IAF’s Squadron No 3 prepares for bittersweet farewell as MiG-21 gets close to its last hurrah
The MiG-21, India’s first supersonic fighter whose induction began in 1963, has still not run out of juice, can hold its own in combat
A storied ride is slowing to a final stop. An era in military aviation is about to fade away. But maybe not quite so soon.
MiG-21 flying operations are in full swing at the sprawling Nal desert fighter base, with the Indian Air Force (IAF) exploiting the full potential of the last of its Soviet-era interceptors before bringing the curtain down next year on the iconic fleet that has served India for six decades as it moves on to the locally produced light combat aircraft (LCA) with several accidents calling into question the safety of the MiG.
IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari announced on October 3 that the MiG-21 was being phased out, and the process is likely to be completed by 2025. In October-end, IAF retired the MiG-21s of the No 4 Squadron based at Uttarlai in Rajasthan.
The MiG-21, India’s first supersonic fighter whose induction began in 1963, has still not run out of juice, can hold its own in combat, and the fighter’s handling is as good as any other’s in the air force’s combat fleet, said Group Captain Chetan Sharma, the commanding officer of IAF’s No 3 Squadron, better known as “Cobras”.
“The aircraft will be pulled out of service by 2025 but it’s business as usual for us. The venerable steed has held its own for 60 years,” he said.
The Cobras are among the last generation of MiG-21 pilots in the country -- the No 3 is one of the only two remaining MiG-21 squadrons. The other one, No 23 or “Panthers”, is based 185km north at Suratgarh, also in Rajasthan. The exact phasing out schedule is still being worked out. A squadron consists of 16 to 18 fighter jets. Both squadrons operate the MiG-21 Bison, the last variant of the single-engine workhorse.
IAF has operated a raft of MiG-21 variants -- Type 74 or MiG 21F, Type 76 or MiG 21PF, Type 77 or MiG 21FL, Type 96 or MiG 21M, Type 75 or MiG 21 Bis (upgraded Type 96), and the MiG-21 Bison.
The MiG-21 still allows the pilots to push the flight envelope -- the design parameters for aircraft safety -- to meet mission requirements, the pilots at the No 3 Squadron said.
“Any aircraft must be stretched to its limits to meet operational requirements. That’s exactly what we are doing with the MiG-21s, pushing them to their limits. The squadron is flying by day and night to meet its commitments. We are combat-ready and capable of executing any mission assigned to us,” said Sharma, as two fighter pilots, including a woman, taxi out a MiG-21 to the runway for a training sortie.
The squadron was raised in Peshawar in October 1941. It has been equipped with a variety of aircraft including Audax, Hurricane, Spitfire, Tempest, Vampire, Ouragan and Mystere. But the Cobras have been flying only the MiG-21s since 1972. Sharma figures at serial number 51 on a wall mounted honour board in his office displaying the names of commanding officers of the No 3 Squadron whose motto is “Lakshya Vedh”, or Destroy the Target with Precision. Six pilots who served in the squadron went on to become air force chiefs -- four in India and two in Pakistan, the aircrew at the base recalled.
After a 45-minute sortie, Wing Commander Nanda Rajender and Squadron Leader Mohana Singh, one of India’s first women fighter pilots, landed their fighter jet at the base at a speed of 340kmph.
“As long as the MiG-21s are there in IAF, any fighter pilot would love to fly them. It’s a different beast,” Singh said. In her early 30s, she was commissioned into IAF in 2016 after the service opened its fighter stream to women, a watershed in India’s military history. She is among the three women fighter pilots in the squadron.
“The number of sorties the aircrews are carrying out every month is similar to other squadrons with modern aircraft, if not more. There is no question of restricting flying because of the upcoming phasing out of the MiG-21s,” said Sharma, who has logged a fourth of his total flying hours in his military service on the MiG-21s.
When not strapped in a MiG-21 cockpit, Sharma -- call-sign Cobra1 -- likes cruising on his superbike.
To be sure, IAF has had to keep its MiG-21 fleet flying longer than it would have liked because of the delay in the induction of new fighters. The locally produced light combat aircraft will fill the gap left by the gradual phasing out of the MiG-21s. It is to the credit of the air force’s engineers and technicians that the MiG-21s have flown for so long, Sharma said.
Several accidents have called into question the flight safety record of the MiG-21. More than 400 MiG-21s have been involved in accidents that have claimed the lives of around 200 pilots during the last six decades, earning the fighter jets ominous epithets such as “Flying Coffin” and “Widow Maker”.
Fighter flying is a risky business and demonising the legendary aircraft, which has been the mainstay of IAF for decades, does it a great disservice, said Sharma, while listing out their role in the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan. To be sure, more MiG-21s have crashed than any other IAF fighter because they formed the bulk of the aircraft in the IAF’s inventory for the longest time.
The air force progressively inducted 874 MiG-21s. The MiG-21 Bis was upgraded to MiG-21 Bison in India in 2000.
Of the 874 jets, more than 60% were licence-produced in India.
The MiG-Bison was involved in IAF operations after the unprecedented, peacetime, cross-border strike against terror targets in Pakistan’s Balakot in February 2019. Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman scripted military aviation history by downing a Pakistan Air Force F-16, seconds before his own MiG-21 Bison was hit by a missile forcing him to eject.
A former IAF chief once referred to the seat in the MiG-21 cockpit as “more coveted than that of a king’s.”
“Heed not the barbed taunt of ‘widow-maker‘ my lovely filly, for you are in fact a man-maker of boys. Were I to go down with you, my soul would have been tortured to have anyone call you my ‘flying coffin’; but my soul would have been mercifully becalmed would that our joint epitaph proudly proclaimed: ‘In life you offered this pilot a seat more coveted than that of a king’s; in death you took an air warrior to his glorious Valhalla,” Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis wrote in a piece published in the book First to the Last: 50 years of MiG-21s with the IAF published in 2013.
Even when the MiG-21 is midway through its last dance, the Cobras couldn’t agree more.
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