By: Air Commodore TK Chatterjee (Retd)
Nothing is more painful to an ex-pilot than reading about another aircraft crash, another well trained combatant lost. The last accident of a MiG-21 dual seat trainer in Rajasthan is the case in point, where two pilots were lost.
One of them was a senior squadron pilot, capable of imparting instructions at night, and the other a trainee. Aeroplanes can be manufactured, but the loss of trained combatants in peacetime is difficult to absorb.
Right now, the cause of the accident is not known. So any comments on why or how it happened would be out of place. But every time a MiG 21 crashes, the media has the same questions. Why are these flying coffins still flying? A short answer to this big question is – they are flying because they are flyable, and the nation needs them to fly, till their replacements are in place.
I, and many like me, learnt to fly fighter aircraft on these machines. I have had the fortune of flying all variants of the Mig 21 fleet – four variants of single seaters and two variants of dual seat trainers. I have flown them when they rolled out of the production line at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Nasik, worked on them till they were certified fit for human consumption in the squadrons, used them in squadron service in both defensive and offensive roles, and also seen them come back to factory at the end of their certified lifecycle for overhaul/retrofit/refurbishment etc. At no stage I found them dangerous.
Aviation as a profession is not dangerous, but it is very unforgiving. Everybody in this game has to know the limitations of their machines and their own limitations. If you operate within these limitations, you will survive, like I did. But there is no avoiding the fact that Mig 21 is old technology. They belong to the analogue era, the latest Bison being a partially digitised version. The later generation machines are more system intensive, but definitely more forgiving and pilot friendly. Like, it was so easy to get lost in the initial version of the MiG 21 with just a compass on board and an wandering instrument called the Radio Compass. In today’s aeroplanes it is difficult to get lost with the plethora of gadgets on board. My good old Ambassador car did fail more often than my current car, whose bonnet I did not have to open in the last five years. It’s a matter of technology and there is no denying it.
I said earlier that the nation needs them to fly because their replacements are not ready. Now, you may ask why their replacements are not in place, when it was very categorically identified in the early eighties that they would need replacement by the turn of the century. That is a long story and will bring into focus many organisations that either do not deliver at all or partly deliver that too in gasps. If you ask these organisations why they do not deliver anything on time, they would squarely blame the IAF for changing their requirements too often. They will not accept the fact that the longer you take to design and develop, the more will be the changes. The world will not wait for you.
For a government that has bluntly stated that they do not have the money to pay salary and pension to its soldiers, sailors and airmen, grounding 100 odd MiG 21s still in their inventory is impossible for strategic reasons and neither is their replacement possible in one go for financial reasons. Indigenous production rate of LCA is too slow to be of any meaningful use and the procurement process of foreign aircraft is so filled with political and technical potholes that any forecast of their likely date of materialising is just foolish.
So where does that leave us? History will repeat itself, I suppose. If it is found that the latest accident is due to some technical failure in the aircraft, then IAF will take pains to assure its pilots and the media that the aeroplane is safe to fly. Maybe the CAS will fly a sortie to prove to the media that everything is ok. And if it is found that it was pilot error, then BINGO…some training schedule will be tweaked and life will return to normal.
However, the show will definitely go on.
Disclaimer: The author is an Indian Air Force Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited.