Streaking across the Prayagraj skies in a MiG-21 clocking almost 900 kmph, Wing Commander JS Sandhu felt a rush of pride and nostalgia in the no-frills cockpit as he pulled the fighter up, and the three MiGs and two Rafale jets neatly broke formation during the spectacular ceremonial flypast to mark the Indian Air Force’s 91st anniversary two months ago.

The splitting of the five-aircraft “Badal” formation was a defining moment laden with symbolism — India’s oldest fighter plane had just passed the baton to its newest.

It was the MiG-21’s swan song before being taken out of service. It won’t be around for next year’s IAF Day flypast on October 8.

The MiG-21’s 60-year history in IAF has been punctuated by crashes that have put the Soviet-origin aircraft’s safety record under running scrutiny and led to an understandable chorus of concern and calls for its early replacement.

With upgrades, IAF has managed to keep them flying for so long.

More than 400 MiG-21s have been involved in accidents that have killed around 200 pilots, earning the fighter jets unfortunate epithets such as “Flying Coffin” and “Widow Maker”. To be sure, more MiG-21s have crashed than any other fighter because they formed the bulk of the aircraft in IAF for the longest time.

The maiden batch of six MiG-21Fs entered service in March-April 1963 and the IAF progressively inducted 874 MiG-21s. It has operated a raft of variants — Type 74 or MiG-21F, Type 76 or MiG-21PF, Type 77 or MiG-21FL, Type 96 or MiG-21M, Type 75 or MiG-21 Bis and the latest MiG-21 Bison.

Sandhu has flown only one fighter aircraft, the Bison, in a flying career spanning nearly two decades.

“Taking part in the MiG-21’s last flypast on IAF Day was one of the best moments of my life,” said Sandhu. He is currently posted in IAF’s Nal-based No 3 Squadron, better known as “Cobras”. “We were flying low at 900 kmph and lakhs of people had gathered around Sangam in Prayagraj to watch the aircraft roaring overhead,” he recalled.

More than a thousand km away, Sandhu’s colleagues in the squadron watched the historic flypast on television at this front-line airbase and felt the same emotions as him.

The deeply moving Luka Chuppi track from Rang De Basanti, a blockbuster film that touched upon the MiG-21’s checkered safety record, playing in the background made the moment even more poignant for the pilots glued to their screens. The track plays out in the 2006 film when a pilot killed in a MiG-21 crash is being given a final sendoff.

Three years before the cult film was released, then defence minister George Fernandes flew a sortie in a MiG-21 trainer from the Ambala airbase in what was seen as a move to silence critics of the aircraft. He was flown by the Cobras, then based in Ambala.

“All of us who have flown this magnificent aircraft have an emotional connection with it. The MiG-21 will be missed at the IAF Day parade. It’s painful to visualise a final farewell to IAF’s longest serving fighter plane next year,” said Squadron Leader Mohana Singh, one of India’s first women fighter pilots.

No 3 is one of the IAF’s only two remaining MiG-21 Bison squadrons --- the other one is in Suratgarh. A fighter squadron consists of 16 to 18 aircraft. IAF will move on to the locally produced TEJAS.

IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari announced on October 3 that the MiG-21 was being phased out, and the process will be completed by 2025. To be sure, MiG-21 operations are in full swing at Nal and Suratgarh, with the air force exploiting the full potential of the last of its Soviet-era interceptors before retiring the fleet.

Reflecting on India’s first supersonic fighter, a top-notch IAF pilot said the MiG-21 represented the design of the century, at a level higher than that of the Spitfire for propellers. “It’s a pencil with wings, with one of the highest landing speeds in the world. It required great skill and mastery to fly it. But once you got there, it was pure magic,” he said, asking not to be named.

Its frontal cross-section is almost negligible, something that even fifth-generation aircraft strive for, said another MiG-21 pilot.

However, the MiG-21’s remarkable six-decade run often seemed to be overshadowed by the workhorse’s unsettling safety record that has burdened the air force with a somewhat questionable legacy, some people argue.

The MiG-21 has been the most flown fighter in IAF and, hence, the number of accidents may appear to be more when compared to other fighters, which have undertaken relatively lesser amount of flying, Group Captain Chetan Sharma, the commanding officer of the No 3 Squadron, said. In the 1980s and 1990s, the aircraft accounted for more than 60% of the air force’s fighting strength.

To be sure, IAF has had to keep its MiG-21 fleet flying longer than it would have liked due to delay in the induction of new fighters.

Also, delay in the induction of advanced jet trainers led to the MiG-21s being used for training pilots from the 1980s to early 2000s, a period that saw the accident rate rise. In the 1990s, it stood at 2.89 for every 10,000 flying hours, and fell to 0.27 per 10,000 flying hours after the induction of the Hawks in the late 2000s.

The MiG-21’s heady days are long gone, and a farewell is in order.

The MiG-21, the world’s most produced supersonic fighter plane, is in the twilight of a long and storied career in IAF and has had its days of glory, said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.

“But new technologies have transformed military aviation. It’s time for the air force to move on. And it’s time for the MiG-21 to fade into history, albeit with fond memories,” he added.

Still flying the aircraft with pride, the Cobras will give the MiG-21 a hero’s sendoff when the moment arrives.