MiG-21: The ?Flying Coffin? haunts IAF

The MiGs, which form 40% of IAF, have continued to live up to the sobriquet of "flying coffins" ever since, as before, with no let up in their crashing trend.

india Updated: May 21, 2003 16:27 IST

An official report on July 30, 2001 said that in the past three years, the Indian Air Force has lost 56 warplanes, 35 of them MiG-21s. The MiGs, which form 40% of IAF, have continued to live up to the sobriquet of "flying coffins" ever since, as before, with no let up in their crashing trend.

At least 170 MiGs have been lost in accidents over the past decade, defence officials say admitting that the image of IAF, the world's fourth largest, has taken a blow because of the MiGs' safety record.

The latest MiG joke doing the rounds among commoners is that IAF would soon cease to be if the rate at which its aircraft continue to fall from the skies. It may not make IAF officials laugh, but recent aircrashes of MiG-21s in Ludhiana and Haryaya will only add to the mockery.

Every time there’s an air crash, the IAF promptly comes out with a number of reasons. Absence of an advanced jet trainer (AJT), inadequate training hours for pilots, shortage of spare parts, bird hits — almost any explanation appears to be good enough, till the next plane goes down.

DESIGN DEFICIENCY?

After persistently denying that there was anything wrong with the jets, some officials have finally started getting suspicious that might be a design deficiency in its engine.

The flame tube of the R-25 was said to be prone to catching fire and that is feared to be one of the causes that led to the crashes. As per the guidelines, such military machines are supposed to be in the zero-defect range.

However, Chief of Air Staff Air Vice Marshal S Krishnamurthy insists that IAF has rectified the defect in the fuel system of MiG series, which was the main cause for earlier crashes. But also says that some accidents might have involved 'engine trouble'.

Reports say that some MiG-21s in India had shown problems in the 1980s also.

PILOT ERROR? or LACK OF AJTs

Most of the fighter plane crashes in India have been blamed on pilot error which is due to the lack of a proper trainer aircraft for Stage-III training.

IAF SAFETY RECORD

Air forces around the world keep their air accident rates — the number of crashes per 10,000 hours of flying — a closely guarded secret as it serves as an index of their operational competence. The IAF, however, maintains that its accident rate compares favourably with other air forces across the globe.

But many experts believe that the IAF's safety records were always dubious. This was painfully obvious in the post-1971 war period when some 500 aircraft were lost in just over a score of the subsequent years as against 72 planes lost during the Bangladesh war, creating what must surely have been a peace time world record!

THE CLEAN CHIT

Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy gives a clean chit to MiG-21. "MiG-21 doesn't forgive errors, just as a Ferrari sports car would'nt. It requires fast reactions. We have difficulties with pilot errors, but we are training them constantly," he says.

"The MiG-21 is like a gladiator's sword. It hurts sometimes, but it is also useful," he says.

Stating that using old aircraft was not unusual, he says the US was upgrading its 40-year-old T-38 class of aircraft with an aim to keep them operational till 2020. However, IAF has already started phasing out type 77 of MiG from this year because of its specific technology life, since it has been with the force since 1966.

So, one of the best fighters of its time, the MiG continues to serve in IAF as well as in many other air forces with upgrades. It's success can be seen in the fact that till date over 15,000 have been built with 15 major and 100 minor versions.

The first squadron of upgraded MiG-21s, called 'The Bisons' is already in service in IAF.

MiG WAS AN ANSWER TO PAK F-104

The MiGs were pressed into service in 1966 as a reply to Pakistan's F-104 which it had acquired from the US. The MiG-21s were being produced in India since 1968, the last aircraft of the class having come out of the production line in 1984. India now has 450 MiG-21s.

First Published: May 21, 2003 16:02 IST