Allegedly Self-Taught Pilot Flew Passenger Planes Without Ever Attending Aviation University

Russian media recently featured the story of Taras Shelest, a highly-regarded passenger jet pilot who turned out to be a complete fraud. Despite having never attended aviation university and instead faking his diploma, Shelest allegedly flew thousands of people all around the world for several years, until a bizarre incident finally exposed him.

In August of 2015, Taras Shelest was a co-pilot on a passenger flight from Moscow to Cyprus. When entering Ukrainian airspace, he contacted the ground controller as per protocol, only instead of sticking to the strict technical language, he used a very peculiar greeting – “Glory to Ukraine!” This was apparently so unusual that Shelest was reported to his company’s security service, which in turn contacted the FSB, Russia’s federal security service. Taras’ fellow pilots were whispering to each other that he had lost his mind, for using that bizarre greeting, but the result of the investigation into his background revealed something even crazier – the man was not even a real pilot, but a flight enthusiast who had taught himself to fly using flying simulators and faked his aviation university diploma.

Photo: Maarten Visser/Flickr

According to a recently published article in the Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda, Taras Shelest was born on May 19, 1974, in the town of Yakhroma near Moscow, and passionately dreamed of becoming an airplane pilot ever since he was a young boy. He went to airfields with his friends, read books on aviation and later trained on flight simulators, with the help of a friend of his father’s, who was a flying instructor. 

Taras took flying very seriously, he was familiar with all the technical terms, understood flight patters and could fly planes flawlessly on the simulator. After graduating from high-school, he attempted to get into an aviation university multiple times, but he never got a good enough score. It seemed that his dream of becoming a real pilot would never materialize, so Shelest got a job at a video game development company. There he became very interested in simulators, particularly flying simulators.

Determined not to give up on aviation, in 2008, Taras Shelest got a job as a steward at a small private airline. A year later, after learning that the company was hiring pilots, he went to management and applied for a job. He apparently managed to get his hands on a fake aviation university diploma, and after passing all the company’s tests, he enrolled in a training program for Yak airplanes.

He eventually got a job as a co-pilot for the small airline, but he wanted more. After hearing that a large Russian airline operating Airbus passenger planes was hiring, he decided to try. He again underwent flight retraining, passed the exams, and spent a year with the flight training unit, before being transferred to the main unit. According to investigators, his instructors never suspected that he wasn’t a real pilot.

Photo: SuperJet International/Flickr

The Komsomolskaya Pravda claims that Shelest worked as a pilot for a total of five years, and flew all over the world. From 2012 to 2015, he registered a total of 2,660 flight hours. Not to shabby, for a pilot who never actually went to flight school. He was highly regarded by his employer, never had any accidents or complaints, and his colleagues described him as a man fascinated by airplanes and the sky. If not for the 2015 incident, no one would have ever suspected that he was a fraud.

According to the investigation report, Taras Shelest confessed to faking his diploma and impersonating an airplane pilot, and at the end of a long trial, he was released… Apparently, the judge decided that despite using fake documents and technically putting thousands of people’s life in danger, Taras was actually really good as his job, passed all his job examinations and never had any issues. Plus he enrolled in flying classes, learned how to fly like a pro and admitted his mistakes.

Taras’ only punishment was apparently a ban on flying airplanes in Russia.

This all sounds very fishy, doesn’t it? A man teaches himself how to fly, fakes his diploma and lands several jobs as a pilot without anyone checking his credentials. Well, the Komsomolskaya Pravda apparently thought so too, so they decided to check up on Taras Shelest. They contacted an old friend of his, Andrey, who said that he was still working as a pilot for a company in Honduras. Apparently, since he couldn’t follow his dream in Russia, he decided to try above.

However, after checking his social media profile, the Russian newspaper learned that he was not actually in Honduras, but in neighboring Ukraine. He was working as a pilot though, and, as a side note, was posting a lot of anti-Russian statements on his social media accounts. They managed to contact him, and he had a very different version of this story.

Photo: Brandrodungswanderfeldhackbau/Wikimedia Commons

Taras told KP that he used to fly planes for a Moscow airline, but had actually went to aviation school, adding that “this is not an industry where you can learn everything yourself”. He insists that after the 2015 incident, where he did in fact say “Glory to Ukraine!” when contacting the flight control tower, the company needed an excuse to dismiss him, so they made up this story about him not being a real pilot.

Shelest claims that after the incident, he was “forced to write a statement of my own free will”, admitting that he had forged his diploma. This allowed the airline the perfect excuse to let him go and also take him to court for 1.5 million rubles, which he has yet to pay.

Asked why the St. Petersburg Aviation Institute told investigators that he had never been a student there, Taras basically said that they had lied to help investigators reach the desired results.

So is Taras Shelest a self-taught pilot who is still flying passenger planes today or just a victim of the Russian FSB? I guess we’ll never really know. It’s still a good story, though.

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