Tuesday, May 8, 2001, Chandigarh, India


M A I N   N E W S

‘Flying coffins’ of IAF
185 MiGs lost, 50 pilots killed so far
Girja Shankar Kaura
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, May 7
The death of Flying Officer A. Sharma in the crash of his MiG-21 aircraft during exercises along the border in the sweltering deserts of Rajasthan is not the last and will not be last till the time the Indian Air Force (IAF) keeps flying these overworked machines overlooking the safety of its pilots.

In the first four months of this year already six aircraft of the IAF all from the MiG series have tasted the dust of which three have been MiG-21s. And there is no guarantee as to how many more will fall off the Indian skies, claiming how many more lives of young pilots who have been looking for a ‘career’ in the IAF.

Although the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, and the AOC-in-C, Western Air Command, Air Marshal Krishnaswamy, today laid wreaths on the body of Flying Officer Sharma and paid homage to the departed soul during a visit to the forward areas where the exercises are being carried out, would it not be pertinent for them to sit back and ponder whether or not it would be in the interest of the Air Force to reduce the flying on its MiG-21s, referred to as the flying coffins in Air Force parlance.

The Chief of Air Staff had last year claimed that there was no problem with the MiG-21s and that the fighter aircraft would continue to serve the IAF at least till the end of this decade. However, the rate at which the MiG series of aircraft, specially the MiG-21s, have been falling off the skies, it will be interesting to note how many of these aircraft will actually be left with the IAF by the end of the decade.

For facts, the IAF has already lost more than three squadrons (each squadron consists of approximately 20 aircraft) of the MiG series of aircraft over the past three years and three months itself. Of this, more than two squadrons have just been of the MiG-21 fighter aircraft.

As per the details furnished by the IAF, while 18 MiG series of aircraft were lost in 1998-99, the number has remained unchanged over the last two years also. Of these about 40 aircraft which have been lost have been the MiG-21s.

The financial loss of over Rs 600 crore aside there cannot be any assessment for the loss of life in these accidents. Over the past three years over 25 pilots have been killed in the accidents, for which the IAF explains the reason in most of the cases as ‘human error’. If we take the details of the accidents over the past decade the figure adds up to a staggering 185 MiGs lost and over 50 pilots killed.

The IAF has not got an explanation for the reason why Flying Officer Sharma’s aircraft crashed yesterday, except that in exercises, like the one being held in Rajasthan, such accidents are bound to happen. This because when operating in almost war-like conditions, there is extra pressure on the pilots to perform and to achieve.

This however does not explain why the already overworked MiG-21s are being flown in Rajasthan at this time of the year when the temperatures are soaring over 40 degrees, the limit at which the MiGs can be stretched at. The IAF says when the crash took place yesterday it was about eight in the morning and the temperatures had not crossed 40 degrees.

However, the fact is that at present the temperatures are touching almost 48 degrees in the region where the exercises are being carried out and even at eight in the morning the temperatures would easily be hovering around 40 degrees.

Incidentally, the IAF has been carrying out more than 60 per cent of its flying on the MiG-21s which definitely can be said was much above the average and was naturally leaving the aircraft much overworked for such conditions.

The IAF is bound to order an inquiry into this crash also as has been the case in the past. But the experts say how would this inquiry help in bringing down the rate of crashes when all these accidents point out that not only was something greatly missing in the training of the pilots but also in the upkeep of the machines. The IAF says the MiGs are being upgraded with better avionics and weapon systems. Strict quality control is being exercised in the maintenance of MiG-21s.

However, the experts say that with almost 60 per cent of flying being carried out on the MiG-21s, any amount of upkeep of machinery will not be adequate.

The resultant wear and tear could have an effect on the engine at any time. Experts say that more accidents were also happening as the pilots were being suddenly asked to fly MiGs, which are a high-demand aircraft, after getting the training on the low-demand ones. Despite the ‘best training’ being imparted to the pilots, they were somehow not being able to cope with the sudden high demand of flying the MiGs.

According to them, most of the inquiries have pointed to deficiencies in the training of pilots as one of the primary reasons for accidents. The IAF has been compromising on standards. With few youngsters keen on taking up a flying career with the Air Force, the authorities have been forced to choose from the borderline cases, they said.

Incidentally, a recent internal study report of the IAF has pointed out that most of the pilots involved in crashes were those with a lower flying aptitude. This again brings us to the point that the IAF has lowered the standards for selecting the pilots.

According to analysts, a relatively low aptitude, together with the demands for a high-skill aircraft like the MiG could prove to be very dangerous. The MiGs are being used to impart the stage-III training to the pilots which puts pressure on them after getting the initial training on aircraft like Kiran, which are sub-sonic in nature.

Not wanting to be quoted, a senior serving officer said that a lot of things would improve if the AJTs were inducted as early as possible.

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