Small, fast and wickedly agile, the Soviet-designed MiG-21 was an extremely potent warplane. For two decades it formed the backbone of the Indian fighter force. We spoke to Air Marshal M Matheswaran (retd) about what it was like to fly and fight in the MiG-21.
When did you first fly a MiG-21 and what were your first impressions?
I began flying the MiG-21s in 1976. At that time it was the prime aircraft in the Air Force. Quite obviously it was great to be selected to go into a MiG-21 squadron. First impressions – fascinating, sleek, and fast.
What were the greatest limitations of the MiG-21?
None really. Particularly in performance, considering that period and environment. However, since it was truly light it carried limited fuel. Hence, range and endurance was low, as we entered the mid 80s and 90s.
What were the best qualities of the MiG-21?
Small, low visual and radar signature, agile, excellent acceleration, and good thrust-to-weight ratio.
How would you rate the MiG-21 in terms of:
Sustained turning? Good
Instantaneous turning? Excellent.
High altitude performance? Good
Which aircraft have you ‘fought’ in training exercises? Of these which were the most formidable fighters?
Mirage 2000, MiG-29, MiG-23 MF, Gnat, Jaguar, and a few others. MiG-29 and M2000 were the tough ones.
“It could go supersonic at low level, out-accelerate the Mirage 2000 (hence F-16) at low level. It had a very powerful engine with a second reheat, a good sighting system and a good radar”
What tips would you offer for ‘fighting’ these types? In air-to-air combat performance the MiG-21Bis can hold itself. The Mirage 2000 and the F-16 would outlast due to longer endurance, better radar and also in strike role.
Do you believe the MiG-21 was the right choice for the IAF, what alternative fighters could have been procured at the time?
The MiG-21 was chosen in 1963. The US did not offer any, and its best at that time – the Phantom – was not available. However, the Phantom would have been better suited to the strike role. The F-104 was not a patch on the MiG-21. India had French and British aircraft for strike role. The MiG 21 was very good, particularly in air defence, and high altitude interception. Given the production and TOT advantages as well, the decision to go for MiG-21 was excellent.
Find out what it was like to fly and fight in the Lightning here.
What equipment would you have like to have seen integrated onto the MiG-21?
The question is too generic. You need to specify time and environment. Anyway, in the 90s we felt acutely the need to have HUD, a digital navattack system, and a new radar. This we did achieve by 2003-04, although 3 years late and some teething problems. Finally it was an excellent solution. The aircraft was called MiG-21 Bison. The ‘Fishbed’s major limitation was its lack of gyro-sight.
Did you fly the MiG-21 into combat? Would you have been confident flying it into combat?
I had mobilised for war at least three times. I did active ORP duties for many years in early career.
What is the greatest myth or misunderstanding of the MiG-21?
I suppose myth and misunderstanding were more about reliability . That was a fallacy, that Russian technology was unreliable. Russian technology was very robust and reliable, provided you ensured your inventory management and logistics well. In performance much of the myths came from Israelis victories against the Arabs. This was primarily due to poor pilot skills and training. India evolved its own training methodologies and tactics development. Americans knew the aircraft well from their Vietnam experience. So finally any aircraft is only as good as the man behind the machine. The MiG-21, in its time, was an exceptional aircraft in good hands.
Which variant of the MiG-21 did you fly? What were the various merits of the different Indian variants? All variants, starting from the Fishbed. The Fishbed (we called it Type 74) was very light, highly agile, and the most beautiful to handle, even in extreme low speeds. The subsequent versions became heavier, as they increased their internal fuel, more equipment etc. The MiG-21M was heavier, but had the same engine (R-11), as the Fishbed, and so became less efficient at low speeds. MiG-21MF had an improved radar and a more powerful engine (R-13), and so had similar performance as the Fishbed. The MiG-21Bis was the best of them, it was upgraded for multi-role operations. With wing tanks it had a good range. It could go supersonic at low level, out accelerate the Mirage 2000 (hence F-16) at low level. It had a very powerful engine (R-33) with a second reheat, a good sighting system and a good radar (Almaz). The Bis’s nose was heavier, and so its slow speed handling was slightly inferior to the Fishbed, but its other strengths made it a truly classy aircraft. The Bis was later upgraded to Bison, which was excellent.
Find out what it was like to be an RAF interceptor pilot here
How did the MiG-21 compare to the Mirage 2000? How would it compare with an F-16? In air-to-air combat performance the MiG-21Bis can hold itself. The M2000 and the F-16 would outlast due to longer endurance, better radar – and they are also superior in the strike role.
What advice would you give to pilots converting to the MiG-21?
It’s now too late. The MiG–21 has been phased out. In any case, for a young pilot, off the training academy, the MiG–21 is not an easy aircraft. It required the best of guys to be selected, those with above average skills.
Did the MiG-21 have any eccentric handling characteristics?
What was your most memorable mission or flight and why?
Many. However, I will name one. Quite early in the operational conversion syllabus one had to do the flight at the highest operational envelope height. So here I put on the supersonic suit, its pretty much the same outfit worn by Yuri Gagarin, and I did the supersonic profile. You climb to 16 km in a quick profile, accelerate to 2.1 Mach, and then zoom to 21km, and fly an interception profile accelerating from 1.8M to 2.1M. This part was dropped in later years (after the mid eighties). Quite obviously, later generation never got to wear the supersonic suit, except for those select few who flew the MiG-25.
What was the MiG-21 cockpit like?
Quite fine for a design of its times. Compared to the F-16’s bubble cockpit, its rear visibility was limited, as was the visibility below the nose. The cockpit was old instrumentation and cannot be compared to today’s glass cockpit. Air-conditioning came on after take-off. On ground it was air ventilated. For Indian climates, it would be fairly warm on ground. However, did not matter for hardcore, passionate fighter boys.
Did you have confidence in the Russian armament and avionics?
What was it like to fly the Mirage 2000? Find out here
How much variation was there in within the MiG-21 fleet, were certain aircraft better than others?
Basic aircraft aerodynamics was the same. But differences included weight, thrust, and systems. Bis was the most different. For example it had Boundary Layer Control, which made a major difference in its approach/landing profile.
Which three words best describe the MiG-21?
Light, agile, and excellent.
Special thanks to Angad Singh.
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