Indian Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa on Thursday flew a solo sortie of the MiG-21 Type 96--the oldest aircraft with the Indian Air Force--from the Uttarlai Base, a forward airbase in Rajasthan. The sortie lasted for about half-hour. This is the first time in many years that an Air Chief has flown a solo sortie of MiG-21.
Almost half the fleet of MiG-21 inducted into the IAF since mid 1960s has crashed earning the fighter an unenviable name of "Flying Coffin". Yet the MiG-21 fighters continue to be India's main interceptor and air-defence aircraft. The IAF has about 9 squadrons (each squadrons comprises 14-16 fighters) of MiG-21 fighters.
The MiG-21 fighters have to be decommissioned soon. The indigenously-made single engine Tejas is likely to replace MiG-21. The first squadron of Tejas--with only two aircraft--has been raised. Doubts, however, remain on whether the Defence Public Sector Unit Hindustan Aeronautical Limited (HAL)--that developed and manufactures the fighters–-can produce the required number of fighters. Besides, the Tejas isn't yet cleared for operations. It suffers from several deficiencies that have to be addressed. While the HAL in collaboration with the IAF work towards addressing the deficiencies, India has invited global manufacturers to pitch for developing another single engine fighter in India.
The Air Chief flying a solo sortie will go a long way in assuring young pilots who will be flying MiG-21. Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa flew the same type of aircraft during 1999 Kargil War and carried out many night strike missions in the mountainous terrain.
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