India has lost three more MiG-21
fighters this year, and three other aircraft at well. That's the good news,
sort of. The Indian Air Force has made its MiG-21s safe, or at least safer, to
fly. It hasn't been easy, or cheap. But for a long time, India lost at least
ten MiG-21s a year.
ago, the poor safety record of the MiG-21 reached crises proportions. The
Indian Air Force lost 102 of its Russian-made MiG-21 fighters and 39 pilots to
crashes, between 1 April 1992 to 31 March 2002. The defense ministry insisted
that the losses were due to human error, bird hits and technical defects. But
pilots had been quite blunt in pointing out that the 1950s era MiG-21 design
had never been a safe aircraft to fly.
the Indian Air Force still had over 700 MiG-21s, with the most modern variant
being the MiG 21bis. This was an upgrade of older MiG-21s, costing over $5
million per aircraft, which replaced electronic and mechanical items that had
been identified as responsible for many accidents. This reduced the loss rate
to about one crash for every 20,000 flight hours. The upgrade also made the
aircraft viable for another decade.
MiG-21 Bis aircraft, have a good safety record. But the other, older, models are what produced the nearly two
crashes per 10,000 flight hours. The Bis model is good for another 15 years or
so. By then, India expects to have replaced all the MiG-21 aircraft with more
have become quite expert in making MiG-21s safer to fly. They found, and
replaced components (like fuel pumps) that were responsible for many accidents.
A major problem, however, was that the MiG-21 was not built to be flown as much
as Western fighters. In other words, the Russians purposely did not let their
pilots fly as much as their Western counterparts. Partly, this was to save
money (even for a MiG-21, it cost several thousand dollars per flight hour),
and partly to have more aircraft if a war came. The Russians were, when the
MiG-21 was designed, more into quantity than quality. They have since changed
their minds, but the MiG-21s still around are the product of another era.
Meanwhile, India has been trying to make those MiG-21s fly as frequently as
Western warplanes, with disastrous results.