Over 180 IAF pilots have been killed in MiG-21 accidents since 1970. These accidents have also resulted in the deaths of over 40 civilians. It’s no wonder these jets have assumed grim tags such as the ‘flying coffin’ and the ‘widow maker’. 

And yet, we continue to use them in frequent circulation, both for training exercises as well as in actual combat situations. In fact, even the IAF plane that was downed recently in Pakistan was a MiG-21. 

It begs the question – why are these 30-year-old veritable death traps still in circulation? 


In the early 80s, the IAF realised it needed to replace its MiG-21s since their shelf life was coming to an end, and they introduced the Tejas programme. However, there were snags in the programme, and red tape caused it to drag on for several years. The output of the Tejas is also abysmally low, and not quick enough to keep our skies safe.

Scrapping the entire fleet of MiG-21s would leave a critical void in numbers, and is not a viable immediate option.


To this end, India decided to extend the Total Technical Life (TTL) of its MiG-21s by upgrading their turbofan engines, radars, avionics etc.

Regardless of these upgrades however, the jet has a host of problems. When in afterburner, the engine operates very close to its surge line and the ingestion of even a small bird can lead to an engine surge/seizure and flame out. 

Basically, our own slow decision making, combined with a lack of any suitable replacement, has led to the continuity of the MiG-21, despite its poor safety record. 


One IAF officer told Rediff – 

There is no one single factor responsible for the high rate of accidents. Besides human error and engine problems, a noticeable number of fighters crash due to bird hits.

While the upgrades to their avionics and armaments helped these jets run longer, the fact still remains that Russia stopped producing these plane in 1985. And there’s ample evidence why we should too. 

In 2002, a MiG-21 crashed into an office building in Jalandhar, killing 8 and injuring 17. The cause of the accident was a technical error. 

In 2014, a MiG-21 jet crashed in Jammu and Kashmir’s Anantnag district, killing the pilot. 

In July 2018, a MiG-21 fighter jet crashed in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, killing the pilot. 

These are just a few of the instances of this flying machine falling through. And yet, as of 2019, 113 MiG-21s are still known to be in operation in the IAF.  


Another issue that has contributed to the MiG-21’s death toll is the availability of spare parts. 

Moscow has consistently warned India that purchasing faulty second-hand spares from countries like Israel and Ukraine would lead to accidents. 

Air Vice Marshall SJ Nanodkar told The Tribune – 

The IAF is compelled to carry on using the MiG-21 in the absence of a viable option. This will continue as no immediate replacements are coming.  

There have also been some pertinent question being asked online about the continued presence of these unsafe war machines.

Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik, the former chief of the Indian Air Force, has a different view of the matter. He told The New York Times – 

I have flown more than 2,000 hours in various variants of the MIG-21. Any issue with the MIG-21 gets magnified because much of the fleet comprises of this type.

The IAF has also been demanding new jets for 2 decades, but the issue is still pending. The current plan is that the IAF will phase out nine squadrons of the MiG-21 and 2 MiG-27 over the next 5 years. 

The need of the hour however, is to ensure that our pilots are not forced to fly obsolete machines that can lead to unnecessary military and civilian casualties.