"I am feeling proud. I still want to fly the aircraft," 27-year-old Flight Lieutenant L Nagarajan said after the phasing out ceremony of MiG-21 type 77 in the presence of Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne, Chief of Air Staff yesterday.
In a touching ceremony after a flypast by a formation of four MiG-21 FL in its last sortie yesterday, Nagarajan handed over form 700 (document log of an aircraft) of the iconic delta-wing fighter aircraft to the Air Chief, symbolically drawing curtains on one of the most enduring saga in IAF aviation history.
Asked how it felt to be the youngest pilot to fly the MiG-21 FL and handing over the log to the senior-most pilot in the force at present to have flown the aircraft, he said, "the feeling was great. I can't explain. Its a great privilege." A total of 15 aircraft of this MiG variant were functional in the IAF and all of these were based at Kalaikunda, an official source said.
"I feel very happy. Every time I am flying a MiG-21, I am closer to heaven," Nagarajan said, adding, "Once you are in the aircraft, you feel no one can touch you." Pointing out that the sobriquet 'Flying Coffin' alluded to these MiG-21s, a number of which have been destroyed in accidents over the years, was a misnomer, he said, "There is nothing that this aircraft is dangerous. It is the same like any other aircraft."
Wing Commander Manav Kumaria, one of the pilots who flew the last sortie of the fighter aircraft that heralded the "supersonic era" in IAF, said "it is a momentous occasion. We have been practising for it."
A total of 15 aircraft of this MiG variant were functional in the IAF.
Asked how he would rate the fighter jet, which dealt severe blows to Pakistan Air Force in the 1971 war, Kumaria said "It is a beautiful aircraft. It is a beautiful machine."
"MiG 21 FL is one of the best machines to fly," Kumaria opined, which was echoed by other three wing commanders who flew the last sortie alongwith him. Regarding the terming of the aircraft as 'Flying Coffin', he said "if you consider the statistics, it is not right."
"I flew this aircraft for the first time in 1998. It has been ok," Kumaria said.
Bidding adieu to the machine, Air Marshall Browne said, "I have the greatest professional regard for MiG-21. The agility of MiG-21 cannot be matched by any of the present day fighters."
"It is no wonder, therefore, that five generations of our combat pilots including myself, who have cut teeth on this veritable fighter swear by its unmatched combat prowess," he said.
"As a matter of fact, around 80 per cent of the currently serving fighter aircrew in the IAF have flown the T-77 aircraft and 90 per cent have flown one of the MiG variants at some time or the other in their flying career," the Air chief said.