While it is heartening that the pilot bailed out safely, the loss of a MiG-27 over Sirohi in Rajasthan on Sunday is disturbing and does underscore a rather dismal record of air force safety and maintenance. Another MiG-27 had gone down in Rajasthan on 12 February.
On the one hand, India pride itself on the quality of its pilots and the incredible efforts of its engineers to keep 30-year-old and older machines in the sky. But is even that skill being pulled apart and does this last crash demand a more thorough investigation into the idea that the fleet is under threat? It is not just the MiG-21 of which 479 aircraft and 177 lives have been lost over these past four decades, but the fact that India is no stronger than it was in 1971 and the 600-odd frontline aircraft are eating into themselves as a cannibilisation of spare parts to keep some of them flying is now becoming more than the norm.
When planes are grounded so that others can be fitted with their spares, there is a difference from using new spare parts. These are already used and, therefore, can never be optimum in their effectiveness. With upgrades in the jets, it is also necessary to take a fresh look at the training manuals because just as observed with the complexities of the Boeing 737 Max issue, too much technical progress is leaving the pilot behind and the human factor is often stranded.
While defence security calls for circumspection rather than speculation and one cannot produce chapter and verse on the strength or condition of the fleet, the fact is that these aircraft were on routine missions and not in combat. Nor were they engaging in high-risk precision flying like the two Surya Kirans that collided mid-air at the Aero India show in Bengaluru six weeks ago. Planes do not, willy-nilly, fall out of the sky with such regularity on a normal mission unless there is a combination of reasons including the unspoken and yet very relevant aspect of bird hits.
Bird-aircraft strike hazard (BASH) is a very major safety issue and India's military airfields are stocked with winged companions ranging from ducks and geese to egrets and eagles and kites and flocks of sparrows and starlings. They can easily bring down a plane because the feathers choke the engine.
It is also necessary to assess what shortcuts are being taken, if any to keep some planes operational and is India short on spares per se, as well as suffering metal fatigue accentuated by the upgrades and weight changes. It is not one factor that tilts the balance but a quiver-ful of poisoned arrows can cause havoc.
There have been 31 crashes in the past four years. Last year was exceptionally poor. This is almost a third world air force-level of safety. When pilots get into the cockpit they must have the confidence of knowing their aircraft is airworthy in every sense.
It is no longer sufficient to simply report the crash, set up a court of inquiry — which does precious little to reduce the risk as the string of accidents so vividly proves — and expect things to improve.
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Updated Date: Apr 01, 2019 18:53:34 IST