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Fighter on last legs becomes a fireball

Ahmedabad/Mumbai, Feb. 20: A MiG-21 fighter plane on the verge of being phased out crashed in a residential area near Jamnagar this morning, killing four civilians and injuring 14.

Unconfirmed reports put the toll at five, with one more child dying in hospital.

An Indian Air Force spokesperson said pilot G.S. Ghuman, the only occupant, ejected and escaped with minor injuries.

In the second MiG crash of the month, the “flying coffins” — a sobriquet the MiGs have earned for taking many men in air to their death — reinforced the fears of those on the ground in its flight path.

In 35 months from August 2000 to July 2003, 30 MiGs have crashed, killing 17 pilots. Two have been declared missing. Several civilians have also died after some of the jets landed on them or their houses.

Today’s victims have been identified as Salman Osman, 4, Ismail, 22, Abdul Karim, 55, and Mutaza Mehmood, 5.

The spokesperson said the plane, a type 96 variant, took off on a routine sortie around 9.20 am from Bhuj and crashed at 9.42 am on the roof of a house at Lakhabawal village near Jamnagar airport, about 25 km from the Reliance refinery. As the plane smashed into bits, a fire started and engulfed almost 15 houses.

The fighter was on a dummy range flying mission, meaning flying without live armaments, official sources said.

The district collector said eight pucca houses were damaged and three destroyed before the fire was brought under control.

The air force has ordered an inquiry into the mishap, but a preliminary probe pointed to engine flameout as the possible cause, said a senior IAF official.

Group captain A.V. Takurdesia told PTI that the pilot noticed fuel starvation in the engine of the aircraft nearing completion of its service as he attempted a pull-up manoeuvre and was forced to eject.

Previous investigations had pointed towards fuel-pump malfunction as a cause for some of the MiG-21 crashes, he added.

The spokesperson, however, said the cause of the mishap is not known. “The pilot has not been questioned about the mishap as he is in trauma.” An investigation team from Gandhinagar, led by Air Marshal A.D. Joshi, has reached the spot.

Some witnesses reportedly said they saw a fireball coming out of the sky, which, the defence spokesperson said, could be due to “the rocket-propelled ejector”.

The aircraft had gone off the radar screen and communication with the air traffic controller snapped just before the crash.

This is the first MiG-21 crash since the IAF began training fighter pilots in the South-Western Air Command in Gujarat a year ago, he said. A MiG-23 had crashed in Jaisalmer district in Rajasthan on February 7.

The air force has set up a relief camp in the village. Tomorrow, the IAF will disburse interim relief of Rs 1 lakh each for adult victims and Rs 50,000 each for children.

Kavita Gadgil, who has been at the forefront of a campaign against the MiGs’ airworthiness after her son was killed in one, said: “It is so hurtful, all these unnecessary deaths. I have been shouting at the top of my voice that the MiGs should be withdrawn because they are faulty, but nothing has happened. Why should pilots die in the air and villagers down below'”

Gadgil, who plans to visit the accident site, added: “It’s funny that when the pilots die the government blames the pilots, but they have no answer when the pilots bail out, killing civilians on the ground instead.”

There are others who said it is high time the government comes clean on the fate of the MiGs and the ambitious project to get the Advanced Jet Trainers that function as a training launchpad for pilots before they fly MiGs. “When will that conversion happen'” the parent of a dead MiG pilot asked.

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