In a move to address concerns over the safety record of India’s MiG-21 fighter planes, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has grounded its entire MiG-21 fleet for comprehensive safety checks. This decision comes after a recent crash in Rajasthan on May 8, in which a MiG-21 Bison fighter jet crashed into a house, resulting in the tragic loss of three lives. The incident has once again highlighted the longstanding safety issues associated with India’s oldest operational fighter aircraft.
According to officials familiar with the matter, the MiG-21 Bisons will remain grounded until the completion of the safety checks and the conclusion of the inquiry into the recent crash. Following this, the fighters will gradually resume flying in a phased manner. The grounding of an aircraft fleet for inspection after an unexplained crash is not uncommon practice.
The MiG-21 has been a cause for concern for some time now, with over 400 of these aircraft involved in accidents that have claimed the lives of 200 pilots over the past six decades. Last year, the Indian Air Force announced its intention to phase out the MiG-21 Bisons by 2025, citing the need to maintain an adequate number of combat-ready aircraft. These jets, once infamously dubbed “flying coffins,” will be retired as the IAF strives to arrange sufficient replacements to ensure combat readiness.
Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), Director General of the Centre for Air Power Studies, expressed his satisfaction with the decision to phase out the MiG-21s by 2025, hoping that this timeline would not be altered following the recent crash.
The grounding of the MiG-21 fleet comes at a time when the military’s advanced light helicopters (ALHs) are also undergoing comprehensive checks due to a series of recent incidents, including the crash-landing of an army helicopter in Jammu & Kashmir. The Army, IAF, Navy, and Coast Guard operate over 330 ALHs, and a design review of a “safety-critical system” on the ALH is being considered to enhance its airworthiness.
The MiG-21 has played a significant role in bolstering India’s combat potential since its first induction in 1963, with a total of 874 jets of various variants being inducted. More than 60% of these MiG-21s were license-produced in India. However, the IAF has had to extend the operational life of the MiG-21 fleet due to delays in the induction of new fighters.
Notably, the MiG-21 Bisons were retired from the Srinagar-based No. 51 squadron, also known as “Sword Arms,” in September of last year. This squadron had gained recognition when Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who shot down a Pakistani F-16 during a dogfight over the Line of Control in 2019, was a member.
The recent grounding of the MiG-21 fleet underscores the IAF’s commitment to addressing the safety concerns associated with these aging aircraft. The decision to retire them by 2025 and the ongoing efforts to procure suitable replacements reflect the air force’s determination to enhance combat readiness and ensure the safety of its personnel.