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Flying coffin or no, rookie fighters raring to go

Recently in Tezpur, Assam: Rookie pilots Sriganesh, 24, from Madurai and Anup Singh, 24, from Gorakhpur think it’s a letdown when the Northeast’s fickle weather disrupts schedules and steals them of sorties in their MiG-21 FLs.

Never mind that the aged FL is being phased out by the Indian Air Force and the MiG-21s have the highest casualty rate, they also make up the biggest complement in its fighter fleet of some 700 planes.

“We all aspire to be here. This is it,” Sriganesh says. “We do not understand what people have against the MiG-21.”

Over the years, MiG-21 accidents have worried the air force brass not only because of the depletion to the fighting force but also the impact on morale.

“We need fresh blood. We need to keep the air force an exemplar for our youth,” says Air Commodore P.K. Barbora, who heads the air force station here. “Our young men will get married. There must be enough parents willing to let their daughters marry our pilots.” Barbora is pushing 60, was air attache in the Indian embassy in Russia and still flies the MiG-21.

This is the Mig Operational Flying Training Unit (Moftu) — the IAF’s only one — where fighter pilots are trained on the basic weapons system in the IAF’s inventory. Many of Sriganesh and Anup’s batchmates — maybe even the two of them — will go on to fly the more modern Mirages, Jaguars and Sukhois.

An average 10,000 sorties on MiG-21s are flown in Moftu every year, about 70 every working day, making Tezpur the IAF’s busiest fighter base. Each training sortie lasts 25 minutes.

During a visit conducted by the air force, there is little evidence that the thrill of flying the fighters is any challenge to commonly held suspicions on the air worthiness and fighting abilities of the MiG-21. For Sriganesh and Anup, their horizon stretches up to their next available sortie on the MiG-21FL.

Tomorrow morning, Chau (short for Squadron Leader G.S. Chauhan), their instructor, Kaushal and Ronnie, trainees like Sriganesh and Anup, will fly a two-versus-one exercise. Chau and Kaushal will be Akash-1 and Akash-2, interceptors, against Akash-3 (Ronnie). The MiG-21 is an air defence fighter.

The aim of the mission, Chau explains at the briefing, is “to manoeuvre as a pair against a single attacker who enjoys initial position and potential so as to impose our numerical superiority”. The mock combat will take place at an altitude of 2.5 km, high above the tea plantations and the mighty river in the Brahmaputra Valley. The attackers and the defenders will have the same weapons, A4M air-to-air rockets. The firing, of course, will be simulated and the “kill” recorded on film.

It is no secret that in the air force it is the men flying the fighters who are treated as, to use an understatement, first among equals. They know it, too, and flaunt their exalted status. “How do you identify a fighter pilot in a party'” goes an air force anecdote. “Don’t worry. He’ll come and tell you.”

And among the fighter pilots, the MiG-21 pilot is equally eager to tell you of the flying machine that is reportedly a test of human endurance. “The touchdown speed of a MiG-21 is 270 to 280 kmph,” says Group Captain Chetan Bali, head of Moftu. “The touchdown speed of the Kiran (the basic trainer aircraft for fighter pilots before they come to Moftu) is about 160kmph. A jump of about 100kmph is no big deal.”

The MiG-21 is a single-seater and its trainer versions are twin seaters. The instructor sits in the rear and uses a periscope to get the vision the trainee in the frontseat has. Among the several advantages that the advanced jet trainer — which the air force so desperately wants — affords is a higher rear seat for the instructor. The AJT is also touted as a bridge between the subsonic basic trainers and the supersonic MiG-21.

Earlier this year, at the airshow in Bangalore, Group Captain Bali himself flew the Czech-made L159B, which is a competitor to the British Hawk in the race for the Indian AJT deal. Among the things that struck him were its superior avionics and ergonomic design.

First, it had a head-up display. Then it had a better navigation system.

Third, it afforded more pilot comfort. Fighter aircraft are not designed to give five-star luxury. But even by those standards, when the canopy of the MiG-21 comes down, the confine of the MiG-21 cockpit is extremely demanding for the 30-minute sortie it is designed to fly.

“Nowadays even a mechanic in a factory wants a switch placed at an easy level so that he does not have to keep looking for it. Aur hum to pilot hain ya-ar. Don’t we deserve more'” asks Bali.

Since 1986, Bali’s unit has trained 500 fighter pilots for the air force. It takes in about 70 a year, puts them through the wringer and produces men for whom the MiG-21 is an extension of their bodies.

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