23 Years After 1st Flight, First Tejas Fighter Crash

23 years after its first flight, and nearly a decade into operational service with the Indian Air Force, a homegrown Tejas fighter has crashed for the first time. The Tejas, which began IAF service in 2016, currently populates two squadrons of nearly 40 jets, with 180 improved Tejas Mk1A jets on order. The pilot in today’s crash ejected safely. As is standard protocol, the IAF has ordered a court of inquiry (COI) to investigate the accident.

An amateur video clip shows the pilot ejecting from the aircraft, after which the Tejas cruises towards the ground. The video doesn’t show the jet’s impact with the ground, but other videos have captured the post-accident fire and wreckage being doused by first responders. Reports suggest the pilot ejected shortly after take-off, suggesting a catastrophic emergency immediately after departure from the Jaisalmer air force station. The fighter’s landing gear is also seen to be lowered through the entire sequence.

These things are inevitable in military aviation. Any number of things could have caused the Tejas crash but still, I wish it hadn’t happened so early in the jet’s service,” aviation writer Angad Singh said on Twitter.

The Tejas has had its troubles in development, but enjoyed an accident-free journey from the drawing board to service entry. While pilots have had systems trouble in Tejas jets over the years, the aircraft has proven to be sturdy and unusually survivable in emergency situations, allowing pilots to avert aviation accidents on multiple occasions. Most recently, IAF fighter pilot Group Captain Varun Singh was awarded a Shaurya Chakra — India’s third highest peacetime gallantry decoration — for his handling of a dangerously out-of-control Tejas over India’s national capital territory in 2020. (An account of the incident is featured in Livefist founder Shiv Aroor’s book ‘India’s Most Fearless 3‘). Group Captain Singh tragically perished in the December 2021 accident that also killed then Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, his wife and team.

After its design, flight testing and delivery journey, the Tejas has grown to be a deeply beloved asset in IAF service, with both Tejas squadrons based in Sulur, Tamil Nadu fully immersed in the homegrown light fighter’s potential and capabilities. In November last year, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi strapped into a Tejas for a demo flight. Confidence in the Tejas has been on a steady rise, with the Indian Air Force deploying detachments of Tejas jets to India’s most sensitive forward bases in the restive northern sectors.

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