Russia, which buried the MiG-21 in 1985, has asked for 3 aircraft for demonstrations of vintage flying. India, which still uses it, has agreed to the gift.
New Delhi: In his prime, his squadron crew joked, Air Marshal P.K. Barbora smoked 10 cigarettes in the time it took one of his MiG-21 aircraft — with a phenomenal approach speed of 300kmph — to land.
Today, eight years after his retirement as the Vice Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal Barbora softly chuckles when he is told that India is planning to gift three MiG-21s to Russia.
“What on earth for?” is his first response.
“Oh yes,” he reflects. “They stopped production sometime in the mid-1980s. So now it makes sense.”
The Russians stopped manufacturing the MiG-21 in 1985; the Indian Air Force (IAF) still flies it as one of its frontline fighter aircraft.
In one of the greatest ironies of aviation history, the Russians have asked for, and India has agreed to gift, three MiG-21s for the price of their cartage back to Moscow.
The gift is yet to be formally announced. IAF sources said that will depend on the ministry of external affairs because “this would be a government-to-government and not an air force-to-government deal”, as an IAF official explained.
Asked if the IAF was ready to release three aircraft, the official responded: “That can be done at any time.”
The IAF still flies more than 110 different variants of the MiG-21. Russia delivered the first aircraft to India in 1964. Probably no other fighter aircraft has been produced and exported in such a large number. The F-16 Fighting Falcon of the US would be second.
“It makes sense now,” says Air Marshal Barbora (retired), “because we (India) have flown the aircraft right from the time it was first produced to what is now nearly the end of its lifecycle.”
Of the three aircraft that the IAF proposes to release for the gifting, one is a Type-75 and the other two are Type-77s.
The Type-75 MiG-21bis was more suited to the air-defence role. The MiG-21 FL ‘Trishul’ that was retired by the IAF in December 2013 was used in both air-defence and ground-attack roles.
Despite its recent history of accidents, most MiG-21 pilots swear by the versatility of the aircraft.
“There are things we could do with it that could not be imagined earlier. But it has always been limited by range and endurance,” says Barbora.
Probably only the B-52 Stratofortress has flown longer than the MiG-21. The B-52 is not a fighter jet, it is a long-range bomber.
The standard fitment in the MiG-21 has included GSh-23 23mm cannon mounted to the left of the cockpit. It is capable of firing R-3, R-13M and R-60 air-to-air missiles (AAMs).
India first used the MiG-21 in the 1965 war, when the IAF had just begun inducting the aircraft.
In the 1971 war, it was used on both fronts after the IAF first lost a few on the ground in raids by the Pakistan Air Force in Adampur, Pathankot and Bhatinda.
It was the IAF’s first supersonic fighter jet, and Barbora was among the first rookie pilots to be put into its cockpit after flying the subsonic Hunter.
“The problems of range, endurance and load carriage were always there, but third-world countries like India had to continue with this aircraft. With the improvements we carried out on the MiG-21, there were variants that we produced that were almost as good as the Mirage 2000s,” says Barbora.
At its peak, the IAF operated 300-plus MiG-21s, probably more than any other air force in the world.
In 1998, Barbora, was posted as the Indian defence attaché in Moscow to oversee, among other issues, the upgradation of most Russian (Soviet)-origin Indian platforms.
One of his tasks was to procure spares for the MiG aircraft of the IAF. But by then, the Soviet Union had collapsed, the colour revolutions were sweeping through Eastern Europe.
“I recall, once, that when we visited a MiG factory to look for spares, our escorts did not even know how to switch on the lights of the factory. They had no money. The aircraft were piled up in long queues around the boundary walls as if they were being used as a fence,” reminisces Barbora.
‘Don’t call it flying coffin’
After returning from Moscow, Barbora commanded the MiG Operational Flying Training Unit (MOFTU) in Tezpur, Assam.
“It hurt when people called the aircraft a flying-coffin or widow-maker. It is a tough aircraft for a tough environment. The heart beats like mad, the landing, the high rate of descent at 60 metres per second, the time available makes it a challenge,” he says.
Barbora, who was also the first IAF officer to fly a Sukhoi Su-30, flew his last MiG-21 sortie in December 2010, 40 years after he first flew it.
Faced with anger after a spurt in accidents, then-defence minister George Fernandes took a sortie in a MiG-21 trainer (twin-seater) from Ambala. In the air, he told his pilot, “fly it faster”.
The anger did not die despite the defence minister’s derring-do. Aamir Khan’s blockbuster Rang de Basanti stoked it further.
We still fly them
The aircraft is still flying for the IAF. It has outlived not just pilots, but also many short-lived nations. It is still flown by around 17 air forces in Africa and Asia.
But in the land of its birth, it was buried. Russia does not have a single MiG-21 that is airworthy. It has many aviation museums to commemorate its war-era flying machines that cannot fly.
So, it has turned to India. Can you please give us a few MiG-21s that can fly, it has asked. We need it for demonstrations of vintage flying.
Sure, India has responded. We still fly them to fight wars.