Flying coffin: Indian Air Force will retire Russian-dud MiG-21 in 2025 after 400 crashes and 200 dead pilots

After half of the fleet crashing over the years, the last of India’s 40 MiG-21s are expected to retire in 2025.

The MiG-21 first flew in 1955 and was retired in 1985 by the Soviet Air Force. The MiG-21 has a history of mechanical issues and crashes, earning it the nickname “flying coffin.” India’s MiG-21 fleet is set to be fully retired by 2025 after 60 years of service.

The MiG-21 is one of the most recognizable early Cold War fighter aircraft, and despite their age, some still remain in service with the Indian Air Force. But not for much longer. In 2025, the last of the Indian MiG-21s are slated to retire, bringing to a close a long and troubled history of the MiG-21 in Indian Air Force service.

The MiG-21 was one of the most produced military aircraft in history, with over 11,000 built between 1959 and 1985. The history of the MiG-21 is fascinating, going from one of the most advanced aircraft in the skies to the ‘flying coffin’ and, today, something of an outdated fossil of airborne combat.

The MiG-21’s first flight took place in 1955, just a decade after World War Two, and it was introduced into the Soviet Air Force in 1959. It enjoyed a long production run of 26 years, ending in 1985. Incredibly, the Chinese license-built version of the MiG-21 (called the Chengdu J-7) only ceased production in 2013. North Korea is a country that operates both the MiG-21 and China’s Chengdu J-7 – along with some even older aircraft like the MiG-19 – aircraft that were first produced around the time of the Korean War.

The MiG-21 is one of the oldest Soviet fighter jets still in service around the world (although there are older MiG-17s and MiG-19s still being flown).

The MiG-21 first entered Indian Air Force service in 1963. Back then, the jet was a respectable fighter, and formed the backbone of the nation’s fleet from the 1970s through to the mid-2000s. It really shone during the Indo-Pak war in 1971, where its pinpoint bombing helped India seize control of airfields and its aerial attack saw a number of shootdowns.

But, today, the MiG-21 is something of a relic and has long been retired from most air forces around the world. It was never operated by the Russian Air Force, having been retired while it was still the Soviet Air Force. However, the Indian Air Force continues to fly limited numbers of the MiG-21 despite efforts to replace them sooner.

According to Perun, one problem is that the Indian Air Force is considerably under its authorized strength. The Air Force is meant to have 42 fighter squadrons; instead, it has around 31. This fleet makeup of these 31 squadrons of fighters is one of the world’s most interesting collections. It has everything from modern Russian fighter jets like the Su-30MKI and the French Dassault Rafale multirole fighter to the BAE Hawk and the MiG-21. The gulf in these generational capabilities from oldest to newest aircraft is breathtaking.

India has faced the daunting task of replacing its old (or ancient) platforms like the MiG-21 while also trying to build up its strength closer to the authorized 42 squadrons. India is a massive country whose air force needs large numbers of aircraft to carry out its mission and defend its skies effectively.

Today, India still has around 40 of the hundreds of MiG-21s it has operated. These have been updated to match 3rd Generation fighter jets, according to India Today.

MiG-21 – the flying coffin

But the MiG-21 is more than just an outdated aircraft kept in service. They are also plagued with mechanical problems, and so many have crashed that they have earned themselves the monicker ‘The Flying Coffin.’ This is not the only undesirable title the MiG-21 has earned in Indian service. It is also called the widow-maker.

Indian Air Force MiG-21 accidents

  • Pilots killed approx. 200
  • Civilians killed approx. 60
  • Number of crashes approx. 400 (over half of 840 produced in India)
  • Most recent crash May 8, 2023

Over their 60 years in Indian Air Force service, 200 pilots and at least 60 civilians have been killed in at least 400 MiG-21 crashes. Sometimes, the pilots flying these aircraft are not green, newly recruited servicepeople but valuable, fully trained veterans. Over half of the 840 aircraft built in India between 1966 and 1984 have been lost to accidents. Most Indian MiG-21s were license-built by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bangalore.

Accidents have continued to plague the IAF, even in recent years. Two pilots were killed in the Indian state of Rajasthan after a crash on July 28, 2022. Another pilot was forced to eject on May 8, 2023; the pilot was safe, but two civilians were killed on the ground. Over 20 of the craft have crashed since 2010.

Each squadron has around 20 MiG-21. Recently, it was reported by The Wire that one of the three remaining squadrons of MiG-21s was retiring, leaving two squadrons flying the old interceptor remaining.

These last two squadrons are slated to finally retire in 2025. With that comes an end to the long and troubled history of the MiG-21 in Indian Air Force service. Finally, the MiG-21 will be retired in India some 40 years after the Soviet Air Force retired them in 1985. These days, the aircraft are used chiefly as interceptors and have only a limited role as fighter jets. They are primarily used for training exercises.

India has long sought to develop its own aircraft, but its indigenous Tejas program has seen many delays and has a complex history. This has forced India to rely more on its aging fleet than anticipated.

Even after India retires its MiG-21 fleet, it will remain in service with other air forces. According to The Military Balance 2023, hundreds of Chengdu J-7s (China’s licensed production of the MiG-21) remain in service for conversion training. In the Chinese Air Force (called the People’s Liberation Army Air Force).

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