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VOA Interview: Ukrainian Air Forces Command Spokesperson Ihnat

Yurii Ihnat, spokesperson of the Air Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, is seen in this screen grab from an interview in Vinnytsiy, Ukraine, May 23, 2023.

Ahead of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's participation at the Group of Seven Summit in Japan, the G-7 leaders announced last week that it would provide Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets and the training for Ukrainian pilots to fly them.

After months of Ukraine pleading for Western fighter jets, U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday said the United States would support a joint international effort to train Ukrainian pilots on modern fighter aircrafts, including F-16s.

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko responded to the news on Saturday with a warning that Western countries would run "colossal risks" if they supplied Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets, according to the TASS news agency.

On Tuesday, Yurii Ihnat, spokesperson of the Air Forces Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, discussed the training of Ukrainian pilots with VOA's Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Let's talk about the pilots. Because there are also a lot of questions now: Are they training already? And for how long do they have to train?

Yurii Ihnat, Ukraine Air Force spokesman: Everyone is asking questions regarding the pilots. Infrastructure is a secondary issue for now. Indeed, the training is the issue. Because Western technology has a different philosophy, ultimately, for piloting, these are completely different technological things.

MiG-29 and F-16 aircraft are the same age, they are fourth-generation aircraft. But the F-16 went through several stages of deep modernization. The onboard equipment was replaced there, the radar was replaced there, the most basic thing is that in the plane, it is a radar that sees targets and can track several targets at once, at which several missiles can be fired at once. This is very important for war. Specifically for war.

Several stages of deep modernization made this aircraft completely different. Unlike the MiG-29, with which the Russians compare it, they say these are aircraft of the same class. Well, let them try to face the F-16. Thus, the pilot just needs to transfer, let's say, from an old 1960's car to a new 2010's car, where everything is automated, where there is an automated gearbox, a new display and so on. The same is in the plane. There are approximately 300 switches and buttons in the MiG-29, the pilot must manually control all these devices, distract himself from combat operations, and perform these movements. In [the] F-16, part of this is already limited and automated.

VOA: So, the pilots can be even more educated and have more experience?

Ihnat: Yes. Here again, the focus is on young pilots who are able to communicate better with the latest technologies, gadgets and so on. The touchscreens, it's all in the F-16. Here, you just need to understand how it works, like a child playing a computer game. Likewise, the child learns it step by step. It takes some time to adapt. Even the control handle, in the MiG-29, in the Soviet equipment, it is in the middle, the pilot controls. Here [in the F-16], it is on the side.

VOA: Like in a car.

Ihnat: Yes. Like a gamepad. He [the pilot] controls it like a gamepad. … The plane will do part of the work for him, for the pilot. And the main thing to do is to learn how to fight on it. This is the key. They will fly in a week or two, who knows how much. But use all types of weapons against air, ground and surface targets. To work in a pair, as part of a link, an aviation unit, and to use all types of this weapon effectively, requires flight hours, this requires flight time with an instructor, then independent flights in simple weather conditions and difficult weather conditions. All this is achieved by the level of preparation. In principle, those pilots and young people who will go to study in different countries of Europe, maybe the United States … they already have 200 flight hours after university. They already have tens or hundreds of hours of flying in combat operations on Soviet equipment. Therefore, I think they have a huge incentive, a huge desire.

VOA: Have you already determined how much time the pilots will need, and how many of these pilots Ukraine has today who can quickly master [F-16s]?

Ihnat: As for the number of pilots, we have the list: first round, second round, third round. The commander of the Air Force, Lieutenant General Mykola Oleshchuk, personally makes decisions regarding the dispatch of certain specialists.

VOA: Are we talking about 100? 200?

Ihnat: No, we're talking about dozens. Surely, we can't afford to send all the pilots at once. What are we going to be left with? We carry out dozens of airstrikes against them [Russians] every day. With the Soviet equipment, but we do. There is no other way out. The infantry needs air support. If it is not there, then more people will die. Therefore, there are no options here.

Thus, dozens of pilots have been identified and will go in waves, possibly to different countries, as well as aviation engineers who will service the equipment. This is also the second component that is also needed.

Here are those pilots who already know English, young pilots, motivated, who will go there to study. Two pilots underwent training in Arizona ... not training, it is necessary to separate evaluation, evaluation of Western and American specialists. They put them on flight simulators, as they are called in America, and said: "Fly." … They watch how well they can adapt to this fighter jet, to the F-16, and try to fly it. To perform take-off and landing, other things on simulators, was done. We stated in the Air Force that it would be six months of training. Well, the Americans came to the conclusion that up to four months. And who knows how, maybe someone will master it faster. People are different, everyone has different individual training. That's why there are such good predictions about training, and we think they will come true.

VOA's Patsy Widakuswara and Carla Babb contributed to this report.