New Delhi: The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) 51 Squadron, which operates the MiG-21 Bison fighter fleet, bowed out of service Friday. The Srinagar-based unit shot into limelight in 2019 after the deadly air duel with Pakistan Air Force’s F-16s, a day after the Balakot strike.
Known as the ‘Sword Arms’, number-plating of the 51 Squadron was done Friday. It is a process by which the IAF keeps a unit on paper, while re-posting all personnel attached to it to another squadron. The unit exists notionally till it is resurrected again with a different set of assets, role, manpower, and possibly a new location.
The decommissioned 51 Squadron has made way for the MiG 29s, the new “guardians of the Valley”, sources in the defence and security establishment told ThePrint.
Even though the ‘Sword Arms’ was raised on 1 February, 1985 under the command of Wing Commander V.K. Chawla, and has multiple distinctions, it became popular among the public because of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman.
Varthaman was posted to the 51 Squadron on 30 September 2019 when he, along with his fellow pilots, challenged a group of US-made F-16s, equipped with electronic warfare capability and latest air-to-air missiles, with their Soviet-era MiG-21 Bisons.
Despite being outclassed and outranged, the MiG-21 Bisons ensured that the Pakistani jets made a hasty retreat. In the ensuing aerial duel, Varthaman’s fighter was shot down and he was later captured by Pakistani forces and subsequently released.
38 years of existence
Raised in Chandigarh, the 51 Squadron moved to Srinagar on 1 May 1986. It was initially equipped with MiG-21 Type 76 and then with the Bisons in January 2004, which were an upgraded aircraft.
The crest of the squadron portrays muscular arms firmly grasping a sword, depicting the motto ‘Vijyaye Parakramah’ which means valour for victory.
During its 38 years of existence, the 51 Squadron has participated in multiple operations, including Operation Brasstacks in 1987, Operation Safed Sagar in 1999 during the Kargil war, and Operation Parakram.
For its contributions in the Kargil war, it was conferred with one Vayu Sena medal and three Mention-in-Dispatches. In this operation, the Squadron had flown 194 sorties, contributing to air defence for the strike fleet that consisted of the Mirages.
IAF to phase out remaining MiG-21 Bison squadrons by 2025
India has three more squadrons operating the MiG-21 fighter fleet, which will be phased out by 2025.
The MiG-21 (Mikoyan-Gurevich), whose NATO reporting name is ‘Fishbed’, was designed as a supersonic jet interceptor aircraft by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau 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. It has had a long production run, from 1959 to 1985, and underwent updates and modification in many countries, including India.
The first MiG-21 aircraft came into the IAF in 1963 and since then a total of 874 have been inducted, including various variants of it. The first upgrade was in the 1970s and this 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.