On Friday (April 29), British national daily The Times reported that a Ukrainian fighter pilot named Major Stepan Tarabalka was killed while fighting the Russian Air Force on March 13 this year. The publication pointed out that 29-year-old was popularly known as the ‘Ghost of Kyiv.’
“Major Stepan Tarabalka, 29, a father of one, had allegedly shot down more than 40 Russian aircraft. He was killed when the MiG-29 he was flying was shot down on March 13 while fighting “overwhelming” enemy forces, according to local reports,” it stated.
According to the British daily, the deceased pilot was awarded the ‘Order of the Golden Star’, and the title of ‘Hero of Ukraine’ by President Volodymyr Zelensky on March 20, 2022.
The Times further reported, “His helmet and goggles — all that was seen of him when Ukrainian officials promoted his heroism — are now set to be auctioned in London.” Major Stepan Tarabalka is now survived by his wife Olena and a son.
Shortly after his death, National Press Radio (NPR) interviewed the parents of the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’. Major Tarabalka’s father had said, “We know he was flying on a mission. And he completed the mission, his task. Then he didn’t return. That’s all the information we have.” His parents, Nahtalia and Evon, informed that it was the deceased Ukrainian pilot’s life-long dream to fly higher than the clouds.
Ukrainian Air Force ‘debunks’ the myth of ‘Ghost of Kyiv’
However, all such claims of the pilot being the ‘Ghost of Kyiv’ has been dismissed by the Ukrainian Air Force. In a tweet, it said, “The information about the death of ‘The Ghost of Kyiv’ is incorrect. The Ghost Of Kyiv is alive, it embodies the collective spirit of the highly qualified pilots of the Tactical Aviation Brigade who are successfully defending Kyiv and the region.”
The Turkey Bureau Chief for Middle East Eye, Ragip Soylu, quoted the Ukrainian military and remarked, “The ghost of Kyiv is a superhero legend who was created by the Ukrainians! This is rather a collective image of the pilots of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade defending the sky of the capital. Which suddenly appear where they are not expected.”
“The ghost of Kyiv is a superhero legend who was created by the Ukrainians! This is rather a collective image of the pilots of the 40th Tactical Aviation Brigade defending the sky of the capital. Which suddenly appear where they are not expected,” the military said.— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) April 30, 2022
The claims made by the Ukrainian Air Force were also corroborated by Illia Ponomarenko, a Defence reporter with The Kyiv Independent.
Other that that, Ukrainian pilots are not currently getting trained to operate F-16s.— Illia Ponomarenko 🇺🇦 (@IAPonomarenko) April 30, 2022
And American bombers are not flying over Ukraine.
Does the “Ghost of Kyiv” really exist?
Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, social media was rife with rumours of a mysterious MiG-29 jet appearing over Kyiv to defend Ukrainian skies from Russian aerial attacks. Netizens had shared clips of a Ukrainian fighter pilot, named the “Ghost of Kyiv”, who had allegedly shot down six Russian aircraft.
The videos of the “Ghost of Kyiv” had spread like wildfire on social media. Many on Twitter were calling the Ukrainian pilot the “first European ace since World War II”. In aerial warfare technology, an ‘ace’ is a pilot who has shot down five or more aircraft during combat.
On February 27, 2022, the official handle of the Government of Ukraine tweeted, “People call him the Ghost of Kyiv. And rightly so — this UAF ace dominates the skies over our capital and country, and has already become a nightmare for invading Russian aircrafts.”
People call him the Ghost of Kyiv. And rightly so — this UAF ace dominates the skies over our capital and country, and has already become a nightmare for invading Russian aircrafts. pic.twitter.com/lngfaMN01I— Ukraine / Україна (@Ukraine) February 27, 2022
Besides common Ukrainians, who were posting unverified videos and images, former Ukranian President Petro Poroshenko had also posted a photo to claim that the pilot was the “Ghost of Kyiv”.
It was speculated that Poroshenko’s tweet is just an attempt to boost public morale rather than confirming the existence of a mystery pilot. At that time, fact-checkers had analysed some of the viral videos and established that some of them were unreal and doctored.