Supersonic Combat!

The MiG-21 at War.

An compilation of stories combined to present a overview of the MiG-21s Combat record with the IAF. This record has been consolidated and adapted from a series of Articles from leading IAF personalities and researchers. Notably the Articles by Air Chief Marshal P C Lal, Air Vice Marshal B K Bishnoi, Mr. Pushpindar Singh and Air Marshal M S D Wollen. No way does this article claim to be an original piece of work! :-) Jagan

They were the fortunate seven. Of the Hundreds of Pilots in the Air Force, The IAF handpicked Seven pilots to fly the first MiG-21 Fighters that were being acquired from Russia. The MiG-21 was the first true supersonic aircraft acquired by the IAF, in fact it was the first fighter the IAF had that can reach Mach 2. The Hunter, Mystere and the Gnat could were flying supersonic for ages, albeit only in a dive. They were not capable of flying above the supersonic barrier in level flight.

The intricacies that led to the acquiring of the MiGs had already been recounted. The acquisition of the Starfighter by the Pakistanis and the subsequent strained relations with China led the IAF into thinking of building a Supersonic Interceptor force.. The IAF shortlisted the Mirage III, the Starfighter and the MiG-21 roughly in that order. The high cost of the Mirage and the reluctance of the Americans to give the Starfighter coupled with the easy terms for the manufacture and buying the MiGs saw that the Russians got the order and ultimately the IAF flew over 700 variants of the MiG-21.

The deal for the MiGs was signed in August 1962 and two months later , The first batch of Indian Pilots numbered Seven, Along with fifteen engineers who were nominated to be trained as the ground support staff went to Russia in October 1962, when the Indo China Hostilities broke out. The pilots and engineers were then headed by Wg Cdr Dilbagh Singh, (Later Chief of Air Staff). And were posted at Lugovaya, a desolate air force base at Kazakhstan near Tashkent. The facilities given for housing the pilots was appalling.

The pilots were handpicked and besides Dilbagh Singh, consisted of well known names like Sqn ldr M S D Wollen, Sqn Ldr Mukherjee etc. among others. And all were specially qualified. There were a mix of Flying Instructors, Pilot Attack Instructors or Day Fighter Leaders, with plenty of flying hours behind them. And what they faced was a shock to them. The Russian instructors lacked the experience their pupils had and most of the pilots felt that they were below average. Its small surprise that the Russians rated all the seven pilots as excellent.

The pilots stayed back in Russia for five months doing their "training". Which included classroom instruction on the aircraft engines and systems. Flying training was scarce. Air Marshal Wollen recalls that the average training received during the five month period was "a shatteringly low four and a half hours"

On their return from Russia these pilots formed the core group of fighter leaders of the new squadron No.28 "The First Supersonics". The Squadron was raised at Chandigarh and was equipped with Six MiG-21 F-13s (Type 74) aircraft. These aircraft were first shipped to bombay by Ship in January 1963 after which they were assembled and flown to Chandigarh by the pilots. Dilbagh Singh was the squadron commander and the working up of the squadron commenced. Having a limited number of six aircraft for training would hardly make a contribution , but the pilots made best use of what was available. The initial MiG-21 Fs had no gun, only K-13 Air to Air Missile. On the insistance of the pilots an external gunpod was fitted. But this was limited to only the Type 74.

mig21f.jpg (16995 bytes) The Early Version of the MiG-21, called the MiG-21 F-13 Type 74 in flight sometime in 1964. The first aircraft had their roundels painted aft of the wings and carried the 'BC' series of numbers.

Training was as per the schedule till one fine day in December 63, Sqn Ldr Wollen took off with Sqn Ldr Mukherjee on a routine training mission and a miscalculation led to a collision between the two. Both Wollen and Mukherjee ejected and the aircraft were lost.. Both the pilots suffered spinal injuries as a result of the ejection but recovered later. The Training regimen of the squadron suffered a severe set back with the loss of the two aircraft. It had to make do with four MiGs till mid 1965.

Dilbagh Singh left for a staff job in March 65 and Sqn Ldr Wollen suceeded him as the Commanding Officer. About this time another MiG was written off in an accident at Chandigarh by Flt Lt Musquati. Only Three of the original Six MiG-21 Fs survived the initial days. In March 1965 the Squadron received six MiG-21 FL (Type 76) aircraft. This aircraft was more pleasant to fly than the MiG-21F because of its 'roll-stabilization system', It was equipped with an airborne intercept radar (RIL), the first such radar in any IAF aircraft. Inwards of 20km, the pilot could locate and intercept a target, with this radar.

C 520 was one of the first FL's Type 76 Acquired by the IAF. These versions carried two K-13s but no Gunpack. c520.jpg (10563 bytes)

The 1965 War

As war clouds started brewing towards the end of August 1965, No.28 was scheduled to move to Palam to implement nightflying training. Chandigarh airfield did not possess a runway lighting system. The Squadron had no type trainers available at that time. When war broke out the day prior to the move, most of the pilots in the squadron were unsure of what their role was going to be. They had practiced set piece NATO style high altitude bomber interception but not the close combat tactics that were to see the light of the day.

A detachment of MiGs flew to Adampur airfield on the afternoon of September 3, 1965. Earlier that morning a Sabre was shot down by Sqn Ldr Trevor Keelor flying a Gnat and the Gnat detachment reported the presence of Sidewinder armed Starfighters in the area. The next day four MIG-21FL aircraft flew from Adampur to Pathankot to fly 'top cover missions " to Mystere IV A aircraft carrying out strike and close air support missions, closely escorted by Gnats. Air Marshal M S D Wollen then Wg Cdr. recounts his first combat experience in his own words.

On the afternoon of September 4, Sq. Ldr. Mukherjee and I flew a top cover mission to Mysteres attacking advanced columns of the Pakistani army. The Mysteres were intercepted by Sabres, probably from combat air patrol (CAP). Escorting Gnats tangled with the Sabres.

The R/T natter was exhilarating, particularly the calls from a Gnat pilot (Flt. Lt. V S. Pathania) reporting a Sabre destroyed. The aircraft engaged in combat were below us, but the GCI station, under whose direction we operated, had 'no pick-up' on their radar screen.

I decided to enter the 'arena' and dived earthwards. In a few seconds, we spotted some aircraft engaged in turning-combat, about 10,000 ft below us. Coming down, I closed in on a pair of aircraft turning hard left. When the range decreased to around 1.5 km, we recognized the aircraft as our Mysteres.

As we eased Our turn, two Sabres, flying almost abreast of each other, crossed from left to right, below and in front of us. I wrenched my aircraft to the starboard (right) calling out to Mukherjee.

I picked up the Sabres heading northwest, very low and 1 o'clock to me. I went after the slightly lagging Sabre on the right. I later learnt that Mukherjee lost sight of me in the violent turn' I had executed.

The beastly pressure helmet/face piece is a bad thing to wear when 'dog-fighting'

With a good overtake speed, in a slight dive, I released a missile at around 1200 m, sighting through the 'fixed-ring and bead'; the radar cannot provide information so close to the ground. The missile sped towards the Sabre and exploded below it; perhaps ahead and on the ground.

In my excitement, I released the second missile when I was too close to the ground (90 m) and probably too close to the Sabre. For 0.6 seconds after release, the K-13 missile is unguided. During this time it headed downwards, started to flatten out and then struck the ground, not far ahead of me.

I engaged engine re-reheat, rapidly closed in on the Sabre, was tempted to brush against his fin and passed about 6m over the aircraft. Naturally, the PAF pilot was surprised/shaken I asked Mukherjee to engage the second Sabre, but got no response. We 'rendezvoused' over Jammu airfield (above AA-gun range) and returned to Pathankot.

This was the only significant mission flown by No.28 in the early days of the war. The performance of the K-13s in their initial debut was disappointing to say the least. out The launch condition of the MiG-21's IR missile was particularly restrictive i.e. 2 g (6O bank angle) most unsatisfying for pilots accustomed to manoeuvering at 7 g, and firing their guns whenever they were able to 'track and range' on a target using their gyro~gunsights (manual or radar ranging). Besides pilots wore cumbersome, first generation "pressure flying suits' for every flight. There is no doubt if the K-13s were not so inferior they would have succeeded in bringing down their first kills of the war. As things were, the MiGs would have to wait another Six Years before they would draw blood.

The Second occasion when the MiGs had to face the Sabres was rather one-sided. It was two days later on September 6th, when the Indian Army crossed the International border on an attack on Lahore in an effort to relieve pressure off the Chamb Jaurian Sector. No.28 had the ignominy of getting caught on the ground at Pathankot when the PAF Sabres attacked. Pathankot was home to the detachment of the Gnats, the Vampires and the Mysteres besides the MiGs and when the Sabres attacked they were literally caught napping. Luckily the MiGs escaped collateral damage. But one of the MiGs was destroyed in the attack. No.28 got through the war with eight of the MiGs remaining.

The PAF had repeatedly claimed that they encountered MiGs in combat in quite a number of ocassions including one when a lone Starfighter was intercepted by two MiGs. However no record exists of such an encounter. The PAF also claimed to have destroyed most of the MiGs in its initial raid on Pathankot. This claim was belied when the Air Force displayed its Eight MiGs after the war during a flypast.

The Brief encounters during the war got the IAF thinking about the MiG. It had conducted trials with the K-13 AAMs after the war and these missiles failed even under ideal launch conditions. And after a lot of trials and tests the IAF insisted on various improvements on the MiG-21 FL if the fighter was to meet its operational requirements. Among the changes required were effective brakes, quality tyres provision for a Gun pack and a Predictor Gun sight. This resulted in a Twin-barrelled GSh-23 23mm Cannon GP-9 pack which was fitted Externally to the FL. As we will see It was a fortuitous addition to the aircraft.

The Interim Years (1966-71)

After the 65 War, India went ahead with the production of the FL Variant with gusto. In between the years 1966-69 sufficient numbers of MiGs were acquired in a fly-away condition. Some were acquired in CKD kits and assembeled by HAL . The First airframes assembled at Nasik were delivered in 1967. The R-11 Engine was manufactured at Koraput in Orissa and the Electronics and the K-13 AAM were produced at Hyderabad. Production was slowly indeginised with the first MiG manufactured from Raw materials rolling off in Oct 1970. This aircraft had a 60 percent indegenous material content.

By 1971 some 100 plus aircraft were manufactured by HAL. These aircraft reequipped some eight squadrons of the IAF. Including Nos 1, 4, 8, 28, 29, 30, 45, 47. Most of these squadrons were either flying Mysteres or Ouragans and started re equipping from 1965 End onwards when the first MiG-21U Mongol Type trainers started arriving. The only exception being No.45 which phased out its Vampires in favour of the MiGs. Initial conversion were not without problems. Some squadrons had senior commanders have mishaps with their aircraft. In one case the commanding officer of No.4 Squadron who was taking his first sortie in a type trainer crashed the aircraft suffering injuries.

When warclouds gathered again in 1971 the MiGs would be on the forefront of the IAFs strike forces. Three MiG-21 Squadrons were moved to the Eastern Sector. And the remaining five were based under Western Air Command.

The Liberation War. (1971)

When war was declared in the preemptive raid on Indian Air Fields on 3 Dec 71, The IAF had about Eleven Squadrons of Fighter-bombers based in Eastern Air Command poised to support the army operations. It was imperative for EAC to knock out the sole squadron of Sabres based at Tejgaon to achieve unrestricted control of the air.

No 28 First Supersonics now under the command of Wg Cdr B K Bishnoi VrC was based at Guwahati. No. 4 under the command of Wg Cdr J V Gole shared the airbase with the first supersonics. A happy coincidence saw to that the Base commander at Guwahati was Gp Capt Wollen who commanded the sole MiG squadron in 1965. The last MiG squadron in the Sector was No.30 which was based west of Calcutta.

The first raids in East Pakistan were flown by Hunters of No.17 Sqn and these were given an escort of Four MiG-21s from No. 4 Sqn led by Wg Cdr Gole himself. It proved unnecessary, the Hunters shot down one Sabre when intercepted before the rendezvous took place. The MiGs had to return without engaging the enemy.

Wg Cdr B K Bishnoi led the first strike of No.28 on Tejgaon. On arriving at Tejgaon airfield, Bishnoi spotted a Sabre on takeoff run and judging that he was in a difficult position to engage it reported it to his wingman Flt Lt Manbir Singh who launched two K-13s . Both the missiles missed. Bishnoi came back for a second run and attacked surface installations after failing to spot additional aircraft. Meanwhile Flt Lt D Subiaya engaged a Sabre over Dacca and was chasing it. Fuel constraints forced Subiaya to disengage and his return flight was a touch and go affair. Though this was the first encounter between the Sabres and the Migs no blood was drawn.


Wg Cdr B K Bishnoi VrC and Bar, the commanding officer of the First Supersonics.





In subsequent strikes a pilot of No.4 Sqn was credited with downing a Sabre, though it remains to be confirmed by Pakistani accounts. And in another strike by No.28 in the Afternoon, Wg Cdr Bishnoi destroyed a Twin Otter belonging to the Pakistan international Airlines. Which was parked outside the terminal. Three Auster AOP aircraft were knocked out the next day by the MiGs before No.28 delivered the Coup De Grace with their Runway Busting Sortie. The MiGs attacked Tejgaon runway in a steep glide maneuvere and the resulting craters grounded the remaining Sabres for the rest of the war.

 On the 14th of December, within 15 minutes of a message interception by Indian Intelligence, a strike was launched against Dhaka. Armed with tourist guide maps of the city, a precision rocket attack was made on the Government House in Dhaka where a meeting of the puppet government was in progress. The result was that the government quickly resigned thereby ending Pakistani civil administration in East Pakistan. This raid belongs to the pilots of No.28 Sqn.

Three MiGs were lost in the Eastern Sector . Two to enemy Ack Ack Fire. One Mig flown by Sqn Ldr Rao of No.4 was lost to non combat reasons after he ran out of fuel after misjudging his approach to Guwahati.

Meanwhile it was in the western sector that the MiGs earned their spurs as Dog fighters. Five Squadrons were based in the Western Sector. No.1 under Wg Cdr Upkar Singh was based at Adampur, saw much abortive interceptions which did not bring the desired results. No.29 Scorpions were posted in detachments to Uttarlai, Hindon and Sirsa. No. 47 sent a Six aircraft detachment to Jamnagar. It was with the southwestern sector the MiG was to draw blood. On atleast four occassions the MiGs encountered aerial combat and came out on tops. The first of these occurred on Dec 12th.

No. 47 (The Black Archers) Sqn sent a detachment of Six MiGs to be based at Jamnagar at the outbreak of the War. Wg Cdr H S Gill was the commanding officer of this squadron and he had such able men like Sqn Ldr Vinay Kapila VrC, a pilot who had a Sabre kill under his belt from 1965 as his senior flight leader. The detachment had practised their scrambles and attacks for months to come and they were about to be put to test.

On December 12th at around 2 pm in the after noon, Observation posts near Kutch reported two Starfighters cross the coastline in an apparent sneak attack on Jamnagar. The early discovery of the intruders gave time for the MiGs to scramble. The MiGs which take about a min and forty five seconds to get airborne were immediately launched and four of them were immediately put into the air. One Section was led by Flt Lt Bharat Bhushan Soni (C705) who had Flt Lt Saigal as Wingman and Vinay Kapila flew the other section. It was Soni who spotted the Starfighters first. One of them flown by Wg Cdr Mervyn Middlecoat SJ , PAF an experienced Flight instructor in the Pakistani air Force was diving in to attack the airfields targets. Soni on spotting the Starfighter engaged reheat and rolled into a diving turn behind the Starfighter. Meanwhile Saigal reported that the other Starfighter had aborted its attack and flew in the general direction of Pakistan.



PAF Pilot Wg Cdr Mervyn H Middlecoat SJ who was shot down by Flt Lt B B Soni



Meanwhile Middlecoat, on noticing the MiG coming onto the tail, broke off the attack on the airfield and rolled into a turn to shake off the MiG. Soni pulled the MiG into a tighter turn well inside his opponents and launched his K-13s. However the Starfighter deflected the missiles by using Flares. At this point the Starfighter broke out of the turn and engaged reheat , skimming the surface of the Arabian Sea at lowlevel. Soni again engaging maximum reheat closed in on the starfighter and gave a long burst with his cannon. Flashes indicated strikes and as the Starfighter wobbled out of controlled flight Middlecoat ejected . The Starfighter crashed into the sea. Middlecoat came down into the sea and was never found. Even though rescue vessels were sent into the Arabian sea. This was the first instance in which the MiG-21 met the Starfighter in combat. And in this first encounter it came out on the top. However No.47 did pay its price, Wg Cdr H S Gill was shot down by AA Fire over Badin on Dec 14 while flying C 705. His wingmen Vinay Kapila, IJS Boparai and Soni could just watch in dismay as the stricken MiG plunged into a Sand Dune.

Flt Lt B B Soni with his MiG-21 who shot down Middlecoat <Picture>

No. 47 did not encounter anymore aircombat. It was left to No.29 (Scorpions) from Uttarlai to mop up the opposition in this sector. No.29 was sent to Uttarlai at the outbreak of the war. Based at Uttarlai were Maruts of No.10 Sqn and some Gnats which were used to air defence role. Uttarlai received its fair share of enemy attention including one particular daring raid in which a Marut was shot up while on the take off run by Starfighters. Luckily the Pilot extricated himself from the burning aircraft in time. The Scorpions had to wait until the last three days of the war to draw their first blood.

On Dec 16, Two MiG-21 were escorting the Maruts on a strike to Naya chor - Mirpur khas, When they were intercepted by Chinese made F-6s(MiG-19s). Flt lt S B "Sam" Shah lost no oppurtunity to launch his K-13 and down one of the F-6s. This notched up the first kill for the scorpions. However it was not the last.

On Dec 17th, the last day of the war, the Scorpions were to end their role in the conflict in a dramatic way. Sqn Ldr Iqbal Singh Bindra was airborne on the early morning CAP over Uttarlai in the Rajasthan Desert when the Ground controller alerted him about a lowflying intruder coming in from the north towards the airfield. The Aircraft , was now identified as a Starfighter as it rose to 1000 feet altitude in its run to the airfield. Bindra pulled his MiG in a wide turn engaging the afterburner which bought him astern of the Starfighter.

Bindra launched his first K-13 which was evaded by the Starfighter. Bindra launched his second K-13 which overtook the Starfighter and exploded near the cockpit, due to the proximity fuse. The F-104 now wavered and appeared to go out of control. Bindra engaged reheat closed in and gave a cannon burst at a high deflection before breaking away. The F-104 now doomed , descended rapidly and crashed into some dunes and exploded some 8 km from the Airfield in our territory.

Hardly as the elation over this kill died off, came another encounter. An Hour after Bindras kill, two MiG-21s were launched as an escort to four HF-24 Maruts on a ground attack mission. The MiGs were being flown by Flt Lt Niraj "Kuki" Kukreja and Flt Lt Arun K Datta. On approaching Umarkot, Kukreja spotted two bogeys dead ahead and called out a warning on the R/T. Datta saw two rapidly growing dots headon and observed a smoke trail emerge from one of the closing in dots. The Starfighter had launched a sidewinder headon in panic. Datta engaged the Afterburner and pulled up in a steep climb to 5000 feet and then half rolled onto his back.

The Starfighter had by then pulled up and passed by at amazing speed. Datta could make out it was camouflaged in the Sandy Desert Scheme, a probable candidate from the Royal Jordanian Air Force. The Starfighter now went into a turn and tried to get behind Kukrejas MiG. Datta warned over the R/T " hard starboard, bogey behind you, 2000meters and closing". Kukreja who was going after the second bogey now engaged maximum afterburner and was able to maintain the distance between them. Now the first Starfighter broke off Kukreja's tail and headed for low level with Datta following him. At an low altitude of some 1600 feet, Datta closed in on the F-104 and achieving his missile lock, launched both the K-13s. He was already switching over to his gun , incase the missiles missed when the Starfighter Exploded.

The Maruts were already warned of the presence of the Starfighters and that the MiGs were engaing them. Kukreja had infact was on the tail of the second bogey. Earlier the first F-104 took a shot at Kukrejas MiG and missed. Now in the desert skies the F-104 and the MiG were flying tail chase barely 150 feet above ground. The Starfighter can outrun the MiG at this atltitude using reheat. Kukreja launched his first K-13 which missed. The Second K-13 exploded besides the F-104, obviously injuring the pilot. Seconds later the stricken F-104 crashed into the sanddunes witnessed by Hundreds of ground troops in the area. The MiGs rejoined their Maruts and resumed regular mission profile.

Three encounters and Four Kills against the Starfighter established that the MiG-21 FL could outclass its nearest NATO rival the F-104. The only regret the IAF had is not encountering the Mirage III in one-to-one combat. The IAF was sure it would have addressed the unfair reputation the MiG suffered in the Middle east. Pakistan had admitted the loss of three pilots flying the Starfighter. They include , besides Wg Cdr Middlecoat, Sqn Ldr Amjad H Khan who was shot down by AA fire at Amritsar and captured as a POW. And Flt Lt Changezi whose details are not known. Indian intelligence had reported the transfer of Twelve Starfighters from the Royal Jordanian Air Force No. 9 Sqn and the Starfighters shot down by Uttarlai fighters were reported to have been from this transfer. The Jordanian Starfighters sported a sandy desert camouflage scheme while the original PAF Starfighters had an all metal scheme. US reports mentioned the transfer of Ten F-104s during the conflict from the RJAF No.9 Sqn. Four of these aircraft returned after the war, signifying either losses or transfer to the PAF. The IAF claims four of these aircraft as kills.

The IAF lost six MiGs on the western front. All but one to AA fire. The only MiG lost in aircombat in the war was in the Western Sector. Apparently this was lost to a F-86 Sabre which knocked it down by a Sidewinder. The Pilot Flt Lt Tejwant Singh ejecting to become a POW. This feat is remarkable, but not unmatched on the Indian Side. The example of Sqn Ldr Devayya smoking out a F-104 over Sargodha is well known. There were atleast two occasions when Gnats took out F-104 and a Mirage III over Pathankot, damaging them severely. And the MiG lost was the only one lost in aircombat. Of the Six MiGs that were lost during the war on the western front, Five pilots getting killed or becoming POWs with one pilot Sqn Ldr Denzil Keelor who ejected recovered safely. After the War Flt Lt Harish Singhji and Fg Off Tejwant Singh who were POWs were repatriated. The loss of Six MiGs include one MiG lost to friendly fire due to a mistake in identifying Flt Lt A B Dhavle of No.1 Sqn during a night raid. This was the only tragic postscript in the excellent record of the MiGs. The Sixth Pilot was Flt Lt P K Sahu who was lost to AA Fire.

Since those hectic days in December 1971, the MiG-21 had once again returned back to their normal peacetime training profile. The IAF had over 700 Examples serve with it over the Years. And the MiG-21 seems to be on its way of becoming the only other combat aircraft besides the Canberra and the Hunter to complete 40 years of service with the Indian Air Force.


Bishnoi B K , Air Vice Marshal (Retd.), Thunder over Dacca , VAYU 2000 I/97
Lal P C , Air Chief Marshal (Retd.), My Years with the IAF, Lancer International.
Pushpindar Singh, William Green and Gordon Swansborough, The Indian Air Force and its aircraft 1932-1982, Pilot Press.
Pushpindar Singh , Ravi Rikhye and Peter Steinmann, Fiza Ya:Psyche of the PAF, The Society for Aerospace Studies.
Wollen M S D ,Air Marshal (Retd.), The First Supersonics in 1965 , INDIAN AVIATION NOV 1992

Thanks to :
Shiv Sankar Sastry, Air Marshal M S D Wollen , Pushpindar Singh Chopra and the officers of the College of Air Warfare.
All Copyrights Jagan Mohan.