You sense a tingling feeling, it cannot be seen yet but you can tell it is coming from afar. The sound gets closer and closer and before you know it, your heart skips a beat as the source of the sonic boom passes by in under a second from above you.
Machines that soar the sky, the idea kickstarted by the Wright brothers, started as a simple “sustained and controlled heavier-than-air powered flight” over time developed into various versions. One of them being, Fighter Aircrafts. With the entree of World War 1, fighter airplanes were first used for artillery spotting (scout planes). Humans, with our natural tendency to weaponize, soon realized that airplanes could be armed and used for combat. Since then, there was no looking back.
The most operated and used aircraft by the Indian Air Force is the Mig-21 Bison. A little introduction to the most-produced supersonic jet aircraft in aviation history, MikoyanGurevich MiG-21, is a supersonic jet fighter and an interceptor aircraft. It has a fuselage (main body section of an aircraft) resembling the shape of a pencil. The aircraft's simple controls, engine, weapons, and avionics are typical Soviet-era military designs. There are several Mig-21 variants, which is a story for another day, but the version inducted by the Indian Air Force is the Mig-21 Bison in the year 1963 .and Over 1200 fighters and over 874 variants have been inducted. The Mig-21 was under the spotlight in the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh. Three Mig-21 squadrons, flown by professionals took part in counter-air, escort, and close air support tasks demonstrating its highly effective short-range, precision attacks. During the period, it was the most advanced aircraft which received a lot of positive feedback from the pilots of the time.
Unfortunately, this is not the case anymore.A few news headlines which depict its repeated failures
- "IAF group captain killed in MiG-21 Bison crash in Gwalior" .
- IAF's MiG-21 Fighter Jet crashes near Rajasthan's Suratgarh, Pilot ejects safely"
- "IAF’s MiG-21 crashes after a bird hit in Rajasthan’s Bikaner, pilot ejects"
With each headline, the outrage against the neglected conditions of the aircraft would roar. The widely popular movie, "Rang de Basanti" brought to light the loss of many young pilots and the political games involved (which I will not touch in this article *tsk tsk* ) It fiercely portrayed the emotions and turmoils faced by the families of victims of Mig-21 aircrafts. The "Bison" upgrade was launched in the 1990s in an attempt to modernize the aircraft. New features were being introduced such as the capability to fire medium-range-air-to-air missiles. Coming on to the harsh reality faced by the pilots who have boarded this aircraft, over 180 IAF pilots (and 40 civilians) have been killed in Mig-21 accidents since 1970, a minimum of 14 fighters crashing between 2010 and 2013. Out of the 1200 Mig fighters introduced, more than 840 aircrafts built between 1966 and 1984 were lost to crash accidents. The bitter grief attached to the continuous series of accidents led to "flying coffins" being coined. The Mig-21 Bison forms the bulk of the fighter aircraft in the IAF's inventory. IAF had to keep its MiG-21 fleet flying longer than it would have liked because of the delay in the induction of new fighters.
Replace the aging Mig-21
The LCA program (Light combat Aircraft) began in the 1980s in an attempt to replace the aging Mig-21 fighters. It was officially named 'Tejas' in 2003, which is the second supersonic jet produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). There are mixed reviews for the Tejas fighter, some putting forward that it is not a match for modern-day fighters even though it is a proven improved version of the Mig-21. The CEMILAC (Centre of Military Airworthiness and Certification) confirmed Tejas as a multirole fighter with capabilities beyond visual range air to air and air to ground attack capabilities and longer endurance during mid-air refueling. In terms of Kinematics, Tejas has a significant edge over the venerable Mig-21 as it shows much more maneuverability, flexibility, and better climb rate compared to the vintage Mig-21. The cockpit layout of Mig-21 and its external view have always been viewed as a comprehensive nightmare for the pilot. Due to the low-level ejections with its CK ejection seat, it is very dangerous when the jet is flying at 300kmph leading to many unsuccessful ejections, and sadly, deaths. Mid-air collisions, engine flame-outs, bird strikes can cause botched missions. Tejas has one too many pilot-friendly features like a Digital Fly-by-Wire Control System which makes it easier to handle the aircraft, a glass cockpit along a Mk 16LG ejection seat (basically provides an easier and safer ejection method). In every aspect, Tejas outperforms the Mig-21. In 2008, the Hawk Mk. 132 was inducted for a similar purpose as Tejas.
Finally, in 2016, the much-awaited Rafale deal was signed between India and France for 36 Rafale multi-role fighter jets in fly-away condition. And for a change, India chose Dassault(a French Aerospace company) over the traditional Russian Mig. This deal is the biggest-ever procurement made by our country with the Rafales having various India-specific modifications, namely- 10-hour flight data recording, infra-red search, and tracking systems among others. Currently, about 54 Mig-21s are in active service with the Indian Air Force. IAF pilots undergo rigorous selection and training to protect our skies.
In the end
"Flying is more than a sport and more than a job; flying is pure passion and desire which fills a lifetime" -Adolf Galland
Let it not be cut short by the shortcomings of a veteran aircraft.