A MiG-21 pilot of the Indian Air Force has a 99.993 per cent chance of survival compared to 99.99 per cent of an ordinary air passenger in the United States, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy said in New Delhi on Wednesday while making a plea against crucifying the Russian fighter.
In a marathon press briefing, the air chief, who himself has logged in several hours in a MiG-21 cockpit and was one of the first Indians to fly the much-maligned fighter, made several statistical comparisons to argue that it is 'terrible' for the media to term them 'flying coffins'.
Based on IAF studies, he said there is 99.983 per cent chance of a MiG-21 landing back safely, which means India loses more planes than pilots every year.
The claims were based on the flying and accident patterns of the past five years, when MiG-21s flew 54,100 sorties per year.
In the past one decade this mainstay of the IAF has undertaken 5,53,000 sorties. There have been 98 accidents and 43 pilots have died during this period.
He also said human error and environmental factors contribute to most of the mishaps. "Technical defects did not contribute to any fatalities during the last five years except in two cases."
In one case, Squadron Leader Bundela, the man who shot down the Pakistani Atlantique aircraft in 1999, had sustained serious head injuries while ejecting. He later died. In the other case, the canopy burst after the pilot ejected.
Krishnaswamy said, "It (MiG-21s) is not falling all over and killing people."
He argued that on an average MiG-21 pilots fly two sorties a day up to 20 days a month. "As air chief I will fly the last aircraft out as long as its technical life exists."
He said since the IAF's backbone are the MiG-21s, most of the accidents would also involve these Russian fighters, which were inducted into the IAF in the mid-60s. Though there are several accidents involving trucks, the media doesn't nail the truck manufacturers, Krishnaswamy added.
The MiG-21s are neither old nor do they have high accident rates, he said, adding their role has changed from that of an interceptor to a multi-role fighter.
The US Air Force's B-52 bombers were inducted in the early 50s, but they are still flying them after several upgrades, he said, adding the IAF is also constantly engaged in upgrading and improving its training schedules.
In 2001-2002, in 52,300 sorties MiG-21s had seven Cat I accidents in which fighters were lost.
In the same period there were seven other Cat I accidents involving all other fighters, which had undertaken only 23,200 sorties, he said. So in a way the MiG-21s have a better track record than other fighters, he added.
"See the intensity of flying... But you only see MiG-21 as a coffin," The air force chief said. "We don't understand this. What else do you want us to tell you?"
He said the negative coverage has even affected the marriage prospects of young pilots who fly these single-engine fighters.
"We are angered. It is terrible. It is a weapon of war. It is a thoroughbred horse," Krishnaswamy said, adding that a high level of precision and concentration is required to fly MiGs. It cannot be operated on auto-pilot like modern day passenger jets, which even have 'charming airhostesses who can fly'.
He said the IAF is devising a strategy that involves recruiting officers from the best campuses in the country.
The air force chief said the acquisition of Advanced Jet Trainers has been delayed 'despite all our efforts'.
The IAF recently tested the L159B, a Czech AJT with US components that has now entered the fray with the British Hawk.
The entry of L159B has further delayed the AJT's acquisition, which has deeply divided the political class and angered the IAF.
There is a bitter and costly war that is delaying, with drastic results, the over $2 billion contract. The fight over the AJT contract doesn't seem to be ending even though since the AJTs acquisition process was initiated in the mid-80s, the IAF has lost over 50 of its finest fighter pilots.