LVIV, Ukraine — Each night, Ukrainian pilots such as Andriy loiter in an undisclosed aircraft hangar, waiting, waiting, until the tension is broken with a shouted, one-word command: “Air!”
Andriy hustles into his Su-27 supersonic jet and hastily taxis toward the runway, getting airborne as quickly as possible. He takes off so fast that he doesn’t yet know his mission for the night, although the big picture is always the same — to bring the fight to a Russian air force that is vastly superior in numbers but has failed to win control of the skies above Ukraine.
“I don’t do any checks,” said Andriy, a Ukrainian air force pilot who as a condition of granting an interview was not permitted to give his surname or rank. “I just take off.”
Nearly a month into the fighting, one of the biggest surprises of the war in Ukraine is Russia’s failure to defeat the Ukrainian air force. Military analysts had expected Russian forces to quickly destroy or paralyze Ukraine’s air defenses and military aircraft, yet neither has happened. Instead, “Top Gun”-style aerial dogfights, rare in modern warfare, are now raging above the country.
“Every time when I fly, it’s for a real fight,” said Andriy, who is 25 and has flown 10 missions in the war. “In every fight with Russian jets, there is no equality. They always have five times more” planes in the air.
The success of Ukrainian pilots has helped protect Ukrainian soldiers on the ground and prevented wider bombing in cities, since pilots have intercepted some Russian cruise missiles. Ukrainian officials also say the country’s military has shot down 97 fixed-wing Russian aircraft. That number could not be verified, but the crumpled remnants of Russian fighter jets have crashed into rivers, fields and houses.
The Ukrainian air force is operating in near total secrecy. Its fighter jets can fly from air strips in western Ukraine, airports that have been bombed yet retain enough runway for takeoffs or landings — or even from highways, analysts say. They are vastly outnumbered: Russia is believed to fly about 200 sorties per day while Ukraine flies five to 10.
Ukrainian pilots do have one advantage. In most of the country, Russian planes fly over territory controlled by the Ukrainian military, which can move anti-aircraft missiles to harass — and shoot down — planes.
“Ukraine has been effective in the sky because we operate on our own land,” said Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force. “The enemy flying into our airspace is flying into the zone of our air defense systems.” He described the strategy as luring Russian planes into air defense traps.
Dave Deptula, dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and principal attack planner for the Desert Storm air campaign in Iraq, said the impressive performance of the Ukrainian pilots had helped counter their disadvantages in numbers. He said Ukraine now has roughly 55 operational fighter jets, a number that is dwindling from shoot-downs and mechanical failures, as Ukrainian pilots are “stressing them to max performance.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has appealed repeatedly to Western governments to replenish the Ukrainian air force and has asked NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over the country, a step Western leaders have refused to take. Slovakia and Poland have considered sending MiG-29 fighter jets, which Ukrainian pilots could fly with minimal additional training, but as yet no transfers have been made.
“Russian troops have already fired nearly 1,000 missiles at Ukraine, countless bombs,” Zelenskyy said in a video address to Congress on March 16, appealing for more planes. “And you know that they exist, and you have them, but they are on earth, not in Ukraine — in the Ukrainian sky.”
Deptula said transferring these jets into Ukraine is critical. “Without resupply,” he said, “they will run out of airplanes before they run out of pilots.”
Pilotless drones are also a tool in the Ukrainian military’s arsenal but not in the battle for control of the airspace. Ukraine flies a Turkish-made armed drone, the Bayraktar TB-2, a plodding, propeller aircraft that is lethally effective in destroying tanks or artillery pieces on the ground but cannot hit targets in the air. If Ukraine’s air defenses fail, Russian jets could easily pick them off.
As in other aspects of Ukraine’s war effort, volunteers play a role in the air battles. A volunteer network watches and listens for Russian jets, calling in coordinates and estimated speed and altitude. Other private Ukrainian pilots have removed up-to-date civilian navigation equipment from their planes and handed it over to the air force, in case it can be helpful.
Air-to-air combat has been rare in modern war, with only isolated examples in recent decades. U.S. pilots, for example, have not flown extensive aerial dogfights since the first Iraq War in 1991. Since then, U.S. fighter jets have engaged in air-to-air combat on just a few occasions, shooting down 10 planes in the Balkan Wars and one plane in Syria, according to Deptula.
In the night sky, Andriy said he relies on instruments to discern the positions of enemy planes, which he says are always present. He has shot down Russian jets but was not permitted to say how many or which type. He said his targeting system can fire at planes a few dozen miles away.
“I mostly have tasks of hitting airborne targets, of intercepting enemy jets,” he said. “I wait for the missile to lock on my target. After that, I press fire.”
When he shoots down a Russian jet, he said, “I am happy that this plane will no longer bomb my peaceful towns. And as we see in practice, that is exactly what Russian jets do.”
Most of the aerial combat in Ukraine has been nocturnal, as Russian aircraft attack in the dark when they are less vulnerable to air defenses. In the dogfights over Ukraine, Andriy said, the Russians have been flying an array of modern Sukhoi jets, such as the Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35.
“I had situations when I was approaching a Russian plane to a close enough distance to target and fire,” he said. “I could already detect it but was waiting for my missile to lock on while at the same time from the ground they tell me that a missile was fired at me already.”
He said he maneuvered his jet through a series of extreme banks, dives and climbs in order to exhaust the fuel supplies of the missiles coming after him. “The time I have to save myself depends on how far away the missile was fired at me and what kind of missile,” he said.
Still, he said in an interview on a clear, sunny day, “I can still feel a huge rush of adrenaline in my body because every flight is a fight.”
Andriy graduated from the Kharkiv Air Force School after deciding to become a pilot as a teenager. “Neither me nor my friends ever thought we would have to face a real war,” he said. “But that’s not how it turned out.”
Andriy has moved his wife to a safer part of Ukraine, but she has not left the country, he said. She spends her days weaving homemade camouflage nets for the Ukrainian army. He never tells family members when he is going on duty, he said, calling only after returning from a night flight.
“I only have to use my skills to win,” Andriy said. “My skills are better than the Russians. But on the other hand, many of my friends, and even those more experienced than me, are already dead.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.