An ailing fleet

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

Air Force personnel examine the wreckage of a MiG aircraft, which crashed into a tea estate in Darjeeling, killing the two officers on board. -

Air Force personnel examine the wreckage of a MiG aircraft, which crashed into a tea estate in Darjeeling, killing the two officers on board. -

The Indian Air Force is faced with a rising number of accidents involving the MiG aircraft, most of them during peace-time manoeuvres, owing to a combination of factors, including poor maintenance, lack of an advanced trainer jet and the force's inability to attract talent.

FOR over a decade, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been losing on an average nearly two aircraft every month, primarily because of human (aircrew) error and technical deficiencies. Between January 1993 and July 2003, the IAF lost 208 aircraft, mostly in peace-time manoeuvres, the latest one being a Jaguar fighter aircraft, which crashed while trying to take off from the Ambala Air Force Base. Of these aircraft, 92 were the vintage workhorses of the IAF fighter fleet - MiG-21s, which constitute 40 per cent of the fighter fleet and are used in various configurations for ground attack, air defence and training duties.

It is no coincidence that another recent mishap involved a MiG-21 variant, a twin-seater MiG-21U (Type 69 trainer), which crashed during a routine night sortie at the Srinagar AFB on July 14, killing both pilots, Wing Commander R. Rastogi and Flight Lieutenant Ganesh B. According to a MiG-21 commanding officer, the crash was almost a repeat of the accidents that killed Air Commodore Sanjiv Sahai and Wing Commander P.G. Malvi at the Jodhpur AFB in April 1993, and Wing Commander A.K. Murgai and Flight Lieutenant V.K. Shrivatsav at the Kalaikonda AFB in July 2000. In all three cases the aircraft suffered loss of power during overshoot because of the malfunctioning of the nozzle. In all the instances, the aircraft were piloted by experienced flyers. Incidentally, the Romanian Aerostar-manufactured R 13 engine, which powers the Type 69 trainer, has been overhauled by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at Koraput for more than a decade now.

The Russsians have blamed India periodically for the recurring MiG crashes; they accuse HAL and the IAF of "creating conditions for frequent crashes by buying low-quality spares, and even spares that have outlived their utility" from Ukraine and other East European countries. Initial reports indicate that the fighter that crashed in Srinagar was bought second hand four years ago from Ukraine after that country had decommissioned it. It was around 1998-99 that India began to look for alternative markets for procuring MiG aircraft, especially trainers, since the Russians, in the words of the former Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen, "had started charging (us) up to four times".

Contrary to the claims made by the Air Head Quarters (Air HQ), statistics show that accidents have been on the rise. Between January 1998 and July 2003, the IAF lost 136 aircraft as against 80 lost between 1993 and 1997. MiG-21s (the IAF has the FL, M and Bis versions) accounted for 61 of the 136 accidents, MiG-23s (BN and MF versions) for 10, the twin-engine all-weather fighter reconnaissance MiG-25R for one, MiG-27s for 13 and MiG-29s for three. Besides the loss of inventory worth upwards of Rs.1,200 crores, the accidents claimed the lives of 67 pilots and other aircrew. Also, eight deep-strike Jaguars, 10 Cheetah helicopters and seven Kiran trainers crashed during the past five years.

According to informed sources, the Category (CAT) I (when the aircraft is a complete write-off) rate in the IAF is currently just under one aircraft for every 10,000 hours of flying. As per figures released by the Comptroller and Auditor-General in June 2000, the IAF's CAT I rate for all aircraft during 1996-97 was 0.89 per 10,000 hours of flying; in the case of MiG aircraft it was 1.89.

The first information reports (FIRs) of the IAF's Directorate of Flight Safety (DFS) state that human error and technical deficiencies contribute to more than 90 per cent of all accidents. Bird strikes and human error on the ground contribute for the rest. Technical defects that result in accidents occur because of inherent problems such as inadequacies in design or induced factors such as the poor quality of manufacture/overhaul, maintenance and operation.

The IAF conducts a Court of Inquiry to pinpoint human fallibilities and technical deficiencies. The common explanation for mishaps purportedly caused by the pilot's error is "lack of Situational Awareness (S.A.), where the pilot committed a critical error resulting in the loss of the aircraft and/or the pilot". S.A. is defined as the "continuous process of successfully dividing one's attention among the many inputs of jet flying to create an accurate picture of the environment in which one is flying".

A number of Courts of Inquiry, especially at the lower echelons, have resulted in disagreements between the IAF and HAL. Points of dissent are glossed over and a compromise is hammered out. A lot of incidents involving fatal crashes are left unresolved, categorised as `pilot's error'.

The IAF has in place a system of accident investigation, but many a time it has been impossible to restructure the sequence of events with the available evidence. The MiG-21, for example, has a very rudimentary flight data recorder, and quite often the baro-speed graph sheet analysis, which provides the information, is burnt out.

Several high-powered committees like the 1997 Committee on Fighter Aircraft Accidents headed by A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, then Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister, have been set up. But they have been unable to address specific problems, and have instead made a number of general recommendations. Studies have been undertaken by the Air HQ and civilian scientists selected by the IAF to correlate data on the accidents and Air Force Selection Board (AFSB) records of pilots who were involved in them. Records maintained by the AFSB and the results of the Pilot Aptitude Battery Test (PABT), which evaluate psychomotor skills, also indicate the recommendations made by interviewing officers, group testing officers and psychologists. The studies would reveal whether a pilot did exhibit personality limitations - mental, physical or stress-related - during the selection process.

One study indicated that in most cases where cadets exhibited personality limitations at the time of assessment by the AFSB but were cleared by the assessors in a split decision under the assumption that the shortfalls would be made up during training, they have committed fatal errors. However, the study has not suggested that all cadets who cleared the AFSB process through a split decision would eventually crash.

Over the past decade, increasingly, the IAF has been in a Catch-22 situation with regard to recruitment. During 2000-01, faced with a high failure rate of applicants, the AFSB "lowered by a couple of notches" the entry-level standards, tinkered with the principles of proper validation and reliability (tests) that were to be taken on the newly installed PABT machine, and even took in candidates who scored a mere four (on a scale of one to five) in the Officer Intelligence Ratings. The AFSB has restored the standards on most counts, but the repercussions of taking in "lesser than the best" are being felt.

Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, the present Chief of the Air Staff, has initiated a process in which the IAF goes out to college campuses in order to attract the best talent. Recently, the IAF made the process of retirement more liberal - after 10 years of service in the case of non-flyers and 14 years of service for flyers. Officers up to the rank of Wing Commander or below would be cleared at the Air HQ or at the Command level itself. Another incentive being offered to pilots is the opportunity to acquire an equivalent civil licence even while serving in the IAF, to help their smooth and fast rehabilitation once they leave the force.

However, most of the young flyers who took the tests conducted by the Director-General of Civil Aviation in order to qualify for a commercial pilot's licence failed because of the mismatch between the civil syllabus and the IAF curriculum. It is unclear why the IAF is not prepared to approach the Union government to restore Rule 41 of the Aircraft Rules, 1937, the `Proof of Competency' clause of which states that "a person who is a qualified pilot from the IAF, Indian Navy or Indian Army and who produces satisfactory evidence to show that he possesses the necessary flying experience competency and standards of physical fitness as required under these rules may be exempted from all or any of the flying tests and from medical or other technical examinations a) by the Director-General in respect of the issue of private pilot, commercial pilot and glider pilot licence and b) by the Central government in respect of the issue of Senior Commercial and Airline Transport Pilot's licences."

In spite of enhanced risk allowances, the disappearance of the glamour that used to be associated with the uniform has had a deleterious effect in terms of the IAF's ability to retain talent.

Pilot error can also stem from a lack of `currency' or form. Operational pilots are required to maintain certain standards of proficiency, for which he/she takes part in tactical training exercises. A January 2002 DFS FIR cites the example of a MiG-25R crash that killed an airman working on the ground. The Court of Inquiry found that while landing the pilot had violated the safety operating procedures of a precision approach and allowed "the situation to transgress his own and the aircraft's limitations, thus denying himself the possibility of a safe go-around". The FIR further stated that "the pilot had a break in flying. Under the prevailing visibility conditions, a better state of currency, especially in instrument recovery, was desirable".

The IAF has been constantly reviewing and updating its training procedures, putting in place stricter norms during each stage of training and filtering out those who do not have the capability to be fighter pilots. But, unfortunately, the IAF does not pay enough attention to simulators, which are part of standard operating/training procedures of top-notch air forces. By not coupling simulation and flying, the IAF is frittering away air plane hours. The philosophy behind the use of simulators, which are basically training aids on the ground, is simple, and stems from the need to derive, in air force parlance, maximum `bang per buck' or `juice per hour of flying'.

Even two of the IAF's premier training establishments - the Air Force Academy (Hyderabad) and the MiG Operational Flying Training Unit (Tezpur) - do not have state-of-the-art simulators. While the Academy has the defunct Kiran simulator (Vax 11/780 system interface), which was installed in 1987, Tezpur only has the MKTS4, a first-generation simulator.

The lack of credible trainer aircraft has compounded the problem of aircrew error. For fighter pilots, the big test is the quantum jump from the Kirans and the Iskaras to the supersonic MiG-21s. The lack of a trans-sonic aircraft, an Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT), in the IAF means that fighter pilots move straight from the sub-sonic Kirans/Iskaras to MiG-21s. While the Kirans have a take-off speed of around 180 kilometres per hour (kph) and a maximum speed of 720 kph, the take-off speed of a MiG-21 is 350 kph; and its cruising speed 780 kph. Most crucially, while the Kiran has a landing speed of just 170 kph, the landing speed of a MiG-21 is almost double that.

The use of the MiG-21 in an AJT-type role has been neither optimal nor cost-effective. Using the aircraft for training has also meant that its utilisation is 50 to 100 per cent more than in operational flying. To tide over the consequent shortage, India bought every MiG-21 trainer (two-seater version) aircraft that was available in the East European markets. A squadron commander confessed, "We have become a sponge for MiG-21 trainers, so much so that today in a squadron there are more two-seaters than single-seaters." For spares, India has been forced to cannibalise old parts of MiG-21s.

Given these realities, questions over the continued use of MiG-21 are real and justified. Has it outlived its utility? Does it have to be progressively decommissioned? The MiG-21 is being phased out, but only when an aircraft reaches the end of its technical life. It cannot be done earlier given the financial burden and because the aircraft that will replace it, the indigenously designed and built Tejas, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), will not be ready for squadron service at least until 2008. Even if production got under way by 2006, it would take HAL another 16 years to fulfil the IAF's demand for 200 LCAs.

Built in prodigious numbers, the small, agile and dependable MiG-21 is not known for its range, target acquisition, navigational aids, radar or hauling capabilities. But it is a `pilot's plane', with much depending on the pilot, his training and experience. And though it is a highly demanding aircraft, it is docile and has practically no aerodynamic vices. Explained Wing Commander (retd) K.S. Suresh, who has himself commanded a MiG-21 squadron: "The docility of the aircraft not only generates confidence but also encourages forays into exceeding the limits of the stipulated flying envelope. At high angles of attack, the induced drag increases sharply and unless the angle is quickly reduced the aircraft develops a high rate of descent which can't be arrested with the power available. Since there is no severe shudder, wind or rocking, etc., from the aircraft, pilots are not able to recognise the danger and take recovery or eject." It also stalls with its nose up, giving the feeling of climbing when it is actually losing height - a fact that can be disconcerting to an inexperienced pilot.

India started procuring MiG-21s from the erstwhile Soviet Union's MiG-MAPO after the Chinese attack of 1962. Today, the IAF has over 300 MiG-21s (16 operational squadrons) - MiG-21 FLs (interceptors, inducted into the IAF between 1996 and 1970), which are nearing the end of their lives and whose squadrons are being number-plated, MiG-21Ms (ground attack planes, inducted during 1970-73) and the MiG-21 Bis variant (multi-role, inducted between 1977 and 1985). Although the MiG-21 has evolved since its early days and upgrades - such as the $626-million contract that India signed with Russia in March 1996 to upgrade 125 MiG-21 Bis fighters - are being pursued, they are fast ceasing to be state-of-the-art. The MiG-21 Bis upgrade programme (the plane will be called MiG-21 Bison after upgradation) is limping along, after suffering two crashes - one in September 2002 and the other in April 2003. So far eight aircraft have been upgraded, but optimists aver that it would take at least four years before HAL is able to upgrade 125 MiG-21 Bis fighters, which are expected to stay in squadron service until 2015.

In a pioneering bid to minimise logistic and bureaucratic problems, the IAF chief decided to base the squadron that will get the first upgrades at Ozar, where they are being manufactured by HAL. This will ensure that the IAF only accepts aircraft that it is fully satisfied with.

Many senior IAF officers are highly critical of HAL's role. According to them, if the performance of fighter aircraft that arrived in India in a completely knocked down condition is compared with the record of planes manufactured under licence by HAL, the latter would appear in poor light. A case in point is the MiG-21 Bis, which has been grounded at least thrice, because of poor manufacturing standards. They feel that if accidents are to be brought down, the design philosophy of the MiG-21 must be respected; the aircraft manufactured/overhauled as per technical specifications; and operated and maintained as per instructions.

The operating environment, chiefly bird strikes, has also caused accidents. The IAF has no control over the human inhabitants in the funnel zones of key airbases. While fighter flying was stopped at the AFB in Hindon (Delhi) for this reason, airbases such as Ambala, Agra and Bareilly have become unsafe for flying but are not being given up because of their strategic locations.

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