Over 400 of the 872 MiG-21s progressively inducted since the 1960s have been lost in accidents since 1971-72, killing over 200 pilots and 50 civilians on the ground.
Even before the crash on Thursday, the IAF had drawn up the phase-out plan for the around 70 MiG-21 ‘Bisons’ and trainers still in its fleet. It was as part of this plan that the Srinagar-based ‘51 Sword Arms’ Squadron will be “number-plated” in September this year. The other three MiG-21 squadrons at Uttarlai, Suratgarh and Nal in Rajasthan will subsequently be retired over the next three years. The 51 Squadron had played a major role in thwarting Pakistan Air Force’s retaliation a day after the IAF’s pre-dawn air strikes on the Jaish facility at Balakot on February 26, 2019.
Group Captain Abhinandan Varthaman, then a Wing Commander, was awarded a Vir Chakra for shooting down a F-16, while hi s MiG-21 also went down during the aerial skirmish on that day.
“The Soviet-era MiG-21s played a stellar role in air operations as high-altitude supersonic interceptors during the 1965 and 1971 wars. But they are long past their retirement date,” a senior officer said.