Ambala, Aug. 1: Four kilometres above earth after the MiG-21 cut through the cloud cover, Wing Commander . Harish’s voice crackled over the earpiece and asked George Fernandes in the cockpit behind him if the defence minister would like to return.
“Let’s do some more. Don’t worry about me,” Fernandes told him. The aircraft was doing 500 kmph.
“You mean, minister sir, manoeuvres'”
“Yes,” said Fernandes.
The wing commander said he was taking the bird into a ‘wing over’ (a manoeuvre). He pushed the joystick ahead. The plane started diving, gathered speed, touched 750 kmph. At 2,500 metres, Harish began pulling back the stick, all the while keeping minister sir talking, measuring if the septuagenarian was normal.
At the back, Fernandes’ anti-gravity g-suit was hosed into a funnel on the control panel.
“We’ll climb now, sir.” Harish eased the stick back.
The MiG-21 began a steep climb. Blood began rushing out Fernandes’ head inside the ‘bone dome’ helmet and the g-suit filled up, compressing with airbags the lower part of Fernandes’ body so that the heart pumped as usual and minister sir did not have a blackout.
The MiG-21 kept climbing and completed a loop till Harish eased it level again.
“I’ve always wanted to fly the MiG-21,” Fernandes said afterwards. He meant, of course, flying IN the aircraft not FLY it.
What fun it is to be defence minister!
In the Hollywood blockbuster, Top Gun, Tom Cruise flew a plane he named “Maverick”. Fernandes here — and up there — is a maverick. True to his style, he sought to clinch the debate on MiG-21s by flying in one. At 73, Fernandes is, perhaps, the oldest person to do so.
“I do not think that the air safety of the MiG-21 is a public issue,” he asserted after the 25-minute sortie.
Fernandes’ provocation for taking the flight was a remark in Parliament by Omar Abdullah. “You have flown in the Sukhoi,” Abdullah said during a debate. “Will you dare fly the MiG-21'” Fernandes announced then and there: “I will.”
So last evening, he took an AN-32 transporter to Ambala. Early this morning, he was briefed, given a high-calorie breakfast and put through the mandatory medical test.
“When we measured his blood pressure, it was below his normal. He really is cool,” said Air Marshal A.R. Ghandhi, chief of the Western Air Command.
Harish, a qualified flying instructor and test pilot, who commands the Ambala-based 3 Squadron, was detailed on the job. Harish chose a type-69 trainer that was serviced two days ago. Another was kept on standby.
Between last Friday and this, Kavita and Anil Gadgil, whose son Abhijit was killed in a MiG-21 crash, had appealed to the President to ask Fernandes “not to parade his bravado in a stage-managed show”.
“Put an end to this circus,” the family petitioned.
The MiG-21s were first inducted into the IAF in 1963 and Ambala is also the place where the first recorded mishap of the aircraft took place. More recently, on April 7 this year, Flight Lieutenant H. Garg ejected from his MiG-21 Bison (upgraded) and took a bad fall.
Last month, on June 4, Flight Lieutenant A.S. Jamwal’s MiG-21 crashed in Barmer, Rajasthan. A fortnight ago, on July 14, Wing Commander Rastogi’s MiG-21 had a bad landing in Srinagar. Since the time the MiG-21s were inducted 40 years ago, there have been 166 crashes. There have been three so far this year. There were 12 last year.
As Fernandes put on the ‘bone dome’ helmet inside the cockpit this morning, he was aware he was creating history. He has flown in the Sukhoi, stayed a night in a submarine and is a frequent flier to Siachen. This is a battle of histories — man’s and machine’s, of Fernandes’ and of the MiG-21’s.
And, today, Fernandes is on a combative high. “Tehelka ko marne do (let Tehelka die),” he said when asked if the portal’s sting operation still casts a shadow over his ministry.
When Mikoyan Gureyevich of the erstwhile Soviet Union designed the MiG-21, it was revolutionary because he packed so much combat power into the single-engine aircraft with a small wingspan.
An estimated 1,000 MiG-21s were flown in 33 countries and the IAF has the largest number of them all. But the Soviet Union has broken up, MiG-21 spares are hard to come by and east European air forces have decommissioned or scrapped them.
The IAF, though, has bought an unspecified number of used MiG-21 trainers. Not because there isn’t anything better available but because India cannot afford them. Last year, two parliamentary committees recommended scrapping of the MiG-21s. The IAF has about 20 squadrons of MiG-21s.
A rough estimate says replacing a squadron could cost about Rs 2,000 crore. The government does not have that kind of money and without the MiG-21s, the IAF would not be a force.
Such is the backdrop against which Fernandes flew — the sortie a comment on the state of his health, not that of the MiG-21s’.