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Upgraded MiG-Bison:FIGHTER PLANE OR FLYING COFFIN?, by B.K. Mathur,23 January 2006 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 23 January 2006

Upgraded MiG-Bison


By B.K. Mathur

Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi is upset with those who describe the MiG-21 fighter aircraft as “flying coffins”.  Don’t condemn them he says and claims that MiG-21, as also its later variants, especially the upgraded MiG-21-Bison or MiG-21-93s, need not be condemned in that manner.  There is nothing wrong in their design.  But, what should one think of an aircraft if one was told that of the 600 crashes in the IAF since 1970-71, as many as 320 have involved MiG-21s.  Worse, in these MiG-21 accidents the IAF has lost 160 young fighter pilots?  At once call them “flying coffins” – and justifiably too. More than the fact that a fighter pilot is trained at a very high cost, the question of the life of young men is a matter of great concern and shame.

Coincidentally, only a day after Tyagi defended MiG-21, upgraded at a high cost and inducted into the IAF only in 2002, crashed near Jamnagar. The pilot who managed to eject safely reportedly found an unexpected engine surge while pulling out after the routine sortie.  Three Bisons have crashed since they were inducted into the IAF, even though the upgraded version has been described as almost new fighter, with latest avionics and advanced systems.  They are considered to be effectively operational till 2017. The IAF has already inducted 90 of the 125 planned.  And those who condemn these fighter planes have need to understand that the causes for IAF crashes are many more than the defects in machines, as generally believed. 

The question invariably raised is: Why MiGs only.  Various reasons have been trotted out for the MiGs increasingly crashing from time to time. Most people point towards defects in the machine.   But there is nothing wrong with the design and technology of the aircraft of the Russian origin. Neverthless, since the machine is old and a lot of research and development has taken place in the military aviation industry, some faults have undoubtedly cropped up in the aircraft’s components and systems, which are now license-produced in India by the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL).  Some of these faults have still remained uncorrected at the production stage.  The functioning of the HAL has a lot to do with the high accident rate

Another problem with the upgraded MiG-21-Bis which may perhaps be the reason for the frequent crashes could be, as told to some Indian journalists during their visit to Moscow in 2002, the twilight zone of arms trade in the post-Soviet Union CIS countries.  The top boss of the largest Russian defence production outfit which has designed, developed and produced the MiG series of aircraft, has blamed India for buying “expired, forged, old, sub-standard and low quality” spare parts from the CIS countries. These transactions were described as “dubious”.  If it is so, then it is a serious matter, and another big scandal in military equipment purchasers, requiring a thorough investigation. 

The outburst of the MiG manufacturing company’s boss could be an explanation for frequent accidents involving the MiG aircraft, especially the R-25 engine of the aircraft: the “design deficiency” of the engine.  This came out from authoritative sources some three-four years ago. It was then stated that the design fault was suspected to have caused accidents.  This led to the grounding of the MiG-Bis for further investigations.  It was then believed that the “flame tube” burning was one of the causes that led to the problem in the machine.  An IAF source at that time was quoted to have stated that the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), which produces the MiG fighters on licence, was aware of the fault.

Surprisingly, it was explained after several years and crashes that the flame tube catches fire which, at times, results in an engine flame out. It was further revealed and explained in depth that in the flame tube, fuel and air get mixed to power the engine and temperatures are as high as 3,500 degree Celsius. The HAL and the MiG designers and manufacturers had at that time reportedly started working on modifying the flame tubes.  But they were yet to be fitted into the R-25 engines.  It is not yet known whether or not the latter modified version of the MiG-21 aircraft have carried modified tube. In fact, lot of concern was shown at that time as to why the HAL did not care to modify them years earlier.  It was only after two crashes that the, then, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy ordered their immediate grounding.

Worse, only after the MiG-21-Bis fleet was grounded that some serious efforts began to be made to modify the tube. The casualness about the modification of the tube was reflected in the fact that the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament had, in its report in March 2002, mentioned the flame tube burning problem. The Committee had then also mentioned that joint efforts were being undertaken by the HAL and the IAF to sort out the problem.  Nothing seems to have happened so far.  Wonder whether it is a matter of just casualness or some “ghotala” has taken place and efforts are being made to cover it up.

Former Inspector General of Flight Safety, Air Marshal Denzil Keeler (Retd) had at that time stated: “We had a major problem with the MiG-21 engines in the late 1980s too. There were a number of crashes.  We grounded the entire fleet and carried out checks and found a defect in routing and pipelines.  There was chaffing of oil, fuel and hydraulic pipe due to the routing of the pipeline.  There was also the problem of vibration of the engine touching the fuselage.”  If the retired Air Marshal is to be believed, then the matter was serious and did not receive the attention it deserved all this while.

The matter acquired serious proportion in the light of the Russian manufacturer’s charges and Indian authorities’ failure to put the records straight.  Expert view not only in the HAL but also in the aeronautics industry globally is that the design of the MiG engine, especially of the earlier version, that is the MiG-21, is unquestionably good.  Several countries have extensively used the aircraft. The only thing is that it is needed to be modified from time to time.  If that was done, as the time needed, there would have been no problem – and not so many accidents.  With proper and timely modifications as happened in several variants of the MiG series, along with adequate training to the fliers the aircraft today could continue to be an excellent fighter aircraft and not called a “flying coffin”.

That does not, however, explain fully why majority of the IAF accidents involve MiGs.  Simple.  More than 50 per cent of the IAF fleet presently comprises the MiG variants.  Add to this the quality of the pilot and his training.  The quality of in-take is not only increasingly coming down, but also it is hopelessly inadequate.  Also, the Indian fighter pilot is made to fly an average of 20 to 22 hours in a month as against 12 to 15 hours in other militarily advanced countries.  An IAF fighter has also to fly low during training sorties which are more accident prone.  All these factors are required to be looked into by the defence planners, instead of discarding a good upgraded machine. ---INFA


(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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