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December 21, 1999


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Flying coffins continue to take a heavy toll

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Josy Joseph in New Delhi

MiG-21 fighters, the backbone of the Indian Air Force and used extensively for training pilots, continue to fall off the sky in shockingly large numbers killing young pilots and exposing a national negligence which began almost two decades back. Authorities continue to dish out illogical explanations. Meanwhile the replacement of the vintage Russian aircraft and advanced jet trainer for training pilots is nowhere in sight.

Among those killed in MiG-21crashes are pilots who successfully bombed tiny bunkers atop the Kargil heights during Operation Vijay.

Senior Air Force officials said the IAF cannot afford to dump the ageing fighters and "we have to live with it." Of the 40 fighter squadrons of the IAF, 16 comprise MiG-21 variants. The MiG-21s are also being deployed as trainer aircraft. It is becoming clear that even the best MiG-21s which are used for training are revealing severe technical problems. The latest accident in Assam on December 16 was due to a technical snag in a trainer MiG-21.

A long history of a shocking lack of disregard for the safety of India's finest pilots by almost every authority concerned has led to the present state, documents and information available in the public domain reveal.

The IAF is already listed among organizations with a poor flying record. But the increasing number of accidents involving trainer fighters have put the IAF in a piquant situation, as it has no replacement for them. No replacement even in the immediate future: the contract for Advanced Jet Trainers is expected to be signed in a couple of months but it will be several months from now when they are finally introduced.

Of the 28 IAF aircraft that crashed this year, 13 of them were MiG-21 variants. Last year the total crashes in IAF were 18. In fact, MiG-21s, nicknamed 'flying coffins' by the Delhi media, have been exhibiting a high rate of accidents for almost 10 years now. It was in 1998, that an extensive Comptroller and Auditor General of India's audit pointed out that "the accident rate of the fighter stream, particularly MiG-21 variants continue to be high." In the first seven years of this decade, till 1997, the IAF lost 147 aircraft, and 63 pilots.

In the last one decade, while 41 per cent of the accidents were due to human error, 44 per cent were due to technical error. Senior IAF officials attribute the high rate of technical error to technical defects arising out of deficient maintenance procedure including overhaul by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The CAG audit, the only one of its kind ever carried out and available in the public domain, had noted that "the number of accidents due to technical defects showed an upward trend." In 1991-92 technical defects were responsible for only 28.21 per cent of the accidents, but it shot up to 66.67 per cent in 1996-97.

While the facilities for training pilots in IAF are far from satisfactory, "the trainee pilots had to undergo training on operational jet fighters MiG-21 in the absence of advanced jet trainers," the CAG had noted in 1998. The situation remains the same, except for the worsening of operational capability of the fighters.

The La Fontaine Committee in 1982 had discovered a noticeable correlation between the pattern of training and aircraft accidents. The committee had also pointed out that there exists a quantum jump in skill and judgement as the IAF had no suitable operational transitional trainer aircraft to fill the intervening gap before the pilots are taken to operational fighter aircraft. The government had committed in 1982 itself that it will buy Advanced Jet Trainers to replace MiG-21s and Hunter aircraft as trainers. But after almost two decades and hundreds of accidents killing several young pilots, the AJT remains a distant dream. In fact, a cruel joke.

What is now worrying the authorities is the fact that even the best of MiG-21s used for training are showing up technical problems. On December 16, a MiG-21 belonging to the Operational Flying Training Unit based at Tezpur crashed due to technical problems. The pilot escaped unhurt.

Not all pilots are so lucky. Flying Officer Pankaj Joshi returned triumphant after several successful bombing missions over the Kargil ranges. But he died recently while flying a MiG-21.

A massive contract for overhauling the 'flying coffins' was signed in March 1996 with the Russian authorities. This was to upgrade the MiG-21Bis variant, which is the latest entrant among the MiG-21s. After three years, two prototypes are the only ones upgraded, and the Rs 25,000 million upgradation too seems to stretch beyond any time limit. The two variants are supposed to complete the required amount of flying hours and return to India and to be indigenously copied at the HAL unit in Nashik.

The Defence Research and Development Organization's attempt to develop a Light Combat Aircraft which could have formed the backbone of the IAF and could have replaced MiG-21s is nowhere in sight. The government has already spent about Rs 20,000 million on the project but nothing concrete has come out of the ambitious project. The IAF has almost lost hope in getting an indigenous fighter, and government is not ready to allocate enough funds to replace the MiG-21s, whose induction began in the late 1960s.

The negligence is not total. The government has been acting on the issue: the file for acquisition of AJTs has been shuttling between the Prime Minister's Office, the Indian Air Force Headquarters and the Defence Ministry for almost 20 years now. And at least six high power committees have investigated the accidents since the early 1980s. They were: La Fontaine Committee of 1982, IG Krishna Committee of 1987, Nehra Committee of 1989, Pratap Rao Committee of 1991, Rathore Committee of 1994 and a High Power Committee about a couple of years back. Of these, both the IG Krishna and Nehra Committees dealt specifically with technical problems related MiG-21 variants.

But no concrete action is in the offing. Flying Coffins continue to drop off the air, killing budding pilots and ambitious patriots.

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