The death of two pilots in a MiG-21 trainer crash at Barmer last evening raised eyebrows at the airworthiness of the ageing platform. The Indian Air Force is now going to retire one more squadron of the Bison stationed at Srinagar on September 30. IAF sources stated that the other three squadrons will also fly into history in batches till 2025, IAF sources stated.

Thursday's fatal accident that consumed the lives of two pilots, young Flight Lieutenant Aditya Bal and Wing Commander M Rana, has added to the tally of 34 deaths of Air Force personnel in 29 crashes in the last five years.

“The 51 Squadron based out of Srinagar air base is being number plated on September 30. IAF sources said that after this, only three squadrons of the planes would be left in service and they would be phased out by the year 2025.”

Every year, the IAF sources added, one squadron of single-engine Bisons would be phased out. The LCA Tejas is expected to fill in the void post MiG-21s getting into boneyard from the 51st squadron, which had a share of glory for repulsing Pakistan's counter aerial attack on India on February 27, 2019. Then Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who has since been promoted to Group Captain, flew a Bison to take out Pakistan's F-16, but his jet was shot down after he ventured onto the other side of the border. He was, however, ejected and was in Pakistan's custody before being released to return to India.

The delay in retiring the ageing MiG-21s has been attributed to a delay in procurement of the LAC. The IAF officials said that the exact cause of the accident in Barmer, the border area of Rajsthan with Pakistan, would emerge in an inquiry, but that extensive checks ahead of flying are routinely carried out on each aircraft to ensure they are airworthy.

The Ministry of Defence informed the Rajya Sabha in a written reply in March that 45 aircraft and helicopters of the armed forces have crashed, leading to the deaths of 42 servicemen, including Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, in the last five years. While the IAF lost a maximum of 34 personnel, the Army accounted for 12 accidents which took away seven lives, and the Navy lost one life in four air crashes, minister of state for defence Ajay Bhatt said.

The MiG-21 are of 1963 vintage, with the IAF inducting 874 since then. Over 400 of them were lost to accidents that sniffed the lives out of at least 200 pilots, said a former IAF officer.

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