My Fair Lady - Ode to the MiG-21

How many Indians are likely to be aware that the aviation world is intensely focused this year on celebrating the centenary of the first flight of man in a powered heavier-than-air machine? I would not like to hazard a guess; the most conservative estimate would, in all probability, be an optimist’s foolish hope. For, after all, it was but a mundane antic of two bicycle mechanics, which barely lasted 60 seconds. There was no disaster; all it did was to kick off the advent of man’s conquest of the skies. There is no opportunity now to give grotesque sobriquets to the event at Kitty Hawk.

What hope, indeed, then of an ordinary Indian knowing that the MiG-21 has completed 40 splendid years in the Indian Air Force this year? More likely, he or she will do a double take on seeing an adjective such as "splendid" associated with the MiG-21 and indignantly demand why a 40-year old hag is still consorting with 20-year old cherubic fighter-jockeys. But one would be a sure winner to bet on the average Indian rattling off MiG-21 accidents, rightly or wrongly, very confidently; he or she is being fed regularly on them by the media. They say, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder; would it be equally valid to say that ugliness lies in the ink of the tainted pen or in the utterance of the twisted tongue? Talent of great masters of words is required to right the injustice that has been heaped on the fair head of that great queen of the skies — MiG-21.

The Mach 2 (Mach 1 is speed of sound) era of the Indian Air Force commenced with the induction of the first six MiG-21s in April/May 1963.Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis flying a MiG-21M of No.35 Squadron just months prior to his retirement The US was cosying up to Pakistan at the time in the former’s bid to soften up the underbelly of the USSR and showered many military gifts on the latter. The gifts included the then much hyped Lockheed F-104 Star fighter and the strategic reconnaissance aircraft Martin RB 57. The F-104 boasted a Mach 2 capability and the RB 57 could fly above 65,000 feet. The MiG-21 matched both these parameters and proved an effective counter to both. Although the MiG-21 was designed essentially as an ultra high speed or ultra high altitude interceptor, given the constraints on acquisition of specifically designed strike aircraft of the time, it had to be adapted for strike and several other roles at medium and low altitudes. The IAF, given its professional adaptability and ingenuity, did so masterfully, albeit accepting (Hobson’s choice) some of its limitations.

The IAF expanded rapidly in the Sixties and the Seventies. At the end of the Seventies, from the initial half squadron of six aircraft, the MiG-21 fleet had grown to about 20 squadrons and more in bits and pieces — a frontline strength of 400 aircraft. And many more as backup for maintenance purpose.

A manufacturer needs nearly a three-year lead-time to commence production after a firm contractual order; initial production rate would not exceed 6-10 aircraft per year, peaking (for a total order of 100-150 ac) to not more than 15-30 units annually. So if an order is placed today for 150 replacement aircraft, it would optimistically take at least six to eight years for completion of delivery. So although the phasing out of the MiG-21 started sometime ago, it will have to continue for at least a decade more, conservatively speaking.

For the last four decades, the MiG-21 has been the backbone of India’s air defence, both during peace and war. It has kept a constant vigil, day and night; it has chased away trespassers and kept at bay many a potential intruder, shot down a Pak Navy hostile aircraft when it ignored warnings. In the 1965 Indo-Pak war, the half squadron of MiG-21s gave top-cover and manned combat air patrols to protect own offensive strike forces returning home. In 1971 it found martial glory in downing Sabres, MiG-19s and F-104s; Pak Mirage IIIs decided discretion was the better part of valour and stayed clear of our redoubtable lady. The MiG-21 carried out interdiction, close air support to the Army, grounded the PAF in East Pakistan by rendering its runways unusable; and who can forget the coup-de-grace of the MiG-21 rocket attack on the Governor’s House that brought about the Pakistani surrender in the East? It was adapted for high-altitude mountaintop attacks during operation Safed Sagar in the Kargil operations. With the AJT remaining only on the horizon like the elusive rainbow for over two decades, it has shouldered the responsibility for Stage III training of the Air Force most gamely.

MiG-21 Fact File

Total Number of MiGs that served in the IAF: approx 910

Highest Number of Squadrons of MiG-21s : 20 in the 1990s

Number of years in Service: 40 (1963-Tilldate)

Number of MiG-21s lost in Air to Air Combat : 1

Number of MiG-21s lost in mishaps: 316 (as on Aug 2003)  

The MiG-21 has taken hundreds of pilots onto her lap, taught them, challenged their skills, done their bidding, executed their tasks, brought them indescribable joys, carried them through their occasional crassness and alas, sometimes inevitably succumbed to her own frailty, or to her master’s ineptness. How many of the privileged few, who have tasted the ecstasy of the blue yonder with this trusted mate, have felt they had their Maker’s final call, but had it adjourned to another day through the blessed stubbornness of our beloved lady to protect her own?

I, for one, would like to tell my grandsons many times over of my eternal wonder why I go strong at three score and three when I should have been dust-to-dust at one score eight. Coming home to roost after a day’s aerial job done, all well and perfect for the final run-in to land, when a sudden blur of darkness, a deafening bang, a heart-stopping realisation of a bird in the engine, and then a deathly eerie silence. Engine revolutions zero, too far from the runway, too low to eject; mate becomes mother, hang on to her bosom. Desperately arrest the hurtling-down engine-less descent, manage to scrape over the brick-wall, miraculously miss the drain and then with a bone-shaking jolt down on Mother Earth. Helplessly watch the gentle maid go wild, bump... bump-bump... bump awaiting the final flash and boom to Kingdom come; can’t believe it, suddenly nothing is moving except the shaking limbs. Bone and flesh intact, the Fair Lady bruised perhaps, but still keeping her comely shape. Only a MiG-21 could have withstood this severest of ordeals and brought us through. Sceptical? Ask the rear seat jockey riding with me.

The MiG-21 is a delta wing aircraft, design-optimised, as stated earlier, for very high speed, very high altitude operations. In the ground attack role, it affords restricted forward and sideward fields of view below the horizon. Compared to optimised ground attack aircraft it makes navigation, formation-keeping gunsight handling that much more difficult. The razor-thin wing cross-section facilitates aircraft acceleration, but this also makes the aircraft fly at abnormally high angles of attack during hard manoeuvring — which brings in additional penalties, further cramped forward visibility and its entailing difficulties. If not watched closely, speed decay can be rapid and descent can set in unknowingly which cannot be discerned from the attitude of the aircraft; frequent reference to instruments becomes essential, but this conflicts with the head-out-of-cockpit requirement for combat. The approach speed for landing can be 60-80 kmph higher than other contemporary or more modern aircraft; touchdown speed is 30-50 kmph higher; approach slope for landing is steeper and the rate of descent much higher than most other aircraft. This calls for quicker reaction and offers less margin for error. At the end of a mission, the short endurance available allows little scope for waiting things out or offer the luxury of going to more sedate pastures when conditions deteriorate at base. Training, of course, is designed to manage all this and give pilots the required skills and the personality traits so essential for facing the challenges of fighter-flying. The true air-warrior thrives on challenges and tough situations. However, the continuous high demands on skills, alertness, mental resilience and the steadiness of nerve sometimes, under critical condition, over-taxes a pilot’s reserves in some of these essentials; even a transitory lapse can prove disastrous.

While today one may claim that the IAF is aware of all the possible pitfalls in flying the MiG-21, and training schedules address them with intent to prevent recurrence. Unfortunately, the known errors do occur again and again. Contrary to what the public is made to believe by the media and sometimes by the bereaved next-of-kin, IAF safety programmes study deeply the whys of human failures and constantly endeavour to find antidotes.

Aerodynamic designs, aviation engineering, avionics and aircraft instruments are advancing at an ever accelerating pace, but even the most advanced aerial platforms benefit by post-manufacturing modifications and upgradations. While most proposed modifications may be desirable, few are mandatory. Mandatory modifications may have flight safety implications and have to be implemented within specified time-frame, the desirable ones would be opted for on the basis of evaluation of benefits accrued, against costs involved, time required for implementation and life available after implementation. All the variants of the MiG-21 and their power plants have undergone several modifications. It needs to be noted that random failures do not always get diagnosed fully for a satisfactory solution to be found for the problem. It is equally true that some problems do resurface even after modifications to overcome the problem have been implemented; this phenomenon is also applicable to other aircraft. The search for finding a lasting solution at times may appear never-ending. Just as air crew are prone to errors, ground crew do also fall prey to the human error bug. There are dynamic programmes to overcome this scourge. Total success is often elusive.

Question is often asked why the MiGs feature so prominently in the mishap reporting on the IAF. The most prominent factor is of course the fast developing activism of the Indian media. What is less today than before seems more because of the prominence given to it. IAF may be losing on an average 20 aircraft annually at present, the figure was in excess of 30, sometimes touching 40, three to four decades ago. A large majority of the lay public think that all MiGs are MiG-21s. MiG is an aircraft designing and manufacturing concern. From this aviation industry house IAF has acquired five different types of aircraft: 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, all with a prefix of MiG. Except for the 27, which is a derivative of the 23, they are as different from each other as the Mirage 2000 is from the Jaguar. Put together these five MiG aircraft constitute 80 per cent of the IAF fighter strength and pile up 84 per cent of the total fighter flying. MiG-21s (there are five major variants with the IAF) make up for 48 per cent of the fighter muscle, provide 53 per cent of the flying, hour-wise, but a massive 70 per cent of the effort if calculated sortie-wise (simply stated, one outing of an aircraft i.e. take off to landing is one sortie).

The MiG-21 safety record is certainly not enviable, but an attempt has been made to explain the human and technical causative factors. Further, given our security scenario, the Armed Forces have had to maintain a constant high state of alert with a well-trained-ready-for-battle soldier, sailor and airman. The Indian fighter pilots’ operational training envelope is as tough as that for actual battle, barring the hostile bullet. This has put high demands on pilots’ skills and aircraft performance. The Indian skies are not particularly aviation-friendly. Birds jostle with aircraft for airspace (or is it the other way around?). Even good eyes (a fighter pilot’s greatest assets) are hard put to sight through the murkiness of Indian atmosphere at low and medium altitudes. Fighter operations cover great expanses of skies. One composite formation is spread over several kilometres and intruders (mock and actual) are required to be spotted at even greater distances.

Fighter pilots give a sigh of relief when the weather-man declares visibility in excess of 4 kms, for it allows unrestricted fighter flying. Four-km visibility and sighs of relief, if not cries of joy! Ha! I have flown in several countries and one can see as far as the eye would allow, sometimes one felt you could see tomorrow! It’s not that this does not occur at home, but the phenomenon is so rare (unless one flies over Ladakh) that nearly every such occasion can be recalled vividly. So what causes poor visibility a near round-the-year painful experience in India? Moisture/salt/ dust-in-suspension, industrial/ vehicular pollution, rural chullah fires or field burning for soil rejuvenation. You name the culprit, we have it. I have touched only on the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are impediments galore to safe aviation. Some solutions are simple, but others are highly complex and require interaction with and understanding of a host of agencies, not all necessarily connected with aviation.

This essay is not meant to be a defence of the indefensible (as some would like to charge, and the odd surely will) but an attempt to correct the blemished image of IAF’s safety record, in particular that of the MiG-21 which is not an untarnished viceless goddess, but a sometime erring, yet always trying lady whose enormous virtues get obliterated by the mishaps blown out of proportion.

My parting lines on the demonising of the MiG-21 are thus: Heed not the barbed taunt of "widow-maker" my lovely filly, for you are in fact a man-maker of boys. Were I to go down with you, my soul would have been tortured to have anyone call you my "flying-coffin"; but my soul would have been mercifully becalmed would that our joint epitaph proudly proclaimed: "In life you offered this pilot a seat more coveted than that of a king’s; in death you took an air-warrior to his glorious Valhalla." But I live, so I hope that I am there 10 years from now, along with your many disciples and admirers and our progeny and theirs too, to sing your praises for your half-a-century of relentless, superlative service to the nation and the Indian Air Force. Others may continue to call you vulgar names when there is a choice of prettier ones, as some that I have used, but there be many more, more appropriate, but inadequately so. One day surely you must rest your hard driven limbs, but to each one of us whom you took to your bosom, whether in service or in retirement, you will ever remain "My Fair Lady"!

This article was first published in Asian Age.  Reproduced with permission from Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis.