New Delhi: The crash of a MiG-21 Bison in the early hours of Friday, which killed Squadron Leader Abhinav Choudhary, has once again led to questions on safety that have dogged the Soviet-era aircraft for decades now.
Just this year alone, there have been three accidents involving the MiG-21 Bison, which was originally supposed to be replaced by the Tejas.
A MiG-21 Bison crashed on 17 March in Gwalior killing Group Captain Ashish Gupta, while another crashed in Rajasthan’s Suratgarh in January, when the pilot ejected safely.
The latest crash, which took place at around 2 am in Punjab’s Moga district Friday, occurred when Squadron Leader Choudhary was on his way back to his base in Suratgarh.
Accidents such as these have led to the aircraft’s safety record being called into question on a number of occasions in the past few decades.
They have also led to the MiG-21s being dubbed the ‘flying coffin’ or the ‘widow maker’.
In 2013, then Defence Minister A K Antony had said since its induction into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1963, as many as 482 MiG-21s had been involved in accidents leading to the death of 171 pilots, 39 civilians and eight personnel from other services.
But for all its dubious distinctions, there are still many in the IAF who swear by the MiG-21s and argue that the ‘flying coffin’ tag is misleading. But they do agree that it has been flown beyond its utility only to maintain squadron strength as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project got delayed.
Not a bad safety record
A number of personnel of the IAF, serving and retired, vouch for the safety record of the MiG-21s.
IAF officers point out that the current chief, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, flew the MiG-21 Bison solo after taking charge.
They also point out that his predecessor, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa (retd), also flew the MiG 21 Bison solo during his tenure as the chief.
They do, however, agree that it is high time that the aircraft is finally replaced. Not because of safety issues but because the force needs more modern aircraft.
Another argument put forward is that the MiG-21 Bison is just an upgraded aircraft with better avionics and armament than all of the other variants.
A former IAF commander, who did not wish to be identified, said: “Be it any variant, the fact is that it is a MiG-21.”
He added: “The MiG-21 Bison is an upgrade of the MiG-21bis, which was on its last leg of flying. What has improved is avionics and armament. Armament has no role in crashes. The engine remains the same. It is like taking a Ford T model car onto the roads today.”
Sources said one of the problems for MiG-21 accidents was that earlier pilots trained on subsonic Kiran trainer aircraft and then moved to a squadron of the supersonic MiG-21s.
“The move was a quantum leap for the pilots as the dynamics of the two aircraft are totally differen,” an IAF source said. “With the induction of the Hawk trainers in 2008, the transformation is now much smoother.”
The sources also said the delay in the induction of advanced jet trainers led to the MiG-21s themselves being used for training pilots between the 1980s and early 2000s.
Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), the Director General of Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), told ThePrint that earlier pilots moved from training to MiG-21s and then later to aircraft like the Mirages and others.
“Now there are multiple levels of training and it is more streamlined. The majority of the earlier accidents involved younger pilots,” he 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.”
Air Marshal Chopra (retd) referred to an article carried on his blog Air Power Asia, which was written by Dr Shiv Sastry, an aviation enthusiast.
It was a study of all peacetime attrition of Indian fighters before the Mirages were inducted in the 1980s. Sastry has asserted that the MiG-21 has a better safety record than all others.
“Most often, neither the public nor the media knew the difference between MiG-21, 23 or 27,” he has written. “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.”
Aircraft accidents since 2016
According to the database of Bharat-Rakshak.com, an aviation website that works closely with the IAF, there have been 57 aviation accidents in the last five years (2016 till today) involving all arms of the military — IAF, Navy, Army and Coast Guard.
Of these, only six involved the MiG-21 Bison. This includes the one one flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman and was shot down by Pakistan in 2019, besides the three this year.
If other variants of the MiG-21s are included, the figure rises to 11.
In 2016, there were 11 aviation accidents of the IAF but none included the MiG-21 Bison. However, a MiG-21 M and a MiG-21 UM crashed that year.
A MiG-21 aircraft overshot the runway and was badly damaged that year.
The year 2017 witnessed nine accidents, again none of which was that of the MiG-21 Bison. The IAF aircraft involved were two Su30 MKI, one MiG-23 UM, two Mi 17 choppers and two Kiran trainers.
In 2018, of the 16 accidents, 12 were of the IAF. Among the 12, one MiG-21 Bison and a MiG-21 trainer aircraft crashed that year.
The rest included three Jaguar aircraft, one Su 30 MKI, one MiG-27 UPG, besides one each of Kiran and Hawk aircraft.
Two MiG-21 Bison aircraft crashed in 2019, including that of Wing Commander Varthaman, in a year that saw IAF suffer 14 aviation accidents.
There was also a MiG-21 U that crashed besides two MiG-27 UPG, two Hawks, one Su 30 MKI and the Mi 17 V5 helicopter, which was shot down in friendly fire.
No MiG-21 Bisons crashed in 2020 in which there were four accidents. One of the crashed involved a MiG-29 UPG.
A source, however, pointed out that the 11 crashes in the last five years involving MiG-21 variants comes at a time when they are being flown much less than earlier. Just the Bisons remain with the IAF as the other variants have been phased out over the last few years.
‘Has outlived utility’
A section of the IAF believes that more than safety, the Russian aircraft has outlived its utility and should have been phased out in the 1980s.
“The aircraft was designed in the 1950s and should have served maximum until the 1980s,” an IAF source said. “The Soviet Union, which made these fighters, retired them somewhere around 1985. The Russians took a MiG-21 from us to put them in their museum. That is how vintage these aircraft are.”
The former IAF commander quoted above said, “If these aircraft were not flying coffins, then they are flying coffins now. This aircraft is still flying because of the delay of the LCA programme and inability to go ahead with the larger acquisition. The accident rate is too high”.
Incidentally, in 2003 when the MiG-21s first earned ‘flying coffin’, the then Defence Minister George Fernandes took a 25-minute sortie to counter “attempts to degrade these fighters and I want to dispel apprehensions about its safety”.
Popular culture further besmirched the aircraft’s reputation. The 2006 Aamir Khan blockbuster Rang De Basanti revolves around an IAF pilot losing his life in a MiG-21 crash.
A Soviet-era aircraft
The MiG-21 (Mikoyan-Gurevich), whose NATO reporting name is ‘Fishbed’, was designed as supersonic jet interceptor aircraft by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau (OKB) of the erstwhile Soviet Union.
The aircraft, which made its maiden flight on 16 June 1955, holds the record of being the most produced supersonic jet in aviation history.
The MiG-21 has had a long production run from 1959 to 1985 and underwent updates and modification thereafter in many countries including India.
The first single-engine MiG-21 aircraft came into the air force in 1963 and since then a total of 874 of them have been inducted, including various variants.
The Soviet-origin supersonic fighters had become the mainstay of the Air Force over the years, because of sheer numbers, even as they force more modern aircraft like the Mirages and the others.
The aircraft first underwent an upgrade in the 1970s and the variant was known as the MiG-21 Bis.
With the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas, nowhere in the horizon, the IAF decided to upgrade 125 of the MiG-21 Bis to MiG-21 Bison in 2000, despite a spate of crashes in the 1990s that claimed lives of many pilots.
The MiG-21 Bisons are expected to be out of service completely by 2024.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)