Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Mig-21 not widow-maker but trusted flying companion

The man who has done 6316 sorties with the MiG-21, arguably the most by any air force pilot, says there isn't anything wrong with the aircraft many call the 'widow-maker' and 'flying coffin'. As the one-time warhorse aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF) completed 50 years in the fleet in 2013, Air Commodore (retd) SS Tyagi, the former station commander of IAF bases in Naliya and Jamnagar in Gujarat believes it is time to set the record straight. Don't blame the machine, he says. Blame the elements that the pilot has to deal with. 

Tyagi should know. He has clocked 4,003 hours of flying in the much maligned aircraft - and never crashed. 

"The MiG-21 is a very demanding aircraft," says the 70-year-old who retired from the air force in 1996. "The Russians did not design it keeping the comfort of the pilot in view. This is a machine that can help a pilot exalt his capabilities to the end of the skies. However, even a transitory lapse can be disastrous particularly during hard maneuvering." 

To fly an aircraft like this in an unfriendly aviation environment like that of India, which has mist, moisture and birds, requires a lot of effort. Also, a pilot has to be always alert not to be caught off-guard while descending since the speed while approaching land is higher in MiG-21s than other aircrafts. "There is not much visibility on offer and you have a plethora of problems to cope with, particularly bird hits that cause flame out. The maximum number of MiG-21s may have been lost due to these factors than pilot error," points out Tyagi. 

Till April 19 last year, IAF lost more than half its MiG-21s. Union defence minister AK Antony had told Rajya Sabha last year that 482 MiG-21s had been involved in accidents. As many as 171 pilots, 39 civilians and eight persons from other services were killed in these accidents. At the time, Antony had said that "both human error and technical defects" were responsible for the crashes. 

So why have so many pilots died if the MiG-21 is as safe as Tyagi claims? "In the developed world, countries don't care if they have to lose an aircraft," he reasons. "If the aircraft develops a technical snag, the pilot simply ejects. However, an Indian pilot would try to save the aircraft till the last moment. In the process, he loses vital time and that often becomes a question of life and death for him," he says. 

The ace flyer has many anecdotes from his flying days which he says point to the reliability of the MiG-21. "Once when I was at Pathankot airbase in 1978, the technical staff and pilots had a bet on flying 60 sorties in MiG-21s from 7 am to 1.30 pm without getting the aircraft serviced. The losing side was to give the winner 24 bottles of rum. The MiG-21s flew 60 sorties - we would have won the bet except that we were late by just five minutes because a bird interrupted the last sortie. However, in our eyes, the MiG-21 was still a winner. It is a tough call for an aircraft to do so many sorties without a breakdown but it survived the test." 

Today, MiG-21s make up 10 squadrons of the IAF. Once, they constituted 60 per cent of its inventory. Tyagi says that even now, it is a cost-effective option. "Compared to a Rs 500 crore Mirage, Su-30 MKI and Tejas, an upgraded MiG-21 Bison costs just about Rs 40 crore. But unfortunately, its achievements have been overshadowed by negative publicity."

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