In May 1997, a MiG-25R aircraft broke the sound barrier over Islamabad, emitting a sonic boom.
A sonic boom is a loud, explosive noise caused by the shock wave from an aircraft or other object travelling faster than the speed of sound. The sound was mistaken for a bomb blast.
Before the Pakistani F16s could get any close to the intruding aircraft, code-named Foxbat, it had crossed the border yet again and was back in Indian airspace.
This wasn’t the only secret reconnaissance mission. This superspy plane was reported to photograph sensitive defence sites across the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir as well as the Line of Actual Control with China since its induction in 1981.
While the IAF made no official claims about the secret reconnaissance mission, Pakistan did make a statement. It claimed that the pilot aboard the Indian MiG-25 aircraft deliberately sent the sonic boom to remind the PAF that it had no equal in its inventory.
It’s been 13 years since the MiG-25R Foxbat was phased out, but the defence superspy plane and the pilots who flew it continue to have a special place in the history of the Indian Air Force.
Its entry into India
The aircraft was originally Russia’s secret weapon against American bombers. This ensured that the aircraft wasn’t supplied even to its thick allies.
But in 1976, after the secrecy of the aircraft was compromised by Viktor Belenko, it was thrown open to the market.
Speaking to aviation expert Shiv Aroor, Late IAF Chief Idris Latif, said, “I was shocked and delighted to learn that the Soviets were actually offering MiG-25 Foxbats to us in 1980.….The Foxbat was the best in the world, and it was made available to us.”
Even after its import, the MiG-25 was the IAF’s most closely guarded asset.
In an Indian Express interview with Aroor, Wing Commander Alok Chauhan supported this. He was a MiG-25 pilot with the Rapiers Squadron. He adds how many in the IAF never saw the Bareilly base where the aircraft was stationed or even the aircraft itself while it was in service.
The Foxbat was to the IAF what the SR-71 Blackbird was to the USAF, the report mentions.
It wasn’t until the IAF released a few photographs of the Foxbats in the public domain that others came to know of the aircraft.
What made the aircraft stand out?
Despite a fully loaded weight of 40-tonnes, it flew 50 km per minute, faster than a bullet. At its fastest speed, it could even zip faster than missiles. Thus, it was considered the right weapon for spying.
Built using nickel-steel and titanium in heat-critical areas, it held the world record for the highest altitude at which an aeroplane could fly.
The MiG-25 was fitted with powerful 1,200 mm cameras that captured photographs even as it flew thrice the speed of sound, at an altitude three times the height of Mount Everest. Its cameras could check on Delhi without leaving Bareilly. This meant that if it flew over Punjab or Kashmir, it could easily check on Pakistan too.
It was considered a gas guzzler. A single long mission meant that its twin Tumansky turbofans would burn 23,000 litres of fuel.
Flying above 70,000 ft, the pilot had to don helmets like Russian cosmonauts and skin-tight inners.
While the Russians pushed the ceiling of the Foxbat to 1,23,000 ft, the Indian Air Force stuck to the 90,000 ft ceiling
The Indian Air Force had eight single-seat MiG-25R for high-speed reconnaissance, and two twin-seat MiG-25U for conversion training for the No.102 Trisonics Squadron in Bareilly.
Wing Commander Chauhan adds how the aircraft could map a country the size of Pakistan in a single-digit number of missions. (One lakh sq-km in four-five sorties).
It was also reported to have outlived its direct competitor SR-71 Blackbird of the US Air Force.
When the time came for the aircraft to retire in 2006, Bareilly base commander Air Commodore Shankar Mani, said, “These aircraft were and are the envy of the world. After 25 years of yeoman service, it is now time to let them go. They have served us exceptionally. We have innovated and changed; we must move on now.”
Retired Air Marshal Trevor Osman, who commanded the MiG-25 squadron named Trisonics in the 1980s, says the aircraft flew between 20-25 sorties a month, most across the border.
42 pilots flew the MiG-25 since its induction to the service.
“From the height at which we fly, you can see the entire Himalayan range at one go. No aircraft has ever been able to achieve for us what the Foxbat has. We will miss flying them,” Wing Commander Sanjeev Taliyan told Aroor.
After being phased out, the aircraft was placed at Delhi’s Palam Museum. Much about its operations and the brave IAF officers who flew it remains shrouded in secrecy.
What is known though is that being a Foxbat pilot required these officers to possess the rank of a Wing Commander and have an excellent flight record, and the most number of sorties with the highest experience in their group.
Perhaps a day will come when the stories of the unsung and faceless heroes who took on these dauntless missions in the beast aircraft will be revealed to the world.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)