New Delhi: Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman sparked a debate after he shot down Pakistan’s sophisticated F-16 fighter jet, while flying an ageing MiG-21 Bison, but the frequent crash of the Soviet era aircraft has once again highlighted that it should soon be made to retire. 

The latest MiG-21 crash took place on Friday afternoon when the aircraft was on a routine mission. Reports suggest that after going airborne from Nal, near Rajasthan’s Bikaner, the plane suffered a bird hit and crashed. 

MiG-21s have proved their mettle on several occasions in past but public image of this vintage jet is not encouraging. India has lost over 480 MiG variants, 200 pilots and 40 others in crashes, which gave the aircraft the nickname of ‘flying coffin’. 

The production of MiG-21s ended a long time ago. Currently, 113 MiG-21s are known to be operational in the IAF. And since 1963, more than 1,200 MiG fighters have been introduced into the IAF.

Also read: MiG-21 crashes in Rajasthan's Bikaner, pilot ejects safely

Surprisingly, India has lost much lesser number of planes during wars than peacetime. India has so far lost 135 fighter jets in wars. Ministry of defence data show that a maximum of 63 planes were lost during the 1971 Bangladesh War. This was followed by 50 planes lost in the 1965 war with Pakistan and two planes during the Kargil War in 1999. No plane was damaged during the 1962 war with China.

According to Rajya Sabha data, out of the 872 MiG-21s inducted by the IAF, around 380 have crashed since 1971-72. Overall, out of the 1,050 crashes recorded by the IAF from 1970 to April 2012, over 480 were MiG variants. This amounts to an average of 12 crashes per year or one crash each month between 1971 and 2012. According to initial plans, these aircrafts were supposed to retire by the mid 1980s, but were upgraded to the Bison standard, a modern fighter jet with a powerful multi-mode radar, better avionics and communications systems.

Also read: Abhinandan Varthaman shows MiG-21 jets can take F-16s down, are no pushovers

Earlier in 2011, the IAF analysed 1,000 fighter crashes over the past several decades. It was found that 39% of all crashes could be attributed to pilot error, 39.5% to technical faults, 9% to bird hits, 1.5% to human errors on the ground and 0.6% to faults in production by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

Government data show that between 2007-2013, a total of 34 MiG aircraft of the IAF have been involved in accidents or crashes. In these accidents, six pilots and five civilians were killed.

According to a separate government record, the IAF lost 172 MiG aircraft from 1990 to 2000. A total of 76 MiG aircraft crashed from April 1, 1999 to March 31, 2004. Thirty-five pilots were killed in these accidents.

The IAF has said that the main causes of the air crashes have been technical defects, human error and bird hits.

The MiG-21s reached the end of their lifespan two decades ago and after numerous upgrades and service life extensions, India will begin phasing out the MiG-21s along with the MiG-23 and MiG-27 from 2022. The IAF plans on inducting the Tejas (manufactured by the HAL) and Rafale (manufactured by Dassault) jets in the near future to replenish its rapidly depleting fleet. The 'Made in India' light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas will be the direct replacement of the ageing MiG fleet.

Every IAF aircraft accident is thoroughly investigated by a court of inquiry (CoI) to ascertain the cause of the accident and remedial measures are taken accordingly to check their recurrence.

The IAF has taken various measures like analytical studies and quality audits of the aircraft fleets to identify vulnerable areas and institute remedial measures to reduce aircraft accidents, including the establishment of an ornithology cell for bird surveys at flying bases.

Know about the MiG-21

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 is a Supersonic Jet Fighter and Interceptor Aircraft designed in the Soviet Union. India purchased the first MiG-21 jet in 1961, and then started making the aircraft at the HAL. 

The MiG-21 is plagued with safety issues but it has remained the backbone of the IAF for the past 50 years or so. The low operational and maintenance cost has earned the MiG-21 the nickname of ‘the people’s fighter’. However, in the subsequent decades, the aircraft earned negative tags like the ‘flying coffin’ and the ‘widow maker’ for their crash record.