6 Mar : After three decades of "formidable" service with the IAF, the Russian-made MiG-23BN combat fighter aircraft on Friday was phased out at a ceremony at the airbase in Halwara (Ludhiana).
The Air Force’s 221 squadron was the last unit to operate the ground attack aircraft that did not witness much action in its entire service, except for patrol roles during ‘Operation Meghdoot’ in Siachen in the mid 1980s and during the 1999 Kargil battle.
Presiding over the ceremony, Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major said when IAF was formally retiring one of its "very formidable" assets, he was overwhelmed by an indescribable feeling – pride tinged with sadness.
"We know that aeroplanes, like air warriors, can’t go on for ever. While there is thunder and pride in their prime, they fade away with quiet dignity when the time comes," he said.
Describing the "swing-wing" MiG-23BN as "the most powerful single-engined fighter in the world," Major said it was of a revolutionary design with a variable wing sweep and air intake, and a very complex weapon delivery system, that was fairly advanced for its times.
"It gave the IAF a tremendous boost in its capability, and we had to get used to the tremendous roar of its R-29 engine. They also played havoc with the surfaces of our runways," he said.
Major said the MiG-23BN was evaluated by then Wg Cdr Philip Rajkumar at Lugovaya in April-May 1979 and formally inducted into the IAF in 10 Squadron in January 1981.
The fighter aircraft, he said, always demanded respect.
"Being immensely capable, it was also not easy to fly these aircraft. It had tremendous thrust, but its handling characteristics at high angles of attack were tricky, to say the least," the IAF chief noted.
"And there was one other thing – landing the MiG-23BN. Many a reputation lay in tatters around this aircraft. It separated the men from the boys and has been the stuff of many bar-room yarns," Major recalled.
With nearly 70 aircraft having been in service, the MiG-23BN was operated by IAF’s 10, 31, 220 and 221 squadrons and provided the Air Force with a very potent offensive potential.
Noting that it was inevitable that these aircraft would be replaced by more modern platforms, Major said: "Their formidable presence in the IAF inventory has contributed to many years of peace in the sub-continent, deterring any misadventure."
The aircraft, which was flown for the last time by Wg Cdr Y J Joshi and Sqn Ldr T R Sahu of the 221 Squadron, touched down at the airbase to mark its phase out.
The phase out ceremony was witnessed among others by IAF vice chief Air Marshal P V Naik and Western Air Command chief Air Marshal P K Barbora.
Halwara Air Force Station was home to 221 Squadron ever since they converted to MiG-23BN in February 1982. The squadron, known as Valiants was formed in 1963 at Barrackpore.
The Valiants entered the ‘Swing Wing’ era with the induction of MiG-23BN in 1981, as a result of the IAF’s need for Tactical Air Strike Aircraft in the late 1970s.
The aircraft got its first taste of flying during an operation in April 1984 when the Squadron was alerted for the launch of Operation Meghdoot for securing the Siachen Glacier in Northern Ladhakh, and later during the 1999 Kargil battle. But during both operations, the aircraft flew only air patrol sorties.
IAF spokesperson Wg Cdr Mahesh Upasani, meanwhile, said in New Delhi that the history book of the squadrons mentioned that in 1985, MiG-23BN got the unique distinction of being the first fighter aircraft ever to cross Banihal Pass in Jammu and Kashmir region by night.
He said in 1999, during Operation Safed Sagar, the IAF commenced offensive air action at first light on 26th May. The MiG-23BNs were launched into action targeting enemy positions at Tiger Hill with 57-mm rockets and 500-kg bombs, he added.
"The ensuing seven weeks from 26th May and 15th July saw the MiG-23BN squadron fly 155 attack missions, more than those during December 1971 operations, and accounted for 28 percent of total load drop and 30 percent of all missions flown in that area," Upasani said.
During the Kargil conflict, he said, the aircraft had the distinction of being the single aircraft type to fire the maximum weapon load over the dizzy heights of Dras and Kargil.