Earlier this year, the MiG-21 completed 50 years in operational service with the Indian Air Force. The IAF’s Aerospace Safety magazine published a first-person piece by the current Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, in its June edition. It doesn’t seem to have gone out to a wider audience, hidden away as it is on the IAF’s website. I’m therefore reproducing it here. Apart from the fact that we all love first-hand accounts by military jocks, this is an important piece at a time when the discourse on the controversial aircraft peaks. Full text: ‘DECISION DILEMMA’ By Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne
Just a few years ago, my son Omar, who was doing his MOFT syllabus on MiG-21 (T-96) in 108 Sqn, called me up excitedly after his first solo. I asked him, “How was it?” His immediate answer was, “It’s too fast!” I am quite certain that this would also have been the typical reaction of generations of fighter pilots before him, who have literally cut their teeth on this superb fighter, as they took their first ‘baby steps’ in the world of combat flying. However, with experience, issues like speed, low frontal visibility, and a restricted cockpit space all fade in comparison to the pure joy of combat flying that it offered. I am therefore not surprised that even today all pilots who have flown the MiG-21 swear by its combat versatility. As the first delta wing fighter which rolled out of MiG Design Bureau, this marvel in aviation history went on to become the most produced jet totalling around 11,000 aircraft worldwide and serving in over 40 air forces around the world.
Personally speaking, I have the greatest professional respect for the MiG-21. Yes, it demanded careful handling especially at lower speed regime and a certain set of skills in order to exploit its full combat envelope, but at the same time it was also quite forgiving and accommodative of many experience-based errors. Ask any MiG-21 pilot and he will sure have a story or two when the aircraft literally brought him safely out of a particularly tricky situation.
One such incident which remains permanently etched in my memory, happened way back in 1977 when I was posted to 4 Sqn operating MiG-21 T-77 aircraft at Bareilly. As a young Flight Lieutenant with around five years of service, I was a four-aircraft leader and fully confident of my aviation skills to handle anything which came my way. However, what transpired that day made me learn a very important lesson — something I’ve believed in — that although good flying skills are no doubt very important, when faced with a really tight situation, it may actually be the aircraft which decides your future course of action. On that eventful morning of 11 August 1977, had C-1108 (tail number) decided any differently, I wouldn’t have been sharing this story with you today.
With a typical morning first detail urgency (mainly to beat the sister squadron at the line-up point), we walked to our aircraft for the combat air patrol (CAP) vs shoot to kill (STK) + ESC mission. While I was mentally going over the critical points for the mission, I looked up and observed that the weather was tailor-made to help the CAP formation. The crystal clear skies above coupled with a shallow haze layer promised that not only would we remain visually elusive to the STK and ESC aircraft, they on their part would stand out prominently against the haze layer underneath. I mentioned this to my No. 2 — Flt Lt Sanu Kanikara, and both of us smiled at the prospect of being in a ‘position of advantage’ during the debrief with valid kills. As expected, the sortie was a cakewalk for the CAP against the helpless intruders though the air situation involved in an extensive engagement. Due to the high density of traffic overhead, with second detail departures getting airborne, we had to hold for some time at rejoin point, before being cleared to head back. Approaching overhead for Runway 29, a quick gravy check with Sanu established that both of us had around 650 litres left. No problem. I decided to do a tight circuit, followed by a curved approach to land, and announced my intentions to Sanu, who by now had started spacing out behind me.
While turning downwind and listening to the excessive R/T chatter on the tower frequency, I felt the RPM drop. As I was concentrating more on positioning correctly with respect to the landing dumbbell, thinking that the throttle friction nut had become a little loose, I instinctively nudged the throttle forward. The RPM responded promptly and the throttle nut was duly tightened while I continued in a descending turn. As I commenced the base leg turn for the curved approach, the RPM dropped again. Strange! Another little nudge on the throttle and I could feel the engine response. By now my attention was on executing the curved approach correctly and there was no chance to roll out and check. Anyway, I mentally reminded myself to discuss the issue with the EO after landing. Halfway through the turn, one quick glance — speed 380 kmph, displacement correct and perspective slightly overshooting — all parameters as they are supposed to be for a correct curved approach. With around 60-70 degrees left to roll out, as I started to reduce RPM to keep my speed under check, I heard a faint ‘pop’ from the engine, which was promptly followed by an eerie silence in the cockpit as the engine quit!
In our flying careers, we all have gone over the act/react emergency actions around a million times, but when it actually happens, there is always that one ‘nano-pause’ to absorb what has happened before your motor skills take over. On many occasions, sitting in the cool confines of the briefing/crew rooms, we had discussed the pros and cons of attempting a dead stick landing on a MiG-21. Invariably all such discussions ended with the advice that height/speed combination permitting, ejection would any day be a better option.
Let me remind you that the MiG-21 can do a lot of things beautifully — some even unconventionally — but what she cannot do is glide on a dead engine.
Silently gliding in air at approximately 110 metres AGL with the entire runway lined up ahead of me, I was faced with a sudden dilemma — to eject or to continue ahead for landing. Fortunately for me and as if sensing my predicament, C-1118 did something did something which instantly resolved all the confusion in my mind. The aircraft nose immediately dropped steeply and as a result, I saw, directly below me, shiny white rooftops of the village on short finals. Instinctively, I gently picked up the nose, pointed it towards the undershoot and aligned myself with the runway. Gently nursing the aircraft, I stretched my glide so as to reach the SGA. My undercarriage brushed the security fencing in the undershoot, which immediately gave way without any damage to the wheels (I can never thank MES enough for not making it too strong!). I touched down somewhere half way up the SGA and rolled over the undershoot before finally coming to a halt abeam 8 to go marker (probably a new short landing record on the MiG-21). It was only after stopping in the left lane that I gave my first RT call “Dynamite-1 I have a flame-out” to a shocked ATC controller. I instructed Sanu to land on the right lane, and before the crash vehicles could reach me, I gratefully tapped the cockpit railing of C-1118 and silently thanked her for seeing me through this close encounter. (Investigations later revealed that the P2/P6 pipeline had developed a crack. This incident subsequently led to a major fleet mod).
Looking back at that day, besides the extra workload which my guardian angels up there had to shoulder, there were many other factors which clearly worked in my favour. I was doing a curved approach (due to low gravy) and my displacement with respect to the landing dumbbell was closer. I had the height in hand and most importantly my speed was around 380 kmph. Also, being a T-77, the aircraft nose is relatively light as compared to its other variants, so it responded promptly to my control inputs during those crucial seconds. With such a high rate of descent, and with the nose way below the horizon, ejection would certainly have been fatal, besides the avoidable loss of innocent lives in the village below. So in those critical moments, it was the aircraft which decided what I had to do. I only facilitated the process!
As combat aviators, we clearly understand the importance of being prepared for all situations, but then emergencies never happen in the classic copy-book style as they are given in the FRCs. What we must focus on is fine-tuning our instincts through persistent training, frequent cockpit drills and having thorough knowledge. Looks like an insurmountable task, doesn’t it? Believe me, it’s possible. And besides, there is always the aircraft which understands your situation and will always help you in deciding the best course of action — like what C-1118 did for me around four decades ago!
(NAK Browne was commissioned into the fighter stream of the IAF on 24 June 1972, and has over 3,100 hours flying the Jaguar, MiG-21 and Su-30MKI. He retires at the end of this year.)
Text ©Aerospace Safety/IAF