| The body of a crash victim being carried to a cremation ground in Ambala on Wednesday. (AFP)
New Delhi, Nov. 6: Defence minister George Fernandes has summoned the air force top brass, including commanders and maintenance engineers, to a meeting in New Delhi on Friday after a series of accidents, the latest being the Jaguar crash in Ambala yesterday in which six persons were killed.
IAF sources said the meeting will take stock of the force’s inventory and re-evaluate, “if necessary”, the maintenance procedures.
A total of 14 IAF craft have crashed so far this year, but at Air Headquarters in Delhi it has not rung alarm bells because the figure is less than the average of 20-22 recorded every year over the last half-decade. The Jaguars with the IAF have a crash rate of about one per year. This year, so far, two Jaguars have crashed.
Reports reaching here suggest a preliminary survey of the site and the events leading to the mishap have led officers to conclude that yesterday’s crash was a “freak”. The pilot, Flight Lieutenant Rehani, tried to stabilise the Jaguar immediately after take-off but the controls did not respond.
“It is almost akin to a car driver finding that the steering and gearshaft of the automobile not working even though the engine is running,” one officer said. “It was definitely not pilot error. In fact, he tried to stabilise the plane and bailed out as a last resort.”
The Jaguar, from the Ambala-based 14 squadron, went into a roll and came crashing down on two houses in Baghyal, about 5 km from the airfield. Rehani’s plane had a full-load of fuel and just after take-off would be at maximum power.
IAF sources said though Friday’s meeting had been called on an emergency basis, it was likely that it will cover familiar ground.
The Jaguar, a product of Anglo-French collaboration between British Aerospace and Dassault Breguet, is now produced under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics at its Bangalore facility. British Aerospace-Dassault Breguet continue to supply spares and expertise.
The maximum aircraft casualties of the IAF are of the MiG21s, which account for more than 50 per cent of the casualties. This year, however, at least two Jaguars have crashed. What is more, yesterday’s crash in Ambala was the second time an IAF fighter came down on a populated area. In May this year, a MiG21 crashed into a Jalandhar suburb.
IAF sources said the number of crashes, though decreasing, point to an ageing of the fleet. Over the last two decades, the new war birds in the IAF inventory are mostly the Sukhoi 30 (and the Sukhoi 30 Mki) that were inducted from the mid 1980s. In the 1970s, the IAF crash rate was an average of 40 per year, in the 1980s, 30 and in the 1990s, 25. The induction of Jaguars began in the late-1970s-early-1980s and the MiG29 and Mirage 2000s in mid 1980s. For 15 years, the only technological upgradation in terms of new aircraft has been the Sukhois.
The Jaguar is crucial to the IAF for its frontline deep penetration ground-attack role. The IAF has six squadrons (a little more than 100) of the Jaguar, the Indian version of which has been re-christened as the “Shamsher”.
In May this year, the Ambala-based 14 squadron had lost yet another Jaguar which burst into flames at take-off and Flying Officer Paliwal was killed.