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Air force’s ‘flying coffin’ laid to rest

- MiG-21 decommissioned after 50 chequered years

Kalaikunda, Dec. 11: MiG-21, the combat aircraft that earned monikers like the “flying coffin” and “widow-maker” and was at the centre of Aamir Khan blockbuster Rang De Basanti, was decommissioned from the Indian Air Force today.

The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 FL, which formed the combat backbone of the IAF for over five decades, took off for its last sortie from the Kalaikunda airbase near Kharagpur around 10am today.

A truck towed away one such jet into a hangar in a symbolic gesture, relegating the fighter to the pages of history.

Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, who was present at the flypast this morning, termed the phase-out of India’s first supersonic aircraft a “watershed moment”.

“Today’s event marks a watershed moment in (the) IAF’s history as we reach the end of nearly five decades of remarkable operational service rendered by this iconic fighter,” Browne said at the base from where the MiG-21 FL had taken off for the first time in 1963.

Other upgraded variants of MiG continue to be a part of the air force’s fleet.

Although the MiG-21 was commissioned in the early 60s, it was in the 1971 war with Pakistan — leading to the formation of Bangladesh — that it provided an edge to the Indian defence. “In that one war alone, it claimed eight fighter planes of Pakistan. It played a pivotal role in the Kargil war, too,” recalled a retired air force pilot.

Four MiG-21s had entered enemy territory in erstwhile East Pakistan, striking with precision the governor’s house in Dhaka in attacks that turned the war in India’s favour.

But in Kalaikunda this morning, as the curtains came down on a different set of MiG-21, their roar muffled all other sounds.

An air force pilot recalled his first sortie on the plane in the late 80s. “My first reaction, as the wheels went up, was wow. I was piercing the air. The flight sent my adrenaline rushing,” said the pilot.

He has flown 3,000 hours on the jet. According to other IAF officials, every two out of three pilots serving the IAF currently has been trained on the MiG-21.

But the standards of the MiG-21, along with that of other variants, have come under the glare often.

Rang De Basanti, the 2006 film starring Aamir, dealt with frequent crashes of MiG aircraft and the role of go-betweens in brokering defence deals and procuring unsafe planes in exchange for kickbacks. A character in the movie, playing Aamir’s friend, dies in a MiG-21 crash.

According to an air force officer, close to 160 pilots have died while flying various variants of MiG over the past 50 years. Close to 50 civilians lost their lives as the planes fell on houses and farms.

An air force pilot who had survived a crash moved court 10 years ago with a plea to scrap the entire MiG fleet from the Indian Air Force.

That hasn’t happened but back in Kalaikunda today, it was time for one member of the family to face the ground reality and bid adieu after half a century in the skies.

The decommissioned MiG-21 FL will now acquire the status of “gate guardians”, placed as static displays at the entrance of institutions, mainly those related to the air force.