50 years on, MiG-21 continues to showcase combat flying

Sunday, 21 April 2013 06:39

It was a pleasantly warm morning in 1963, when India's first truly supersonic fighter soared into the sky with a sonic boom to shatter the calm.

The MiG-21 is still flying high in the Indian skies, even though its stellar track-record got hugely marred in later years as "a flying coffin" or "a widow-maker".

Veteran fighter pilots, however, dismiss any criticism of the MiG-21 by dubbing it the "faithful, if highly-demanding, wife" that helped them be truthful to their credo, "Fight to fly, fly to fight, fight to win", over the years.

Even as IAF marks the 50th anniversary of MiG-21 operations this month, the single-engine fighter is not going to fade away anytime soon. Faced with a depleting number of fighter squadrons as well as an inordinate delay in the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft project, coupled with the excruciating slow pace of new acquisitions, the IAF has plans to operate over 100 upgraded MiG-21 "Bisons" at least till 2017.

It was before the 1962 conflict with China that India had begun to look for "high-altitude supersonic interceptors" to counter the F-104 Starfighters acquired by Pakistan from the US. The French Mirage-III, the Starfighter and the MiG-21 were in contention. But the first was too expensive, while the US was reluctant to sell the Starfighter to India.

The Soviet's attractive MiG-21 offer, along with licensed production, fit the bill for a cash-strapped India. The MiG-era then took off in India, also paving the way for New Delhi to align itself with the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War.

It proved cost-effective. Even in the mid-1980s, it cost India only around Rs 3.5 crore to manufacture a MiG-21, while a Mirage-2000 or Jaguar fighter was worth at least 10 times more.

IAF began with MiG-21s, but went on to progressively induct swing-wing MiG-23s, strategic reconnaissance MiG-25s, medium-range strike MiG-27s and in the 1980s, air defence MiG-29s as well, to its inventory.

India inducted upwards of 1,200 MiGs, two-thirds of them being MiG-21s, over the decades. The MiGs constituted over 75% of its total combat fleet. Though French and British fighters also joined the force later, the MiG saga still continues. The Navy, for instance, is all set to commission its first "Black Panthers" MiG-29K squadron in Goa on May 11.

MiG-21s were at the forefront of air operations during the 1965 and 1971 wars, outgunning Pakistani Sabres and Starfighters. It was the MiG-21s that hit the Dhaka Government House with rockets on December 14 to force Pakistan's abject surrender in 1971.

Even today, while older MiG-21 variants, MiG-23s and MiG-25s have been phased out, IAF still has almost 200 MiG-21 fighters, over 100 MiG-27s and 60 MiG-29s. "Two MiG-21 squadrons were `number-plated' last year. More were to follow this year but we have put the process on hold to retain our combat readiness," said a senior officer.

But the delta-winged MiG-21s, of the design vintage of 1960s, have had a horrific crash-rate in recent decades. The statistics are, indeed, chilling. Of the 872 MiG-21s inducted by IAF, around 380 have crashed since 1971-72. Overall, of the 1,050 crashes recorded by the force since 1970, over 480 were MiG variants, killing 180 pilots and 40 others.

Without modern systems like FADEC (full authority digital electronic controls) and mission computers, the ageing MiG-21s also have the highest landing and take-off speed in the world at 340 mph. With inadequate training to rookie pilots, shoddy maintenance and poor quality control of spares, all this combines to form an explosive mix.

But veterans say the MiG-21 was the "best" fighter of its time, serving in almost 40 air forces around the globe. " Yes, the MiG-21 is tricky to handle, highly unforgiving. But to tar it as a widow-maker is unfair. Combat flying is inherently dangerous," says an officer.

Rajat Pandit, TNN Apr 20, 2013

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