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Last Updated: Friday, 1 August, 2003, 07:24 GMT 08:24 UK
Fernandes rides on 'flying coffin'
MiG-21 fighter jet as used by the Indian Air Force
There have been calls for the MiG-21 to be banned
Indian Defence Minister George Fernandes has flown aboard a MiG-21 fighter plane in an attempt to demonstrate that the jets are safe.

Mr Fernandes, 73, accepted a challenge from a former minister to take the flight because of criticism of the aircraft's safety record.

But critics have described his flight as a "frivolous" exercise when the need was to buy newer aircraft.

At a news conference after the flight, Mr Fernandes said the air force would gradually begin phasing out some of the oldest MiGs in its fleet.

India has more than 300 ageing MiG-21s, known as "flying coffins" because more than 150 have crashed in the past 10 years.

The families of those pilots killed in the crashes and some opposition politicians have called for the planes to be grounded.

MiG-21 fighters make up half the Indian Air Force fleet, most of them bought from the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago.

Opposition

Mr Fernandes made the flight from an air base in Ambala, in the northern state of Punjab.

You will achieve much more towards actually making MiGs safer and the fleet more efficient by running your ministry more aggressively to get the new equipment badly needed and fast
Kavita Gadgi
The pilot who flew the minister, Wing Commander N Harish, said Mr Fernandes was totally "at home" on board the plane.

"We did a few manoeuvres. When I decided to head back he said, 'Can't we stay in the air a little longer?' So we stayed a bit longer," the pilot said.

In June the defence minister flew on board a Russian-built supersonic Sukhoi-30 fighter jet.

Most of the MiG crashes have been blamed on pilot error or technical problems.

India has been looking to buy an advanced jet trainer aircraft to help train its fighter pilots.

But the government has yet to decide on which aircraft to buy after receiving bids from British, French and Czech companies.

Meanwhile, opposition to the MiG is growing.

The Abhijit Air Safety Foundation - formed in honour of fighter pilot Abhijit Gadgil who was killed in a crash three years ago - has been lobbying against the use of MiGs.

His mother, Kavita Gadgil, is to meet the president next month to press her case.

In a letter to the defence minister ahead of his flight, she urged him to avoid taking what she said was a "completely frivolous exercise".

"As a defence minister, you will achieve much more towards actually making MiGs safer and the fleet more efficient by running your ministry more aggressively to get the new equipment badly needed and fast."


SEE ALSO:
Indian mother presses for MiG ban
03 Feb 03  |  South Asia
India's air force scraps outdated jets
09 Nov 02  |  South Asia
Lockheed wins $12bn F-16 contract
28 Feb 02  |  Business
MiG fighter crashes in India
26 Jun 02  |  South Asia


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