In the year 1981, an aircraft which was more of a manned ballistic missile on steroids entered service in the Indian Air Force changing the course of history as it is. Its induction in the IAF brought in an entirely new performance envelope for its fighter pilots and it became necessary to wear special pressure suits to survive at its service ceiling from where in the curvature of the Earth was visible from the very edge of space.
To the NATO it was known as the “Foxbat” and the IAF christened it the name “Garuda” , the large mythical bird-like creature from the Hindu mythology whose wings were massive enough to block out the sun. Only 42 top pilots of IAF ever qualified to fly solo in the aircraft in 25 years of its glorious service which led its flawless record of zero interception even if detected.
The first prototype of the Mikoyan MiG-25RB Foxbat-B was designed by the Soviet Union’s Mikoyan-Gurevich bureau in 1964. The aircraft could do Mach 2.8, and it was possible to sustain flights of Mach 3.2 in the early 1970s, but the engines being damaged beyond repair were a concern at such extreme supersonic speeds. To bring that into perspective, the Eurofighter Typhoon even with all the modern technology these days can super cruise at Mach 1.5. To achieve Mach 3, the airframe were built to withstand the airflow temperatures of up to 300 degrees Celsius. The MiG-25’s sustained speed was far above above the dash speed of all other fighters of whichever nation or built, either in 1970’s or even today. In all, 29 records were claimed by the aircraft, of which seven were all-time world records for time to height, altitudes of 20,000 m and higher, and speed. Several records still stand today.
The Indian Air Force inducted the reconnaissance version which was a very high altitude, supersonic aircraft capable of a service ceiling which made its interception by enemy fighters or surface to air missiles a joke at IAF’s Nos 102 Squadron ‘Trisonics’ who flew and serviced these majestic birds. The version IAF had were the MiG-25RB for reconnaissance and the MiG-25U two seater for conversion training. Countless top secret reconnaissance missions were flown over hostile territory of Pakistan and China documenting military bases and surveying the situation on the ground. These flights provided crucial intelligence during war and helped India stay two steps ahead in the reconnaissance game.
In May 1997, an IAF Foxbat broke the sound barrier while flying at an altitude of around 65,000 over Pakistani territory following a covert reconnaissance mission. A radar of Forward Operating Base of the Pakistani Air Force traced an intruder in their air space and the F-16As were scrambled. The F-16’s with an operating ceiling of 55,000 feet were a no match for the aircraft flying at the speed of a bullet from a assault rifle at 65,000 feet and vanished into thin air before the F-16s even left the runway. To add shame to insult, many in the Pakistani Air Force considered the breaking of sound barrier by IAF as a deliberate move to make the point that the Pakistan Air Force had no aircraft in its inventory which can come close to the capabilities of the MiG-25.
Soon after India forayed into satellite reconnaissance and UAV technology, the mighty Garuda retired from illustrious service from IAF in 2006. The spectacular benchmark left behind remains unchallenged to this day.