Nov. 14: The air force is paying with the lives of some of its most experienced pilots because of the resource crunch that is forcing it to make the best of a bad deal. Every crash of an Indian Air Force craft this year — today’s was the 17th — only means that the deal is getting worse.
Wing Commander Naresh Dogra, the qualified flying instructor, who was killed in the crash at Bagdogra today, was one of the most experienced MiG-21 pilots. He was commanding officer of the Bagdogra-based 8 Squadron. Young Flying Officer A.K. Chauhan was his apprentice.
The trainer aircraft, “Type 69”, being flown by the duo was one of three that had taken off at 7 in the morning for a training sortie. Fighter pilots go through different stages of training before being declared fully operational.
Normally, a young flying officer, like Chauhan, would have completed a stint with the Tezpur (Assam)-based Moftu (MiG Operational Flying Training Unit) which meant he was cleared for basic flying.
After the stint with Moftu, a pilot will have to fly sorties on a trainer with the squadron he belongs to. Before going into Moftu, the pilot would have flown the Kiran. Experienced pilots in the air force say there is a big jump that a rookie has to make while graduating from the Kiran, a subsonic aircraft, to the MiG-21.
Writing for a defence think tank’s journal recently, a former air force officer said this was akin “to doing your post graduation after higher secondary without going through graduation”.
Over the years, the MiG-21 has served the air force well but it continues to be a difficult plane to fly in comparison with more modern aircraft. The basic technology of the MiG-21 is from the 1950s and 1960s.
Initial reports said that just after the three aircraft took off today, the weather deteriorated. As they came in to land, the first and third could be diverted. The second — the ill-fated trainer — could not be diverted because it was low on endurance, meaning fuel and engine capability.
The MiG-21 fighters are single seaters but the trainer versions are always twin seater. However, the MiG-21 trainer, too, is deficient compared to the more advanced aircraft.
For one, the rear seat is not above the front seat and therefore, cannot afford the flying instructor a better view. For another, the MiG-21’s navigational aids are also not of the standard that the air force desires. The MiG-21 on a sortie has an average “endurance time” of 45 minutes.
Wing Commander Dogra and Flying Officer Chauhan had already flown 30 minutes in bad weather. The reports also point to a radio transmission failure just before the crash.
Technically, the first reports do not point to a mechanical or engine failure and prima facie the crash was due to human error and weather conditions.
At the same time, the MiG-21 is known to test limits of human endurance. A pilot of the experience of Wing Commander Dogra would still be up to the task.
Despite all that defence minister George Fernandes might claim — and he did say here today that there was no technical defect — the fact remains that the government is still forcing its air force to make do with poor substitutes of the real thing — an advanced jet trainer — even two decades after it was proposed for induction.
The burning wreckage of the MiG-21 singed around 10,000 tea bushes at the Bhojnarayan garden, which lies directly on the flight path of aircraft landing and taking off from Bagdogra airport. The tea estate is 12 km away from the airport.
“First I heard the approaching aircraft, then there was a deafening bang and I saw a ball of fire in the middle of Sector 21 and 22 of the garden, where we were to start plucking in a another half-an-hour’s time. I immediately ran to the spot and realised what had happened,” said Teleshwar Induar, who works at the Bhojnarayan estate.
“Plucking work was about to start and the workers were on their way to the sector. Had the work started, it would have been a bigger disaster,” Subir Chakroborty, junior assistant manager of the estate, said.