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Why The Ghost of Kiev was Real…and Why it Doesn't Matter

Thomas LeeMay 3, 2022 (0)

San Diego, United States - JULY 2018: McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II. American supersonic jet interceptor and fighter-bomber of 1960s in Aviation museum. Aircraft served in Vietnam War and Gulf War.

Major Stepan Tarabalka, first identified then debunked as the “Ghost of Kiev,” is only the latest in a line of legendary pilots. During Vietnam, there was a North Vietnamese pilot named Colonel Nguyen Toom, or Tomb. Supposedly, he had thirteen kills, flying older but perhaps more suited for dogfighting MiG 19 and 17s. Two of the very few aces the US produced in Vietnam, Randy “Duke” Cunningham and his RIO, Willie Driscoll (they flew together in an F-4 Phantom II, and thus are both credited with the kills) went head to head with the colonel and finally shot him down, on May 10, 1972. That's fifty years ago next week, and perhaps telling; this was hailed as a great victory for the US, but in truth, “Col. Tomb” is likely a legend as well as the ghost is, in some ways. There is no doubt that there was a MiG17 with the tail numbers 3020, and that a NVPAF colonel who was an excellent pilot flew it; however, in the NVPAF, aircraft were flown by various pilots - they aren't “owned,” like American aircraft usually are, and the NVPAF custom was to paint stars for every kill the aircraft made - kills weren't tied to a specific pilot.


The story ended for some Vietnamese aviator that day, and I have read versions of the account that had him keeping a copy of High Flight, by English pilot John Gillespie Magee, in his flying suit: virtually all pilots love the poem, if it is a little hackneyed by love. And yet it appears that the good colonel, credited with thirteen kills, was a bit of a ghost, too. But unlike the Ghost of Kyiv, he was a myth created by the opposite side: we hated the fact that the North Vietnamese produced about nineteen aces, while we produced three pilots and two backseaters, RIOs to the Navy, and WSOs to the Air Force. So the creation, in the hearts and minds of the American aviators, was of a daring, deadly Soviet trained pilot who flew a small, maneuverable MiG and did so with elan, dash and deadliness; certainly it was better than facing the truth, which was that our fighters were not truly set up for dogfighting, at least not the F-4 or the F-105, which seems to have been the main victim of the NVPAF.


World War Two was really the time of aces. The high scoring German pilot, who looked so young he was nicknamed “Baby” - Bubi - Hartmann, is credited with 352 kills (and, oddly, was first assigned to Mariupol), almost all of which were Soviet, and many of which were transports and other non-fighters. Many other Germans scored over one hundred kills, and the United States had a pilot with the somewhat unfortunate name of Dick Bong, at least in terms of modern slang, who scored forty kills in the South Pacific. These guys were legends, and that is the most telling part: we need them. Anyone heard of this place called “Hollywood?”


If you know the smallest amount about modern fighter combat, the disparities between the Russian and Ukrainian air forces are stark. Sure, there are some of the same planes: MiG-29's, Su-27's, Su-25's, and others. But one extremely important fact that when you hold it up renders the Ghost of Kyiv story nearly impossible to believe is the lack of fire-and-forget missiles, the sine qua non of modern fighter combat. A fire-and-forget missile allows the pilot to fire it and allow the active seeker head to do the work. Once he has acquired a decent lock on the enemy aircraft, he can fire it, and turn to other tasks. He doesn't have to stay locked on to the enemy airplane, using the airplane's radar to do the work: once the missile is off, the game is basically over for the guy in the other plane, if countermeasures don't work: in the movies, pilots evade missiles. In real life, they fly so fast and do so much damage with proximity fuses that they are really impossible to deal with, if the countermeasures fail. A plane doesn't go Mach 4; an Atoll or Sparrow can.


But getting lost in the technology is pulling us away from the psychology behind the image of the Ghost, or Colonel Tomb, and the importance of it. In modern warfare, single combat as such doesn't really exist: it tends to be about the technology and the numbers. But there are traces of knighthood in fighter pilots, special operations types and sometimes in snipers - the guys at the tip of the spear, Chesterton's “hard men,” who keep sheep safe from the wolves. And while it may have been possible to be a Miyamoto Mushashi in years gone by, or a Bubi Hartmann, technology and the faceless soldier have become the reality. And that doesn't speak to hearts and minds as does the image of the lone wolf, sacrificing it all for king and country.


What has this to do with our responsibility, as Americans, for Ukraine? We are seeing a development of warfighting that looks as if it is going to spill over into other countries, perhaps NATO countries, and then everything is up for grabs. And the fog of war, a phrase that usually refers to the confusion concomitant with battle, has a civil counterpart, in that reports from the front are always garbled. The internet, seemingly something that would help to clear it up, seems at times to make it worse: anyone can post anything at any time. But I would say, looking at the Soviet era equipment that our responsibility lies in supply and training, now. Maybe - likely - this will change in the future, but for now, we could get these people what they need to fight the invaders.


Another group of foreign fighters is led by General Mumulashvili, a Georgian martial artist and officer. He heads the Georgian Legion, and when asked by a reporter what was needed, his answer was simple: “Close the skies.” Modern airpower is just so amazingly fearsome that dominating the skies, while often not definitive, can influence supply, ground battle, and hearts and mind: the ultimate battlefield.


So we always should have known that ghosts don't exist. We should have known that for a pilot to achieve 40 kills outnumbered and technologically outmatched is an impossibility. But I saw people crying when the death of the Ghost was reported, and I admit the stories plucked at my heartstrings. We all love and need heroes, for most of us aren't heroes of any stripe. I have seen that many or even most can rise to it when it calls, duty, but heroic by nature? Mostly the stuff of legends. Again, though, legends are what are needed right now…perhaps the first American killed here, widely reported to be a Tennessee boy but in fact from the Hudson River valley, will become one. But how can sacrifice be measured? Is one life worth more than another, ever? Does dying for people not your own put you on the express elevator to Elysium?


Again, I made reference before to the amazing similarity, to a Westerner of the combatants: language. ethnic group, food, customs, religion…even heroes, as many of the heroes of the Soviet Union were Ukrainian. One I spoke to drew a parallel between the Troubles in Ireland: the war was so internecine, at least to an outsider, that it didn't seem worth fighting, said Arkady Bak, a professor and dinner friend from a few nights ago. My Slavic languages progress at the rate of molasses, and talking to someone who was educated at Oxford was fun, I must say. He was full of ideas, and had an excellent grasp of history. He, too, believed the skies were the key, and urged me to do what I could. I explained that my ability to affect anything was paltry, if not nonexistent, but he felt that my presence alone said enough.

Does it? Some of the Americans here are not here for the right reason; some have extreme ideologies; some are just immature. But I hope that all of us might coalesce into an Uncle Sam character, with yellow and blue stripes on his top hat…after all, like US Marine and Legionnaire Willie Cancel, he was a boy from the Hudson River Valley.

Maybe one of us will be the face of the Ghost of New York. Lord knows we need heroes, and so do these people.

But they need airpower more. 

The writer is a former military man, now researching and writing about the Ukrainian Conflict. Questions can be sent directly to


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