An Indian Air Force pilot, Wing Commander Hanumanth Rao Sarathi, was killed after two fighter jets, a Sukhoi-30MKI and a Mirage-2000, were involved in an accident in Madhya Pradesh during a routine operational flying mission on Saturday. While the Mirage crashed near Morena, the Sukhoi crashed near Bharatpur in Rajasthan about 100 km away.
“Two fighter aircraft of IAF were involved in an accident near Gwalior today morning. The aircraft were on routine operational flying training mission. One of the three pilots involved sustained fatal injuries,” the IAF said.
An inquiry has been ordered to determine the cause of the accident which will also determine whether there was a mid-air collision involving the two jets, sources said.
During the day, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh was briefed by the Chief of Air Staff on the crash of the two IAF aircraft. “Deeply anguished by the loss of brave air warrior, Wg Cdr Hanumanth Rao Sarathi, who suffered fatal injuries during an accident near Gwalior. My deepest condolences to his bereaved family. We stand by his family in this difficult hour,” Mr. Singh said on Twitter later in the day.
Talking to local media, the Superintendent of Police of Morena said that two jets had taken off from Gwalior in the morning. He stated that according to the IAF, one aircraft had two pilots, while the other had one. Two of the pilots have been safely rescued, while body parts of the third were found, he said, adding that some parts of the jet were found at Bharatpur in Rajasthan.
‘May have been mid-air collision’
Videos shot by local residents on mobile phones show the burning wreckage, with aircraft parts strewn all over the area.
From the details available and the burning wrecks in Morena and Bharatpur, seasoned fighter pilots opined that it could have been a mid-air collision. They said that it was likely that the Mirage went down immediately, leaving no time for the pilot to react, while the Sukhoi flew a further distance, gving the pilots time to eject safely. “The Su-30MKI pilots tried to gain control but finally ejected over Bharatpur as one of the engines was on fire. [That’s] an aerial distance of 70 km,” a retired fighter pilot said on Twitter.
The Gwalior air base is home to the IAF’s Mirage fleet as well as to the premier training centre Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE).
Air accidents across Services
In a written reply to a question in the Rajya Sabha in March 2020, the Defence Ministry said that there had been 45 helicopter and aircraft accidents in the three Services in the previous five years, including 12 involving the Army, 29 in the IAF and four involving the Navy. In these, 42 personnel had been killed: seven from the Army, 34 from the IAF and one from the Navy.
Further, as per information tabled in the Lok Sabha in March 2020, in the four financial years between 2016-17 and 2019-20, there were accidents involving 17 fighter jets, four helicopters, two transport aircraft and six trainer aircraft. Of the 17 accidents involving fighter jets, six were MIG-21s, four Jaguars, three MIG-27s, and three SU-30MKS. In 2016-17 alone, there were 10 accidents resulting in the deaths of 29 personnel and loss of 10 aircraft. In 2015-16, there were five air accidents resulting in the loss of six aircraft.
On the steps taken to reduce air accidents, the Defence Ministry in the same written reply to the Lok Sabha detailed the implementation of the recommendations of the expert committee on aircraft accidents (EXCOM). “An expert committee was constituted by MoD in December, 2004 to identify the root cause of aircraft accidents and to prepare a comprehensive action plan so as to reduce the losses to a minimum. The committee finalized its report in May, 2005 and the recommendations of EXCOM have been implemented by IAF,” it stated.
‘Accident rate declining’
In a report tabled in March 2022, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence expressed its concern about such air accidents. The Ministry of Defence replied that there were 105 aircraft accidents during each year of the Eleventh and Twelfth Five Year Plans. “The number of aircraft accidents has reduced from an average of 13 accidents per year in 11th plan (April 01, 2007 to March 31, 2012) to an average of 08 accidents per year in 12th plan (April 01, 2012 to March 31, 2017). During 13th five year Defence plan an average of six accidents per year have taken place. In last Financial Year (2020-21), the accident rate was the lowest in last 50 years,” it said.
In February 2021, a Standing Committee report said that the IAF had put in a dedicated effort to reduce the number of accidents over the last two decades, a period that involved approximately 2.5 lakh flying hours per year. “Comparing safety records in a block of five years, it is evident from the data given below that accident rate has decreased considerably in the last two decades,” the report had stated.
The IAF is currently down to 31 fighter squadrons as against a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons.