NEW DELHI, March 2 (UPI) -- India will begin phasing out its dreaded MiG-21 fighter jets -- nicknamed "the flying coffin" -- in 2014, Defense Minister A.K. Antony told a parliamentary committee.
Pilots, former pilots and families of pilots who have died in MiG-21 crashes have been pressing the government for years to scrap the aircraft. India purchased 946 of the aircraft, many of them made in India, in the past 45 years.
But 476 have been lost in accidents -- six of them last year -- and many of the incidents were fatal, a report by the Press Trust of India said.
The aging single-engine Russian-made jets have been in service with India for around 45 years and still make up around 40 percent of the Indian air force's fleet, Antony said.
But as the air force upgrades with newer planes, the MiG-21 fleet will be reduced. They will be switched out for "modern next-generation aircraft such as the fifth-generation fighter aircraft and medium multi-role combat aircraft," Antony said in the report by The Press Trust of India.
"The Indian air force will be a new look force," he said.
The first flight of the MiG-21, made by Mikoyan-Gurevich OKB, was in 1955 and induction into the Soviet Union air force began in 1959. Russia retired its MiG-21s in the 1990s.
The MiG-21, despite its lack of sophisticated avionics, was agile and extremely uncomplicated to manufacture. This made it a valuable military export for the Soviet Union to many countries, more then 30 and in particular India and China.
The Chengdu Jian-7 is the Chinese licensed variant, made by Chengdu Aircraft Corporation and Guizhou Aircraft Industry Corp. China stopped production in 2008.
Production of the first MiG-21, the FL variant, in India began under license by Hindustan Aeronautics in Nasik in 1966, although the first MiG-21s were produced in the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
Throughout the years HAL began manufacturing an increasingly larger part of the aircraft until it was a totally Indian manufactured jet fighter including the majority of components.
Antony's announcement that the aircraft will start to be phased out in 2013 comes after a previous government statement on the scrapping of the increasingly controversial aircraft.
"The MiG 21s will get phased out by 2015-16. I think the last of the squadrons of the aircraft will be phased out by 2017," Minister of State for Defense M. M. Pallam Raju said in August.
In one of the latest crashes, Indian air force search parties found the body of a pilot in his crashed MiG-21 near a glacier in the Himalayas and at an elevation of 17,000 feet, the Press Trust reported in November.
The pilot, 32, had crashed 19 days earlier in the remote location. He was found still strapped to his cockpit seat.
In December The Times of India reported that a MiG-21 pilot ejected safely after his aircraft developed technical problems and crashed in a field. No injuries were reported.
One of the worst crashes happened in May 2002 when a MiG-21 variant crashed into a bank in Jalandhar, in the Punjab, killing eight people and injuring 17. The pilot ejected safely, The Times of India reported.