Baldevnagar/Chandigarh, April 7: Three women and two children were injured when an Indian Air Force MiG 21 flew into a milk plant here a little before noon today.
The plane developed a “technical snag” soon after taking off from the Ambala airbase on a training sortie and began veering to its right, forcing the pilot, Flt Lt S. Garg, to eject. The injured have been taken to hospital, where the condition of at least two is critical. Three of the injured have been identified as Roshni, Santra and Sita Devi.
This is the second crash involving MiG aircraft in four days in the region. Five persons were killed when a MiG 23 ploughed into a house near Ludhiana on Friday.
“We are looking at engine failure as the possible reason for today’s crash. The area around the milk plant is densely populated. It is a miracle that no lives have been lost as the aircraft was loaded with fuel. The damage to vehicles around the milk plant is a pointer that the crash could have led to a bigger tragedy,” said an air force officer, who was supervising relief work at the crash site.
“The plane just dropped down from nowhere,” said Rakesh Goyal, who felt lucky to be alive as he had passed the razed plant barely a minute before the crash.
Today’s crash was the third involving the airbase in less than a year. On May 8, a Jaguar had crashed into the runway fence during takeoff. On November 6, another Jaguar crashed into a nearby residential locality, killing six persons. The toll would have been higher had the aircraft ploughed into a religious congregation being held nearby.
The Ambala airbase is close to densely-populated areas and the takeoff and landing paths cross the busy highway to Chandigarh. “Both the landing and takeoff paths are very dangerous as we have to literally fly over rooftops. Sometimes, we come so low that the aircraft can be touched with a pole from terraces,” a pilot said.
Today’s incident has again focused attention on the growing urbanisation around airfields and ammunition dumps in the region and the more than normal recurrence of engine failure in MiG aircraft.
An air force officer pointed out that though Hindustan Aeronautics Limited makes most of the IAF planes, it does not have the original designs.
“HAL is given the licence to manufacture these planes and is provided with the jigs and drawings,” said the officer. “Based on them, it can make the crankshaft. But what has gone into the crankshaft (such as the exact specifications of the metallurgy involved) is not told. The original designs are with the designer-manufacturer.”
There are more than 7,000 MiG 21s currently operational around the world. Thirty-seven air forces have not reported any serious problem with the aircraft.
After the Jalandhar incident — when a MiG ploughed into a bank last year, killing more than a dozen persons — pilots were instructed not to fly over densely-populated areas. But the orders, sources said, were later withdrawn.
Efforts to relocate both the Ambala and Halwara airbases also did not find favour with the defence ministry, as both are forward bases and cannot be vacated. State governments were, however, asked to clear illegal constructions around the airbases.
The growing number of crashes has not only created a panic among senior officers, but also added to the feeling of discomfort among families of the pilots. “Crashes are becoming routine and every time an aircraft goes down, my heart misses a beat,” said a pilot’s wife.
Between 1980 and 2002, the IAF has lost 441 fighter aircraft, 31 transport aircraft, 98 helicopters and some 72 basic-training aircraft, said sources.
Air force sorties, sources said, have increased over the past one week, following the government’s statement that after Iraq, India would be justified if it went to war with Pakistan.