On social media, the “Ghost of Kyiv” was a military hero, an ace fighter pilot hailed for allegedly shooting down several Russian planes. The stories began just days after the war began and circulated for months, bolstered by official Ukrainian accounts.
But on Saturday, Ukrainian authorities admitted the legendary pilot was a myth.
“The Phantom of kyiv is a superhero legend whose character was created by Ukrainians!” Ukrainian Air Force said in Ukrainian on Facebook.
The statement came after several media outlets published articles wrongly identifying Major Stepan Tarabalka as the man behind the moniker. Tarabalka was a real pilot who died in aerial combat on March 13 and was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Air Force announced last month.
But he was not the Ghost of Kyiv, the force said in Saturday’s statement.
“The information about the death of the Ghost of #Kyiv is incorrect,” the Ukrainian Air Force wrote in a statement. separate post Saturday on Twitter. “The #GhostOfKyiv is alive, embodying the collective spirit of the highly trained Tactical Aviation Brigade pilots successfully defending #Kyiv and the region.”
“A nightmare for invading Russian planes”
The caption emerged just a day after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, as social media users began spreading unsubstantiated allegations about an unnamed fighter pilot who single-handedly shot down several Russian planes.
Memes, unrelated photos and even footage from a flight simulator video game have been circulating on social media claiming to show the Phantom of kyiv during the fight.
On February 25, former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko tweeted a photo the Ukrainian Defense Ministry had shared three years earlier, falsely claiming it showed the Ghost of Kyiv which shot down six Russian pilots.
Two days later, Ukraine’s official Twitter account shared a video featuring the same image, along with footage of fighter jets in combat, set to heart-pounding music, with the caption: “People call it the Ghost of kyiv. And rightly so — this UAF ace dominates the skies of our capital and our country, and has already become a nightmare for invading Russian planes.”
On the same day, Ukraine’s security service, the SBU, shared the same old photo on Telegram – but now claiming it shot down 10 occupation planes.
By the time news outlets including the Times of London falsely identified the pilot as Tarabalka on Friday, reports had raised the ghost’s death toll to 40 planes. The Times later updated its story to reflect the Air Force’s new stance on the Phantom of kyiv.