F-15 Eagle Driver On What It Is Like Flying Against Ukraine’s Fighter Pilots

“We were impressed with the Ukrainian fighter pilots from the very outset. They don’t get a lot of flying hours, but they are very good. I’m not surprised at all that they are doing as well as they are against the Russian Air Force,” says Jonathan “Jersey” Burd, a recently-retired U.S. F-15C Eagle pilot who was latterly the chief of exercises and plans with the California Air National Guard’s 144th Fighter Wing, based in Fresno. “It’s amazing to see how well they are doing, but I’m not surprised.”

Over a month into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and despite the overwhelming numerical and technological advantage Russia’s air force holds, the skies over Ukraine remain contested. Ukraine’s ground-based air defenses and its fighter pilots and support crews have ensured that Russia does not have air dominance and that it seemingly cannot operate at times and locations of its choosing.

A Su-27 takes off from Starokostiantyniv Air Base, Ukraine, during Exercise Clear Sky 2018. , U.S. ANG/TSgt Charles Vaughn

While it’s difficult to clearly establish exactly what is happening in the air war, the Ukrainian Air Force is still operating and inflicting critical losses on Russia’s forces. Ukraine’s pilots are now talking openly to the world’s media, and while some details of their actions rightly remain shrouded in operational secrecy, their bravery and skills have delivered significant blows against their invaders.

Few truly appreciate and understand the capabilities of Ukraine’s tactical jet aviators as well as pilots like Jersey, who has flown alongside them in training exercises in Ukraine. The California National Guard has enjoyed a close working relationship with Ukraine’s military and the Ukraine National Guard since 1993 under the State Partnership Program, which is dedicated to building global relationships and now includes 85 partnerships with 93 nations. 

Ukraine became a charter member of the U.S. National Guard Bureau’s program along with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. Each country was paired with a state, and so began Ukraine’s close relations with California’s Air National Guard.

“I don’t know how the National Guard Bureau decided on the pairings, but we were lucky in the California Air National Guard to have a state partner that was strategically important, and that was Ukraine,” explains Jersey. “In the summer of 2011, right before I joined the California Guard, the 144th Fighter Wing was still flying F-16s and it had a groundbreaking exercise at Mirgorod Air Base in Ukraine called Safe Skies 2011.” 

The exercise saw airmen and seven F-16s from units in Alabama, California, Iowa, Washington, and Massachusetts fly alongside Ukraine’s MiG-29s and Su-27s with an overall goal of promoting and enhancing multinational cooperation in an effort to promote airspace security.

An F-16C seen during Exercise Safe Skies in 2011., U.S. ANG/TSgt Charles Vaughn
F-16s alongside an Su-27 over Ukraine during Safe Skies 2011. , U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Charles Vaughn

“Safe Skies 2011 was where the close relationship really started,” says Jersey. “They practiced flying together with very limited setups, but it was the foundation for what happened seven years later with exercise Clear Sky 2018.”

The 144th Fighter Wing made history on October 6, 2018, when the wing’s F-15C Eagles landed in Ukraine for the first time, with Clear Sky 2018 becoming the first-ever joint multinational exercise hosted by Ukraine and sponsored by U.S. Forces in Europe. “We have taken massive steps to reach interoperability during this exercise,” commented Maj. Gen. Clay Garrison, the then California ANG commander and Clear Sky 2018 exercise director, during the exercise in 2018. “Clear Sky is leaps and bounds more comprehensive and extensive than our last air-centric exercise in 2011.”

144th Fighter Wing F-15Cs in formation with a Ukrainian Su-27., USAF

“Ukraine asked us to come here and bring this exercise to them,” Garrison said at the time. “NATO is the gold standard for security cooperation across the world because we have rules to ensure a high level of safety and realism while training together. Ukraine knows the only way they can be interoperable with NATO is to train to that standard, which is exactly what we are working towards and accomplishing with this exercise.” 

Jersey was the California ANG’s lead planner for the 2018 exercise, and it gave him a clear insight into the Ukrainian Air Force’s abilities. “The goal for Clear Sky 2018 was to open up that aperture to large-force engagements,” explains Jersey, “plus we flew some Basic Fighter Maneuvers [BFM, aka dogfighting], but really it was about everything we do in western-style tactical aviation, and expose the Ukrainians to all of that.” It also gave an opportunity for pilots from both air arms to fly in each other’s fighters.

California ANG and Ukrainian pilots meet at the start of Clear Sky 2018., U.S. ANG/TSgt Charles Vaughn

“We did plenty of BFM with our F-15Cs against their MiG-29s and Su-27s and to be honest we could tell instantly that their pilots were very good. They are very tactically inventive, they know their airframes and also understand what they are lacking. I mean, they fly old jets. Our F-15s for example are old airframes, but they have been constantly upgraded with new avionics.” 

In recent years, Ukraine has started to refurbish and upgrade some of its fighters, initially with the MiG-29 Fulcrum under a stepped process led by the now partially destroyed Lviv State Aircraft Repair Plant (LSARP). Other projects have addressed the Su-27, Su-25, and Su-24MR fleets.

“Most of our training with them was geared towards flying integration with NATO,” Jersey continues. “We wanted them to start flying with the Polish Air Force and the other countries close to them such as Romania and Bulgaria, and to start integrating in flights across the border. A lot of the missions we flew back in 2018 were dedicated to integrating with them, such as our F-15s escorting their Su-24s and Su-25s into a target area and going up against their Flankers.”

“When I flew with them I thought their airmanship and the way they moved their aircraft – especially close-in dogfighting – was incredible. They knew their aircraft as well as anyone else knows their aircraft. I have fought Fulcrums and Flankers from other countries and they were up there with the best of the people that fly those airframes – hands down. But what we did in terms of Clear Sky was us trying to introduce them to mixing all the assets together. We 100% believed that we’d be there when they needed us – we never expected that we would be on the sidelines!”

Ukrainian Su-27 armed up during a B-52 escort mission., USAF

“The tactics they are utilizing now in the war are indigenous to their fighter aircraft and ground-based systems. They used the lessons they learned from us in Clear Sky to adjust and improve these tactics, but the overall battle plan is all them.” 

“I don’t think people realize, or they forget, that these guys have been fighting Russia for the past eight years in the eastern regions of Ukraine. I remember during one of the Clear Sky conferences showing a Frogfoot [Su-25] pilot some pictures of me in the F-15. He showed me pictures of his Frogfoot with half the wing missing! He was like “yeah that was a couple of months ago when I was hit by a MANPAD [man-portable air defense system].” They have been ready for this Russian invasion.”

Ukrainian Air Force Su-25., Ukraine MoD

“Clear Sky generated a couple of big lessons, not least was that the Ukrainians needed better airplanes,” explains Jersey. “We recommended starting with the Polish MiG-29s, where do you think the recent idea came from? It came from our Clear Sky post-exercise recommendations. The Polish Fulcrums were being freed up because they were getting new F-35s.”

Ukraine has been operating the MiG-29 for decades and Poland’s upgraded Fulcrums were identified by U.S. F-15 drivers as a possible good interim capability fit before Kyiv could procure western 4th gen fighters. , Ukraine MoD

“Then we recommended Ukraine should move towards F-16s to give them a basic fourth-generation capability. How different would this look now if the Ukrainians were flying around in upgraded Polish MiG-29s and F-16s! If they had upgraded equipment – I mean if they were flying F-16s right now – I don’t think there’s any doubt that the Ukrainians would be completely owning the sky.” Jersey says that beyond new fighters, more surface-to-air missile systems are critically important for the Ukrainian forces to continue their fight against the Russian Air Force.

Looking at the current situation, the Ukrainian Air Force may be at a numerical disadvantage, but it still appears to be very active. “Ukraine’s fighter pilots aren’t all super experienced guys, there are young guys up there doing it too. I just think the Ukrainian pilots know their limitations,” comments Jersey. “When we train against an adversary threat, whatever country it might be, we train to go against their top-of-the-line systems and we train as if our pilots were exploiting those systems to the maximum capability. I don’t believe that the Russians have been doing that. They have been assuming that their adversaries are exactly what they have been told to expect, and they found out very quickly that Ukraine was not that.”

A California ANG F-15C takes off during Clear Sky 2018., U.S. ANG/TSgt Charles Vaughn

“There’s more resolve on the Ukrainian side. I’ve been to the country more times than I can remember and it’s obvious to me, but I don’t think everyone realizes how much these people love their country. How patriotic they are. I draw parallels with the Battle of Britain and people defending their homes and homeland. An invading force like Russia is, that’s not the same as defending your homeland.”

“I was so impressed with the Ukrainian Air Force’s ability to rapidly move and change aircraft locations to deny easy kills in the initial wave of attacks. They mobilized and made it challenging to find their aircraft. Russia expected to destroy most of their aircraft on the ground in the first attacks, but that didn’t happen.”

A young Ukrainian pilot is shown the cockpit of the F-15C., U.S. ANG/A1C Christopher S. Sparks

“The Ukrainian pilots are sticking and moving, hitting where they need to hit. This is the revolutionary war where somebody is wearing red out in the field and they are hiding in the trees and shooting from cover – that’s what this battle is about. Without going into too much detail, I am confident that the Ukrainian Air Force is planning its every move very carefully, combining ground-based air defense systems [GBADS] and fighters.” 

“When we started working with Ukraine we were the tactical experts. I’ve been in missions with complexity that they initially couldn’t fathom. I’ve trained in fighters my whole career but there’s no substitute for actual combat operations – these guys are the undoubted experts now.”

U.S. Air Force Capt. Skylar Bautista a pilot assigned to the 144th Fighter Wing, 194th Fighter Squadron, Fresno Air National Guard Base, California, sits in the backseat of a Ukrainian MiG-29 Fulcrum before pre-flight checks during the Clear Sky 18 exercise at Starokostiantyniv Air Base, Ukraine, Oct. 9, 2018., U.S. Air National Guard photo by Tech. Sgt. Charles Vaughn

“The Ukrainian pilots choose the time and place to fight. They are exploiting that. In over eight years of fighting the Russians, they have learned when to put their assets at risk and how much risk to incur. You add that to the fact that these are heroic dudes, they are true warriors – that’s what this success comes down to.”

“People ask me “Is there a Ghost of Kyiv?” I tell them that these pilots are all Ghosts of Kyiv. What is a ghost? It decides when it appears, you can’t harm it, and it scares the crap out of you, right? These heroic pilots are all ghosts. They are deciding when and where they will make their appearance.”

Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com