Jaipur/New Delhi, June 4: A MiG-21 fighter of the Indian Air Force ploughed into the ground during a low-level mission this morning in Rajasthan’s Barmer district, killing the pilot.
Air force sources said flying officer D.S. Jamwal was on a low-level tactical exercise — usually undertaken to avoid detection by radar — when the plane crashed. According to police, debris of the aircraft was strewn over an area of a kilometre-and-a-half at a field in Sundari village, close to the Pakistan border. There was no casualty on the ground.
IAF technical staff and senior officers rushed to the site immediately after the accident.
The MiG-21 was from the air force’s type-75 variant, one of the oldest of the aging fleet of interceptor aircraft. The low-level mission on the MiG-21 would have given the pilot the smallest margin of error at high speed. It would also make ejection more difficult than from an aircraft on a high altitude sortie.
The aircraft had taken off from Uttarlai airbase for the training sortie at 7.25 am and came down at 9.15 am, 90 km from the airbase. Uttarlai is one of the forward bases of the South-Western Air Command.
An air force source said an inquiry — routine for such crashes — has been ordered. The type-75 variant has been known in the past to have had engine flame-outs. Last year, the variant was grounded for about a fortnight after two consecutive crashes.
This is the third MiG-21 to crash this year and the fourth crash of an IAF aircraft. The air force has lost 90 pilots and 195 MiG planes — nearly a quarter of its fleet — in accidents over the last decade.
The type-75 is an obsolete machine but the air force still has it in service because of limited resources. It is in the process of being phased out along with MiG-21 FLs.
India is in the process of upgrading its MiG-21 fleet. The project, which involves Russia and Israel, seeks to upgrade 125 MiG-21s. Two squadrons have already been inducted into the IAF. However, one of the upgraded versions, christened MiG-21 Bison, which uses the same R-25 engine, suffered a crash last year.
A number of parliamentary committees have demanded phasing out of the aircraft because of the frequency of crashes. They had also demanded that the government take quick decisions on the long-pending induction of advanced jet trainers into the air force.
Russian aircraft designers deny any design flaw in the MiGs while IAF authorities say they do not use spurious parts.
But a Russian designer recently blamed the absence of an intermediate jet trainer for the high accident rate of MiG planes in India. The deputy chief designer of the Russian Aircraft Corporation, Vladimir Barkovsky, said: “The delay in inducting indigenous intermediate jet trainers by India is the main cause of the high accident rate among MiG-21s. The MiG-21 is an unforgiving aircraft and pilots do not have any scope to make mistakes.”
“Things were all right when a trainee sat at the joy-stick of a MiG-21 after gaining flying experience on Kiran or the HF-24 Marut, which were virtually used as intermediate trainer jets. Today, after training on basic piston engine aircraft, a trainee pilot is directly put in the cockpit of a MiG-21,” Barkovsky said.
“You can not expect a man who just learned to drive a car to pilot a jet fighter,” he added. The designer pointed out that India’s HJT-36 single-engine intermediate jet trainer project was behind schedule.
Echoing Barkovsky’s sentiments, Ruslan Pukhov of Russia’s Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies said poor ground maintenance was another reason for high accident rates among MiG-21s.
Pukhov said: “Like in Russia lately, in India too there is a big difference in work culture among pilots and technicians. While the pilots are world class, the junior technical staff in both countries often work like motor mechanics.”