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'Don't ask pilots to fly MiG-21s, it's a threat to their lives'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
Last updated on: March 05, 2019 13:59 IST
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'Till date there have been 482 accidents on account of failure of this aircraft and 171 IAF pilots have lost their lives.'

Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman ejected in time from his MiG-21 Bison aircraft on February 27 after it was hit by Pakistani ground fire.

But before doing so, the fighter pilot shot down a Pakistani F-16 with his MiG-21 Bison, a 56-year-old aircraft.

Now, a public interest litigation has been filed with the Mumbai high court by advocate Shehzad Naqvi on behalf of an NGO, seeking directions to the Government of India to phase out the MiG-21s.

The NGO that filed the petition wishes to be anonymous and Naqvi spoke on its behalf.

"The MiG 21 was inducted in the Indian Air Force in 1963 after the India-China war. We imported around 1,000 MiG-21s from Russia (the erstwhile Soviet Union). The MiG-21 has lasted almost 60 years in the IAF," Naqvi tells's Syed Firdaus Ashraf.


What is this PIL about?

This PIL is pertaining to the issues with the MiG-21, particularly about the shooting down of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman's aircraft by the Pakistanis after which he landed in Pakistan occupied Kashmir.

The issue here is that the MiG-21 was inducted into the IAF in 1963. It is a 56-year-old craft. In military circles, it is known as 'widow maker' aircraft or a 'flying coffin'.

Till date there have been 482 accidents on account of failure of this aircraft and 171 IAF pilots have lost their lives.


(Interrupts) Wing Commander Varthaman was able to shoot down an F-16 only because of his ability and skills.

There are many people who are saying that an MiG-21 was able to shoot down an F-16, but we have informed the court that it was only because of Wing Commander Varthaman's ability as a pilot that he could do it.

What we are saying is that the MiG-21 is an outdated plane and should not be used in forward areas or war zones.

In the current scenario, a war can take place between India and Pakistan any time.

We told the court that MiG-21s should not be deployed (in such situations) and should be retired.

We are not saying retire it immediately, but are asking the ministry of defence to come up with a policy whereby they tell us in how much time they will phase out the MiG-21s.

And we are not asking them to induct the Rafale -- they can induct the Tejas which is an indigenous aircraft.

The government can increase production of the Tejas. You do not need the Rafale or any Western counterpart aircraft to replace the MiG-21s.

We already have local aircraft which are under construction by HAL (the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited).

At least, don't deploy MiG-21s in war zones and use them only as a back-up.

Let your squadrons strengthen and you can replace it over a period of time.

Don't ask pilots to fly MiG-21s because it is a threat to their lives.

Article 21 of the Constitution, which grants the Right to Life, also includes the right to work in a healthy and safe environment.

MiG-21 is not at all safe. It has lived its life of 56 years.

An old horse can graze, but you cannot expect it to compete on a racing track.

How many MiG-21s are operational in the IAF?

I am not sure, but I think it is around 200. And all these are 56 years old.

When were they inducted into the IAF?

They were inducted in 1963. At that time it was a state of the art aircraft provided to India by the then Soviet Union (now Russia).

It was an outstanding fighter plane in that period, but now things have changed.

Modern battles are played on a different turf altogether.

You have fourth and fifth generation fighter planes now. MiG-21 is a second generation plane.

These second generation planes were manufactured between the 1950s and 1960s.

The contemporary generation today is fourth generation, which includes the Sukhoi and Mirage 2000.

And when you already have advanced planes, why are you making pilots risk their lives by flying these outdated machines?

Earlier, there was a demand to phase out the MiG-21s. Why has no government phased them out?

The government's argument is that if they phase out the MiG-21s, then our (IAF) squadron strength will drastically decrease.

What we are saying in the petition is that do not phase them out immediately, but at least in the shortest possible time, come out with a proposal that gives a timeline by when you will phase out the MiG-21s.

And till that time, we are requesting the government not to deploy the MiG-21s in a war zone.

When Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was arrested, the entire nation was in grief. We do not want that kind of scenario again.

If (Wing Commander) Abhinandan were flying a modern aircraft, then in all likelihood he would have landed safely back at the air base after shooting down the Pakistani F-16.

IMAGE: Minister of State for Defence Subhash Rao Bhamre with Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman at the Army Hospital Research And Referral in New Delhi. Photograph: ANI

If he weren't flying an MiG-21, what could have happened?

Wing Commander Abhinandan was flying an interceptor aircraft, which means his aircraft was carrying only air-to-air weaponry.

It was not carrying any air-to-surface weapon.

If you are not carrying air-to-surface weapons and you are locked on by a ground-based missile system, you don't have any counter measures.

If he was flying a more advanced plane, would his aircraft not have been hit by ground fire?

Yes, that's right.

So you are saying the IAF should not have sent Wing Commander Abhinandan in an MiG-21?

We are not blaming the air force in particular. We are only saying that the ministry of defence knows the factual aspect that the MiG-21 is outdated.

We are not blaming any particular party like the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) or Congress or any government. Successive governments have failed to address this issue.

The only answer they come up with is that they will induct new jets and retire the MiG-21s.

Our counter argument is that we already have sufficient number of modern aircraft which we can be used in war zones.

You should use latest generation aircraft where pilots can perform to the best of their abilities.

The late Flight Lieutenant Abhijit Gadgil's mother Mrs Kavita Gadgil was fighting this case earlier, but she did not succeed.

It is not (only) about her case, there are other cases too where pilots have been injured flying a MiG-21.

They too have sued the ministry of defence.

Any statistics on how many IAF pilots have been injured in MiG-21 mishaps?

As per a (media) briefing of (then defence minister) A K Antony in 2010, 482 MiGs were lost on account of accidents.

It resulted in the loss of 171 pilots and other civilians too.

What we are saying is that we already have Tejas which HAL is manufacturing.

If the Union government helps HAL financially and provides all the required material, then the production of the Tejas will increase.

The Tejas is very good to replace the MiG-21s. You do not need F-16s or Rafales or Mirages to replace MiG-21s.

We have the domestic capacity to produce modern aircraft like the Tejas and, therefore, this government has to be more focused on this issue.

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf /