The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 13, 2003
Lead Article

MiGs: Perilous take-offs
P. K. Vasudeva

“Had we bought the AJTs 10 years back, it would have cost us one-fifth of what they would now. Perhaps, if an odd Air Chief had resigned on the issue to drive home the point, it would have registered and placed the responsibility squarely on the government.”

— M. M Singh, former AOC-in-C of the Western Command

AN Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-23 fighter plane crashed over a residential area in Mullanpur Dakha village, 15 km from Ludhiana, at around 10.30 am on April 4, 2003 claiming the lives of five civilians. The fighter plane had taken off on a routine sortie from the Halwara airbase, 14 km from the crash sight, when it caught fire in mid-air. Flt. Lt. P. S. Gill, who was flying the aircraft, ejected minutes before the crash. A technical snag is attributed to the crash. A couple of days later on April 6, a MiG- 21 crashed after take-off in Ambala injuring five civilians.

Earlier, a MiG-21 aircraft had crashed on December 26, 2002, near Srinagar, killing one civilian.

The IAF spokesman Squadron Leader R K Dhingra said in Delhi that the possibility of the aircraft being hit by a missile or ground fire was ruled out. His comments came in the wake of security forces recovering Pakistani surface-to-air missile 'Anza' from terrorist hideout in the border district of Kupwara recently.


The MiG-21 was of the type-75 variant. As many as 20 MiG-23 aircrafts have crashed so far. They were inducted into the IAF two decades back and the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence has been repeatedly asking the government to phase them out. The government, however, has ruled out phasing out of these warplanes saying that massive upgradation of the MiGs was underway.

MiG-23: Major crashes

April4, 2003 Halwara

June 26, 2002 Halwara

July 5, 2001 Jodhpur

March 12, 2001 Halwara

May10, 2000 Halwara

April 25, 2000 Patiala

March 25, 2000 Kargil

February 2, 1999 Halwara

October 1, 1998 Halwara

October 9, 1997 Halwara

May 8, 1997 Halwara

March 9, 1997 Halwara

June 5, 1996 Jodhpur

December 26,1995 Adamapur

March 20, 1993 Jodhpur

September 10, 1992 Adampur

April 3, 1993 Jodhpur

May 17, 1989 Ahmedabad

September 22,1987 Una

November, 28,1983 Tilpat Range

MiG-21: Historical facts

The MiG-21 has the record of being the most successful jet-powered aircraft ever in terms of numbers built and exported. It has served with more nations and has fought in more wars than any other fighter ever - including aircraft from the two world wars.

The MiG-21 first flew in its prototype form in 1955 in the then USSR. There were two prototypes actually, the other one codenamed Faceplate by NATO. Eventually, the Fishbed was selected. Its popularity spread quickly, especially among Soviet-allied countries. This plane was cheap, small, powerful, rugged, and supersonic at all altitudes and handled better than anything before from the Soviet Union. It was purchased by countries from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia, and even China built an unlicensed copy called the J-7 and exported it to Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Albania, among other countries, all of which still have the F-7 (export designation of J-7) operational in their air force. The IAF also inducted it.

The 1971 war, proved the mettle of the MiG-21, which outclassed many enemy fighters, and proved itself to be an integral part of the Air Force. With its short takeoff and good maneuverability, it stood out as an excellent interceptor for its era.

From 1980, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) acquired a license to build the MiG-21s in India itself. This meant that the IAF could induct a large number of MiG-21s. The !AF has about 400 of these planes.

IAF crashes

From 1965 to 2002, the IAF has lost 135 MiG-21s, either due to crashes, bird hits, enemy fire or other reasons. In other words, the country's complete inventory has been written off once over without fighting a war. The Indian Air Force has lost close to 200 fighter pilots in accidents, most of them involving the antiquated MiG-21 series of aircraft. The total losses to the Indian Air Force during 2002 alone have been 17planes. The breakdown is - MiG-21, 12; MiG-23, 1; MiG-27, 2 and Jaguar, 2.

Main causes

The original airframe is now nearly fifty years old, and some aircraft serving in the IAF are 20 to 25 years old. This time span is not much for civilian aircraft, but it is a worrying factor for a high performance fighter jet. Metal fatigue is now creeping into some of the original Fishbeds bought from the USSR, while some of its problems such as high landing speed can be troublesome to fresh pilots.

It was in the early ‘80s that IAF asked a committee to go into the causes of so many crashes. It was the La Fontaine Committee, headed by Air Chief Marshal La Fontaine, the then Chief of Air Staff himself, which had stated in unequivocal terms that the causes could be attributed to three main causes: bird hits, maintenance failure and pilot error. For pilot error, which in turn, implied a failure of the establishment to train the pilots, the main cause was the qualitative jump, which the pilot was required to take from sub-sonic aircraft like Kirans and Ishkaras to super sonic aircraft flying at Mach 2 speed, like the MiG 21. It was around 1985 that the Committee had recommended that the IAF should acquire the Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT). Acquisition of 66 aircraft was sanctioned in 1986. However, they are yet to be acquired.

As many as 62 per cent of the cases involved the MiG-21 fighters made by the HAL in the 1960s. The "human factor" caused 42 per cent of the crashes, technical malfunctions 44 per cent, and collisions with birds 7 per cent. As for the training of IAF pilots, there is complete absence of the necessary equipment and infrastructure.

Quite a few aircrafts in the IAF are old, and need to be replaced. Currently the IAF has sent some of its newly built MiG-21s to the HAL to upgrade them to MiG-21-93 or MiG-21-UPG.

So what is the fate of the MiG-21? With the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme not slated to take flight by 2006 at least, all MiG-21s cannot be discarded immediately.

Some of the experts feel that the IAF should keep only three variants of the MiG-21 operational— the MiG-21-93 (16 of which were inducted this year), the MiG-21Bis (a better version of the original MiG-21) and the MiG-21MF electronic warfare variant. The remaining MiG-21s should be slowly phased out over the next four-five years, followed by earlier MiG-23s. The moment the LCA enters service, the MiG-21Bis should be retired too, and only the MiG-21-93 should be kept running till 2010 when they can be retired gracefully.

Cost factor

While the cost of each aircraft is about Rs 100 crore, the cost of the training of pilots is about Rs 23-45 crore per pilot (Fifth Pay Commission's Report Volume III page 1921). Thus, the loss of a pilot, apart from being a human life lost with all its tragic consequences, is a heavy cost to the exchequer. Thus in the period since 1 April 1993, India has incurred a loss of Rs10, 000 crore on account of the cost of the aircraft lost and another Rs 2250 crore on account of the loss of the pilots. These huge costs have been largely due to the Indian establishment dragging its feet over the purchase of AJT which would have cost Rs 660 crore initially, and now Rs 3600 crore. The moot point is whether this is just a case of penny- wise and pound foolish or is there something more sinister to it?

Pilot error

The second cause of crashes is pilot error and the poor quality of intake. In an interview, former Air Chief Marshal Sareen stated most unequivocally that standards at the time of intake have been compromised. It is for this reason that a trainee, who is expected to go in for a solo after about 7-10 sorties is now doing so after more than 25 sorties.

Poor maintenance

The root cause of the great number of crashes of the MiG-21 fighters of the IAF is the bad maintenance and "substandard uncertified" spares to the force.

The Daily Izvestia said quoting experts that the certified quality spares imported from Russia were being re-exported by HAL to Algeria and Vietnam while the IAF was being supplied with "cheap and uncertified spares picked from former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe and CIS countries."

In some cases, the planes were a product of 'cannibalisation,' with the front portion being picked from one country, wings from another and the engine from the third. Some of these planes were delivered to the IAF after overhauling in Romania, while others were overhauled on IAF's order by HAL in India.

Against this backdrop and to protect the prestige of its brand, the Russian Aircraft corporation MiG (RAC MiG) has been seeking access to the investigations into the crashes of MiG-21 trainer jets to no avail.

The Russian side has already raised some of these issues in April at the Moscow session of the Indo-Russian sub-group on aviation attended by senior officials of HAL and the IAF.

During the course of the last three years, Defence Minister George Fernandes has publicly stated on several occasions that the British Hawk AJT deal has been finalised and 66 of them would be shortly acquired. However, the defence ministry sources say the deal has not yet come through because of the 'price factor'. The purchase of 66 Hawk AJTs will reportedly cost over US $ 3 billion now due to cost escalation.


The Ministry of Defence is a non-professional body”

An Indian MiG-21BIS rolling out after landing
An Indian MiG-21BIS rolling out after landing

WHILE the MiG variants crash and the recommendations of the high-powered committee of flight safety on fighter aircraft accidents remain mere recommendations, young pilots lose their lives while vital decisions are kept on the backburner. Retired Air Marshal M. M. Singh, former AOC-in-C of the Western Command, in an interview with Aruti Nayar talks of the reasons responsible for so many air crashes of MiG-21.

What are the reasons for so many MiG crashes?

All accidents are caused by pilot error, technical flaws and maintenance lapses.

Due to the absence of Advanced Trainer Jets, for a young pilot to make the transition from flying a Kiran to a MiG is a big leap. Since we have no intermediary aircraft, what happens is, it becomes difficult for the structural staff to impart operational training and competence to the young pilots. Fighter flying is not just about flying from A to B but learning to operate the aeroplane as a weapon of war and using it to its optimum ability. The training suffers because it is akin to trying to drive a Ferrari on a racing track after learning driving on a Maruti 800. Earlier, we had the Hunters, so from the Kiran to the Hunters was the transition. After the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union there was a shortage of spares so we bought a lot of spares of doubtful quality from the erstwhile satellite countries. The Russians were extremely particular about spares and there was extensive documentation with every aircraft. Moreover, a young pilot flying a high-demand aircraft can not handle an emergency.

Technically, modern aircraft have two engines whereas these aircraft have only one engine. The MiG-29 is a younger, more modern aircraft. During my tenure too we had lost few aircraft due to rear fuselage overheating. When we contacted HAL, we were told that it was due to poor maintenance or faults on the part of IAF technicians. It was only when we saw machines that had been ferried straight from the HAL factory with burn marks, before any of our technicians had even touched them, could we convince the HAL. There was very little gap between the engine and the rear fuselage. As far as assembling of parts and indigenous manufacture goes, there is a lack of stringent quality control and adequate supervision.

Why don’t we ground the MiGs?

Two-thirds of the IAF is flying MiGs. How can you reduce the capacity from 40 squadrons to 10 squadrons? The Germans had the same problem with F-104. They can only be phased out if we have an alternative. With lengthy procedures and convoluted systems which prevent things from moving fast, vital policy decisions are allowed to drag on, without any thought for the consequences.

The perks and pay of the IAF pilots are five times less than those of the airline pilots, while the risk to life is ten times more. Due to lack of availability, is the IAF settling for those with a lower flying aptitude?

India is such a vast country and there is so much of unemployment that even if you do not get recruits from the upper middle class families any more, you do continue to get youth from middle class and the lower middle class. So even if the upbringing of the young recruits varies, there is no way that the flying aptitude is compromised. No way will the son of a JCO have a lower flying aptitude, even if he can’t eat with a fork and knife. I don't think the force has to compromise on the flying aptitude.

Why this laxity in procuring AJTs and upgradation of the existing aircraft and replacement by the LCA?

About 20 years ago, the Air Force was equipped with trans-sonic Hunters, Mistaires and Gnats. Intermediary aircraft is needed not only for flight safety but also for building up of the operational capability of the pilot. There were squadrons where young pilots would be given flying experience much before they flew fighter planes. One reason that they could not be phased out by the LCA is because we do not possess the experience, industry and manufacturing as well as design capability to manufacture LCA. The Ministry of Defence is a non-professional body and the Ministry of Finance handles defence finance, as a consequence, bureaucratic red tapism affects all decisions. If we had the money to buy Su-30, why not AJTs? Had we bought the AJTs 10 years back, it would have cost us one-fifth of what it would now. Perhaps, if an odd Air Chief had resigned on the issue to drive home the point, it would have registered and placed the responsibility squarely on the government. How can those who have been trained for revenue administration understand vital policy matters pertaining to defence? Quotations are sought, files keep going up and down and adding up but no significant decisions are ever taken. All these things have been allowed to slide for far too long. I agree that some of the defence officers too make money but all the deals are signed by the bureaucrats.

Can the IAF abdicate responsibility?

Perhaps our failure has been the inability to convince the politicians and bureaucrats to build up air power to an extent that gives us advantage in South Asia. Superior air power can help us tackle terrorism in an effective manner. Due to inadequate intelligence back-up, the Army takes long to retaliate, while air power is instant. We should hone our air power to gain an advantage over Pakistan in the ongoing proxy war. Strikes in no-flying zones, smart bombs and surgical strikes (pinpoint strikes) can help us gain advantage in south Asia over China and Pakistan strategically.

Would not such accidents prevent parents from sending their wards to join the IAF or demotivate the youngsters as well. As it is these aircraft have been called "flying coffins."

It is the media that calls them flying coffins and not the Air Force. Talk to any pilot from a MiG squadron, you will find them fiery, motivated and enthusiastic. The fighter pilot is a different breed altogether. Youngsters would continue to dare. Despite all warnings for safe driving and following road rules, do youngsters not speed on their bikes? Yes, the parents can be put off. That is why the media should desist from blowing up of all accidents and magnifying them. Accidents do happen and wherever you fly in the Indo-Gangetic plain, there will be a village, so it is unavoidable to crash in an inhabited area. Each day giving news related to the accident serves no purpose. A terse few lines to say that an accident has occurred are enough.