Many Ukrainians on social media had hailed the fabled figure as a “hero” after hearing stories about the previously unnamed pilot’s bravery in the face of Russia’s invasion. A selfie showing a fighter pilot in a MiG-2 was posted online in March by Ukraine’s air force with a caption aimed at Russians which read: “Hello, occupier, I’m flying for your soul!”
Father of one, Major Stepan Tarabalka, 29, was killed when the MiG-29 he was flying was shot down on March 13 while fighting “overwhelming” enemy forces, according to local reports.
Ukrainian sources confirmed the identity of the fighter pilot and his death on Friday.
Major Tarabalka shot to fame after the Ukrainian government shared a video on Twitter showing an artist’s impression of the pilot.
It claimed that he had shot down six Russian aircraft on the day Russia invaded its neighbour.
The tweet read: “People call him the Ghost of Kyiv. And rightly so — this UAF [Ukrainian Air Force] ace dominates the skies over our capital and country, and has already become a nightmare for invading Russian aircraft.”
With his identity previously kept secret there had been speculation his story was a myth designed to boost morale as Ukraine was bombarded by Russian bombs and missiles.
Ukrainian sources remained adamant he did exist.
Major Tarabalka was from a working-class family and was born in the small village of Korolivka in western Ukraine, The Times reports.
He graduated from Kharkiv National University of the Air Force. He leaves behind his wife Olenia and their eight-year-old son, Yarik.
Major Tarabalka was posthumously awarded Ukraine’s top medal for bravery in combat, the Order of the Golden Star, with the title Hero of Ukraine.
After his death, his parents gave an interview to NPR during which his mother, Nahtalia, described how he used to watch MiG jets swooping over his house and decided as a boy that his dream was to be a fighter pilot.
She said via a translator: “He would always watch the paratroopers in their air exercises. And he would run in their direction to try to see where they landed. Since early childhood, he always dreamed of the sky, about flying higher than the clouds.”
After flight school, the pilot would fly over the village, tilting the wings of his his jet by way of salute.
His mother said: “At any opportunity, he would fly close to our house, do a little aerobatic trick. And everyone in the village, every house and all the villages around would know that is Stepan flying.”
Major Tarabalka’s father, Evon, was a construction worker. His parents spent much of the year in Portugal trying to earn a living. Evon said the Ukrainian military would not give them any details of his final flight or his death.
He 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, really.”