MiG-21: ‘Flying Coffin’, ‘Widow Maker’; the many names of India’s controversial Soviet-era fighter jet

MiG-21 crash is not the first incident involving the MiG-21 fighter jets and it is often called ‘Flying Coffin’ and ‘Widow Maker’ for the sheer number of crashes it has suffered over the years, killing many pilots of the IAF. 

MiG-21: ‘Flying Coffin’, ‘Widow Maker’; the many names of India’s controversial Soviet-era fighter jet

An Indian Air Force MiG-21 trainer fighter jet crashed in Rajasthan on July 28 night, killing two pilots Wing Commander M Rana and Flight Lieutenant Advitiya Bal. The incident took place around 9:10 PM on July 28 (Thursday) after the twin-seater MiG-21 trainer aircraft took off from the Utarlai air base in Rajasthan in the evening. Wing Commander Rana hailed from Himachal Pradesh and Flight Lieutenant Bal from Jammu, an IAF official said while releasing the names to the media on Friday. The two pilots were undertaking a training sortie near Barmer in the desert state.

MiG-21 crashes

This is not the first crash involving the MiG-21 fighter jets and it is often called ‘Flying Coffin’ and ‘Widow Maker’ for the sheer number of crashes it has suffered over the years, killing many pilots of the IAF. In 2021 alone, there were five crashes involving the MiG-21, resulting in the death of three pilots.

As per various reports, more than 400 MiG-21s have crashed in the last 5 decades, killing over 200 pilots and another 50 people on the ground. In 2012, former Defence Minister AK Antony said in Parliament that more than half of the 872 MiG aircraft purchased from Russia had crashed. Due to which, more than 200 persons, including 171 pilots, 39 civilians, and eight other services’ people, had lost their lives.

About MiG-21

The MiG-21 Bison is the first supersonic jet aircraft in the aviation history and also the most sold fighter jet in the world. While it’s more than 60 years old, the MiG-21 is still in service with the Indian Air Force with four active squadrons and has been updated to match generation 3 fighter jets. The jets are currently being used only as Interceptors with a limited role as fighter jets and are mostly used for training exercises. 

India's MiG-21 obsession 

The Soviet Air Force – credited with designing the aircraft – removed it from service in the year 1985. By then, countries ranging from the United States to Vietnam had inducted the aircraft into its air forces. After 1985, however, Bangladesh and Afghanistan removed it from service. 

As for India, the aircraft was inducted into the air force in the '60s and completed their retirement period in the mid-1990s. Despite this, they are still being upgraded. In October 2014, the air force chief had said that India's security is threatened by the delay in removing the old aircraft from service because some part of the fleet was outdated. 

Further, being a single-engine aircraft means it is always under threat. The chance of a plane crash increases when a bird collides with it or the engine fails. 

MiG-21 retirement

With recent crash, the Indian Air Force has announced plans to retire another squadron of the MiG-21 Bison aircraft. "The 51 Squadron based out of Srinagar air base is being number plated on September 30. After this, only three squadrons of the planes would be left in service and would be phased out by the year 2025," sources in the IAF told ANI.

MiG-21 replacement

One of the proudest moments for make-in-India campaign is the induction of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited made Tejas LCA (Light Combat Aircraft). India has long been borrowing its fighter jets from countries like Russia, France and Britain and the Tejas was conceptualized to replace the ageing Soviet sourced MiG-21. IAF has placed an order of 40 Tejas Mk 1, including 32 single-seat aircraft and eight twin-seat trainers. IAF has also initiated procurement of a further 73 single-seat fighters in Mk 1A configuration. The Tejas is also made on Delta-winged structure is among the most advanced jets of India.

Famous MiG-21 incidents

In 2019, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was flying a MiG-21 Bison chasing a Pakistan Air Force's F-16 fighter jet. In the following dogfight, Abhinandan shot down a much advanced and modern F-16 before his aircraft crashed inside POK and he was captured by Pakistani authorities. He was later released following a diplomatic pressure over Pakistan. 

With agency inputs

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