The Indian Air Force (IAF) reported yet another crash involving a MiG-21 Bison aircraft on Friday near the western sector in Punjab. The pilot, Squadron Leader Abhinav Choudhary, who had reportedly ejected, could not survive the crash, a statement from the IAF said.
The IAF has ordered a Court of Inquiry into the accident.
According to officials, the Soviet-era aircraft had taken off from Suratgarh in Rajasthan for Jagraon (in Ludhiana) for night training purposes. The aircraft was returning to Suratgarh when it crashed in Moga on the way back.
The body of Squadron leader Abhinav Chaudhary was found 2 km away from the crash spot after a search extending 4 hours. The authorities spotted the open parachute some distance away and an SOS was also sent from the pilot’s device who had died by then, the IAF said in a statement.
This was the third MiG-21 Bison crash this year. The first incident occurring in January had also taken place near Suratgarh, then the second MiG-21 crashed when Group Captain Ashish Gupta took off from the Gwalior airbase and was killed.
India has been unable to retire the old Soviet-origin MiG-21s, the first supersonic fighters inducted in 1963, due to a tremendous delay in the induction of newer and more advanced aircraft supposed to replace the obsolete fighter fleet.
The delay in the induction of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) has forced the IAF to continue to operate four MiG-21 `Bison’ squadrons. Under a new deal signed in February this year for Rs 46,898 crore with HAL, IAF expects to induct 83 new Tejas jets between February 2024 and December 2028. The force already operates around 40 such fighters which have been delivered to it earlier.
India’s LCA project, approved in August 1983, was envisioned to replace the Russian MiG-21s and has dragged on for decades. The delay has meant the dwindling squadron strength of the IAF continues to worsen and operate older aircraft, which originally needs at least 42 squadrons and is only left with around 31-32.
IAF Pilots Speak On MiG-21 Jets?
Although the overall record of the MiG-21s shows they have been relatively safer to fly, there has been raging criticism lately on whether India should finally retire the vintage fleet.
“Modern aircraft such as LCA, Jaguar, and Su-30MKI are a lot easier to fly than old generation aircraft because of electronics such as Head-Up Display.
They are also safer to fly because of twin-engine safety, fly-by-wire flight controls, etc. Because of improvement in materials, the components that go into modern aircraft have a much longer life and are less prone to failure,” says the former IAF pilot Vijainder K Thakur told the EurAsian Times.
Nearly all the former fighter pilots we spoke to said there was no question of reliability when it came to the old Russian fighter. Much of the problems the IAF is facing also relates to operating and maintaining the fleets of old fighter aircraft.
“As to the MiG-21s in the IAF, there was a time when the best IAF pilots would be picked to fly the aircraft. Today, the best are likely chosen to fly fighters such as the Su-30MKIs, LCA, Rafale, and Jaguars that are more potent.”
“Spares for the MiG-21 are not easily available in the global market. QA (Quality Assurance) is an issue. QA is also an issue with locally manufactured spares. HAL is not known for its workmanship.
There was a good reason why France refused to take responsibility for local manufacture of the Rafale jets,” the veteran pilot adds.
Earlier, the feeble track record of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) had dimmed India’s plan to buy 126 Rafale jets after Dassault Aviation were not too confident with the expertise of HAL to produce an advanced jet.
Under the bid provision, 108 of the 126 aircraft are to be built by HAL, while the remaining would be supplied by Dassault Aviation directly.
During the negotiations, Dassault had refused to take responsibility for the jets that would be produced by HAL, though it will give product support. It insisted on signing separate contracts for 108 and 18 aircraft.
Meanwhile, Thakur says that the challenge with India’s flagship Make-in-India is that the IAF represents a very limited market.
“Order quantities don’t facilitate high-quality, low-cost manufacture. What is happening with the MiG-21s could eventually happen with the LCA, probably with shorter timelines since LCA Tejas spare will not be available in the global market.”
On a question, of whether it was the right time for the Indian government to end the dilemma of retiring the aging Russian jets, he said the MiG-21 squadrons represent a very limited operational capability. “Their existence in the IAF has more to do with securing turf/ establishment rather than securing the skies.”
If one looks at the percentage of yearly loss of fighter aircraft with the IAF, the MiG-21 comes at the bottom with just a .55 percent peacetime attrition rate in 58 years, with other aircraft being far above on the queue.
As reported in our earlier article, MiG-21s have been crashing at a rate of 4.67 aircraft a year (out of total strength of 872).
The MiG-21s are extremely reliable aircraft. They have rarely experienced engine problems, says another veteran IAF pilot Rajiv Tyagi. “Why would you doubt its reliability? You cannot find one MiG-21 pilot anywhere in the world who will say otherwise,” he says.
During the time of its conception, the first MiG-21 was a spectacular machine with enormous capability and performance, outpacing the best jets of the 1960s era. The aircraft continues to be flown by many air forces around the world.
Friends Remember Abhinav Choudhary
EurAsian Times spoke to many of the close friends of Abhinav who lost his life during Friday’s crash of the MiG-21 aircraft. They describe him as “the best in everything he did”, who used to top in his class.
“In class 6, he knew he wanted to become a fighter pilot and left the school in class 7 to follow his passion of joining the armed forces. He was particularly passionate about flying and never wanted to do a desk job even when he had the option to take one in the Air Force,” says Abhinav’s schooltime friend, Supriya Batra.
Belonging to Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut district, Abhinav was in his 20s and had married only last year. “I think I have lost the most inspiring person of my life and it’s not going to be the same without his bright vibrant smile,” says Supriya, adding that his family has lost their only son.
Another friend Priyesh describes him as “the brightest and the liveliest person” he has seen in his life. Abhinav was always focused on his goal to serve in the air force as a jet pilot, he says.
Abhinav’s father worked at a local builder’s office in Meerut and had left his job. He also has a sister, who is pursuing her B-Tech course, and his mother is a homemaker.
Having developed a deep passion for joining the air force as a pilot, Abhinav had enrolled for a course at the Indian Military Academy in Dehradun at a very young age. He was later trained at Air Force Academy Hyderabad and his last posting was at Pathankot base.