Falling and flying

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

A rash of MiG-21 crashes raises new questions about the safety of the Indian Air Force's workhorse fleet of fighters, but a closer look at the data provides some solace.

THE crash of an Indian Air Force (IAF) MiG-21 fighter aircraft in Jalandhar on May 3 has once again turned the spotlight on the fleet. The jet crashed into a commercial area in the Punjab town, killing eight persons and injuring 14. The pilot, on a training sortie, bailed out.

The accident came a month after the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament gave the MiG-21 a clean chit. The report stated that the MiG-21s have a better safety record than the MiG-23s and the MiG-27s with the IAF. The MiG-21's accident rate was higher than that of the Jaguar (of which fleet one crashed in Ambala on May 9 too) and the MiG-29. Experts say that this is because they are twin-engine planes as different from the MiG-21, which is a single-engine plane. In the case of a mishap, twin-engine planes can be brought under control more easily and piloted back to base.

Sections of the media in recent years have dubbed the MiG-21 a "flying coffin". The former Chief of the Air Force Staff, Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, personally piloted a MiG-21 soon after taking over the position two years ago, seeking to dispel misconceptions about the plane. There are more than 7,000 MiG-21s currently operational around the world. Thirtyseven air forces have reported no serious problems with the aircraft.

Defence Ministry officials say that the fact of more than six accidents in quick succession involving the MiG-21s having occurred since January this year is one reason why so much attention has been focussed on the plane, reinforcing misconceptions about the aircraft in certain quarters. In the last couple of months there were three accidents in a row, creating a fear psychosis. Defence officials point out that the accident rate involving MiG-21s of the IAF has actually come down in absolute terms over the years. In the first decade of their induction in the 1960s, the rate was around 40 a year. In the 1970s and the 1980s it declined to around 30 a year. The official said that in the past five years there has been an average of around 35 accidents a year although the total number of flying hours have increased significantly.

The official, however, said that there is scope for improvement in the IAF's safety record. That was one reason why training flights involving one particular version of the MiG - Type 75 - was stopped temporarily after the May 3 accident. According to the official, rigorous tests were conducted on the planes in this category. The IAF has four variants of MiG-21s. The others are Type 66/69, Type 77 and Type 96. Earlier, there were two accidents involving Type 75. According to Defence Ministry officials, in both cases the engines had "flamed out and could not be relighted".

According to Defence Ministry officials, the IAF thought it prudent to check the entire MiG-21 fleet for any "systemic failure - whether mechanical or maintenance related". They say that there could be many reasons for accidents. "Any part or component could fail in an aircraft - hence thorough investigations were carried out." After the requisite checks, one squadron of the upgraded version of Type-75 was cleared for flying. Six more squadrons of Type-75 were undergoing tests and were expected to be cleared in the third week of May. The officials point out that only training flights were suspended and that operational flights involving MiG-21s continued.

DEFENCE Ministry officials have slammed some reports from Moscow blaming Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for the purchase of "substandard and uncertified spares" for MiG-21s that could have led to accidents. They said that spares have been ordered only from authorised Russian factories, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and HAL. There were no logistical problems in sourcing spares during the days of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). However, now many of the OEMs are in the former Soviet republics such as Ukraine and Belarus. These companies are now in competition with Russian manufacturers of MiG-21 spares. Indian officials point out that all the manufacturers, including HAL, apply the same quality standards and that none of the parts purchased were spurious or defective.

Defence Ministry officials maintain that most of the accidents involving MiG-21s are caused by technical failures or human error. "Fortyfive per cent of the accidents are owing to technical problems. The other 45 per cent are due to human error," an official said. There is also the hazard of "bird hits", accounting for around 10 per cent of the accidents that involve IAF planes. The IAF claims that it is doing its best to cope with this danger by creating a bird-free environment around airfields. This calls for the modernisation of slaughter houses, proper garbage disposal and the building of sewage systems - which are beyond the ken of the IAF and the Defence Ministry. An inter-ministerial committee on this matter set up more than 10 years ago has still to start work in earnest.

The PAC report also mentioned that "quality, maintenance and operational lapses had also contributed to a few accidents".

It noted that the MiG-21 of 1960s vintage is a highly demanding training aircraft. Experts had recommended in 1982 its use as a trainer until such time a proper Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) was inducted into the IAF. The IAF is using this MiG variant to train pilots. Most of the MiG-21s which have crashed in India are of 1960s vintage. The La Fontaine Committee which made a study of accidents and the training process had pointed out in 1982 the need for a suitable trainer aircraft. Defence Ministry officials admit that the absence of an AJT is one among many factors responsible for the spate of recent accidents.

The Ministry has admitted that the MiG-21s and Hunter aircraft used for Stage-II training were not specially designed as advanced trainers and had inherent limitations in imparting air combat and weapon delivery training. Interestingly, many air forces in the world, including the Chinese Air Force, are using the MiG-21-U, a two-seater, as a jet trainer.

Indications are that MiG-21s are going to be with the IAF for a long time. The Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, said recently that the upgraded MiG-Bi is likely to be in service for another 10 years. According to him, though the upgraded MiGs have the same core "R-25" engines, they have different ancillary systems of hydraulics, gear box and fuel pumps. The MiG-21Bis were inducted into the IAF in 1978 and 250 of these were manufactured by HAL under licence until 1987. The upgradation of 125 of these planes will be completed in three years. The MiG-21s still constitute half the combat fleet of the IAF.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has opted for the Chinese version of the MiG-21, rechristened the F-7. The Pakistan Air Force has purchased 150 F-7s from China, which has been exporting it to other Third World countries as well. The Chinese Air Force itself has more than 700 MiG-21s.

The Pakistan Air Force, instead of acquiring an expensive AJT like the Hawk, which costs $19 million apiece, has opted for a MiG-21 trainer, costing around $1.2 million. The MiG-21's advantages in terms of manoeuvrability, easy maintenance and low costs continue to make it the fighter plane of choice for air forces around the world.

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