Attrition: Indian MiG-21s Too Fragile


November 14,2008:  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.

Six years 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.

Back then, 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.

The 125 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 modern fighters.

The Indians 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.



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