Home / Politics / Policy /  MiG-21 FL leaves behind chequered history with IAF

Kalaikunda Airbase (West Bengal): As they leapt into the sky for the last time, pilots aboard India’s first supersonic fighter jets chose not to challenge the sound barrier. Flying in pairs, their take off, though, was deafening at 340-350km per hour.

Four Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots—each with 14-15 years of experience—revved up their MiG-21 FL, or type 77, aircraft to a peak speed of 800km an hour, but never came close to its full capability, flying in a foggy sky at a low altitude over the Kalaikunda airbase in West Bengal.

As the MiG-21 FL turned the last leaf in its chequered history on Wednesday to turn so-called gate guardians at IAF bases, the weather played truant. Visibility was worse than expected at 2km, though the headwind was manageable, the pilots said.

Had they gone faster than they did in the aircraft’s last sortie, which lasted around 30 minutes, the audience on the ground would have hardly been able to spot them coming out of the grey sky, said wing commander Manav Kumaria, who led the four-plane formation.

Notwithstanding the deafening approach, they made a blink-and-you-miss appearance, the four fighter jets visible only for a few seconds. It was quite unimpressive compared with the sorties normally seen at military air shows, and, more so, considering the haloed past of the Type 77.

Back in the day, it was the “combat backbone of the force", said Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, a former Type 77 pilot, who, too, will be retiring at the end of this month. At least 80% of IAF pilots have honed their flying skills on the Type 77, and even more—around 90%—have trained on some variant of the MiG-21 airframe, Browne said.

Inducted into the force in early 1963 at a time when Pakistan was building bridges with the US to receive Lockheed Martinfighter jets, the MiG-21 FL turned out to be the deciding factor in the 1971 India-Pakistan war that led to Bangladesh’s freedom.

Designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design Bureau in the erstwhile Soviet Union, the low endurance jet, which can fly for up to an hour only, had been adapted by the IAF to conduct ground strikes. It had, though, come into the force as an aircraft interceptor fitted with two missiles.

Its killer edge was its speed: the Type 77 can go up to 1,350km an hour.

The Type 77 “neutralized" runways in Bangladesh, and the deadly strike on the Governor House in Dhaka resulted in Pakistan’s surrender, recalls Air Commodore Suren Tyagi, a war veteran who holds a world record for spending the maximum amount of time in the Type 77’s cockpit.

Those who bid adieu to the aircraft on Wednesday said they were nostalgic about it. Debapriyo Maitra, one of the four pilots who took the Type 77 for a spin on its last day in service, said he had started missing it from a month ago, when the IAF suspended training in its cockpit.

Pilots were trained in the Type 77 only at Kalaikunda, which was also the only base currently to have a MiG-21 FL squadron. It had 15 fighter jets and five trainer aircraft, according to a spokesperson for the IAF. With the Type 77 being pulled out of training, most young pilots will now receive coaching in the Hawk, an advanced jet trainer aircraft. It is fast, but not supersonic.

The gap is too small, not one to mind, said Kumaria, who is also a trainer currently waiting to be detailed to another base.

The Type 77 was prized because it allowed the pilot to go over the cliff, which modern fighter jets with high level of automation and safety features wouldn’t permit, according to Kumaria. Pilots could experiment on this machine, which undoubtedly is also the reason why its safety record is not one to boast of and it got the billing—fairly or unfairly—“Flying Coffin".

According to unofficial estimates, the IAF has lost some 170 pilots in crashes of MiG-21 variants in the past four decades. And in the past three years, the Union government has admitted to accidents in at least 14 MiG-21 airframes—or variants of the aircraft, including the more advanced MiG-21 Bison.

The Bison, Browne said on Wednesday, will be in service for at least 10 more years, though other variants of the aircraft will be mothballed in phases.

The Type 77 is a “versatile aircraft", said Air Marshal P.S. Ahluwalia, adding that “in certain circumstances, it was difficult to handle". Variants of the aircraft, which continue to be in service, have similar problems because they use the same airframe, though upgrades such as the Type 96 and the Type 75 have better engines and avionics, according to Ahluwalia, a retired pilot.

These are inherent problems that the IAF has been trying to deal with through pilot training, Ahluwalia said. As the head of a panel dealing with accidents, he presented a five-volume report to the ministry of defence in May 2005, suggesting various measures from efficient human resource management to better spares and maintenance to deal with crashes.

Accidents continue to happen, though they have significantly reduced after the government acted on the report, he claimed. “There is no denying that flight safety improves with technology, and with the MiG-21 fighters, we are talking of a technology from the early 1960s," he added.

But on the day the Type 77 was making its last sortie, pilots would have none of the heat that the old warhorse faced from families of crash victims. “I hope it gets the same respect in retirement as it did in service," said V.R. Rakesh, another pilot and trainer, who flew the Type 77 on Wednesday.

Very likely, though, it is going to wind up in museums or left to rust in the open in IAF bases like other forgotten decommissioned planes.

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