Upgraded planes in tough skies

An Indian Air Force AN-32 plane undergoing maintenance and equipment upgrade  

The recent crash of an AN-32, which was on an air maintenance sortie to the Mechuka Advanced Landing Ground in Arunachal Pradesh, has raised questions on flight safety in the Indian Air Force despite accident rates having declined exponentially over the past few decades.

Air crashes today are subjected to the full glare of the media, exposing vulnerable families of the crash victims to needless trauma and also seriously hampering the remedial measures and outcomes that would flow from professionally conducted accident inquiries. In this milieu, it is important to explore some of the less-dissected issues that continue to plague aviation safety in the IAF.

The IAF flies 38 different types of aircraft and has the most varied fleet among modern air forces. Its fleet comprises aircraft like the MiG-21 and the Avro that hardly fly anywhere else. Seven of these have not had a major accident in the last five years. The long-serving IL-76 has had an accident-free innings in the IAF, a fact that is missed by most.

The U.K.’s Royal Air Force flew the Jaguar for 34 years (1973 to 2007) during which it had 67 accidents. In comparison, the IAF has lost 52 Jaguars over four decades. The U.S. Air Force flew slightly over two million flying hours in 2017 and suffered 83 ‘Category A’ mishaps. During the same period, the IAF flew 2,51,405 hours and had an accident rate of 0.24 for every 10,000 hours of flying. This translates to 8-9 ‘Category A’ mishaps — a comparable ratio. It would be unfair to make literal comparisons as the U.S. Air Force was and continues to be a dispersed force engaged in multiple locations like Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Comparing the mishap rates

While there was a rise of 17% when we consider the ‘Category A’ mishaps in the U.S. Air Force between 2013 and 2017, there was a decline in the IAF’s accident rate from 0.29 (2013-14) to 0.24 (2017-18). Similarly, when one compares the mishap rates between the F-16 fleet in the U.S. Air Force and the Mirage-2000 fleet in the IAF over the last five years, there is a positive story that emerges.


There is constant criticism as regards the slow phasing-out of the older variants of the MiG-21 and the MiG-27 fleets, which merits reflection. That these aircraft have no business continuing to fly is a proposition upheld even by senior IAF leadership. However, further investigation reveals a complex web of operational necessities that have forced the IAF to stretch their life and manage the ensuing risks.

For the IAF to remain combat ready for full-spectrum operations, it needs a continuously trained cockpit-to-crew ratio of between 1:1.75 to 1:2 that can undertake operations and seamlessly manage the switch to more advanced platforms as they get inducted into service. Currently, the ratios can barely sustain a limited conflict, leave alone extended ones.

The MiG-21s and MiG-27s were supposed to have been replaced by Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), a process that is unfolding at a snail’s pace.

Hypothetically, had all the MiG-21s and MiG-27s been phased out without replacement, there was no scope to increase the flying of other fleets to feed the residual pilots, due to maintenance and budgetary constraints. The IAF would then have been down to 25 squadrons and saddled with large numbers of fighter pilots without operational continuity. It would then have been tough to induct advanced platforms like the LCA and Rafale, which need pilots who are current and proficient.

The IAF had very little choice in the matter and the bottom line is that the risks are rising and must be addressed with greater urgency. The way out is simple — an accelerated LCA production, no hiccups in the ongoing Rafale induction and a fast-tracking of the new deal for 114 fighter jets.

Shortage of training aircraft

As far as other flying accidents are concerned, human error is responsible for around 50% of them while issues revolving around technical, environmental and miscellaneous factors are responsible for the rest. One of the major reasons for human error is training deficiencies due to a shortage of training aircraft.

The non-availability of the HTT-40 to complement the reliable Pilatus, a delayed induction of the Intermediate Jet Trainer and a lack of clarity within the Ministry of Defence about the IAF’s proposal to buy additional Pilatus aircraft means that the IAF has keep the 40-year-old Kiran fly-worthy and compromise on training quality and future operational proficiency. The IAF flies air maintenance sorties to support the Indian Army and conducts humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in the most inclement of weather conditions and highly varied and inhospitable terrain.

Several weather- and terrain-related accidents on helicopter and transport aircraft like the MiG-17 and AN-32 are caused due to the non-availability of on-board equipment like Ground Proximity Warning Systems and Terrain Following Radar that allow such missions to be conducted in near-blind conditions. The recent accident may never have happened had there been a fleet of medium-lift aircraft with such systems.

Navigating crest tops

An AN-32 can fly well above the crest tops but in case of a single-engine failure, it has to descend below 8,000 ft, which is below the crest tops in the region; hence the ground below has to be in contact at all times. Therefore, in sorties such as this, the route has to planned through known valleys — informed sources point out that the crashed aircraft may have been impacted by a visually obscured mountain located at some distance below the crest top.

Replacing the Avro aircraft with a modern platform that can share the workload of the AN-32, particularly in high-altitude areas, is another key suggestion that can be considered. The Tata-Airbus C-295 with all modern systems has been clearly the IAF’s first choice and can maintain 19,000 ft on a single engine that would keep it above mountain tops in all areas serviced by the AN-32.

Accidents will continue to happen and the IAF will have to balance risks with operational necessity. Speedy replacements for MiG-21s and MiG-27s, Jaguars, Avros, Kiran trainers and Cheetah/Chetak helicopters; fast-track modifications and upgrades that are required for operations in remote and hostile terrain; and upgrading of simulators as force enablers and not merely as training aids are among the necessary measures to improve flight safety. Finally, the IAF leadership must lay down clear red lines for continued operational effectiveness — a ‘we will fight and train with what we have’ attitude has ominous signals.

Air Vice-Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is a retired fighter pilot from the IAF and a visiting professor at Ashoka University

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 2:58:05 PM |

Next Story