IAF MiG-21s AT WAR
Note: A compilation of stories combined to present a overview of the MiG-21's combat record with the Indian Air Force. This record has been consolidated & adapted from a series of articles from leading IAF personalities and researchers. Notably the articles by the late Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal (retd.), Air Marshal M.S.D. Wollen (retd.), Air Vice Marshal B.K. Bishnoi, and Mr. Pushpindar Singh Chopra. This article is not an original piece of work! - PVS Jagan Mohan.
They were the fortunate seven. Of the hundreds of pilots in the Air Force, the IAF handpicked seven pilots to fly the first MiG-21 fighters that were being acquired from Russia. The MiG-21 was the first true supersonic aircraft acquired by the IAF, in fact it was the first fighter the IAF had that could reach Mach 2. The Hunter, Mystere and Gnat could and were flying supersonic for ages, albeit only in a dive. They were not capable of flying above the supersonic barrier in level flight.
The intricacies that led to the acquiring of the MiG-21s had already been recounted. The acquisition of the Starfighter by the Pakistanis and the subsequent strained relations with China led the IAF into thinking of building a supersonic interceptor force.
The IAF short-listed the Mirage III, the F-104 Starfighter and the MiG-21 roughly in that order. The high cost of the Mirage III and the reluctance of the Americans to give the Starfighter coupled with the easy terms for the manufacture and buying the MiG-21s saw that the Russians got the order and ultimately, the IAF flew over 700 variants of the MiG-21.
The deal for the MiG-21s was signed in August 1962 and two months later, the first batch of Indian pilots numbered seven, along with fifteen engineers who were nominated to be trained as the ground support staff went to Russia in October 1962, when the Indo-China hostilities broke out.
The pilots and engineers were then headed by Wg. Cdr. Dilbagh Singh, (later Chief of Air Staff). And were posted at Lugovaya, a desolate air force base at Kazakhstan near Tashkent. The facilities given for housing the pilots was appalling.
The pilots were handpicked and besides Dilbagh Singh, consisted of well known names like Sqn. Ldr. M.S.D. Wollen, Sqn. Ldr. Mukherjee etc. among others. And all were specially qualified. There were a mix of flying instructors, pilot attack instructors or day fighter leaders, with plenty of flying hours behind them. And what they faced was a shock to them. The Russian instructors lacked the experience their pupils had and most of the pilots felt that they were below average. Its small surprise that the Russians rated all the seven pilots as excellent.
The pilots stayed back in Russia for five months doing their "training". Which included classroom instruction on the aircraft engines and systems. Flying training was scarce. Air Marshal Wollen recalls that the average training received during the five month period was "a shatteringly low 4½ hours"
The early version of the MiG-21, called MiG-21F-13 Type 74, in flight in 1964. The first aircraft had their roundels painted aft of the wings and carried the 'BC' series of numbers.
On their return from Russia these pilots formed the core group of fighter leaders of the new squadron, No.28 "The First Supersonics". The squadron was raised at Chandigarh and was equipped with six MiG-21F-13s (Type 74) aircraft. These aircraft were first shipped to Bombay by ship in January 1963 after which they were assembled and flown to Chandigarh by the pilots.
Wg. Cdr. Dilbagh Singh was the Squadron Commander and the working up of the squadron was commenced. Having a limited number of 6 aircraft for training would hardly make a contribution, but the pilots made best use of what was available. The initial MiG-21Fs had no gun, only K-13 air-to-air missiles. On the insistence of the pilots an external gun-pod was fitted. But this was limited to only the Type 74.
Training was as per the schedule till one fine day in December 1963, Sqn. Ldr. Wollen took off with Sqn. Ldr. Mukherjee on a routine training mission and a miscalculation led to a collision between the two. Both Wollen and Mukherjee ejected and the aircraft were lost. Both pilots suffered spinal injuries as a result of the ejection but recovered later. The training regimen of the squadron suffered a severe set back with the loss of the two aircraft. It had to make do with four MiGs till mid 1965.
This aircraft C520 was one of the first MiG-21FL Type 76s acquired by the IAF. These versions carried two K-13s but had no gun-pack.
Wg. Cdr. Dilbagh Singh left for a staff job in March 1965 and Sqn. Ldr. Wollen succeeded him as the Commanding Officer. About this time another MiG-21 was written off in an accident at Chandigarh AFB by Flt. Lt. Musquati. Only three of the original six MiG-21Fs survived the initial days.
In March 1965 the squadron received six MiG-21FL (Type 76) aircraft. This aircraft was more pleasant to fly than the MiG-21F because of its 'roll-stabilization system'. It was equipped with an airborne intercept radar (RIL), the first such radar in any IAF aircraft. Inwards of 20km, the pilot could locate and intercept a target, with this radar.
The 1965 War
As war clouds started brewing towards the end of August 1965, No.28 Sqn. was scheduled to move to Palam to implement night flying training. Chandigarh airfield did not possess a runway lighting system. The Squadron had no type trainers available at that time. When war broke out the day prior to the move, most of the pilots in the squadron were unsure of what their role was going to be. They had practiced set piece NATO style high altitude bomber interception but not the close combat tactics that were to see the light of the day.
A detachment of MiG-21s flew to Adampur airfield on the afternoon of 3 September 1965. Earlier that morning a PAF Sabre was shot down by Sqn. Ldr. Trevor Keelor flying a Gnat and the Gnat detachment reported the presence of Sidewinder-armed Starfighters in the area.
The next day four MiG-21FL aircraft flew from Adampur to Pathankot to fly "top cover missions" to the Mystere IV A aircraft carrying out strike and close air support missions, closely escorted by Gnats. Air Marshal M.S.D. Wollen, then Wg. Cdr., recounts his first combat experience in his own words;
This was the only significant mission flown by No.28 Sqn. in the early days of the war. The performance of the K-13s in their initial debut was disappointing to say the least. The launch condition of the MiG-21's IR missile was particularly restrictive i.e. 2 g (6º bank angle) and most unsatisfying for pilots accustomed to maneuvering at 7 g, and firing their guns whenever they were able to track & range on a target using their gyro gun-sights (manual or radar ranging).
Besides pilots wore cumbersome, first generation pressure flying suits for every flight. There is no doubt if the K-13s were not so inferior they would have succeeded in bringing down their first kills of the war. As things were, the MiG-21s would have to wait another Six Years before they would draw blood.
The second occasion when the MiG-21s had to face the Sabres was rather one-sided. It was two days later on September 6th, when the Indian Army crossed the international border on an attack on Lahore in an effort to relieve pressure off the Chamb-Jaurian Sector.
No.28 Sqn had the ignominy of getting caught on the ground at Pathankot when PAF Sabres attacked. Pathankot was home to the detachment of the Gnats, the Vampires and the Mysteres besides the MiGs and when the Sabres attacked, they were literally caught napping. Luckily the MiGs escaped collateral damage. But one of the MiGs was destroyed in the attack. No.28 got through the war with eight of the MiGs remaining.
The PAF had repeatedly claimed that they encountered MiGs in combat in quite a number of occasions including one when a lone Starfighter was intercepted by two MiGs. However no record exists of such an encounter. The PAF also claimed to have destroyed most of the MiGs in its initial raid on Pathankot. This claim was belied when the Indian Air Force displayed its eight MiGs after the war during a fly-past.
The brief encounters during the war got the IAF thinking about the MiG. It had conducted trials with the K-13 AAMs after the war and these missiles failed even under ideal launch conditions. And after a lot of trials and tests the IAF insisted on various improvements on the MiG-21FL if the fighter was to meet its operational requirements. Among the changes required were effective brakes, quality tires, provision for a gun pack and a predictor gun sight. This resulted in a twin-barreled GSh-23 23mm cannon GP-9 pack which was fitted externally to the FL. As we will see, it was a fortuitous addition to the aircraft.
The Interim Years (1966-71)
After the 65 War, India went ahead with the production of the FL variant with gusto. During 1966 - 1969 sufficient numbers of MiG-21s were acquired in a fly-away condition. Some were acquired in CKD kits and assembled by HAL . The first airframes assembled at Nasik were delivered in 1967.
The R-11 engine was manufactured at Koraput in Orissa and the electronics and the K-13 AAM were produced at Hyderabad. Production was slowly indeginised, with the first MiG manufactured from raw materials rolling off in October 1970. This aircraft had a 60% indigenous material content.
By 1971 some 100 plus aircraft were manufactured by HAL. These aircraft re-equipped some eight squadrons of the IAF. Including Nos. 1, 4, 8, 28, 29, 30, 45, 47. Most of these squadrons were either flying Mysteres or Ouragans and started re-equipping from 1965 end onwards when the first MiG-21U Mongol type trainers started arriving.
A MiG-21U in the
foreground from No. 45 Squadron at the Chandigarh Airbase in 1967. Note the Fullface
Helmet and Oxygenmask worn by the pilot. In the background are MiG-21 FLs.
The only exception being No.45 which phased out its Vampires in favour of the MiGs. Initial conversion were not without problems. Some squadrons had senior commanders have mishaps with their aircraft. In one case the Commanding Officer of No.4 Squadron who was taking his first sortie in a type trainer crashed the aircraft suffering injuries.
When war clouds gathered again in 1971, the MiGs would be on the forefront of the IAF's strike forces. Three MiG-21 squadrons were moved to the Eastern Sector. And the remaining five were based under Western Air Command (WAC).
The Liberation War (1971)
When war was declared in the preemptive raid on Indian airfields on 3rd December 1971, the IAF had about 11 squadrons of fighter bombers based in the Eastern Air Command (EAC) poised to support the army operations. It was imperative for the EAC to knock out the sole squadron of Sabres based at Tezgaon to achieve unrestricted control of the air.
No.28 First Supersonics now under the command of Wg. Cdr. B.K. Bishnoi, VrC, was based at Gauhati. No.4 Oorials Sqn under the command of Wg. Cdr. J.V. Gole shared the airbase with the First Supersonics. A happy coincidence saw to that the base commander at Gauhati was Gp. Capt. Wollen, who commanded the sole MiG-21 squadron in 1965. The last MiG-21 squadron in the sector was No.30 which was based west of Calcutta.
The first raids in East Pakistan were flown by Hunters of No.17 Sqn and these were given an escort of four MiG-21s from No.4 Sqn led by Wg. Cdr. Gole himself. It proved unnecessary, the Hunters shot down one Sabre when intercepted before the rendezvous took place. The MiGs had to return without engaging the enemy.
Wg. Cdr. B.K. Bishnoi led the first strike of No.28 on Tezgaon. On arriving at Tezgaon airfield, Bishnoi spotted a Sabre on a takeoff run and judging that he was in a difficult position to engage it, reported it to his wingman, Flt. Lt. Manner Singh who launched two K-13s. Both the missiles missed.
Bishnoi came back for a second run and attacked surface installations after failing to spot additional aircraft. Meanwhile Flt. Lt. D. Subiaya engaged a Sabre over Dacca and was chasing it. Fuel constraints forced Flt. Lt. Subiaya to disengage and his return flight was a touch and go affair. Though this was the first encounter between the Sabres and the MiGs, no blood was drawn.
Wg. Cdr. B.K. Bishnoi VrC and Bar, the Commanding Officer of the First Supersonics.
In subsequent strikes a pilot of No.4 Sqn was credited with downing a Sabre, though it remains to be confirmed by Pakistani accounts. And in another strike by No.28 Sqn in the afternoon, Wg. Cdr. Bishnoi destroyed a Twin Otter belonging to the Pakistan International Airlines, which was parked outside the terminal. Three Auster AOP aircraft were knocked out the next day by the MiGs before No.28 Sqn delivered the Coup De Grace with their runway busting sortie. The MiGs attacked Tezgaon runway in a steep glide maneuver and the resulting craters grounded the remaining Sabres for the rest of the war.
On the 14th of December, within 15 minutes of a message interception by Indian Intelligence, a strike was launched against Dhaka. Armed with tourist guide maps of the city, a precision rocket attack was made on the Government House in Dhaka where a meeting of the puppet government was in progress. The result was that the government quickly resigned thereby ending Pakistani civil administration in East Pakistan. This raid belongs to the pilots of the No.28 Squadron.
Three MiGs were lost in the Eastern Sector . Two to enemy ack-ack Fire. One MiG flown by Sqn. Ldr. Rao of No.4 was lost to non-combat reasons after he ran out of fuel after misjudging his approach to Gauhati AFB. Meanwhile it was in the western sector that the MiG-21s earned their spurs as dogfighters. Five squadrons were based in the Western Sector. No.1 Tigers under Wg. Cdr. Upkar Singh was based at Adampur, saw much abortive interceptions which did not bring the desired results.
No.29 Scorpions were posted in detachments to Uttarlai, Hindon and Sirsa. No.47 Black Archers sent a six aircraft detachment to Jamnagar. It was with the southwestern sector the MiG was to draw blood. On at least four occasions the MiGs encountered aerial combat and came out on tops. The first of these occurred on December 12th.
No. 47 sent a detachment of six MiG-21s to be based at Jamnagar at the outbreak of the war. Wg. Cdr. H.S. Gill was the commanding officer of this squadron and he had such able men like Sqn. Ldr. Vinay Kapila, VrC, a pilot who had a Sabre kill under his belt from the 1965 war, as his senior flight leader. The detachment had practiced their scrambles and attacks for months to come and they were about to be put to test.
On December 12th at around 2 p.m. in the afternoon, observation posts near Kutch reported two PAF Starfighters cross the coastline in an apparent sneak attack on Jamnagar. The early discovery of the intruders gave time for the MiG-21s to scramble. The MiGs which take about 1 minute and 45 seconds to get airborne were immediately launched and four of them were immediately put into the air.
One section was led by Flt. Lt. Bharat Bhushan Soni (C705) who had Flt. Lt. Saigal as wingman and Vinay Kapila flew the other section. It was Soni who spotted the Starfighters first. One of them flown by Wg. Cdr. Mervyn Middlecoat SJ, PAF an experienced flight instructor in the Pakistani Air Force was diving in to attack the airfields targets.
Soni on spotting the Starfighter engaged reheat and rolled into a diving turn behind the Starfighter. Meanwhile Saigal reported that the other Starfighter had aborted its attack and flew in the general direction of Pakistan.
Wg. Cdr. Mervyn H. Middlecoat SJ, a PAF Pilot, who was shot down by Flt. Lt. Bharat Bushan Soni
Meanwhile Middlecoat, on noticing the MiG coming onto the tail, broke off the attack on the airfield and rolled into a turn to shake off the MiG. Soni pulled the MiG into a tighter turn well inside his opponents and launched his K-13s. However the Starfighter deflected the missiles by using flares. At this point the Starfighter broke out of the turn and engaged reheat, skimming the surface of the Arabian Sea at low level. Soni again engaging maximum reheat closed in on the Starfighter and gave a long burst with his cannon. Flashes indicated strikes and as the Starfighter wobbled out of controlled flight, Middlecoat had ejected. The Starfighter crashed into the sea. Middlecoat came down into the sea and was never found, even though rescue vessels were sent into the Arabian Sea.
This was the first instance in which the MiG-21 met the Starfighter in combat. And in this first encounter it came out on the top. However No.47 Sqn did pay its price, Wg. Cdr. H.S. Gill, was shot down by AA Fire over Badin on December 14 while flying C705. His wingmen V. Kapila, I.J.S. Boparai and B.B. Soni could just watch in dismay as the stricken MiG plunged into a sand dune.
This unusually camouflaged MiG-21 [C992] takes off for a sortie during the 1971 War. Armed with K-13 AAMs and a 23mm cannon, MiG-21s took out six air-to-air kills during the war, losing only one MiG-21 in air-to-air combat. The IAF lost six MiG-21s on the western sector and two in the eastern sector. All but one to ack-ack fire. No.47 Sqn did not encounter anymore air combat. It was left to No.29 from Uttarlai to mop up the opposition in this sector. No.29 Sqn was sent to Uttarlai at the outbreak of the war. Based at Uttarlai were Maruts of No.10 Sqn and some Gnats which were used to air defence role. Uttarlai received a fair share of enemy attention including one particular daring raid in which a Marut was shot up while on the take off run by Starfighters. Luckily the pilot extricated himself from the burning aircraft in time. The Scorpions had to wait until the last three days of the war to draw their first blood. Mr. Pushpindar Singh narrates the details of the first encounter in this sector
On December 17th, the last day of the war, the Scorpions were to end their role in the conflict in a dramatic way. Sqn. Ldr. Iqbal Singh Bindra was airborne on the early morning CAP over Uttarlai in the Rajasthan Sesert when the ground controller alerted him about a low-lying intruder coming in from the north towards the airfield. The aircraft, was now identified as a Starfighter as it rose to 1000 feet altitude in its run to the airfield. Bindra pulled his MiG in a wide turn engaging the afterburner which bought him astern of the Starfighter.
Bindra launched his first K-13 which was evaded by the Starfighter. Bindra launched his second K-13 which overtook the Starfighter and exploded near the cockpit, due to the proximity fuse. The F-104 now wavered and appeared to go out of control. Bindra engaged reheat closed in and gave a cannon burst at a high deflection before breaking away. The F-104 now doomed, rapidly descended and crashed into some dunes and exploded some 8 km from the airfield in our territory.
Hardly as the elation over this kill died off, came another encounter. An hour after Bindra's kill, two MiGs were launched as an escort to four Maruts on a ground attack mission. The MiGs were being flown by Flt. Lt. Niraj "Kuki" Kukreja and Flt. Lt. Arun K. Datta.
On approaching Umarkot, Kukreja spotted two bogeys dead ahead and called out a warning on the R/T. Datta saw two rapidly growing dots head-on and observed a smoke trail emerge from one of the closing in dots. The Starfighter had launched a sidewinder head-on in panic. Datta engaged the afterburner and pulled up in a steep climb to 5000 feet and then half rolled onto his back.
The Starfighter had by then pulled up and passed by at amazing speed. Datta could make out it was camouflaged in the sandy desert scheme, a probable candidate from the Royal Jordanian Air Force. The Starfighter now went into a turn and tried to get behind Kukreja's MiG. Datta warned over the R/T "hard starboard, bogey behind you, 2000 meters and closing".
Kukreja who was going after the second bogey now engaged maximum afterburner and was able to maintain the distance between them. Now the first Starfighter broke off Kukreja's tail and headed for low level with Datta following him. At an low altitude of some 1600 feet, Datta closed in on the Starfighter and achieving his missile lock, launched both the K-13s. He was already switching over to his gun, incase the missiles missed when the Starfighter exploded.
The Maruts were already warned of the presence of the Starfighters and that the MiGs were engaging them. Kukreja in fact was on the tail of the second bogey. Earlier the first F-104 took a shot at Kukreja's MiG and missed. Now in the desert skies the F-104 and the MiG were flying tail chase barely 150 feet above ground. The Starfighter can outrun the MiG at this altitude using reheat. Kukreja launched his first K-13 which missed. The second K-13 exploded besides the F-104, obviously injuring the pilot. Seconds later the stricken F-104 crashed into the sand dunes witnessed by hundreds of ground troops in the area. The MiGs rejoined their Maruts and resumed regular mission profile.
The Scorpions from Uttarlai. Pilots of
No.29 Squadron who were involved in the thick of aircombat in the last days of the war.
From L to R : (Back) Flt Lt Niraj Kukreja (F-104 Kill) , Mukhi Singh, I S Bindra
(F-104 Kill) , A K Dutta (F-104 Kill) and Equipment Officer. (Front Row) Flt Lts
Dinesh Arora, Muhuri, Samar Shah (F-6 Kill) . (Pic Courtesy : Flt Lt Samar Bikram Shah's
Website Sam's Indian Air Force Down Under
Three encounters and four kills against the Starfighter established that the MiG-21FL could outclass its nearest NATO rival the F-104. The only regret the IAF had is not encountering the PAF's Mirage IIIs in one-to-one combat. The IAF was sure it would have addressed the unfair reputation the MiG suffered in the middle-east. Pakistan had admitted the loss of three pilots flying the Starfighter. They include, besides Wg. Cdr. Middlecoat, Sqn. Ldr. Amjad Khan who was shot down by AA fire at Amritsar and captured as a POW. And Flt. Lt. Changezi whose details are not known.
Indian intelligence had reported the transfer of 12 Starfighters from the Royal Jordanian Air Force's No.9 Sqn, and the Starfighters shot down by the Uttarlai-based fighters, were reported to have been from this transfer. The Jordanian Starfighters sported a sandy desert camouflage scheme while the original PAF Starfighters had an all metal scheme.
US reports mentioned the transfer of ten F-104s during the conflict from the RJAF No.9 Sqn. Four of these aircraft returned after the war, signifying either losses or transfer to the PAF. The IAF claims four of these aircraft as kills.
The IAF lost six MiGs on the western front. All but one to A-A fire. The only MiG-21 lost in air combat in the war was in the western sector. Apparently this was lost to a PAF F-86 Sabre, which knocked it down by a Sidewinder. The pilot, Flt. Lt. Tejwant Singh, ejecting to become a POW. This feat is remarkable, but not unmatched on the Indian side. The example of Sqn. Ldr. A.B. Devayya smoking out a F-104 over Sargodha in 1965 is well known.
There were at least two occasions when Gnats took out a F-104 and a Mirage III over Pathankot AFB, damaging them severely. And the MiG lost was the only one lost in air combat. Of the six MiGs that were lost during the war on the western front, five pilots got killed or became POWs with one pilot Sqn. Ldr. Denzil Keelor who ejected recovered safely.
After the war, Flt. Lt. Harish Singhji and Fg. Off. Tejwant Singh who were POWs, were repatriated. The loss of six MiGs include two MiGs lost to accidents, One due to accidental firing of a missile by a mistake in identifying Flt. Lt. A.B. Dhavle of No.1 Sqn during a night raid. This was the only tragic postscript in the excellent record of the MiGs. The other pilot was Flt. Lt. P.K. Sahu undershot the runway landing at Palam and was killed in the crash.
Since those hectic days in December 1971, the MiG-21 had once again returned back to their normal peacetime training profile. The IAF had over 800 examples serve with it over the years. And the MiG-21 seems to be on its way of becoming the only other combat aircraft besides the Canberra and the Hunter to complete 40 years of service with the Indian Air Force.
Bishnoi B.K., Air Vice Marshal (Retd.), Thunder over Dacca, VAYU 2000, January 1997.
Lal P.C., Air Chief Marshal (Retd.), My Years with the IAF, Lancer International.
Shah, Samar Bikram, Flt Lt (Retd.), Sam's Indian Air Force Down Under, on the Internet.
Pushpindar Singh, William Green and Gordon Swansborough, The Indian Air Force and its aircraft 1932-1982, Pilot Press.
Pushpindar Singh, The Indian Air Force and the MiG-21, Air Enthusiast Magazine..
Pushpindar Singh, Ravi Rikhye and Peter Steinmann, Fiza'ya: Psyche of the Pakistan Air Force. The Society for Aerospace Studies.
Wollen M.S.D., Air Marshal (retd.), The First Supersonics in 1965, Indian Aviation, November 1992.
Air Marshal (retd.) M.S.D. Wollen, Dr. Shivshankar Sastry, Pushpindar Singh Chopra and the Officers of the College of Air Warfare.
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