From 1963 to 2022: The long history of the Indian Air Force’s MiG-21 and its many crashes

On Thursday night, two Indian Air Force pilots were killed when their twin-seater MiG-21 trainer aircraft crashed during a training sortie ...

On Thursday night, two Indian Air Force pilots were killed when their twin-seater MiG-21 trainer aircraft crashed during a training sortie near Barmer in Rajasthan.

The accident took place around 9.10 pm when the aircraft was on a sortie from Utarlai air base.

Following the crash, Defence Minister spoke to Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari. He also expressed his sorrow and anguish over the death of the two pilots.

The Indian Air Force has stated that a Court of Inquiry has been ordered to ascertain the cause of the accident.

The accident is the latest in the long list of tragedies that the aircraft has been involved in — over 200 — since it induction into the Air Force in the early 1960s.

It also raises the question: Why does the Indian Air Force continue to use these Soviet-origin aircraft despite their poor safety record.

The MiGs long stay in the IAF

The MiG-21 is India’s longest-serving fighter plane. Designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (OKB) of the erstwhile Soviet Union, it made its maiden flight on 16 June 1955.

India got its first single-engine MiG-21 in 1963, and it progressively inducted 874 variants of the Soviet-origin supersonic fighters to bolster its combat potential.

The 1962 war with China and growing hostility from Pakistan had lent urgency to efforts to rapidly scale up India’s indifferent military capability despite its cash-strapped economy. The Soviet Union was willing to sell this fighter aircraft on extremely favourable terms and even agreed for licensed production by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

The plane has seen several updates and modifications since then.

Over the years, the MiG became the mainstay of the India Air Force and as per a News18 report of 2019, more than 1,200 MiG fighters have been introduced into the IAF.

The plane received tremendous coverage in 2019 when Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, piloting the aircraft, had shot down a F-16 fighter of Pakistan a day after India had carried out the Balakot air strikes.

‘Flying coffin, widow maker’

Although the aircraft is the backbone of the force in some ways, it also has been dubbed grim names such as the “widow-maker” or the “flying coffin” owing to the numerous crashes.

A Times of India report states that more than 400 MiG-21s have crashed since 1971-72, killing over 200 pilots and another 50 people on the ground.

The database of Bharat-Rakshak.com, an aviation website that works closely with the IAF, has clearly listed the accidents that the MiG has seen since its induction.

The first two MiG crashes took place in December 1963. In the subsequent years, the aircraft went down on numerous occasions.

In 2012, former Defence Minister AK Antony had said in Parliament that more than half of the 872 MiG aircraft purchased from Russia had crashed. Due to which, more than 200 persons, including 171 pilots, 39 civilians, and eight other services’ people, had lost their lives.

Last year, there were five crashes involving the MiG-21, resulting in the death of three pilots.

On 17 March, Group Captain Ashish Gupta was killed when his MiG-21 crashed after taking off from the Gwalior airbase. The seasoned officer was on a combat training mission, which ended in an emergency as he couldn’t eject from the aircraft on time.

Two months later, on 20 May, Squadron leader Abhinav Choudhary, (28), was killed when his MiG-21 Bison crashed after taking off from the Suratgarh airbase in Rajasthan. The aircraft was on a training sortie from Suratgarh in Rajasthan when it crashed in Langeana village in Punjab's Moga.

Later in December of last year, Wing Commander Harshit Sinha was killed when a MiG-21 plane crashed in Rajasthan's Jaisalmer during a training sortie. News agency PTI had then said that the plane had crashed in the Desert National Park area under the Sam police station.

File image of the wreckage of the Indian Air Force MiG-21 Bison fighter jet in a field after the 2021 crash in Gwalior. Group Captain Ashish Gupta lost his life in the tragic accident. PTI

Still a preferred choice?

The IAF continues to use the MiG even though the Soviet Air Force — credited with designing the aircraft — removed it from service in the year 1985. After 1985, even Bangladesh and Afghanistan removed it from service.

However, a number of personnel of the IAF, serving and retired, vouch for the safety record of the MiG-21s. IAF officers point out that former Air Chief Marshals RKS Bhadauria and BS Dhanoa flew the MiG-21 Bison solo during their tenure as chiefs.

Air Vice Marshal Sunil Nanodkar (retired), a former assistant chief of air staff, told the Hindustan Times, “Was there a choice? You have to have a certain number of fighter planes to guard your skies. The induction of multi-role fighters was delayed, only 36 Rafales came instead of the projected requirement of 126 jets, the light combat aircraft (LCA) programme is behind schedule and fighters such as Sukhoi-30 have had serviceability issues. IAF had to make do with its MiG-21 fleet.”

Another officer, Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retired), the Director General of Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), told ThePrint, “The MiG-21 Bison is an upgraded aircraft. While the aircraft has got the tag of flying coffins, the safety record of the aircraft is actually good if one compares the years in service and the flying hours.”

Dr Shiv Sastry, who has an interest in military aviation, in his blog Air Power Asia has written that the MiG-21 has a better safety record than other aircraft.

He writes, “Most often, neither the public nor the media knew the difference between MiG-21, 23 or 27. A MiG was a MiG was a MiG. Even a Mirage or An-32 was a MiG. From this grew the idea that the MiG-21 was a flying coffin, an unfair description.”

File image of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman with Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa on board a MiG 21. PTI

What next?

An IndiaSpend report said that the MiG-21 completed their retirement period in the mid-1990s. However, it is still in the skies.

Experts believe that the absence of any more fighter jets in the Indian Air Force for a long time is also one of the reasons for the accident. For a long time, with the inclusion of no new fighter jets in the Air Force, the entire weight is on the MiG-21.

IAF will induct different variants of Tejas LCA in the coming years to replace the ageing aircraft. The defence ministry in 2021 awarded a Rs 48,000-crore contract to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for 83 LCA Mk-1A jets for IAF. The first Mk-1A aircraft will be delivered to the Air Force in three years, with the rest being supplied by 2030. The deal involves the supply of 73 Mk-1A fighter jets and 10 LCA Mk-1 trainer aircraft.

Former Air Vice Marshal Sunil Nanodkar (retired) said that currently 36 Rafale have been included in the Air Force, but their number is still less compared to the requirement.

As of now, the Indian Air Force has 32 squadrons against the 42 mandated by the government to tackle a collusive threat from China and Pakistan. The number could go down to 28 squadrons by 2024-25 when all the MiG-21s are phased out.

With inputs from agencies

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India World News: From 1963 to 2022: The long history of the Indian Air Force’s MiG-21 and its many crashes
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