The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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George to fly past fear

New Delhi, July 24: He has sailed in a submarine, braved the icy winds of Siachen and flew in a Sukhoi. Now he’s ready for the ultimate take-off — on the “flying coffin”.

With pressure mounting on the government in the wake of frequent fighter jet crashes, defence minister George Fernandes tried to allay fears about the MiG-21 when he told Parliament he would fly on the twin-seater at the earliest opportunity.

Fernandes said he would have flown in a MiG-21 — dubbed as the “flying coffin” because of the plane’s highest casualty rate in the air force — even before he flew in the multi-role Sukhoi recently. “I had raised the matter with the air chief and a date was fixed, but the flight could not materialise because of some engagements,” he told the Lok Sabha today during question hour.

The minister was responding to a query from National Conference leader Omar Abdullah, who had described his flight on a Sukhoi as a “safer option” and asked him to fly MiG-21s. “I want to assure my young colleague that I will take the flight at the earliest opportunity. It will be in a MiG-21.”

Abdullah also asked him to take a few of his MP colleagues along with him, but Fernandes said this may not be possible as there would be only a pilot and a “passive pilot” and no passenger.

The minister said the government may be close to finalising a deal for third generation advanced jet trainers for the air force. His ministry’s proposal on the purchase of British Hawk AJTs was awaiting the Prime Minister’s clearance, he added.

“The proposal (AJT acquisition) is before the cabinet secretariat. We have finalised the last action in the defence ministry on the proposal. The government has put some queries with the British government. We are yet to get the reply. If the reply comes today, we will decide tomorrow,” Fernandes said.

He did not elaborate, but his reply suggested a move forward in the inordinately delayed process of acquiring an AJT, a proposal first mooted nearly 20 years ago. Towards the end of the budget session, Fernandes had attributed the delay to pressure from vested interests.

Giving details of fighter aircraft crashes in the last 12 years, Fernandes said of the 229 crashes, 101 were due to “human error”, 95 because of “technical defects”, 20 from bird hits and the rest because of other reasons. The loss of a Jaguar three days ago was because of pilot error as he could not manoeuvre the jet while it was preparing for take-off, Fernandes said.

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