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Exclusive: Inside Ukraine’s Secret Effort to Train Pilots for U.S. Jets

13 minute read

No one was coming to help. Alexander Gorgan was lying in a three-foot-deep trench dug to defend a snow-covered village north of Kyiv in March, and Russian artillery shells were shattering the frozen ground on all sides. He could hear a platoon commander in a foxhole nearby shouting into the radio: “Can you strike back? Can you hit them? Can you cover us? Please give us cover. We need support. Cover us!” But there was nothing to hit back with.

Pinned down and alone in that hole, Gorgan’s thoughts turned to the savior he wished he could hear coming over the horizon: the low bbrrrrrrrtt of an American-made A-10 Thunderbolt II jet, known as the Warthog, a cold war relic designed specifically for destroying Russian tanks advancing on infantry units. As a kid, Gorgan saw news footage of American A-10s bombing lines of Soviet-made Iraqi tanks during the first Gulf War. Images flooded his mind of the stubby attack plane with two bulbous jet engines mounted on its back and a gatling gun for a snout. Gorgan believes in God but at that moment, he wasn’t convinced God was going to save his life. “In that situation, there really has to be something tangible that can help you, and I thought about the A-10,” Gorgan told TIME. “I would be really lucky to hear the noise from his cannon.”

Over the next six months, Gorgan, 46, a low-level infantry officer in the Ukrainian military with high-level connections, would work with a band of other Ukrainians and retired American A-10 pilots to try and get their hands on some of America’s fleet of aging Warthogs. Their hope was to protect Ukrainian infantry units from devastating barrages of Russian artillery, and to turn the tide of the war. It hasn’t been easy. The U.S. is skittish about providing weapons systems and training to Ukraine for fear of provoking Russia into a wider war with the West. And while the A-10 is well-designed to attack tanks, it is vulnerable in contested airspace like that over Ukraine, where Russian jets and anti-aircraft missiles remain active. In recent months, officials in both Kyiv and Washington have put off decisions on whether to transfer the planes.

But working with a Ukrainian businessman and former classmate, Gorgan urged Ukrainian military leaders and their foreign allies to help set up a secret training center. The facility, which has been operating since early May, uses sophisticated flight simulators to prepare a cadre of Ukrainian A-10 pilots for the hoped-for day when the U.S. does supply Ukraine with the planes. In late July, TIME was allowed to visit the training center, on condition the reporter be blindfolded on the way to and from the facility to prevent knowledge of its location. Designed with help from open source YouTube videos of U.S. military trainers in action and built with off-the-shelf components and guidance by retired U.S. military officials, they’ve produced a Warthog training facility on the fly.

Alexander Gorgan
Alexander Gorgan, a Ukrainian infantry officer, wants Ukraine's air force to get A-10 attack jets to protect troops on the ground.Courtesy of Alexander Gorgan

The secret training program is another example of how the often outnumbered and outgunned Ukrainians have used invention, social media and a general disregard for protocol to surprising effect in its war against Russia. In previous wars, standing up a sophisticated pilot training program might have required creating an expensive, controversial and covert operation approved at the top of the U.S. government, negotiated in back rooms and carefully planned and designed in the dark corners of the Pentagon or the CIA. Instead, the Ukrainians have crowdsourced the equivalent of a special access program in anticipation of getting a new type of weapon. “The Ukrainians have surprised us, surprised everyone, with how innovative they can be,” says former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who has known Gorgan for more than 15 years.

Read More: Inside the Historic Mission to Provide Aid and Arms to Ukraine

At the rendezvous point for TIME’s visit last month, the reporter was asked to put on a blindfold before getting in an SUV for the drive to the training center. The facility consisted of two rooms, its walls covered with photos of the A-10 Warthog alongside a couple of posters that said, “Keep calm and kill Soviet tanks.” One of the instructors introduced himself and offered a tour, asking that his name not appear in print. Russian President Vladimir Putin “only understands force,” he says. “So give us the instruments, and we will deal with him.” The A-10 Thunderbolt would be a decisive instrument, he says. If the U.S. provides it to Ukraine, “you will see the difference in the number of targets we’d be able to hit. You’d see that in the weakening of their offensive positions. And you’d see that in the confidence of our infantry in moving from defense to offense.”

Around the room, five Ukrainian pilots underwent training on the simulators. Were it not for all the uniformed personnel, the scene could have been mistaken for a gamer convention. Each station had a realistic throttle, flight stick and VR goggles linked up to a computer tower that gave off a technicolor glow. None of the gear was classified, and most of the components came from a niche of the gaming community that builds flight simulators for fun.

The pilots themselves each wore a ski mask under their virtual reality goggles to protect their identities, and it was the pilots who were the primary reason for the secrecy. Ukraine’s air force does not have many pilots, and some have been killed in the war over the last few months. It normally takes years to train a pilot, costing the military millions of dollars in jet fuel alone. “They are more valuable than generals,” Gorgan says. Even before the Russian invasion, the identities of active fighter pilots were a closely guarded secret in Ukraine, and all of them lived with the risk of assassination.

The required secrecy of the program has been among the least of the challenges in getting the training facility up and running. Gorgan never wanted to feel as helpless in the frontline trenches as he did being shelled in March. So when he returned to his barracks, in between missions running convoys to and from the front lines, Gorgan would open his laptop and try to figure out how to get A-10s into Ukrainian skies. Google popped up an op-ed published on March 3 by former U.S. Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker and retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, former Supreme Allied Commander Europe now with the Middle East Institute, arguing in favor of giving Ukraine A-10s.

U.S. airmen inspect a bomb loaded onto an A-10 Thunderbolt II close air support aircraft during a demonstration during "Air Power Day" preview at Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea on Sept. 20, 2019.Jung Yeon-je—AFP/Getty Images

Within days, Gorgan was exchanging emails with Breedlove, who laid out a detailed list of obstacles that stood in the way. The airspace over Ukraine, he said, wasn’t secure enough for A-10s, and Ukraine didn’t have a large enough group of pilots ready to fly the aircraft. “The A-10 is an incredible tank-killing machine,” Breedlove tells TIME. But it works best in environments where enemy aircraft and anti-aircraft batteries have been neutralized. “If you were flying for an air force that had a really good capability to do suppression of enemy air defenses, jamming, noise jamming, specific targeting radar jamming, and doing all those things to make the target area more permissive, you might be able to work A-10s into a high threat or a medium threat arena, but the Ukrainians do not have that capability at all,” Breedlove says.

It seemed like an insurmountable Catch-22: How could Ukraine have A-10 pilots without having A-10s? Undeterred, Gorgan began learning everything he could online about A-10 training and tactics. He stumbled into a rich hoard of Internet geekdom devoted to the Warthog. In that trove was a video on YouTube that seemed to show a way forward. One channel had uploaded obscure but publicly available footage from 2020 of A-10 pilots in the U.S. Air Force’s 355th Training Squadron at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, sitting at computer terminals practicing complex maneuvers using virtual reality headsets. One of the trainers in the video, Maj. Drew Glowa, an A-10 instructor pilot, looks like he just stepped off the film set of a fighter jet movie. The squadron has found the virtual training to be effective at rapidly training pilots new to the A-10. That was how Ukraine could get a class of pilots ready, Gorgan thought.

Before the Russian invasion began in February, Gorgan had worked as a local official in charge of a district north of Kyiv, ran a law office, had a wife and three kids. But he had very little military experience. His bad eyesight and being a father of three children could have exempted him from being conscripted. But he wanted to serve and accepted a commission as an infantry lieutenant. Most of his contemporaries are colonels, at least three ranks above him. His military rank wasn’t going to help him push the brass to create an A-10 training program.

Gorgan called his former boss and business-school classmate, Andrii Vavrysh, an entrepreneur and real-estate developer. Unable to leave his barracks for too long, Gorgan asked Vavrysh to come meet him nearby. The two sat in Vavrysh’s Land Rover Defender for two hours as Gorgan unfurled his pitch. He told Vavrysh the entire history of the development of the A-10s by Fairchild Republic in the 1970s, the destruction it brought to Russian-made tanks in the Gulf War. “I felt like a preacher,” Gorgan says. Vavrysh agreed to help bankroll the project, buy the VR headsets, replicas of A-10 controls made by online hobbyists and banks of computers to run the simulations. Vavrysh also tapped his network and made his own pitch in the office of another business-school classmate, Oleksandr Polishchuk, the Deputy Minister of Defense. Polishchuk brought the idea to the Ukrainian Air Force, which agreed to help identify the pilots for the program.

Andrii Vavrysh
Businessman Andrii Vavrysh helped set up the virtual training for Ukrainian pilots.Courtesy of Alexander Gorgan

In an interview with TIME in early June, Polishchuk said that typically a country wouldn’t start training pilots until making the formal decision to request the planes. But Ukraine doesn’t have time to waste. “When it comes to the planes, there’s no question we need to start the training well in advance,” Polishchuk says. “We don’t yet have the political decision, but there are some political signals that we might get these weapons at some point. For us that means: start training to use them.” The Ukrainian military has successfully sped up training on other weapons systems, Polishchuk says. When Ukraine began receiving M777 howitzer artillery guns from the U.S., Ukrainian troops trained to use them in about three weeks. “Our partners tell us we need to take longer, because people need to sleep, rest, take weekends. But we can’t do that. We’ve got a war on, and our people are highly motivated,” he says.

Some officials in Kyiv were not surprised by how quickly the military set up a way to train pilots for an aircraft the U.S. hasn’t even agreed to provide. Ukrainians have been able to repel the Russian forces for this long precisely because that kind of creativity and initiative has been commonplace. “Without the ability of Ukrainians to self-organize, we’d be done for,” says Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the office of President Zelensky. “Everything would have fallen apart if our power were more centralized.”

Read More: Inside Zelensky’s World

Inside the senior ranks of the Ukrainian military, officials say they are considering a formal letter of request for the A-10 but haven’t made a decision on when—or whether—to officially ask the Americans for the planes. When U.S. Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall was asked in late July if the U.S. would consider giving Ukraine A-10s, he didn’t rule it out in the long term. “Older U.S. systems are a possibility,” Kendall said, speaking at the Aspen Security Forum. “As Ukraine, which is pretty busy dealing with the right-now problem, tries to sort out what its future will be longer term, we will be open to discussions with them about what their requirements are and how we might be able to satisfy them.”

The top priorities in conversations between the Pentagon and Ukrainian leaders this summer have been on providing long-range rocket systems, AGM-88 HARM missiles that track and destroy Russian anti-aircraft batteries, and more artillery, radars and drones to help Ukraine fight Russian incursions in its east and south, said U.S. Department of Defense spokesman Robert Ditchey. Those immediate discussions have not included the A-10, or fighter jets like the F-15 or the F-16, which all require “significant training and major investments in refurbishment, infrastructure, sustainment, and other areas over the course of years, ” Ditchey said in a statement.

Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by Ukrainian forces, on the side of a road in Lugansk region on Feb. 26, 2022.AFP via Getty Images

But the Ukrainian pilots were nonetheless helped online over the past few months by both active duty and retired American A-10 pilots who told them where to look in open-source online forums to find the right software and manuals to use in the virtual training center, Gorgan says. “As for the American pilots and instructors, they were extremely cautious in the ways they helped us, because they are prohibited from having any direct contact with foreign military personnel,” Gorgan said. “They made clear that they could not and would not pass along any classified information.” The old manuals and software systems are in the public domain, Gorgan says, “but without advice [from the American pilots] we would not know what to look for, what methodologies, what doctrines to study more deeply.” It turns out that one of the most effective tools of modern warfare may be savvy Internet searches and persistence. “The new reality is that, with a bit of initiative and an Internet connection, you can reach out to anyone,” says Gorgan.

As the TIME reporter toured the secret training room, the instructor had the reporter sit at one of the simulators and helped adjust the virtual reality headset. In the virtual cockpit, the avionics of the plane were rendered in meticulous detail with computer graphics, from the radio controls to the radar screen. Hanging on the wings of the plane were various bombs and missiles, including the Sidewinder, designed to take down enemy aircraft in mid-flight.

On the joystick, a pull of the trigger fired the gatling gun on the nose of the plane, producing the distinctive snorting sound that earned the Warthog its nickname. The features of the simulator were realistic enough to cause a spell of vertigo a few minutes into the simulation, and the instructor pulled the ejection lever, allowing the virtual plane to crash in a field of grass while the reporter’s parachute opened overhead. “By now Europe and America understand that Putin is a threat to the whole world,” the instructor said. “Today that threat is playing out on our territory, and our children are dying. All we are asking for are the weapons to protect them.”

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