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1 3rd May 23:52
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Default Aging jets bother Indian air force

Aging jets bother Indian air force

NEW DELHI: Less than a minute after the young air force officer roared
into the sky on a moonless night, his fighter jet crashed into the
Indian desert - like dozens of India's aging military jets had crashed

That night in September 2001, Flight Lt. Abhijeet Anil Gadgil became
yet another casualty of India's combat jet programme, which combines
second-rate pilot training with a fleet of Soviet-made MiG-21 aircraft
that some critics say are outmoded.

"On that fateful moment, witnessed only by the mute and dark desert of


Kavita Gadgil has since launched a campaign to ensure greater safety
on MiG-21 jets. She has taken her case to the Indian president,
pleading with him to intervene.

But while at least 52 Indian air force pilots have been killed in more
than 100 crashes of MiG-21s in the past six years, the jets are often
not to blame, the government says.

Human error, the official reason given for Gadgil's death, accounts
for a majority of the MiG crashes - along with such things as
technical defects and birds clogging up the engines.

Growing concern over the frequent MiG crashes comes as New Delhi tries
to broaden its status as a regional power and flex its military

Though air force officials insist morale remains high among the
fighter pilots, others doubt it.

"I can only commend the air force for keeping its morale high - if it
really is," said Satyabrata Chaturvedi, an opposition member of
Parliament. "When the mother of a pilot goes to the president seeking
redress, it means she has no trust in the country's defence minister."
But things may be changing.

Last week, the Indian Cabinet cleared a US$1.3 billion deal to buy 66
British Hawk training jets. Aviation experts say the Indians' high
rate of crashes is, in part, due to lack of proper training jets.

Gadgil, who believes her meeting with the president expedited a
decision, said: "Our movement for air safety is going forward. This is
a good beginning."

The government says the MiGs are fine, and that age has little to do
with safety. Defence Minister George Fernandes flew in one of the
aging jets last month and said it flew well.

"If it is flown the way it should be flown, nothing can go wrong,"
said Wing Cmdr. N. Harish, who flew Fernandes.

There are no official statistics on the size of India's air combat
fleet, but defence ****ysts put it at 800. Nearly half are MiG-21
jets, most of them introduced between 1969 and 1976. Others include
the French Mirage, British Jaguar, Russian-made Sukhoi and modern MiG

Indian pilots are trained on slow-moving trainers, then suddenly
graduate to fly the faster and more complicated MiG-21s, said Nick
Cook, an aviation consultant at the London-based Jane's Defence

"It is essential for air forces around the world to match the trainer
aircraft to your combat aircraft," Cook says. But in India, plans to
do that have been dogged by bureaucratic delays, hectic lobbying and
allegations of corruption.

The Hawk deal, which was in negotiation for over a decade, "fulfills
one of the long-standing needs of the air force. ... The induction of
the (advanced jet trainer) will improve the skill levels of our
pilots," said Ajai Prasad, a top Defence Ministry official.

Plans to buy training jets were also delayed by sanctions imposed
after India's 1998 nuclear tests.

Indian pilots will still have to wait for three years before they get
their first Hawks.-AP
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