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Frequent Crashes, Obsolete Technology: Downhill Road For MiG-21, India's 'Flying Coffin'

A Russian designed supersonic jet fighter, the MiG-21 is what Maruti Suzuki is to Indian automobile industry. But the jets, well past their retirement age, have been the most accident-prone of all IAF fighter jets.

Nikita Vashisth, Pooja Dantewadia

Updated:March 8, 2019, 4:52 PM IST
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Frequent Crashes, Obsolete Technology: Downhill Road For MiG-21, India's 'Flying Coffin'
The accident-prone fighter jets have earned the name "flying coffin" or "widow maker”. (News18 illustration by Mir Suhail)
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A MIG-21 jet of the Indian Air Force crashed in Shoba Sar Ki Dhani area in Rajasthan's Bikaner district on Friday afternoon. Although the pilot managed to eject safely, the crash has once again led to concerns over the condition of the fighter jets that are well past their expiry date.


The incident comes just a few days after a MiG-21 Bison jet flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was shot down by a Pakistani Air Force F-16 in an aerial dogfight that ensued after they intruded into Indian territory in J&K.


The jet flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan was part of the fleet that is past its retirement age and has been kept operational with repeated upgrades and service life extensions.


Failures due to old system components increase with ageing of aircrafts. However, as system components have a longer life potential than the life of a certified aircraft, service life extension programmes are carried out to maximise the use of the equipment.


A Russian designed supersonic jet fighter, the MiG-21 is what Maruti Suzuki is to Indian automobile industry. MiG-21s have been the most accident-prone of all IAF fighter jets, thus earning the names "flying coffin" or the "widow maker”.


In 1964, the MiG-21 became the first supersonic fighter jet to be inducted by the IAF. But limited numbers and lack of pilot training led to it playing a limited role in the 1965 war between Indi and Pakistan.


Later, the IAF gained experience in operation and ordered for more fighter jets, which cost roughly 25.1 million US Dollars. India is one of the largest operator of MiG-21s.


Today, 113 MiG-21s are known to be operational in the IAF. And since 1963, more than 1,200 MiG fighters have been introduced into the IAF.


On December 11, 2013, India's second generation supersonic jet fighter, MiG-21FL was decommissioned after being in service for 50 years.


Thirty one fighter squadrons are currently operational in the IAF according to this Lok Sabha response by the ministry on January 1, 2019. In the past six months, two MiG fighters of the IAF have crashed with one casualty on November 28, 2018. With another MiG-21 crashing last week, this takes the number to three.


India needs around 42 squadrons of 18 fighter jets, i.e., 756 aircrafts. But with old MiG-21, used first in the 1960s, due to retire soon, “it could end up with only 22 squadrons by 2032.”


Chart 1


The IAF's fighter fleet strength in 2012 stood at 34 squadrons. According to the force's calculations, the number will further dip to 31 in the coming years and it would not reach the desired levels of 42 squadrons before 2027.


History of IAF Aircraft Crashes


Around 14 MiG-21s have crashed between 2010 and 2013. During 2015-2018 there were a total of 24 IAF aircraft accidents leading to the death toll of 39.


Chart 2
In terms of the human costs of these crashes, since 1970 more than 170 Indian pilots and 40 civilians have been killed in different air crashes that involved fighter jets used for combal roles and training purpose. Most of these crashes and human deaths have been attributed to the MiG-21 jets, the highest among all other IAF fighter jets.


From 1963-2015 the MiG-21 has had a total of 210 accidents. Of these, a maximum of 16 accidents took place in 1999, according to the Bharat Rakshak, a database that gathers information on the Indian Armed Forces.


Chart 3


A 2012 India Today report states that MiG aircraft crashes led to the loss of lives of 171 pilots, 39 civilians and eight persons from other services. The reported further mentioned that the cause of accidents to be both due to human errors and technical deficits.


Chart 4


According to Rajya Sabha, over the past 40 years, India had lost more than half of its MiG combat fleet of 872 aircraft. Over half of the 840 aircrafts that were lost of crashes were built between 1966 and 1984. "482 MiG aircraft accidents took place till April 19, 2012,” said defence minister A.K. Antony.


Nearly an average of 12 accidents per year took place between 1971 and 2012. These aircrafts were to retire by mid 1980s but were upgraded to Bison standard, a modern fighter jet with a powerful multi-mode radar, better avionics and communications systems.


According to the December 2018 Lok Sabha response by Dr. Subhash Bhamre, Minister of State in the Ministry of Defence, the defence expenditure (gross) for the year 2018-2019 was Rs. 3,17,336 crore, lowest since 2015-2016 (Rs. 3,27,096). It remains the highest in 2017-2018 (Rs. 4,17,242 crore) followed by Rs.3,89,614 crore in 2016-2017.


Talking about the frequent crashes of MiGs, Rahul Bedi, a distinguished journalist known for his writing on India's military and strategic affairs, pointed towards the Air Force and their explanation on why the MiGs are still used in combat roles, irrespective of their technical flaws.


“Air Force needs to answer because the MiGs date back to the 60s,” Bedi told News18.com.


Bedi, while talking about Wing Commander Abhinandan, said that in the face-off between the MiG-21 and F-16 flown by Pakistan Air Force, it's quite impressive that a MiG-21 was able to knock out an F-16. He, however, attributed this to Wing Commander Abhinandan’s expertise.


“He [Wing Commander Abhinandan] was a very skilled pilot because his radar locked on the F-16 and he fired his missile. He was a more skillful pilot than the one in the F-16,” Bedi explained.


MiG-21 can pull out an ambush style of attack which gives a maximum speed of 1,350 mph. This makes it a particularly difficult aircraft to manoeuvre because of its high-speed landing. And, the design of the window canopy means they can't see the runway properly.

| Edited by: Ahona Sengupta
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