India’s First Supersonic Jet Mig-21 Fly Above The Sky Forever
Every one of us wants to fly high above the sky and therefore our fascination towards the sky always remains in our dreams and therefore we keep watching aircraft and feel envy of them. There would hardly be any occasion when we looked at the sky and did not think of a fighter jet, which always formed part of our dreams. Yes, we are talking about MiG-21 FL. But the sad part is that the deafening roar of the MiG-21 FL afterburner, an iconic delta-wing fighter aircraft that heralded the ‘supersonic era’ in Indian Air Force (IAF), will no longer be heard.
The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21 FL, which formed the combat backbone of the IAF, took off for its last sortie from the Kalaikunda airbase near Kharagpur in West Bengal on December 11, 2013, with this it stands decommissioned from the Indian Air Force forever, bidding adieu after half a century in the skies. Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, who was present at the fly-past, 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.
The iconic fighter designed in the erstwhile USSR was inducted in the IAF in 1963. From its pivotal role in the 1971 war against Pakistan to Kargil war three decades later, the MiG-21 formed the bedrock for most of the IAF’s operations over the last five decades. Although the MiG-21 was commissioned in the Indian Air Force 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.
Being limited in numbers, MiG-21s played a restricted role in the 1965 war. They, however, played a crucial role in the 1971 war giving the IAF the air superiority over vital points and areas in the western theatre. Four MiG-21s had entered the enemy territory in the erstwhile East Pakistan, striking with precision the Governor’s house in Dhaka in attacks that turned the war in India’s favour. In the first-ever supersonic air combat that ensued over the subcontinent in 1971, an Indian Mig-21 FL claimed a PAF F-104 Starfighter with its internal twin-barrelled guns alone. By end of the hostilities, the IAF MiG-21s had claimed four Pakistani F-104s, two F-6s, one F-86 Sabre and a Lockheed C-130 Hercules. The pin-point accurate attack on the Governor’s House at Dhaka by IAF pilots flying the MiG-21s proved to be a turning point in the war, forcing the adversary to negotiate an eventual surrender.
The MiG-21 was also fielded in the Kargil war. It was often the first choice of commanders, as it provided unmatched flexibility due its unique attributes of high agility, fast acceleration and quick turn-around. The versatility of all the MiG-21 variants have immensely shaped the IAF operational philosophy for decades. The pilots, engineers and technicians, who flew and maintained the MiG-21, have been strong proponents of its exceptional combat worthiness. Besides accomplishing major operational feats, the MiG-21 also ushered in a revolutionary enhancement in the technological and manufacturing capabilities of our indigenous aerospace industry.
Approximately 50 countries over four continents have flown the MiG-21, and it still serves many nations, a half-century after its maiden flight. The fighter made aviation records. At least by name, it is the most produced supersonic jet aircraft in aviation history and the most-produced combat aircraft since the Korean War, and it had the longest production run of a combat aircraft (1959 to 1985 over all variants).
According to other IAF officials, every two out of three pilots serving the IAF currently have been trained on the MiG-21. Fighter pilots recount their 50-year romance with fighter jet. “It is a mixed feeling, very proud moment for me as well as very nostalgic. I have been a part of squadron, commanding a squadron, which has flown this airplane last,” said VP Singh, Commanding Officer, OCU, Kalaikunda Airbase. “This is the first fighter that I had flown. This is like obviously my mother,” said IAF Fighter Pilot Nagarajan L. “This aircraft especially, is a pure manual aircraft. You can feel each and every happening, whatever is happening in the instruments or on the airframe, you can feel it on your body. You fly it with feel. But, you are getting detached from that feeling that is why people are feeling sad,” said Fighter Pilot and Instructor Manav Kumaria.
The standards of the MiG-21, along with that of other variants, have come under the glare often too. Over the years, frequent crashes leading to deaths of pilots and civilians alike earned the aircraft such nicknames as the ‘flying coffin’ and the ‘widow maker’ and was at the centre of Aamir Khan starrer blockbuster Rang De Basanti. The 2006 film starring Aamir dealt with frequent crashes of MiG aircraft. A character in the movie, playing Aamir’s friend’s boyfriend, 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. Unfortunately, due to repeated accidents, MiGs may be remembered for their controversies, but with the phasing out of the Mig-21 FL, an era of relentless performance, precision, deliverance and intimidating performance will also come to an end.
The iconic aircraft would surely retain a special place in the hearts of the men and women in blue. But it is perhaps also true that mothballing the MiG-21 type 77 could bring closure to those grieving hearts of this country who lost their dear ones in these derogatorily termed ‘flying coffins’. Even after it has been decommissioned, MiG-21 FL will remain the glory of Indian Air force, as it has now acquired the status of “gate guardians”, and now will be placed as static displays at the entrance of establishments mainly related to the Air Force.
By Joydeep Dasgupta from Kalaikunda