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The Ghost of Kyiv: who is ace Ukraine pilot Stepan Tarabalka, have they died, kill count - are they real?

Though popular and heavily discussed on social media, it seems likely that the Ghost is just an urban legend

The Ghost of Kyiv is an unnamed jet pilot who is reported to be defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

Though popular and heavily discussed on social media, the Ghost has been confirmed to be just an urban legend by the Ukraine Air Force Command – an amalgamation of different stories and individuals.

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“We ask the Ukrainian community not to neglect the basic rules of information hygiene,” it said, urging people to “check the sources of information, before spreading it”.

If the Ghost were a, they would be the first ‘ace pilot’ of the 21st century.

Here is everything you need to know about the Ghost of Kyiv.

Who is the Ghost of Kyiv?

The Ghost of Kyiv is supposedly an anonymous fighter pilot who is suggested to have shot down six Russian planes on the first day of the invasion of Ukraine.

More likely than not the Ghost is just an urban legend, with several different attacks attributed to one persona.

The Ukraine Air Force Command has warned on Facebook that the "Ghost of Kyiv is a superhero-legend whose character was created by Ukrainians!"

29-yaer-old Major Stepan Tarabalka was previously suggested to be the ace.

But he was killed in combat on 13 March, according to authorities, and was posthumously awarded the Hero of Ukraine medal.

"Tarabalka is not the 'Ghost of Kiev,' and he did not hit 40 planes," the air force says now.

Rather than a single man's combat record, the "Ghost of Kyiv" is described as "a collective image of pilots of the Air Force's 40th tactical aviation brigade, who defend the sky over the capital."

Fake footage of the Ghost, created in a video game simulator, went viral – though uploaded and acknowledged as a tribute rather than real footage, many shared it believing it to be real.

A Ukrainian model aeroplane maker even exploited the story as a marketing ploy, and Ukrainian Iryna Kostyrenko wore a military emblem inspired by the narrative.

What has the Ukrainian government said about the Ghost?

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence had previously suggested that, if confirmed, the pilot must have been an experienced pilot from the military reserves.

Former president Petro Poroshenko tweeted an image of a pilot (masked and unidentifiable), with a caption reading: “In the image we have the MiG-29 pilot known as ‘The Ghost of Kyiv’. He terrorizes enemies and makes Ukrainian people proud.

“He’s got six wins over Russian pilots! With such powerful defenders, Ukraine will definitely win!”

On 27 February, the official twitter account for Ukraine put out a video tribute to the Ghost of Kyiv. In it, they suggested the Ghost had shot down 10 planes, while conceding “it is still unknown [...] whether he is responsible for the ten downed Russian planes”.

What is an MiG 29 plane?

The Mikoyan MiG-29 is a short-range fighter plane. It was first designed in the 1970s, and remained in production through to 2013.

In 2014, Ukraine had around 80 MiG 29 planes – the majority of them, however, were based in Crimea, and were seized by Russia when the territory was annexed. Ukraine now has a significantly diminished airforce.

What is an ‘ace pilot’?

An ace pilot – also known as a flying ace – is any military pilot who shoots down five or more enemy combatants.

The concept was first popularised during World War One, when individually successful aviators were highlighted for propaganda and morale reasons (even as ‘flying aces’ were the exception rather than the rule for aerial warfare, which is usually fought in formation).

It is relatively unusual to become an ‘ace in a day’ specifically (a fighter pilot who shoots down five or more enemy combatants in a single day)

If the record attributed to the Ghost of Kyiv were real, it would have made the anonymous pilot the first person to achieve ‘ace in a day’ status in the 21st century.

Previously, the most recently recognised ‘ace in a day’ was US pilot Oscar Perdomo, who shot down five Japanese aircraft in the final days of World War Two.

In 1965, pilot Muhammad Mahmood Alam claimed to have shot down five aircraft in a day (and four in a minute – a world record). However, this has been heavily contested over the years, and it’s generally understood now to be untrue.