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September 22, 1999
IAF has one of the highest accident rates in the world
Josy Joseph in New Delhi
The staggeringly high number of crashes involving Indian Air Force planes, especially the MiG variant fighters, is due to the lack of advance jet trainers, inadequate maintenance and inefficient technical upgradation of the fighters, say senior air force officials. The air force has lost at least 20 fighters in the last nine months, most of them being MiG-2s flown by young officers just out of the Air Force Academy.
The latest crash of an IAF plane was on Sunday, when a Jaguar fighter on a routine sortie crashed at Gorakhpur.
Air force sources admitted that IAF has one of the highest accident rates in the world and that most of the ill-fated pilots - it has lost over 85 pilots in the last one decade - were very young officers. "Major reasons could be the lack of Advance Jet Trainers, and some technical troubles, especially with the MiG-21s," a senior air force officer said.
The IAF has been wanting to purchase an Advance Jet Trainer, highly sophisticated jets on which pilots can be trained in stage III, but various factors including bureaucratic delays have put the crucial project in the cold storage for over a decade now. "Ask the babus why IAF doesn't have an AJT even after 13 years of perpetual demand?" the officer said. A recent report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence had pointed out the immediate need for an AJT, while pulling up the government for delaying the purchase.
According to available information, in the last eight years the IAF has lost over 190 aircraft - majority being MiG 21 variants. Sources point out that the upgradation of the IAF's MiG-21 fleet -- of the 32 MiG squadrons, 16 are MiG 21 variants -- has not yet borne any fruit. The IAF and Russian authorities had tied up for a major technical facelift and upgradation of MiG-21s, but till date only two fighters have been upgraded.
In a statement made in March this year, Defence Minister George Fernandes said of the 37 IAF plane crashes since January 1997, 15 were due to technical defects while 12 were caused by human error. In three cases both of them were responsible. In two of these accidents, it was during training that the accident took place involving the training aircraft Kiran Mk 1A. But in nine cases it was pure human error on the part of the trained pilot that caused the accident.
On the equally high degree of technical problems, a senior official admitted that the upkeep of IAF aircraft, which is with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, could be a reason. "HAL is an external agency, and all major maintenance are done by them," the officer said. He pointed out that there is almost no research and development in this sector, "which is crucial."
Another major reason is bird hits, because of which in 1996 the IAF withdrew its fighter squadron from Hindon, near Delhi. The IAF had identified 10 of its airfields as very prone to bird hits, but the Urban Affairs ministry and other agencies concerned have done very little to date. "We have been telling all concerned about the seriousness of the matter, but very little has been done," sources said.
In 1989 a Mirage 2000 had crashed, but otherwise the two Mirage squadrons have been relatively free of accidents. Till now four Mirages have crashed, while 19 Jaguars and four MiG 29s have been destroyed in accidents. Almost the rest of the fighters that have crashed were of the MiG 21 variety.
In March this year, an AN-32 transport aircraft had crashed very close to Delhi airport killing all 18 IAF personnel inside. The transport squadrons, though made up mainly of vintage planes, have been recording a much lower accident rate.
The last independent audit of the IAF's flight safety was done in 1997, by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India where it examined the nature of 187 accidents and 2729 incidents involving IAF aircraft between April 1991 and March 1997. It had pointed out that though the "overall accidents per 10,000 flying hours have registered a decline over the period 1991-97, the accident rate of fighter stream, particularly MiG-21 variants continue to be high." The IAF lost 147 aircraft and 63 pilots during 1991-97.
The report said, "The synthetic training equipment viz flight simulators, computer based training equipment and hot shot training aid are either not operational or have not been acquired depriving the training pilots of Indian Air Force of modern training equipment. The execution measures for minimising the bird menace in and around the airfields is languishing."
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