Good bye Bison: India’s most famous squadron retires their MiG-21s

Indian Ministry of Defense

Another batch of India’s MiG-21 Bison fighter jets got replaced as Indian Air Force (IAF) 51 Squadron retired their planes. 

The ceremony of “number plating” – in which the personnel of a squadron are being reattached to another unit, while the equipment is being retired and the name of the squadron remains only on paper – has been performed on September 30, 2022, The Print reports. 

The flying coffin 

The MiG-21 was designed in the 1950s and remains one of the oldest fighter jets still flown by air forces around the world.Read more: Top 10 oldest fighter jets still in service 

India received their first MiG-21s in the 1960s. However, all the aircraft of this model currently in service with the IAF are vastly upgraded MiG-21bis variants from the 1970s, refurbished in the 2000s to the Bison standard with new avionics, controls, communication systems, radars and weaponry. 

Despite the upgrades, the ageing airframes of MiG-21s became the cause of numerous fatal incidents, with the IAF losing at least several Bisons in crashes per year in 2020, 2021 and 2022. 

Dubbed “flying coffins”, MiG-21s were slated for replacement. However, a shortage of aircraft meant that despite several procurement initiatives for modern fighters, as well as an extensive domestic aircraft manufacturing program, the old jets had to keep flying. 

51 Squadron was undoubtedly the most famous IAF unit flying the MiG-21. Formed in 1985 it was stationed at Budgam Airbase in Jammu and Kashmir region. 

In 2019, the squadron was involved in India’s border skirmishes with Pakistan, with one dogfight resulting in one MiG-21 being shot down. 

According to the Indian version of events, its pilot – Abhinandan Varthaman – managed to shoot down one Pakistani Air Force F-16 before his aircraft was hit by a missile.  

According to the Pakistan version of events, no PAF F-16s were lost that day, and numerous international observers noted that the evidence of Pakistani aircraft being shot down is lacking.  

Regardless, Varthaman’s alleged aerial victory, capture by Pakistani forces and subsequent repatriation were prominently featured in the Indian media, with the pilot becoming a national hero. 


According to local media, the pilots of the 51 Squadron are going to transition to the MiG-29, another cold war-era jet. 

India operates at least 65 MiG-29s, with 21 of them being newly refurbished Soviet-era airframes, purchased in December 2020. 

In August 2022, the IAF announced the plan to retire all MiG-21s by 2025, with one squadron of Bisons being retired each year starting in 2022. 

Before the retirement of 51 Squadron, the IAF operated between 64 and 72 MiG-21s, the exact number of the aircraft being unknown.  

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