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MiG glasnost begins with ‘human error’

New Delhi, Sept. 2: The air force today released the facts of a MiG-21 accident — in a step without precedent — that took place in Srinagar on July 14. The aircraft was a trainer flown by a Flight Lieutenant and his senior, a Wing Commander. As the air force sees it, the accident in which both pilots were killed was the result of an “error of judgement” by the Flight Lieutenant.

Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy was keeping a promise he had made as the officer appointed to investigate the accident made the presentation to the press. However, even as Air Commodore P.K. Barbora narrated the events as they had unfolded, it was evident that the MiG-21 — the mainstay of the IAF’s fighter fleet — places enormous demands on its pilots.

Analysis of data salvaged from the MiG-21’s instruments have revealed that in the final moments of the aircraft, the pilots’ best was simply not good enough to save either the plane or their lives. For Wing Commander R. Rastogi, his junior, Flight Lieutenant D. Ganesh, and their families, the 88 seconds from the moment the warning lights flashed in the cockpits to that when the undercarriage hit the buff of ground in the Srinagar airfield are an agonisingly long tale of man versus machine.

After it was all over, the debris of the aircraft was flung across 252 metres, the canopies of the twin cockpits some distance from the main engine and the bodies of the two men who had ejected too late were found by a road that cuts across the airfield.

Flight Lieutenant Ganesh was briefed for a “battle-inoculation” exercise. He was tasked to take off and turn left as he climbed, turn left again, fly down to tree-top level and overshoot and take off again in a steep climb. With him in the front cockpit — only the MiG-21 trainers have twin cockpits — was his squadron commander Rastogi, a man handpicked by the air chief for his job. The senior had more than 5,000 hours of flying and the junior a little more than 550.

Piecing together the story of their flight to death, Air Commodore Barbora, himself one of the most experienced MiG-21 pilots in the IAF, who also heads the air force station at Tezpur where the MiG training unit is based, said flights over Srinagar place their own demands.

The airfield is at an altitude of 1,700m and the air is thinner, meaning less “thrust” is available to an aircraft taking off.

Another, more modern fighter — even a fighter like the MiG-21 type 75 — would have engines that could harness greater thrust, but not the type 69 trainer.

Ganesh’s error was in the overshooting phase where he climbed too early — by about five seconds — and too steeply, pushing the engine to “pre-stalling” mode. Barbora likened this to the equivalent of trying to drive a car uphill in fourth gear when the engine cannot generate enough power.

In the dying moments, the conversation between the pilots could not be recorded because the type 69 does not have a cockpit voice recorder. But the pattern of flying mapped during the probe pointed to a desperate attempt to level the aircraft at a height of about 100 metres in the hope that it would gather speed. That did not happen. The plane went down on its undercarriage, hit a buff, veered to the left, bounced to the right, caught fire and flung itself into several hundred parts over a wide area.

The findings of the Srinagar crash have been made public against the backdrop of more than 230 MiG crashes since 1990. In simplistic terms at a later date, the Srinagar crash can be classified under the category “human error” and not “technical defect” or “external injury”.

The findings of the court of inquiry as disclosed today can more aptly fill an unspecified category called “enforced error”.

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