By Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) - Hundreds of Ukrainians attended a church ceremony on Tuesday to pay their last respects to a celebrated fighter pilot with the callsign Juice who was killed in an air disaster during training.
The death of Andriy Pilshchykov, 30, a poster boy for Ukraine's air force who lobbied Western governments for supplies of F-16 fighter jets, was a bitter blow for Ukraine's military as it battles Russia.
"Unfortunately the number of deaths is already so high, but every death is painful," said Natalia Menesheva, a dentist who attended the ceremony in Kyiv's main Greek Catholic cathedral.
"These are irreparable losses, the best of the nation are dying. Young, talented, handsome. It's very painful."
Pilshchykov and two other pilots were killed on Friday when two L-39 combat training aircraft collided. The air force spokesperson described him as a "mega-talent".
Six soldiers in uniform unloaded his coffin from a green van and brought it inside the cathedral as its large bell tolled. His girlfriend, ashen-faced, looked down and sobbed.
Standing beside her were his mother and a young man in an air force pilot's jumpsuit who held up a photo of him, his head bowed.
Pilshchykov was one of the first pilots to be sent to meet U.S. military officials to assess Ukraine's readiness to fly F-16s, Andriy, an air force officer, said.
"(The family's) hearts are torn apart," he said, adding that he had attended another funeral only the day before.
"When you saw this person with a smile on his face every day… it's just like a hole here," he said, tapping his chest.
DREAMS OF F-16 JETS
Pilshchykov was praised by Ukrainian media as a driving force for reform in the air force and as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had called him "one of those who greatly helped our state".
Since Russia's 2022 invasion, he had travelled to the U.S. in a delegation seeking supplies of F-16 fighter jets. A U.S. general said last week Ukraine was likely to receive the jets soon.
"He really wanted to train on F-16s, and as I understand it he was supposed to go and train on this plane very soon… he just didn't make it to this moment that he dreamed about," said Yulia Reshitko, a friend of Pilshchykov's girlfriend.
After the ceremony, Pilshchykov's mother asked the commander of the air force, who attended the ceremony, to promise to take her on the first F-16 flight in Ukraine as a tribute to her son.
"I will go up instead of him," she said.
The commander told her "of course" and hugged her.
In an interview with Reuters in December, Pilshchykov recounted flying a MiG fighter jet and trying to shoot down attack drones used by Russia.
The Ukrainian air force's fleet of old Soviet-era jets are vastly outnumbered and outgunned by Russia's more modern fleet, and it is dangerous for them to fly close to the front.
Pilshchykov was an avid plane spotter before training as a pilot and joining the 40th tactical aviation brigade in 2016, military news outlet Militarnyi said.
He got his nickname during a 2019 visit to California that was part of Ukraine's push to move towards NATO military standards, it said, by ordering juice when he went to bars.
(Additional reporting by Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey and Sergiy Karazy, Writing by Tom Balmforth, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Philippa Fletcher)