MiG-21 Legacy: Over 200 Pilot Deaths, And 2 Major Events Of American Jet Takedowns

The most recent incident took place on Thursday, July 28, when two pilots were killed after their MiG-21 trainer aircraft crashed near Barmer in Rajasthan.

MiG-21 trainer IAF
MiG-21 trainer lands as IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa flew his last sortie with Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman, at Air Force Station in Pathankot. (ANI Photo)

New Delhi: The first death recorded in India of a pilot involving a Russian MiG-21 jet was of Sqn Ldr Malcolm Shirley Dundas Wollen in December 21, 1963. The same year saw another death in a separate MiG-21 crash. Since then, more than 400 of the MiG-21s have crashed, killing over 200 pilots and another 50 people on the ground. The most recent incident took place on Thursday, July 28, when two pilots were killed after their MiG-21 trainer aircraft crashed near Barmer in Rajasthan.

While the media may have dubbed them as “flying coffins”, the MiG-21 have continued to feature in the Indian Air Force (IAF), and are backed by many pilots. In the 2019 Balakot airstrike, the jet had reportedly taken down an American Lockheed Martin F-16. The MiG-21 Bison in question though, was also eventually brought down and Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was captured by Pakistan, but released and returned later.

Interestingly, during the India-Pakistan war of 1971, the MiG-21s were used against another American aircraft, the Lockheed F-104.

An article in Indian Defence review speaks about how the MiG-21s were pivotal in giving the IAF superiority. It also quotes military analyst Edward Coggins’ book ‘Wings That Stay On: The Role of Fighter Aircraft in War’ that by the time the hostilities came to an end, the IAF MiG-21s had claimed four Pakistani F-104s, two F6, one F-86 Sabre and one Lockheed C-130 Hercules. Coggins says the Russian fighter had won against the American F-104 in the air combat.

“With top cover provided by the MiGs, the IAF’s Sukhoi-7s and Hunters launched relentless attacks on Pakistan’s forward airbases, forcing the PAF to operate from bases further inland. This curtailed their range and the PAF aircraft were no longer able to attack freely.”

But while the MiG-21s still fly, its Cold War rivals, like the American F-104, the French Mirage III and British Lightning, are no more in the sky, but only a feature in museums or airplane boneyards.

First Buy And Phase Out

In 1963, the IAF inducted MiG-21 aircraft in its fleet at the cost of about Rs 177 crore. Till now, the IAF has inducted a total of 873 of these supersonic fighter aircraft MiG-21, the most being the Mikoyan MiG-21 FL Type 77 at a total 248, followed by 236 of Mikoyan MiG-21 Bis. The USSR, had by 1985 stopped manufacturing the MiG, with Russia transferring to India the technology and rights for local assembly.

India thus continues to use the MiG-21 and its upgraded variants.

In 2011, though, made the first time that a phase out of MIG 21s was being discussed. The then Minister of State for Defence M M Pallam Raju was quoted as saying that “The MiG 21s will get phased out by 2015-16. I think the last of the squadrons of the aircraft will be phased out by 2017”. But its July 2022 and India’s Air Force still uses these jets.

Back in 2011, the plan was, as per the minister, the MiG 21s which “constitute the majority of our squadrons … will gradually be replaced by the Light Combat Aircraft (LCAs) and the Su-30MKI.”

Raju said after the phasing out of the “MiG-21s from operational service, the IAF will have the LCA, SU-30MKI, Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), which is being developed with Russia.”