Workers of a cardboard manufacturing plant near the Rajpura-Ambala stretch of the busy National Highway 1 in Punjab were drying cardboard in the open on Tuesday morning when they saw a plane, wobbling dangerously, head straight towards them.
As they scrambled for cover, the MiG-21 ‘Bison’, which was on a practice sortie, flew zigzag over them and crashed seconds later into a paddy field in Mehmadpur Maujan village barely 30 metres from the highway, close to the Haryana border in Punjab’s Patiala district.
The pilot, flight lieutenant Arunav Ghosh, ejected safely from the Russian-origin aircraft, but not before maneuvering the Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter plane safely away from populated patches and an educational institute.
The crash comes a month after another MiG -21 crashed in Bikaner, Rajasthan, killing the pilot. On February 4, a MiG-21 ‘Bison’ crashed on a routine sortie in Madhya Pradesh’s Sheopur district.
The IAF has ordered a court of inquiry into Tuesday’s accident. An IAF spokesperson in Delhi told Hindustan Times that the plane had taken off from the Ambala airbase and was returning when it crashed at around 10.27am, a few minutes before it was supposed to land.
“The pilot escaped unhurt and was rescued by an IAF search and rescue helicopter,” the spokesperson said, refusing to give further details. However, air force sources said a technical snag might have caused the accident.
“The pilot ejected near the Surya World Group of Colleges and the aircraft crashed some 2 km from him,” said superintendent of police (Rajpura) Manmohan Sharma. “Fire tenders doused the flames.”
Iqbal Singh, a resident of nearby Baproar village, said he saw the pilot ejecting from the aircraft on a parachute and the MiG shaking in the air.
“The plane was coming in our direction. Before we could react, it crashed into the field and a cloud of smoke emerged,” Iqbal said. “We rushed away from the accident site to check on the pilot.”
He said the pilot told them in Punjabi that he was fine. “He was in a state of shock for a while, but soon came out of it”, Iqbal said. The wreckage of the aircraft spread across a 500-metre-area.
Air force personnel searched for the black box for hours. Sources said it was recovered.
The crash caused a five-feet trench in the field. Prem Chand, whose full-grown paddy was trampled during the post-crash operations, said he was happy that there was no loss of life.
The single-engined-MiG-21s have an unenviable record when it comes to crashes. Of the 793 MiG-21s inducted into the IAF since 1963, more than 340 have been lost in accidents. In the past three years, more than 40 MiGs have crashed, killing 17 pilots, 24 service personnel and five civilians.