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Mother forces MiG crash second look

Mumbai, Sept. 16: A bereaved mother’s crusade seems to have finally broken down the stony walls of officialdom.

Two months after Kavita Gadgil buttonholed George Fernandes at a public function to raise the issue of repeated MiG-21 crashes, the defence ministry has agreed to reopen the investigation into the crash that killed her son during a routine sortie.

The Gadgils lost their youngest son, Flight Lieutenant Abhijit, when his MiG-21 Bison crashed 33 seconds after take-off from the Suratgarh air force base in Rajasthan on September 17, 2001. After that they launched a movement to create awareness about the MiG’s airworthiness.

Fernandes, who kept his promise to give a personal hearing to Kavita and her pilot husband, Capt. Anil Gadgil, conveyed the decision to reopen the case after an hour-long meeting with the family at his South Block office yesterday.

A source in the defence minister’s office acknowledged that Kavita requested Fernandes to reopen an inquiry into the crash that killed her son. “We are expecting Mrs Gadgil to write to us formally on the reasons to reopen an inquiry and also expect her to suggest what she thinks the terms and conditions of such an inquiry should be,” the source said.

The defence ministry had initially shrugged off the criticism and declared the MiG-21 airworthy. However, its stubborn stance changed after President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam decided to look into the matter and held a meeting with the Gadgils on August 5. The meeting came days after Fernandes flew a sortie in a MiG-21 to stave off repeated criticism of the “flying coffins”.

“Fernandes listened to what we had to say and graciously accepted all our suggestions,” Kavita told The Telegraph today on her way to Suratgarh to pay homage on Abhijit’s second death anniversary. “We handed over two sets of documents, one pertaining to our suggestions about what could be done to curb MiG-21 accidents and the agenda of the Abhijit Air Safety Foundation, while the other contained documents pertaining to Abhijit’s accident.”

Fernandes assured the couple that he would order a re-investigation into the accident and the probe would be conducted by any agency they felt reliable. “We told him that the findings in Abhijit’s case were not based on facts and the case needs to be re-examined. He agreed immediately and asked us to write back about which agency should investigate the case. We will get back to him shortly on that,” said Anil Gadgil, who is with Air-India.

The Gadgils congratulated Fernandes on the decision to acquire the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers from the UK and presented detailed suggestions about installing new safety equipment on fighter aircraft.

“We told him about the need to acquire modern flight simulators and safety equipment like zero-zero ejection seats, enhanced ground proximity warning systems, engine indication and crew alert systems which will go a long way in handling emergency situations and saving precious lives. Most of this equipment is available off the shelf,” Capt. Gadgil said adding that they also discussed providing basic amenities and housing for defence personnel and changes in compensation to the pilots’ family after an accident.

Fernandes told the family the defence ministry had already sanctioned Rs 17,000 crore for constructing 2.5 lakh houses for defence personnel. “He said he will pursue it vigorously,” Capt. Gadgil said.

He added that the defence minister gave them a “very positive response” and explained that the delay in acquiring defence equipment happened because of the “long multi-stage procedure laid down by the government”.

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