Two MiG-21s crash, narrowly missing munitions dump

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Two Czech air force MiG-21 fighter planes crashed on Tuesday in Central Bohemia, killing both pilots. It was the latest in a series of accidents to hit the force, which has lost 16 planes in the past four years. Nick Carey has this report:

The two MiG-21 fighter planes, which were part of the Czech Republic's contribution to NATO, crashed on Tuesday morning near the Caslav air base in Central Bohemia. The two planes had been out on routine manoeuvres and, according to witnesses, were coming in to land when they crashed into one of the buildings on the base, producing a massive explosion. The building is located only two hundred metres from a munitions dump, so a much greater disaster was only narrowly avoided, much to the relief of the inhabitants of a nearby village.

Defence Minister Vladimir Vetchy was quick to deny reports that the two planes had collided in mid-air. He said the planes had crashed trying to avoid a collision. Both pilots died in the crash, but despite the fact that the building hit by the planes was occupied by soldiers, no-one else was injured. There will be no official statement on the cause of the accident until the completion of an air force investigation.

This is the third accident to hit the Czech air force this year, and brings the total of planes lost since February 1996 to sixteen, with ten pilots dead. Six of those planes have been MiG-21s, which were more than twenty years old. All of the pilots involved were experienced officers with a minimum of several years' flying behind them.

There have been numerous claims made by the air force and observers in recent years, especially after accidents like the one in Caslav, that the Czech air force is chronically underfunded, leading to frequent fuel shortages that prevent pilots getting the training time they need. The pilots themselves are demoralised and underpaid.

The Czech government has been discussing the purchase of new fighter planes for some years now. The air force, successive defence ministers, and observers have complained that the frequent delays in this process have only made the situation worse, and cost lives. This will likely be one of the issues discussed by the cabinet at its next meeting, and it remains to be seen what conclusions they will draw from this latest in a long series of crashes to hit the Czech air force.