Thrifty at 50: Pakistan keeps aging Mirages flying

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A Mirage aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) prepares for a first test run at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex after an overhaul at the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) in Kamra, west of the capital Islamabad. (AFP)
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In this file photo, technicians work on a Mirage aircraft during a full overhaul by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) in Kamra, west of the capital Islamabad on Dec.27, 2017. (AFP)
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In this file photo, technicians work on a Mirage aircraft during a full overhaul by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) at the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) in Kamra, west of the capital Islamabad on Dec.27, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 29 April 2018

Thrifty at 50: Pakistan keeps aging Mirages flying

KAMRA, Pakistan: The sprawling complex at Kamra, west of Islamabad, reverberates at the thundering take-off of a Mirage Rose-1, the latest aging fighter jet to have been gutted and reassembled by the Pakistani Air Force.
Fifty years after Pakistan bought its first Mirages, many planes in the venerable fleet are still being patched up, overhauled and upgraded for use in combat, years after conventional wisdom dictates they should be grounded.
That includes one of the first two planes originally purchased from France’s Dassault in 1967, which was in a hangar at Kamra after its record fifth overhaul when AFP visited recently.
The techniques they have developed are reminiscent of — but far more high-tech and lethal than — the improvised methods used to keep classic American cars running on the streets of Havana.
“We have achieved such a capability that our experts can integrate any latest system with the aging Mirages,” says Air Commodore Salman M. Farooqi, deputy managing director of the Mirage Rebuild Factory (MRF) at the Kamra complex.
Pakistan bought its first Mirages to diversify its fleet, which in the late 1960s largely consisted of US-built planes: F-104 Starfighters, T-37 Tweety Birds and F-86 Sabres.
The Mirage became a popular choice, with the Air Force buying 17 different variants in later years, eventually owning the second-highest number of the fighter jets after France.
They performed bombing missions during Pakistan’s war with India in 1971 — one of the shortest conflicts in history, lasting just 13 days and leading to the creation of Bangladesh.
But Mirages flew on, also carrying out reconnaissance missions in India, and intercepting and shooting down Soviet and Afghan planes that violated Pakistani airspace during the Soviet war.
Usually, the jet has two or three life cycles, each spanning around 12 years. But overhauling them abroad was expensive for Pakistan, a developing country whose budget is already disproportionately tilted toward its military and which has historically received billions in military assistance from countries such as the US.
So, with the help of experts from Dassault, the air force decided if you want something done for the right price, you’ve got to do it yourself.
The Mirage Rebuild Factory was established at the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) in 1978, and in the years since has saved “billions” of dollars for Pakistan, according to Group Captain Muhammad Farooq, in charge of one of the maintenance hangars — though he said the exact figure was difficult to pin down.
The planes take some seven weeks to be overhauled and repainted, he said, adding that usually the MRF has the capacity for more than a dozen planes a year. Its calendar for the next decade or so is already booked up.
At least eight different Mirage variants, including the Mirage 5-EF, Mirage III-DP and Mirage-III Rose-I, were in one of the maintenance hangers when AFP visited.
Engineers and technicians were dismantling cockpit instrument panels and landing gear while undertaking a “non-destructive inspection,” essentially an X-ray to detect faults in the wings and airframe.
Dozens of engines awaiting overhaul were piled in one hangar. Even planes that had suffered accidents such as fires breaking out have been patched back together at the facility.
Pakistan has also been buying up discarded Mirages from other countries to bring through the facility, said retired Air Marshal Shahid Lateef.
The most important technological improvement, developed with the help of South Africa, is the ability to integrate air-to-air refueling, Farooqi said.
The “identification of friend and foe” (IFF) system, which detects when a Mirage has been locked on to by the system of another plane, was also a key development, he said.
But even with the improvements and cost-saving measures, the aging planes are becoming more difficult to maintain.
“They have outlived their lives... after their overhauls (they) have become highly unreliable, we even met with lots of accidents,” Lateef said.
The best option to replace them would be the Rafale, as neighbor and arch-rival India — which has also flown and maintained Mirages for decades — is doing, signing a deal with Dassault in 2016.
The price tag is too much for Pakistan, however, retired Air Commodore Tariq Yazdani said.
Instead Pakistan plans to replace them with the JF-17 Thunder aircraft that it co-developed and co-produced with China, the original manufacturer.
Even as it becomes more urgent to phase them out, Mirages’ status as the grand dames of Pakistani military aviation cannot be dismissed, Yazdani, who has logged 1,500 hours flying them, told AFP.
It is a “very agile aircraft capable of penetrating deep into the enemy’s territory without being detected by radar, which makes its sole mission -– to drop bombs on the enemy’s position -– quite easy,” he said.
“It is an old aircraft,” said aviation writer Alan Warnes, author of two books on the Pakistani air force. “But Pakistani pilots have been flying this plane with the utmost accuracy and expertise.”


At least 14 dead as India airliner crashes on landing

Updated 26 min 57 sec ago

At least 14 dead as India airliner crashes on landing

  • The Air India Express plane from Dubai had 191 passengers and crew on board when it overshot the runway
  • There were 10 infants on board

NEW DELHI: At least 14 people were killed and 15 others were seriously injured Friday when an Indian passenger jet skidded off the runway after landing in heavy rain, officials said.
Air India Express said more than 190 passengers and crew were on board the plane, which left from Dubai and landed at Kozhikode airport in the southern state of Kerala.
Television pictures showed part of the fuselage of the jet ripped apart, although there was no sign of any fire.
"I can confirm at least 14 deaths overall. Another 15 passengers have critical injuries. It is still a developing situation," senior local policeman Abdul Karim told AFP.
"We have at least 89 people, many of them with serious injuries, admitted at different Kozhikode hospitals. The ambulances are still coming in," said Sujith Das, another senior police official.
"We have been told that all those who have survived the crash also have some form of injuries."
One of those killed was one of the two pilots, a Kerala state deputy said.
Aviation regulator DGCA said the plane skidded off the end of the runway and "fell down in the valley and broke down in two pieces".
An Air India Express spokesperson said the aircraft appeared to have overshot the runway.
One television channel reported there had been a problem with the jet's landing gear.
Air India Express said in a statement that there was "no fire reported at the time of landing."
It said there were 174 passengers, 10 infants, two pilots and five cabin crew on board the aircraft.
"As per the initial reports, rescue operations are on and passengers are being taken to hospital for medical care," it said.
An emergency services official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP: "Rescue operations are on but the rains are making it difficult."
Television pictures showed emergency services personnel working in the dark and spraying the wreckage with water.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted his condolences.
"My thoughts are with those who lost their loved ones. May the injured recover at the earliest... Authorities are at the spot, providing all assistance to the affected," Modi said.
The last major plane crash in India was in 2010 when an Air India Express Boeing 737-800 from Dubai to Mangalore overshot the runway and burst into flames.
The crash killed 158 people and left eight survivors.
Kerala has been battered by heavy rains in recent days.
At least 15 people were killed on Friday after a landslide triggered by heavy rains flattened a row of huts elsewhere in the state.
Around 50 other people were feared trapped in the debris. The dead included two children.