As Russian missiles burned on the horizon and military planes circled the skies over Kiev, rumors of a lone hero of the skies among the Ukrainian resistance began to surface. His name and history are shrouded in mystery and he is being referred to as the Ghost of Kiev but his exploits are already the stuff of urban legend: with six mid-air kills, the pilot of a Ukrainian MiG-29 became Europe’s first aerial combat ace since WWII.
The Truth Behind The Ghost Of Kiev
They call it “the Ghost of Kiev” and, despite thousands of digital proclamations to the contrary, it is most likely a work of fiction. According to digital activity, the first mention appears in a series of three tweets showing a lone Ukrainian warplane operating over the capital:
These original videos were retweeted thousands of times, many of which contain messages citing “reports” of a Ukrainian fighter shooting down several Russian fighters in air-to-air combat.
Like most modern urban legends, the story was further propagated online by netizens who follow the conflict hour by hour, and it only grew from there—so much so, in fact, that the Spanish newspaper Marca claimed that the Ghost of Kiev had shot down two SU-35 fighters, one SU-27 fighter, one MiG-29 fighter, and two SU-25 planes. Even the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense appeared to have a hand in the story, releasing footage of a MiG-29 overtaking a Russian plane that was later revealed to be footage from a flight simulation program.
At the moment, however, the local government’s official confirmation of a flying ace (a military aviator who is credited with shooting down five or more enemy aircraft) is, for lack of a better term, grossly incomplete.
While the Ukrainian Defense Ministry on Friday touted the story of an “aerial avenger” over Kiev, projected Russian losses by the military in the first two days of the conflict only amounted to 10 reported aircraft, many of which were likely shot down by Ukrainian air defenses with the exception of two Russian aircraft which, according to the Ukrainian Air Force, were shot down by a Ukrainian SU-27 in a dogfight.
Indeed, a senior US defense official told reporters on Friday that Russia had not yet achieved air superiority and that the Ukrainians “still have air and missile defense capabilities, including aircraft … in the air that continues to attack and deny air access to Russia.” This makes the possibility of a single air ace outside Ukraine’s fighter jet fleet, potentially 98, highly unlikely.
Also, it’s worth noting that air-to-air kills are a relatively rare occurrence in modern warfare. The most recent known case was the shooting down of an Armenian SU-25 fighter jet by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet amid clashes between Azerbaijan and ethnic Armenian forces over breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh territory in September. Three years earlier, a US Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 fighter-bomber over Syria in the first US military air-to-air shootdown since 1999.
Sure, there hasn’t been a major war on European soil since the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, but the idea of a lone warfarer getting six air-to-air kills in a single day—and on the first day of combat! no less!—for the first time since World War II it seems extremely far-fetched.
However, the story is plausible from the point of view of raising morale for the resistance of the invaded. It is clear that there is a strong desire to believe in the legend of the Ghost of Kiev. With Ukraine under extraordinary pressure, including daily missile bombardment, Russian troops fighting in various parts of the country, and the first reports of gunfire on the ground from Kiev, the need for hope has rarely been greater.
Hero stories like this one certainly help unite the nation—and its many supporters around the world—in the face of terrible odds.
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