for the super-manoeuvrable Su-30 interceptor and soon it was lighting him up again.
The Russian pilot had chased him halfway across Ukraine and the two jets were now nearing his airfield base. “I couldn’t imagine that a Russian interceptor would chase me for two hours,” Crane, 27, a Ukrainian air force major, told The Times. “We wondered if he was stupid or crazy. He was crazy.”
Crane wanted to land, but his command had other ideas: a Ukrainian Su-27 “Flanker” fighter was taking off, coming to his aid. He held on, manoeuvring furiously to stay alive. Then, a missile launch from the Flanker, and a blast — and the Russian was gone. The man piloting the Flanker, he learnt later, was his university classmate, a 28-year-old captain known as Wingman. It was his first kill of the war.
Wingman and Crane are among a handful of brave young pilots who have not only survived the onslaught of a far superior air power but have, against all odds, helped to establish air superiority over their homeland. Now, equipped with a new US weapon, the AGM-88 Harm missile, they are beginning to punch holes in Russia’s air defences, with spectacular results.
Last Friday Ukraine’s air force launched its largest attack of the war to date, destroying Russian anti-aircraft systems and equipment with adapted Harm missiles, which have a 90-mile range and target the radiation given off by anti-aircraft systems.
On Tuesday enormous explosions rocked a Russian airbase in occupied Crimea, destroying at least nine Russian aircraft. Although anonymous Ukrainian officials told US media the attack had been carried out by special forces, satellite imagery after the blasts showed three large impact craters, suggesting a strike with long-range missiles that should have been intercepted by a robust air defence.
“It’s taken everyone by surprise. All the pundits thought the Ukrainian air force would be wiped out in a matter of days,” Andy Netherwood, a former RAF squadron leader, said. “The fact that they’re still going and also conducting offensive air operations is a testament to the skill and courage of the pilots and support personnel. This is a Battle of Britain moment: they’re fighting for their country’s survival in the same way as British pilots were fighting for survival in 1940 and fighting a force that on paper looks much stronger.”
For weeks President Putin’s warplanes have avoided crossing the front lines. “Now we’re mostly flying missions to intercept Russian cruise missiles,” Wingman said as he sat on the grass by his interceptor, ready to scramble at a moment’s notice. “Russian pilots are afraid to go into our airspace, but that wasn’t the case in the first weeks of the war.”
Wingman and Crane have flown about 20 combat missions each since the war began, with cruise missiles slamming into their aerodromes as they raced to get their planes into the air at one point. Both had just enough flight time to enable them to survive combat, but many of their younger fellow graduates did not, they said. Every loss is felt keenly by the small, tight-knit community of pilots, who often studied at the same flight schools. “We were prepared for war but we hadn’t seen a real invasion, seen real blood. We lost a lot of guys in the first days. Before the flight you have a chat with your friend, then 30 minutes later you hear that he’s dead. It’s difficult and you realise you could be next.”
Despite the deaths, Ukraine has a 5-1 ratio of pilots to aircraft and desperately needs more modern planes to defend its population from the cruise-missile attacks that have terrorised its cities, they said. The Russian air force is much larger, more modern and equipped with aircraft that can launch long-range strikes from well outside the reach of Ukraine’s interceptors. The Russians also have a huge technical advantage.
“They have domination against us in radar reconnaissance, because they have the A-50 plane, like Awacs, which can see almost all the airspace of Ukraine. Some missions they are already waiting for our attack aircraft or helicopters, high in the air, to launch air-to-air missiles from range,” Wingman said. “We don’t have anything like Awacs. We need an alternative from our partners.”
The early days of the war were a steep learning curve during Kyiv’s chaotic initial response. For Crane’s first mission, on February 25, he was tasked with striking a Russian column advancing on the capital. His jet cut through the middle of the city, screaming low over the Dnipro river at 500 mph to avoid radar lock, but he misjudged a sharp bend in the water. “By the time I realised the river turned right I was already above the railway station. I saw people stop their vehicles, everyone looked up. I was passing just 20 metres overhead. I could even see in their eyes that they were terrified,” he said.
As he pulled his plane around towards the river and back on course for the Russian column advancing towards the city, he found his path blocked by a series of tall cranes and electricity pylons. He had to weave through them, back over the river and out of the city.
The Russian tanks came into range. He lifted the nose of his plane to gain altitude, as did a second Ukrainian Frogfoot, then they fired off their rockets, striking the front of the column and bringing it to a grinding halt. Dropping back down below radar, he headed for a closer airfield, passing another two Frogfoots on their way to finish the Russians off.
“Because of the low height on my approach, I couldn’t communicate with the airfield. They thought I was a Russian aircraft and launched a Stinger at me,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief. “But I completed a manoeuvre to escape from it. That was my first combat mission.”
Crane has also been flying a Su-24 Fencer in combat missions over southern Ukraine, in the Kherson and Mykolaiv regions. There the rolling landscape is flat, providing few opportunities to hide from enemy radar, so the pilots try to fly lower than the trees, he said. As soon as they gain altitude to fire missiles, the Russians spot them.
“I had a combat mission when I was head down for the attack and my wingman told me: ‘I see two launches’,” Crane recalled. “I felt two punches, two hits behind me, and the aircraft began to lose altitude. My wingman said he saw something like flame behind my tail, he screamed at me to ask if I could hear him. I was flying into the forest but at the last minute I managed to pull up. When I got back we saw part of the tail was torn out.”
Crane was lucky: many of Ukraine’s pilots have paid the ultimate sacrifice to secure their skies from Russian planes, but the volume and unpredictability of modern cruise-missile attacks against civilian targets remains a challenge for those flying the old Soviet-era planes.
“All combat aircraft in service are produced in Russia. Such dependency is unacceptable,” said Yuriy Ignat, spokesman for Ukraine’s air force. “The Ukrainian armed forces took a western course and it is necessary to change the weaponry accordingly. We need western multi-functional fighter jets with advanced radars and air-to-air missiles to stop the cruise-missile terror.”