The Indian Air Force today blamed "a slight error of judgement" on the part of a trainee pilot and some mechanical problems for the July 14 crash of a MiG-21 trainer in Srinagar. The trainee and his instructor were killed in the crash.
Making public, probably for the first time, the findings of a court of inquiry into a fighter crash, the IAF tried to dispel the "misunderstandings among some, and the public" that it is trying to hide the reasons for the frequent MiG-21 crashes, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, chief of air force staff, said.
"There was a slight error in judgement," Air Commodore P K Barbora, who chaired the court of inquiry, said as he recounted the last 82 seconds of the ill-fated flight and his team's analysis of various aspects relating to that crucial period.
Flight Lieutenant B Ganesh was training to overshoot (fly extremely close to the ground) and then gain height again before eventually landing in the night without the assistance of electronic lights, to simulate a war situation in which all installations have been bombed out.
The plane crashed when he was trying to gain height, killing both Flt Lt Ganesh and his commanding officer, Wing Commander R Rustogi, who was in the rear seat.
The height at which Srinagar airport is located resulted in the MiG-21 engine not performing up to its peak, Air Cmde Barbora explained. In such cases, certain precautions, including a "smart way" of opening the throttle, need to be taken to counter the drop in performance. "Engine performance reduced as it was going up," the inquiry officer said.
Apparently, Flt Lt Ganesh initiated the climb before covering the required distance for overshooting. Also, the angle of the climb was a "little steeper", the air commodore said. The plane climbed up to a particular height, but then began losing height and power and crashed within the next few seconds.
At some point during the incident, the pilots tried to eject from the aircraft, but the ejection mechanism failed.
The pilot's error, the court of inquiry concluded, combined with the effect of other factors, including higher plane weight owing to more fuel in the tank, resulted in the tragedy. The extra fuel, Air Cmde Barbora said, could have been burnt off with an extra circle overhead before trying the overshoot.
The other factors that contributed to the crash were premature initiation of the climb, delayed opening of the throttle, poor engine response, and the reduced power available because of the lower performance of the fighter at that height.
Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy said he sought the government's clearance to make the findings of the court of inquiry public to allay fears of a cover-up. Usually such reports are classified.
Air Cmde Barbora admitted, however, that "it stands to reason" that if the IAF had an advanced jet trainer or a better trainer, accidents would be fewer and trainees would get a second chance to correct their errors.