Despite first flying over sixty years, the pugnacious MiG-21 remains in frontline service in the Indian Air Force. Fast, agile and brutally simple – the elderly Cold War fighter jet is still capable of biting complacent opponents, and even has some tricks up its sleeve that more sophisticated enemies cannot match. We spoke to Group Captain MJA Vinod (formerly of the Indian Air Force) about flying and fighting this lightweight Soviet ‘rocketship’.
Which three words best describe the MiG-21?
“Fast, agile and extremely manoeuvrable.”
When did Indian procure the MiG-21 and where were you trained?
“It was in 1961 when India went in for MiG 21s, I was trained here in India.”
What were your first impressions of the MiG-21?
“I did my training in the Kiran (an Indian version of the British Jet Provost) Mk I and Mk II, by the time I came to fly the MiG-21 at the MiG Operational Flying Training Unit (MOFTU) I had about 250 hours of jet flying experience. Even then, the first thing that hits you is its speed. The speed at which things happen. I remember an incident very vividly, one of my course-mates reached the top of a climb even before he had raised his undercarriage. Yeah! I was extremely lucky to fly MiG-21, especially a Type-77.”
What is the best thing about it?
“It’s a completely a manual aeroplane, with very simple systems. If one masters it, this aircraft can manoeuvre better than most modern aircraft, provided it is flown by someone who has mastered the aircraft.”
“I once flew a DACT mission against two MiG-29s, I didn’t engage them in a turning fight. I kept my fight vertical and got two kills.”
And the worst thing?
Being a manual aircraft, safety needs to be observed as it is not ensured by inherent safety features and design features that of a modern aircraft. In a MiG-21, being an older generation aircraft, sometimes this thin line has been transgressed by a few good men inadvertently and I lost some of my friends. This is something that was corrected in the Midlife upgrade. MiG 21 Bison has good safety features.
How you rate the MiG-21 in the following categories?
A. Instantaneous turn
“The MiG-21’s instantaneous turn has very little meaning in combat. Being a swept-back delta, the lift/per deg of angle of attack that she produces is not nothing to write home about.”
B. Sustained turn
“Being a delta planform, the drag that she generates as the angle of attack increases is high, so its sustained turn rate (compared to any modern-day fighter) is not very high either. Despite this, she is able out manoeuvre modern fighters, how? That is an interesting question.”
C. High alpha
“Oh! The MiG-21 can reach very high alpha, much higher than any modern fighter. This is because modern-day fighters have systems that prevent the pilot from reaching vey high alpha — as they reach very high alpha a protection measures kicks in and limits them. I used this feature later in life to take the MiG-21 to a very low speeds and watched a Eurofighter typhoon shoot past me.”
“Indian MiG-21 has something called an emergency power reserve (EPR) aka second reheat. With EPR she accelerates much faster. I remember doing a DACT (dissimilar air combat training) with one other fighter (wouldn’t like to name it) and being a superior fighter, he was supposed to demonstrate his acceleration to me, little did he know that at the end of the acceleration run I matched him. Thanks to second reheat.”
E. Climb rate
“The MiG-21 is like a rocket with small wings to keep it in the air. It was designed to shoot down aeroplanes like the U-2 spy planes. Its dynamic thrust goes up to 9900 kgf, it can practically accelerate in a vertical climb. In matter of seconds it reaches its ‘business ‘altitude of business’.”
What was your most memorable mission?
“This was 1995 and we were being inspected by an agency from headquarters, a potentially prestigious moment for any squadron to perform well and get good scores. I was still a Pilot Officer (A rank now retired by the IAF) and I was ground standby for one of the four aircraft strike plus two aircraft for the escort mission. Visibility was very poor, barely 2-3 kilometres. Being the most junior member I made the map for the entire formation, therefore I knew the route by heart. This was a mission to be flown at low level over the Thar Desert. The Commanding Officer was leading the mission with the Flight Commander being the deputy leader (the two senior-most Squadron leaders being the other two members). The escorts were MiG-29 from the adjacent base, but owing to the bad visibility they never turned up. The interceptors were pilots of the inspection agency. On the day of reckoning my CO took off and one of his undercarriages didn’t go up, however he still gathered the formation and put them on the first course. He then peeled off and asked me to slot in as number four. I got airborne and by then the formation was fifty kilometres from me. Since I made the map I exactly knew where the formation would be in terms of time. Remember that over desert, ground features are sparse and sometimes there are none. Be that as it may, I cut corners and managed to join up with the formation, navigating purely on time and direction. In 1995, there was no GPS or other navigation system to assist you, navigation was purely carried out using direction, speed, time and of course your Eye Ball Mk II (a jokey pilot term for human eyeballs).
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As soon as I joined up, two of the interceptors showed up — one behind my sub section leader and the other one trailing him. I shot both down (meaning took pictures of them through my gun camera) — and lo and behold lost sight of my other formation members who by then were reaching their waypoint from where they were getting into formation for weapon release. I went at very high speed and caught up with them, and dropped my weapon — which was on the pin. All this when I had very little experience on type. I was adjudged exceptional for that mission. Air Commodore of the inspection agency (later retired as an Air Marshal) came up on the podium and lauded my flying, situational awareness and mission accomplishment. There was a big party after that. Once of my colleague (whom I lost later in a crash, may his soul rest in peace) started calling me Douglas Bader after that. This was one of the most memorable missions that I flew. In time, later in life there were many. Yeah ! This really stand out as most exciting peacetime mission.”
Which aircraft have you flown DACT against and which was the most challenging?
“I have flown DACT against most aircraft of IAF’s inventory and against the Eurofighter Typhoon. I would say fighting a Typhoon was very challenging. It was October 2010, when Eurofigher Typhoons visited Kalaikunda Air Base as part of Exercise Indradhanush.
I was commanding a MiG-21 unit there, when Group Captain John Hitchcock Station Commander of RAF Coningsby, the team leader of the Indradhanush exercise was detailed to fly with me in MiG-21 trainer. My wingman was a young British pilot flying a Typhoon. It was a mission where the Typhoon was to going demonstrate its capability and we were supposed to observe.
Typhoon did everything it should – extremely well – like picking us up on its air-to-air radar and locking onto us and joining up with us using onboard avionics etc. All these were perfect until it came to low-speed manoeuvring. That is when, modern aircraft with all its safety systems onboard do not let you do things which only a manually flown fighter can do. In the low-speed regime Typhoon whizzed past in front of us like an arrow… and I wasn’t even manoeuvring.
That’s when he probably realised the true meaning of man-machine combo. We repeated this in straight and level flight — and in a turning fight where below a certain speed a modern fighter just slides ahead of a MiG-21… unless he turns away and comes back around to finish you off. For him to execute this he needs to have sufficient information and situational awareness. After landing, Group Captain John Hitchcock presented me with his first ever Typhoon badge and called me ‘A hell of a pilot’.”
How good were the sensors?
“The MiG-21 has many versions in the IAF, Type 74 (which I haven’t seen, as it went back to Russia when Type 77s were inducted) to MiG-21 Bison. The Type-77, when it was inducted, had a very potent air-to-air radar which for its time was very advanced. It had a Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), a datalink system (called Lazur), radio altimeter, a non-toppling Artificial Horizon called the ‘Agada’ etc. For its time, the older version of MiG-21 was state of the art — and an enigma for the Western world. That was until Operation Diamond happened and Munir Redfa defected with an Iraqi MiG-21 to Israel.
The same is the case with the modern MiG-21 Bison, it has a state-of-the-art radar, beyond visual range missiles and a great navigation system etc. This was the very type of aircraft that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman flew and brought a Pakistan’s F-16 down.”
How easy is to fly? What is the hardest thing about flying it?
“I wouldn’t say it is easy to fly a MiG-21, it takes a while to master this aircraft. Most pilots will tell you this, the hardest thing is landing a MiG-21. It has the highest landing speed in the world, at high altitude airfields she can clock a landing ground speed of 450km/h. For some of the training aircraft it is beyond the Velocity Never Exceed (VNE). The MiG-21’s airspeed indicator starts at 200km/h, Russians didn’t find the need to show you speeds less than 200km/h. Imagine that.”
Is the cockpit tiny?
“Yes, it is a snug fit, therefore there are stringent anthropometric requirement to fly this aircraft. Tall pilots, especially ones with long legs or torsos, cannot fly this aircraft. Long legged pilots would not have the requisite clearance required to eject, lest you hurt your leg in the process. Long torso pilots cannot sit in the aircraft and close the canopy.”
How would you rate the cockpit?
“Ease of access, over the shoulder visibility, feeling of you strapping an aircraft to yourself because of the snug fit of the cockpit; I personally would rate the cockpit very high. The comfort level in the cockpit of a MiG 21 is very high. Some critical switches can be reached without even taking your hands off the throttle and stick, this was designed in a time when HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) was a concept that was unknown to the world.”
Have you fired live weapons- if so, what was it like?
“I have fired all weapons that a MiG 21 can fire, both air-to-air and air-to-ground. Like I said before, being a manual aircraft the deciding factor of the weapons delivery accuracy was your skill… completely. In the older versions of MiG 21 you fired eye-balling through a gunsight estimating ranges through the sight and your seat-of-the-pants. I can safely say, I was good at it and people who know me will vouch for it. There was a time when my rocket firing score was ‘zero metres’ meaning all were on the pin. Same goes for my bombing scores, they too were exceptional. Air-to-air firing too, I guess I excelled in it.
In a nutshell, I would say, the MiG-21 bolstered our (many other pilots like me ego ) well!”
“In the low-speed regime Typhoon whizzed past in front of us like an arrow… and I wasn’t even manoeuvring. That’s when he probably realised the true meaning of man-machine combo.”
How confident would you feel going against a modern F-16 or MiG-29?
“It is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Modern day fighters have systems assisting you. Superior radar, helmet mounted sighting systems, great RWR, Counter missile systems, electronic warfare systems like the self protection jammers etc. The older version MiG-21 had none of these, so they are clearly out of the fray. The MiG-21 Bison is the most modern MiG 21, and it is formidable in all of these — the only downside being the limited endurance that a MiG-21-class of aircraft has. Eventually it is the man-machine combo that makes or breaks an air combat.”
What is the greatest myth about the MiG-21?
“The epithet ‘Flying Coffin’ that was thrust upon it by some people; nothing could be farther from the truth. A couple of things need to be understood by all and sundry. Firstly, the MiG-21 is a fighter designed in the ’50s and inducted in the ’60s. Show me one fighter of that era which has a better safety record than a MiG-21. It is a single-engine fighter and when it loses that engine, it needs to be re-started (called a ‘relight’). More often than not it relights, but it takes a finite amount of time to relight any jet engine, so if you are below the minimum height (so with insufficient time to relight) you have to leave the aircraft. I haven’t heard of a single time when MiG-21 ejection seat quit on someone. I have had engine quitting on me, on take-off, and here I am giving this interview. I think calling the MiG-21 as ‘flying coffin’ is the biggest myth. Our previous Air Chief, ACM BS Dhanoa proved to everyone that indeed it is the safest of aircraft, by flying it as and when he could. In fact, his last flight was with Wing Commander Abhinandan.”
How combat effective is the MiG-21 today?
“MiG-21s have served its time well in the IAF and in couple of years we will see them being retired gracefully in totality. Even today MiG-21 Bison is serving IAF well. In the recent skirmish, remember it was the MiG-21 which got us an air-to-air kill.”
How reliable and easy to maintain is it?
“Like I said before, its safety record — in its class — is the best. You can’t compare it to modern fighters, you need to compare its safety record to Chinese Q-5s, American Phantoms, Starfighters, and English Electric Lightnings. It is a fighter of that time. Comparing with those fighters, it outlasted its peers easily. Why? Because of its performance and its ease of maintenance.”
Tell me something I don’t know about the MiG-21?
“The air intake cone that you see in front of a MiG 21, is not a simple cone. It is bi-conic: at high mach speeds two shockwaves form one oblique wave at the point where the cone angle changes angle and one at the intake lip. Both these shockwaves capture maximum pressure and slows the air down to 0.4 mach in front of the engine for it to work efficiently. This is not a well-known fact.”
What tips would you give new pilots coming onto the MiG-21
“Well there are no real MiG-21 pilots left in the world, not many young pilots are going to MiG-21 squadrons. The ones there are, they know everything that it is to know about it.”
Should it be retired?
“It is nature, everything, like you and me, will live our useful life. Humans who were originally associated with this beautiful machine are all long gone. She too will be retired one day, gracefully.”
“Our seniors told us do not engage a Harrier in a turning fight. Seduce him to go vertical then you can have him, post VIFFing she would take a long time to accelerate, that is the time to catch him. That’s what we did with the harrier, let him fall out of the sky and pick him. If you aren’t careful, the Harrier would have you, fair and square.”
What is the hardest manoeuvre to pull off in a MiG-21?
“An outside drop. You can’t for certain say, you will be able to pull off and outside drop on a MiG-21 perfectly, every time. Outside drop is a manoeuvre in which you drop on to an enemy fighter who is turning away from you and you have to outmanoeuvre you aeroplane to reach the kill zone behind that aeroplane, perfectly.
What should I have asked you?
“You questions are well-designed. However, this interview is not enough to talk about everything that is interesting about the MiG-21. She is an institution in itself, being the jet fighter produced in the greatest number, and it has seen more action that any other jet fighter. It’s a ‘been there, done that’ aeroplane. I don’t think there will ever be a fighter that could come anywhere close to what the MiG-21 has achieved in its lifetime.”
In air combat with a MiG-29, who would have the advantage and why?
“Like I have said before, the MiG-21 is a pure manual fighter. She fights beautifully in the vertical plane, that’s why instantaneous and sustained turn rates aren’t relevant fighting a MiG-21. Vertically down or up, she can turn and catch any fighter at rates more than 90degs a second. I once flew a DACT mission against two MiG-29s, I didn’t engage them in a turning fight. I kept my fight vertical and got two kills. The deal with the MiG-21 is you cannot pitch your weakness against enemy’s strength. The MiG-21 fights well in the vertical plane and one shouldn’t be reluctant to use its vertical plane to fight.”
How would it perform in within-visual-range combat against a Hunter?
“I may be only few who flew against a Hunter and a Harrier. I must tell you this, in a low speed fight both these fighters will spin web around a MiG-21. MiG-21’s strength is in its speed, so the deal is keeping your speed high take them on in the vertical. Both will fall out of the sky, that is the time to pick them from top, like a hawk picking it pray from above.”
Hawker Hunter versus MiG-21
“This sortie was flown when Hunters were towing the target for us for air-to-air firing. Having finished the requisite numbers of missions, my CO decided to fly against a Hunter. The Hunter in turned around and scored a kill. A repeat manoeuvre was the same story. One couldn’t outmanoeuvre a Hunter in a turning fight, but the Hunter was a subsonic aircraft and beyond a particular speed she just wouldn’t accelerate. The key was to create separation from the Hunter and come from top, like a hawk.”
Sea Harrier versus MiG-21
“The story is similar with the Sea Harrier. The Sea Harrier does something called a VIFF (vectoring in forward flight) where she would turn around like a top in turning fight. Our seniors told us do not engage a harrier in a turning fight. Seduce him to go vertical then you can have him, post VIFFing she would take a long time to accelerate, that is the time to catch him. That’s what we did with the Harrier, let him fall out of the sky and pick him. If you aren’t careful, the Harrier would have you, fair and square.
At the end of the day, at the cost of repetition I say this: it is your ‘sang froid’, mastery of the machine, situational awareness and knowledge of the enemy aircraft. These is the sure recipe for a successful outcome in air combat.”
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Manual aircraft have an advantage over fly-by-wire designs?
“These can’t be compared; modern machines are built with a purpose. The pilot is also an input in the control loop. His manoeuvring inputs are demands that the aircraft tries to meet, within the safety and manoeuvring parameters. Modern aircraft have many aids to assist the pilot and controller on ground or on the AWACS to make an informed decision. They all form important elements — spokes in the wheel — with the wheel being warfighting. Modern day warfighting is complex, spread out over hundreds of kilometres — and more often than not you will never get to see your kill. This is all opposed to an aircraft, like the MiG-21. The MiG-21 has no frills, only the joy of pure flying, akin to barnstorming if you will. It would be unfair to compare the MiG-21 to more modern aircraft, except in one aspect. That is: below the safety speeds — if you can still manoeuvre — manual aircraft let you do it. The danger involved in doing this is high though. In an FBW aircraft, below safe speeds or safe angles-of-attack the aeroplane takes control of the machine and only hands it over to you once you are safe to manoeuvre again. This is where manual aircraft can score over modern aircraft with FBW. But then in modern warfare it is not envisaged that you will ever get into such a scenario. If you do, you would either be long shot down or the enemy has run out of ammo and he is now engaged with you to finish your fuel and make you eject. There is no reason why a modern aircraft would engage you in low-speed fight if he knows he is at a disadvantage.”
Special thanks to Group Captain Vinod and Angad Singh.
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Fairchild AU-23A Armed Pilatus Turbo-Porter 72-3 Janes – Sufficient put into service to not be relevant.
*Pave Coin Beech A36 Bonanza Janes 72-3. Other aircraft included the Piper PE1 Enforcer (turbine Mustang) – Janes 81-2, AU-23 and 24 (above), Cessna O-1, U-17 and O-2 and Cessna A-37.
SAAB-MFI-17 (only 300kg external load capability) 72-3 Janes