The death of two Indian Air Force pilots in Rajasthan's Barmer during a training sortie on July 28, 2022, has yet again brought the safety of the MiG-21 aircraft in question. The crash involved the older Type 96 variant of MiG 21, a twin-seat trainer used to train young pilots posted into the squadron after finishing their basic and advanced jet training. The aircraft was on a night flying sortie from Uttarlai air base.
The Russian MiG-21s are India's longest-serving fighter jets with the first one being inducted in 1963, the year in which I joined the IAF and had an opportunity as a Fighter Controller to control these aircraft for a good thirteen years, with my two sons in the same role during the next three decades.
Every experienced fighter controller who controlled these aircraft in an air defence interception role, I can vouch, will agree that it gave immense joy to control them. This article is an attempt to correct the tarnished image of MiG-21s through mishaps blown out of proportion, ignoring how splendid and versatile a machine it has been.
Historical Background for induction of Soviet-made MiGs: In the early 60s the US was cozying up to Pakistan in a bid to take on the USSR and supplied the then much-hyped F-104 Starfighter and the strategic reconnaissance aircraft Martin RB 57. The F-104 boasted a Mach 2 capability and the RB 57 could fly above 65,000 feet. The MiG-21 matched both these parameters and proved an effective counter to both, with its phenomenal rate of acceleration and climb, acknowledged later by USAF itself.
Let me explain for better understanding; MiG-21 was designed as a high-speed, high-altitude interceptor, working with a ground control interception environment, to shoot down incoming American bombers towards the USSR mainland.
The way it was supposed to work was like this – after ground radars had identified the American bomber, a ground controller (commonly known as fighter controller), using information available about the enemy and own aircraft, would direct the MiG-21s towards the incoming bomber, placing them in a favorable position to launch their missiles and immediately get away at high speed. Even if the missile attack was not successful (the infra-red technology wasn't too advanced then), it forced the attackers to jettison their payload and abort their missions (as was frequently noticed in Vietnam).
India opted to go for the Mig-21s in 1961 leaving other western competitors. India was given all the rights to technologies and also the rights to local assembly and production. Indian Air Force went on to adapt so masterfully this short-range, high-speed, high-altitude interceptor, despite some of its limitations, for a variety of roles at medium and low altitudes. From air combat to ground attack to reconnaissance to electronic warfare, MiG-21 in IAF service has done what even the original designers had never envisaged when they had designed this aircraft.
The supersonic (above the speed of sound) era of the Indian Air Force commenced with the induction of the first six MiG-21s in April/May 1963. The IAF expanded rapidly in the Sixties and the Seventies. Since the first single-engine MiG-21 aircraft came into the air force in 1963 a total of close to 900 of them were inducted, including various variants. These Soviet-origin supersonic fighters had become the mainstay of the Air Force over the years because of sheer numbers, even while the IAF inducted more modern aircraft like the Mirages, Jaguars, and the others in the later years.
Special features of MiG-21 and accidents in IAF: Compared to other aircraft like the Gnat or Hunter jets of the time, the MiG-21 had a higher accident rate. But that is because the radically unique MiG- 21 requires a lot of flying skill, "For one, the MiG-21, considered ahead of its time, and one of the many testaments of the ingenuity and inventiveness of the Soviet defense aerospace design, was the nose intake – the retractable Automatic Moving Cone Control System.
It generates induced drags at lower speeds. Also, the engine response at lower speeds is also slower. The delta-wing aerodynamics of the aircraft had a very high landing speed of over 360 kms, another unusual feature which meant that young inexperienced pilots, after having earlier flown jets like the Toofani, Mystere, and the Hawker Hunter, required in the initial stages great skill in handling the aircraft to avoid accidents. In the early years of its induction, some of the fatal crashes have been attributed to this phenomenon.
The aircraft however had one of the best airframes, and not a single aircraft is reported to have broken up in the air. The aircraft, which made its maiden flight on 16 June 1955, holds the record of being the most produced supersonic jet in aviation history. The MiG-21 has had a long production run by the Soviets from 1959 to 1985 and underwent updates and modification thereafter in many countries including India. In India the aircraft first underwent an upgrade in the 1970s and the variant was known as the MiG-21 Bis.
With the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas nowhere in the horizon, the IAF worked out, despite a spate of crashes in the 1990s that claimed lives of many pilots, the most comprehensive upgrade on MiG-21, turning this into a formidable fighting machine. This is how the MiG-21 Bison was 'born'. IAF decided to upgrade 125 of the MiG-21 Bis to MiG-21 Bison in 2000.
Accidents of MiG-21s in training role with IAF : The delay in the induction of advanced jet trainers led to the MiG-21s themselves being used for training pilots between the 1980s and late 2000s. Pilots trained on subsonic Kiran trainer aircraft and then moved to a squadron of the supersonic MiG-21s. The move was a quantum leap for the pilots as the dynamics of the two aircraft are totally different. Young fighter pilots did not have an Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) for their Stage-III flight training for several years after having flown the HJT Kiran and the TS-11 Iskra in Stage II.
Thus, a trainee directly went from a Kiran/Iskra cockpit which had a maximum speed of 240 km an hour, to a MiG-21, whose landing speed was 366 km. Also the MiG Operational Flying Training was directly being done on the MiG itself. The British Hawk meant for the Stage-III Advanced Jet Training began arriving in India only by November 2007. With the induction of the Hawk trainers in 2008, the transformation then became much smoother.
Those who were associated with pilot training policy matters blame the "unaccountable" bureaucracy for the delay. MiG-21s in operational role: Being limited in numbers, the MiG-21s played a restricted role in the 1965 war. They, however, played a crucial role in the 1971 war giving IAF the air superiority over vital points and areas in the western theatre. In the first ever supersonic air combat in 1971, MiG-21 FL claimed a PAF F-104 Starfighter with guns alone. By the end of hostilities in this war, MiG-21s had claimed four Pakistani F-104s, two F-6s, one F-86 Sabre and a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.
The MiG-21 carried out variety of roles in East Pakistan in 1971 war – close air support to the army, interdiction, grounding the PAF by rendering the runways unusable and of course the pin-point accurate rocket attack on the Governor's house at Dhaka that proved to be a turning point in the 1971 war hastening the Pakistani surrender.
Later it was adapted for high altitude mountaintop attacks in the Kargil operations, as it provided unmatched flexibility due to its unique attributes of high agility, fast acceleration and quick turn-around. It is MiG-21 again which downed Pakistan Navy Atlantique when it violated the Indian airspace in 1999, scrambled and closely controlled by a Fighter Controller.
MiG-21s had been the mainstay of the IAF for a long time. It became famous yet again for thwarting Pakistan's aerial attack on India on February 27, 2019. It was not even the upgraded MiG-21 that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman engaged and shot down the Pakistan Air Force F-16, touted as a superior one, on this day.
The MiG-21 flown by him was later hit by an air-to-air missile fired by another PAF F-16 and he ejected. Here again the role of fighter controller was crucial in guiding Abhinandan towards the F-16.