“In the memory of those who flew one in”
By Wing Commander Amit Ranjan Giri
“Sexy Sleek and never says NO”…. ask any Fishbed rider and they would swear by this. This wonderous machine was first unveiled in 1955 and a few years later, legend has it, when put on a static display in an airshow in the west, onlookers refused to believe that the machine could fly. They were of the opinion that Russians were pulling a fast one, till of course, she took off to fly back. Her paper thin wings, delta planform and the cigar nose all screamed a con, a Russian propaganda, in view of the cold war.
The IAF’s tryst with the bird started in 1963 and till date HAL has produced a little over 850 plus machines for the country, more than 450 of which have ‘crashed and burned’ earning it the infamous nickname – ‘the widow maker’. The IAF saga with the single engine icon continues.
Is it time to lay it to rest?
First reaction to this question would be a big YES…HIGH TIME! The bird is old, OEM support is drying up, technology used has been superseded and of course air war has changed and so has the requirements. All said and done, are we as a nation ready to push this bird to the museum?
The MiG 21 for a very long time formed the backbone of the IAF and even after the induction of its older and more sophisticated cousins continued to be the mainstay of the IAF inventory. It must be appreciated that this decision of sticking with the Fishbeds was more of a necessity rather than a tactical one. With a humongous amount of sky to protect and very few new machines trickling in from the foreign vendors, coupled with India’s own fighter development program a far scream from reality, the IAF was forced to build its strategy and tactics around what was available, rather than have equipment tailored round its fighting ethos. One would have to give IAF the credit of rising up to the occasion and successfully make use of what it had, albeit at a huge cost of constantly losing pilots.
Statistically, the MiG 21 has contributed to the largest chunk of accidents suffered by the IAF and the maximum number of pilot losses. However, it needs to be appreciated that the maximum amount of flying was also done on the same machine, at least in terms of sorties if not hours. Accidents being an unfortunate by-product of aviation, it stands to some reason that the infelicitous ratio is justified. The maximum and the most scathing of these were during its mid life wherein the IAF lost a fair number of young and budding pilots.
The biggest reason for this was never the MiG 21, but surprisingly the lack of an intermediate trainer which the IAF had been crying hoarse for a very long time. Young pilots fresh from the academy, having flown the piston engine HPT 32 and the jet trainer HJT 16 suddenly found themselves in a cockpit which felt alien, had aerodynamics which they had only read in books and had a landing speed rumored to be higher than the Space Shuttle. This quantum jump in flying dynamics coupled with having to use the machine as a weapon of war led to many crashes and close calls. Some lived to tell the tales others were relegated to the annals of statistics.
The fact that versions of the same airplane had its switchery and equipment at different places in the cockpit also didn’t help the cause much, a peculiarity unknowingly put in place by the Indian OEM who was producing it under license. Indian aviation design still being at its infancy, thanks to the policies and polities of that time ensured not much thought went into cockpit ergonomics. A very soft but apt example would be the interchange of the “fuel shut off” button with the “tail chute deployment” button in the two different versions of the aeroplane. Though not too many accidents can be attributed to this particular peculiarity, it definitely did take a portion of the pilots’ attention which would have been utilized better elsewhere. Such examples were very common, oldies on the machine would surely agree.
The MiG 21 in the IAF
Designed as a short range interceptor by the Russians, IAF has upped the game by using the platform in almost every role imaginable. She intercepted, she bombed, she clicked photos, she escorted bombers to enemy territories, she trained rookies and she even flaunted her curves in Large Force Engagements(LFE) in almost all roles wherein the mainstay were the newer aircraft of the IAF inventory. Let alone the western air forces, even the Russians could never have imagined the role of a MiG 21 in the latest form of air battle, the LFE.
Should She GO or Stay?
No airplane in the IAF ever takes to the sky without being fully serviceable, the engineers ensure it and the pilots vouch for it, still accidents do happen, courts of inquiry strip the reasons threadbare and IAF institutes measures to avoid reoccurrence. In context of the MiG 21 it is opined that the machine has now outlived its utility and in a very grand way – for the records, she not only has a Governors’ house to her name or an Atlantique to boast of, she has finally, as a cherry to her extended and checkered career in IAF has a “Falcon breakfast” to her name….it’s time to fly away into the sunset My Lady.
(The author is a former MiG-21 Pilot and was Flight Commander, The Flying Bullets 2010 -2012, Indian Air Force. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online. Reproducing this content without permission is prohibited).