The MiG-21s (NATO reporting name: – Fishbed), introduced with the Russian (Soviet) Air Force in 1959, have gone and served approximately 60 countries spread over 4 continents and still serve many nations (including India) for over 60 years after their maiden flight in 1954.
With 11,400+ aircraft produced so far (657 in India), it is undoubtedly the most produced supersonic jet aircraft in aviation history and the most successful cold war fighter regarding the number of operators, to say the least.
MiG-21s were inducted into the Indian Air Force in 1964, becoming the first supersonic jet to enter service with the IAF. It was chosen over several other western competitors. In return, the Soviets offered full technology transfer, rights of local assembly, and the option to pay for the jets in Rupees or exports (like potatoes, rubber slippers, etc.) which made the aircraft an extremely lucrative offer. In fact, IAF was so pleased with its performance that since its introduction, it has inducted over 1,200 MiG-21s.
The Indian Air Force had put MiG-21s to such good use during the 1971 war, that many Western military analysts believed the MiGs to have outgunned and outmaneuvered the F-104 Starfighter (operated by Pakistani air force and manufactured by the USA) and apparently “won” the much-anticipated battle.
Moreover, the success story of this aircraft was not limited to Indian skies. During the Vietnam War, the MiG-21 pilots of North Vietnam downed 14 F-104’s without any loss (data till December 1966), and from April 1965 to November 1968, over 268 air battles occurred over the skies of North Vietnam which lead to 244 downed U.S. aircraft and 85 MiGs. In fact, it was these poor air-to-air combat loss-exchange ratios against the MiGs that lead to the creation of the legendary “TOP GUNS” training academy by the US Navy.
Looking at all these facts and stats makes us wonder, WHAT REALLY WENT WRONG?
Since 1970 more than 170 Indian pilots and 40 civilians have been killed in MiG-21 accidents and over half of the 657 aircraft built in India between 1966 and 1984 were lost to crashes. Figures show that at least 14 MiG-21s have been lost to accidents between 2010 and 2013 alone.
To begin with, MiG-21 is a 2nd generation fighter aircraft and only the latter versions came close to 3rd generation standards (take into consideration that the US Air Force currently operates 5th generation of fighters) and belongs to an era where supersonic aircraft were just making wings. In fact, the MiG-21 was the first successful Soviet aircraft combining fighter and interceptor characteristics in a single plane.
But it did have some grave design faults, like the poor placement of the internal fuel tanks ahead of the center of gravity. Due to this, as the internal fuel was consumed, the center of gravity would shift rearward beyond acceptable parameters, making the plane statically unstable to the point of being uncontrollable. Additionally, when more than half the fuel had been used up, violent maneuvers prevented fuel from flowing into the engine, thereby causing it to shut down midflight.
Apart from these design faults, the MiG is a tricky aircraft to fly. The delta wing, while excellent for a fast-climbing interceptor, led any form of turning combat into a rapid loss of speed. It has a very high landing speed at about 350km/hr. (F-16 has a landing speed of 260Km/hr.) and poor visibility from the cockpit.
Are these the only reasons why a legendary fighter plane has turned into a flying coffin? Sadly, the answer is, “No.” As a matter of fact, these problems were faced by the Russian Air Force as well. But proper maintenance, pilot training, and appropriate phasing out the aircraft from its inventory saved the Russian MiGs from becoming flying coffins as well. While the Russian phased out all their MiG-21s by 1990’s, India is still using them and will continue doing so up until 2020 or till sufficient numbers of the “home grown” LCA Tejas are not available to fill the void.
The Indian MiGs are even of poor build quality, with nearly 40 percent of engines and accessories produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Koraput, being returned by the IAF for some or the other defects. We can estimate how grave the situation is.
In some cases, HAL has even lied while overhauling the engines (engine explosion due to fuel leak being one of the leading causes of pilot death, as the pilot is sitting almost on top the engine). This problem has been conspicuous since the 1990s of MiG, what with HAL saying that it had followed the overhaul manual, but the Ministry of Defense (MoD) officiAl’s arguing that the correct procedures were not being followed by HAL.
There are more shocking facts conveniently being swept under the carpet. For example, the springs installed in the fuel pump of MiG-21 engines are frequently failing. A MiG‐21 Bison aircraft that crashed in November 2012 in Gujarat was attributed to spring failure.
The situation is further exacerbated by the fact that after the fall of the Soviet Union there has been a dire shortage of spare parts and other critical components often leading to cabalism (salvaging spares from decommissioned aircraft), more often that not, resulting in unfortunate outcomes.
The Armed Forces have the motto, “it’s not the machine but the man that counts.” Unfortunately, the same callous attitude has been followed in case of our pilots as well. The IAF severely lacks critical training, infrastructure, and aircraft. The technological and performance gap between training and combat aircraft is enormous, which often becomes a cause of the accident. Many crashes have been attributed to pilot errors and the investigation reports of these used as cover-ups for the manufacturing, maintenance, and other issues that our MiGs are plagued with. While internal classified reports do suggest that the IAF has been flagging these incidents to be caused as a result of “defects during manufacturing or overhauling process,” the government response has been slow.
With such issues, one can only hope and pray for the safety of our brave pilots risking their lives for our safety and wish that such callous attitude by bureaucrats and politicians comes to an end before someone else loses their life. With several indigenous aircraft on the table for the Indian Air Force, it has now become more critical than ever that greater emphasis is laid on quality to ensure that our pilots get the very best of resources.