On Monday, a MiG-21 jet crashed into a house in a village in Rajasthan's Hanumangarh district. While the pilot bailed out, three women on the ground were killed. The incident is yet another reminder of the poor safety record of an aircraft that has been involved in more than 400 crashes in six decades since its induction into the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 1963. The MiG-21 has long earned the dubious sobriquet of “the flying coffin” even as the IAF plans to phase out the jets. Here is a look at its chequered history in India.
India’s longest-serving fighter jet, the MiG-21 was designed by the Mikoyan-Gurevich Design bureau in the former Soviet Union and made its maiden flight in 1955. The supersonic jet fighter has been flown in nearly 60 countries. India is the largest operator of the MiG-21, and has introduced more than 1,200 jet fighters since 1963.
The Sino-Indian War of 1962 and growing tension with Pakistan had compelled India to scale up its military capacity. In its deal with the Soviet Union, India was offered full transfer of technology and rights for local assembly as the MiG-21 became the IAF’s first supersonic fighter jet.
Due to limited induction and training, the MiG-21 had a restricted role in the India-Pakistan War of 1965. But positive feedback from IAF pilots resulted in India placing more orders for MiG-21 and investments in building its infrastructure and training programmes.
At present, the IAF has three MiG-21 squadrons and a total of around 50 aircraft. Last year, the IAF finalised a plan to phase out the remaining MiG-21 fighter squadrons in three years as part of the air force’s modernisation drive.
The MiG-21 has a notorious history of accidents. According to reports, the lives of more than 200 pilots and 50 civilians have been lost in these incidents. The aircraft has been plagued by safety concerns, with maintenance and quality of replacement parts viewed as mitigating factors. The first of these incidents was reported in 1963. More than half of 840 aircraft built between 1966 and 1984 were also lost to accidents.
On Monday, three civilians were killed while the pilot parachuted out with minor injuries. Last year, two pilots on board a twin-seater MiG-21 were killed when the aircraft crashed. This accident, too, was in Rajasthan. A year earlier in 2021, there were five crashes involving the MiG-21 in which three pilots were killed.
Because of its tainted record, the aircraft has been dubbed “the flying coffin” and “the widow-maker”.
The 2006 movie Rang De Basanti also made a popular culture reference to MiG-21, featuring an accident and pilot’s death and hinting at a corrupt system.
What happens next
Following the incident in Rajasthan, as per protocol a court of inquiry has been constituted. Inquiries are done to ascertain where the fault lies in case of an accident — whether it is over mechanical failure, maintenance issues, weather-related causes or the pilot’s error.
Danvir Singh, a military veteran and defence expert, points out that the Russians had designed the MiG-21 in order to intercept American surveillance aircraft. “They are basically manned missiles; their wingspan is narrow, and landing and take-off speeds are very high,” says the retired colonel. “We had no intermediate trainers initially, so our pilots had to jump into a supersonic aircraft. A majority of the accidents earlier happened because of lack of training. They’re still happening because of high speed, low manoeuvrability, and an old platform the maintenance of which has been a big issue.”
Owing to the track record of the MiG-21, he wonders why it has taken the government so long to plan its phase-out (by 2025). “It should have been replaced 20 years ago, it is long overdue,” he says, adding that a bureaucratic system has only contributed to the belated action and “the IAF was unable to impress upon the political masters the urgency to replace this aircraft”.