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MiG 21: Over 50 glorious years of service in Indian Air Force

The aircraft entered production in 1959 and over a period of next 25+ years, more than 11,000 MiG-21s of various variants were produced. If we factor into account the Chinese copy of MiG-21, J-7, into account, then more than 14,000 aircraft have been produced till date.

In the aviation world, especially that of fighter aircraft, MiG-21 is an icon. The aircraft entered production in 1959 and over a period of next 25+ years, more than 11,000 MiG-21s of various variants were produced. If we factor into account the Chinese copy of MiG-21, J-7, into account, then more than 14,000 aircraft have been produced till date.

MiG-21 was designed as a high speed, high altitude interceptor, working with ground control interception environment, to shoot down incoming American bombers towards USSR mainland. The way it was supposed to work was this – after radars had identified the American bomber, a ground controller, using information about the enemy and own aircraft, would direct the MiG-21s towards the incoming bomber, placing them in a favourable position to launch their missiles. This mode of operation was also successfully employed by Vietnam People’s Air Force (VPAF) of North Vietnam, in air battles against the United States Air Force (USAF). The North Vietnamese ground controllers would direct and position their MiG-21s in a favourable position with respect to USAF strike aircraft; VPAF fighters would fire their AA-2 ‘Atoll’ or K-13 short-range, infra-red missiles at the USAF fighters and then immediately scoot away at high speed. If not actually hitting the USAF strike aircraft (the infra-red technology wasn’t too great then), the attack forced them to jettison their payload and abort their missions.

Indian Air Force went on to adapt this short-range, high speed, high altitude interceptor for a variety of roles. From air combat to ground attack to reconnaissance to electronic warfare; MiG-21 in IAF service has done what even the original designers had never envisaged when they had designed this aircraft.

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After having done all the above, sometime in the 1990s, IAF worked out the most comprehensive upgrade on MiG-21, turning this venerable fighter into a formidable fighting machine – this is how the MiG-21 Bison was ‘born’.

Indian Air Force and MiG-21

Mig-21 Bis of No 15 Squadron ‘Flying Lances’

“In life, you offered this pilot a seat more coveted than that of a king’s; in death, you took an air-warrior to his glorious Valhalla.”

These words by former Air Chief Marshal A.Y. Tipnis, who led the Indian Air Force (IAF) during Kargil War in 1999, sum-up the feeling which fighter pilots, who’ve cut their teeth on MiG-21, have for this fighter aircraft.

Which is understood because no other aircraft has seen such extensive service in the IAF as MiG-21. IAF and MiG-21 love affair started in 1963-64 when about 09 Mig-21 aircraft, comprising of six MiG-21 PF (Type 76) and three MiG-21 F-13 (Type 74) entered service.

No 28 Squadron, aptly named ‘First Supersonics’, was raised in the early 60s to induct this new fighter from USSR. Interestingly, IAF had evaluated American F-104 ‘Start Fighter’ and French Mirage-III and it seems, IAF pilots had a favourable view of the American fighter. But then Cold War shenanigans and USSR offer of license production of MiG-21 in India tilted the scale in MiG-21s favour.

No 28 Squadron ‘First Supersonics’

Over the years, IAF has operated various types of MiG-21. Overall, IAF has had more than 900 MiG-21s in service since 1963-64; it reached its peak strength in the early 90s when in excess of 20 Squadrons were operating various types of MiG-21s.

In addition to the nomenclature given by the Soviet Union to various types of MiG-21s, IAF also followed its own nomenclature. Which I think was given by HAL and went by (Type-XY).

Various type of MiG-21s operated by IAF is as follows.

(1) MiG-21 F-13 (Type 74) [NATO reporting name: “Fishbed C”]

Mig-21 F-13 (Type 74)

This was one of the two types of MiG-21s to be first inducted into No 28 Squadron in the IAF. It was also the second type of MiG-21 to be produced by USSR. Type 74 had one internal cannon and could also carry 2 x K-13 ‘Atoll’ air-to-air missiles. While I don’t have exact numbers of how many MiG-21 F-13 were operated by IAF, my assessment is that no aircraft after the initial lot of 06 aircraft were imported.

Type -74 in IAF colours

(2) Mig-21 PF (Type 76) [NATO reporting name: “Fishbed D”]

MiG-21PF “Fishbed” at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Along with Type-74, this was the second type of Mi-21 which was initially inducted in the IAF. A total of 06 MiG-21 PF (Type 76) were inducted. The main difference between Type-74 and Type-76 was that Type-76 carried an R1L airborne intercept radar but did not have an internal cannon. As the below-mentioned incident shows, this lack of canon was to prove troublesome during 1965 war [1].

“Since the Kutch alert, 28 Sqn had moved to Adampur and was on high alert. Training, especially missile firing drills, radar operations and interception, had been intensified. Leave had been cancelled. India’s first supersonic squadron was itching to show its stuff, especially against the PAF’s F-104. After the first few Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) over Pathankot from Adampur, one flight was moved to Pathankot. Mally Wollen (who had taken over as CO) fired a missile at a Sabre, but it missed because of the ground clutter at low altitude. Unfortunately, he was flying a Type-76, which didn’t have a cannon. When he landed back he is supposed to have said “For a cannon! Just for a cannon!” He was so frustrated that he almost brushed the Sabre with his fin”.

A total of 12 aircraft of this type were operated by IAF.

(3) MiG-21 FL (Type 77) [NATO reporting name: “Fishbed D”]

Mig-21 (Type 77) from No 8 Squadron ‘Eight Pursoot’

This was the first MiG-21 variant which was both masses inducted into IAF and also mass produced in India under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). It was an enhanced version of MiG-21 PF (Type 76) and featured an R2L search-and-track radar. Like MiG-21 PF (Type 76), it also did not have internal cannon. However, after experience in the 1965 war, IAF ordered GP-9 gun packs, which could be mounted on the underbelly of the aircraft. However, mounting the GP-9 gun pack meant that MiG-21 FL (Type 77) could not mount an external fuel tank and this impacted the combat radius of the fighter. Combat radius with GP-9 gun pack and without external fuel tank was about 100 miles while with fuel tank it was 140-180 miles [source: Eagles Over Bangladesh – IAF in the 1971 Liberation War (Authors: PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra)].

Mig-21FL (Type 77) with GP-9 Gun Pack and K-13 AAM

Another image of Mig-21FL (Type 77) with underbelly GP-9 gun pack and K-13 missile

Production of MiG-21 FL (Type 77) started from 1966 onward and a contract for 195 aircraft was placed on HAL. By 1971 war, about 150 MiG-21 FL (Type 77) were in the inventory of IAF; production continued till 1973 [source: Eagles Over Bangladesh – IAF in the 1971 Liberation War (Authors: PVS Jagan Mohan and Samir Chopra)].

The last MiG-21 FLs were retired in 2013.

MiG-21 FL (Type 77) had played a crucial role in the 1971 war. In the aerial combat, its score was:

  • Lockheed F-104 Starfighter – 04
  • Shenyang F-6 (Chinese copy of the MiG-19) – 01
  • Canadair F-86 Sabre – 01

Painting of Flt Lt B B Soni in MiG-21FL (C-750), shooting down a PAF F-104 Starfighter was commissioned by Vayu Aerospace Review (source: bharat-rakshak.com)

Painting of Mig-21FL shooting down an F-86 Sabre (source: bharat-rakshak.com)

Six MiG-21s were lost in combat due to various reasons out of which only one was lost in Air to Air Combat – to an F-86 Sabre on the last day of the war [2].

This high-speed interceptor was adapted by IAF in the ground attack role. It took leading part in neutralizing the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) airfields in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, thereby denying PAF any space to intervene in the land battle.

The prowess of IAF MiG-21 FL (Type 77) crew in the ground-attack role is best illustrated in the attack on Governor’s House in Dacca which led to the resignation of the Governor and civilian authority in then East Pakistan Th details of the incident are narrated below

Amazingly, as soon as I alighted from a chopper at Tezgaon on the day after surrender, the first person who came rushing to me was a Russian. He had learnt from another member of our party that I had flown one of the MiG-21s which had bombed the runways. He asked me point blank to tell him honestly which kind of bomb sight we used for such pinpoint bombing and effectiveness.

He said he saw bombs falling for days nowhere else but on the runways. I thanked him for the compliment and reminded him that we were flying their MiG-21s and they should know as to which gun sights they had provided to us. He shook his head in disbelief. He had read the PAF claims that Indian MiG-21s in the east were using laser gun sights. No one was ready to believe the truth that what we actually only used the same old primitive fixed gun sight for our bombing.

The accuracy achieved was through our extensive training practice orientation, selection of attack techniques appropriate to the situation, sheer determination, motivation and guts in the face of enemy fire. The No.28 ‘First Supersonics’ were soon named ‘Runway Busters’ by the C-in-C of EAC, Air Marshal H.C. Dewan. We had earned our spurs and found a place in the history of air warfare.

Another very famous incident associated with MiG-21 FL (Type 77) and the Bangladesh Liberation war is the attack on Governor’s House on 14th December 1971.

MiG-21s of No.28 Squadron and No.4 Squadron plaster the Governor House at Dacca – leading to the collapse of the East Pakistani Regime. Painting by Deb Gohain (source: bharat-rakshak.com)

On 14th December I had just returned from a close-support mission in the morning from Mainamati Cantonment when Group Captain Wollen came rushing to our operations room and said, “Bhoop, a very critical and urgent task has come from Air HQ. There is a very important meeting going on at Circuit House, Dacca and this building needs to be attacked at 1120 hrs.”

I told him that, first it was already 1055 and it required 21 minutes to be at Dacca and then “Where in God’s name is the Circuit House located in Dacca?”

He said, “If you hurry up you can just about make it. Here, I have tourist map of Dacca and here, next to this road crossing is the Circuit House.” I looked back at him, the Circuit House was part of a densely populated area of Dacca and from the air one could see hundreds of road crossings, how was one to pick that one? I simply said, “Yes Sir, it shall be done.” I borrowed that map from him to be taken along and with this, search for that Circuit House after getting overhead Dacca.

For this mission I was taking four MiG-21s loaded with 32 high explosive rockets each. I was strapped in the cockpit of the aircraft and started the engine, just when I saw one of our Flight Commanders waving a paper and run towards me. “Sir, this is for you.” It read, Target is Government House, repeat Government House and not Circuit House. Confirm understood. Best of luck and good shooting. Mall.”

I raised my thumb to confirm that I had noted the change. I quickly scanned the tourist map in my lap and located the Government House and taxied out. At this stage I did not inform of the change to the other three members of my team which consisted of Flight Lieutenant Vinod Bhatia, Flight Lieutenant Raghavachari and Flight Lieutenant Malhi as I did not want to announce this on R/T for the whole world to know.

Airborne and as we were approaching Dacca and had barely a minute to go, I gave the new target to my numbers 2, 3 and 4. I described the rough location of the target and asked them to look for it. Flight Lieutenant Bhatia spotted it first, calling that the target was at 11 o’clock, 500 yards away. It was a magnificent old styled palatial building with a high dome, situated in the middle of a lush green compound. There were quite a few vehicles inside the entrance gate.

I did a “chakkar” around it to reconfirm its identity and then ordered the attack taking the building from broad side. I aimed at the room below the dome, others took on other portions. We did two passes each and fired 128 rockets into the Government House.

By the second attack smoke and dust could be seen rising from many locations from the abode the mightiest in East Pakistan. It obviously broke the backbone of the civilian Government. Two days later General Niazi, the Supreme Commander of the Pakistan Military in East Pakistan was to surrender to the Indian Defence Forces along with 93,000 troops.

C-779 is the same legendary fighter aircraft, which was flown during the air strike on the Governors house in Dacca in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. Wg. Cdr. B.K. Bishnoi, CO of the No.28 Squadron, was flying C-779 during that very mission

(4) MiG-21 M/MF (Type 96) [NATO reporting name: “Fishbed J”]

A trio of MiG-21MFs from No.108 Squadron, in colourful markings used for air combat training

The evolution of MiG-21 continued in USSR and next iteration of the type, which as supplied to third world countries was MiG-21M where M stands for Modernizirovannyy (“Modernised”). It was termed as Type 96 in IAF service. Compared to MiG-21 FL (Type 77), MiG-21 M (Type 96) had an internal Gsh-23L, twin-barrel, 23mm cannon. It had four pylons (2 under each wing) which could carry external fuel tanks (on outer pylons) and missiles.  It was the first multi-role version of MiG-21 series.

A further evolution of MiG-21 M (Type 96) was MiG-21 MF (Type 96F) when MF stood for Modernizirovannyy (“Modernised”), F = Forsirovannyy (“Uprated engine”). Compared to MiG-21M, which had R11F2S-300 engine, it had R-13-300 turbojet engine. The MiG-21M/MF also featured the first instance of Zero-Zero ejection seats (pilot could eject even if aircraft was stationary and on the ground).

MiG-21 M/MF started entering service from 1973 onward. A total of 158 aircraft of this type (93 MiG-21M and 65 MiG-21 MF) entered into IAF. It equipped four squadrons and one flight in IAF [3]. As per one ex-fighter pilot, it was a much-loved version of MiG-21. The last of the type was retired from IAF in early 2018.

MiG-21 M/MF also has a strong connection with the Kargil War of 1999.

A MiG-21 MF, piloted by Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja, Vrc, from 17 Squadron ‘Golden Arrows’ was on a photo-reconnaissance mission in the Kargil sector. At the same time, Flt Lt Nachiketa was on a ground attack mission in his MiG-27. While undertaking his mission, Flt Lt Nachiketa’s fighter suffered an engine flameout (engine shut in mid-air) and he had to bail out.

In an attempt to identify the final location of Flt Lt NAchiketa, so that he could pass on the coordinates to rescue team, Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja continued to circle in the area. By doing so, he exposed himself to man-portable air defence system (MANPAD) – which are basically shoulder launched surface to air missiles carried by Pakistan Army occupying the high mountains. Subsequently, he was hit by an FIM-92 ‘Stinger’ missile. His last communication was, “Hercules, something has hit my plane, the possibility of missile hit cannot be ruled out, I am ejecting over…(location).” [4]

It is believed he was killed by the Pakistan Army after he’d safely landed on another side of Line-of-Control.

Interestingly, the Commanding Officer (CO) of the 17 Squadron ‘Golden Arrow’ during the Kargil War was present Chief of Air Staff (COAS), ACM B.S. Dhanoa.

No 17 Squadron ‘Golden Arrows’

Chief of Air Staff, ACM BS Dhanoa, as Commanding Officer of No 17 Squadron during Kargil War in 1999 (source: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace)

Some other pictures of MiG-21 M/MF:

First MiG-21M (C1532) was handed over to the IAF on 14 February 1973 at Nasik

Old photo of MiG-21M (C1540), from No.37 Panthers Squadron

(5) MiG-21 Bis (Type 75) [NATO reporting name: “Fishbed N”]

An immaculate & clean MiG-21bis [C2781] in the skies over Bangalore. The aircraft was used as a chase by the ASTE during the LCAs first flight trials
MiG-21 Bis (Type 75) was the definite version of MiG-21 which came into being in USSR in the early 70s. As per technical information is given at bharat-rakshak.com:

  • The MiG-21Bis (Type 75) is an advanced variant with further improved avionics indicated by the ILS antennae under the nose and on the fin tip.
  • The airframe has a lifespan of 2,685 hours.
  • Standard avionics include automatic radio compass, IFF and a Sirena-3 RWR system.
  • The gyro gun-sight maintains precision up to 2.75 g.
  • Automatic ranging can be fed into gun-sight.
  • Full blind flying instrumentation with attitude and heading indicators given by radio-controlled gyro platform.
  • The aircraft also has a search & track radar.

MiG-21bis [C2776] in a mottled green-yellow Camo Scheme flying over the Himalayas
MiG-21 Bis (Type 75) went on to be the most numerous of MiG-21 types to enter service with IAF. A total of 290 of this type were ordered by the IAF.

Incidentally, one of the first squadrons to take part in Operation Safed Sagar, the name which IAF gave to air campaign in Kargil War, was the Srinagar based No 51 Squadron ‘Sword Arm’, the very same Squadron to which Wing Commander Abhinandan belongs. At that time, it was equipped with MiG-21 Bis.

No 51 Squadron ‘Sword Arm’

Shoulder Patch – No 51 Squadron ‘Sword Arm’

MiG-21 Bis of 51 Sqn being readied for the strike during Kargil War in 1999 (source: @leopard212)Another famous incident associated with MiG-21Bis (Type 75) is the downing of a Pakistan Navy Atlantique aircraft in the Gujarat sector.

No 45 Squadron ‘Flying Daggers’

Only a month after Kargil War had been declared as over, on 10th August 1999, IAF radars detected a Pakistan Navy Atlantique maritime patrol aircraft approaching the International Border (IB). The aircraft violated Indian airspace multiple times. As it tried to flee back into Pakistan, Squadron Leader Bundela of No 45 Squadron ‘Flying Daggers’ shot down the Pakistan Navy aircraft with an R-60 air-to-air infra-red heat-seeking missile

Mig-21bis of No 45 Squadron

Radar track of Pakistan Navy’s Atlantique MPA before it was shot down by IAF

Incidentally, No 45 Squadron became the first squadron in IAF to be equipped with the indigenous Tejas Mk1 aircraft.

Flying Dagger Squadron with new Tejas Mk1 aircraft (pic source: The Week)

(6) MiG-21 Bison

A pair of Mig-21 Bison

Sometimes towards the late 90s, IAF took a decision to enhance the combat potential of venerable Mig-21. This was the time when Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project had been launched and it was expected to replace Mig-21s in IAF service. However, decision-makers in the IAF rightly felt that the objectives of the LCA program were very ambitious and given the state of India’s industrial capability, unlikely to be realized in the projected time-frame.

Therefore, as an interim measure, a decision was taken to modernize 125 MiG-21 aircraft. The MiG-21 Bis (Type 75), being the ‘newest’ of the type in IAF service were chosen as the candidate for development. ‘New’ here being a relative term because last MiG-21Bis was manufactured at HAL in 1985.

The upgrade was done by a consortium of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and MiG-MAPO along with other Indian agencies. The first two aircraft were upgraded in Russia and joined IAF in 2001. Thereafter, the upgrades were done in Indian by HAL. The first squadron to be equipped with MiG-21 Bison was No. 3 Squadron, ‘Cobras’. The feedback of the first set of pilots who flew the upgraded MiG-21 Bison was [5]:

The pilots termed the aircraft as a ‘revelation’ – They were most impressed by the avionics and new systems, though the airframe and engine were the same. All five pilots reported the change as ‘fantastic’.

No 3 Squadron, Cobras

Mig-21 Bison of No 32 Squadron ‘Thunderbirds’ displaying the entire set of armaments it can carry

The main upgrades added to MiG-21 are as follows [6]:

  • Phazotron NIIR’s Kopyo multimode, X-band pulse Doppler radar
  • Ability to fire R-73
    • Close Combat Missile or Within-Visual-Range missile (WVR) – the one fired by Wing Commander Abhinandan to shoot down PAF  F-16D
  • Ability to fire R-77 missiles
    • Medium range or Beyond-Visual-Range Missile (BVR)
  • SURA helmet mounted sight
    • Used in conjunction with R-73 missile. This allows the MiG-21 Bison pilot to target enemy fighter by simply looking at it; this is called as off-boresight capability because own pilot does not have to position his aircraft behind enemy aircraft. He can target the enemy fighter flying certain degrees to his left or right by simply turning his head towards the target.
  • New nosecone
  • New canopy and single-piece windshield
    • This gives much better visibility to the pilot as compared to older MiG-21 Bis.
  • Sextant’s TOTEM RLG-INS with NSS-100P GPS embedded GPS receivers
  • El-Op Head-up Display (HUD)
  • Sextant MFD-55 LCD display
  • Autopilot
  • DRDO’s Tarang radar warning receivers (RWR)
  • The digital flight data recorder
  • New liquid-air cooling system
  • Hands on Throttle and Stick (HOTAS) controls
    • Reduces the pilot workload and allows him to more efficiently manage various functions
  • Twin conformal Vympel flare dispensers (26mm, 120 rounds)
    • For protection against heat seeking missiles

Mig-21 Bison equipped with R-77 missiles on inner wing pylon and R-73 missile on outer wing pylon (source: internet)

Comparison of the cockpit of Mig-21Bis and Mig-21 Bison

About 5 squadrons of the IAF are known to operate Mig-21 Bison. And the type will continue to be in service till 2025.

(7) Mig-21 Mongol U/UM/US-Mongol (Type 66)

MiG-21UM Type 69 of No.21 “Ankush” Squadron on takeoff roll

Two seat trainer used by the IAF. All of them were imported from either USSR/Russia or eastern European countries. Trainer version had no internal cannon.

It served two main training purposes:

  • MiG Operational Flying Training Unit (MOFTU): Stage III training where those flying cadets, who’re cleared for fighter stream, are given first exposure to fighter flying
  • Operational Conversion Unit (OCU) – Given the number of MiG-21 squadrons of various types in IAF, IAF had dedicated squadrons to train new fighter pilots about MiG-21. This happened AFTER the pilots had done their Stage III training and had been posted to a squadron flying MiG-21

Conclusion

MiG-21s of all types have had an illustrious career in the Indian Air Force. More than 80% fighter pilots of the IAF till some time back had earned their spurs on MiG-21. Most fighter pilots have vigorously contested the name of ‘flying coffin’ given to it by the media and lesser informed folks.

But as they say, only constant is change. So, a time will when in near future, when IAF will retire last of its venerable MiG-21s.

In the end, I again quote former Air Force Chief ACM AY Tipnis, for his words best encapsulates the feelings of a fighter pilot towards MiG-21:

Heed not the barbed taunt of “widow-maker” my lovely filly, for you are in fact a man-maker of boys. Were I to go down with you, my soul would have been tortured to have anyone call you my “flying-coffin”;

But I live, so I hope that I am there 10 years from now, along with your many disciples and admirers and our progeny and theirs too, to sing your praises for your half-a-century of relentless, superlative service to the nation and the Indian Air Force.

One day surely you must rest your hard driven limbs, but to each one of us whom you took to your bosom, whether in service or in retirement, you will ever remain “My Fair Lady”!

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