Saturday, January 01, 2011

On our own wings

Tejas, India’s first fighter aircraft, is combat ready. Here is the story of how it beat sceptics and sanctions 

By Ramu Patil(THE WEEK)

Please do not allow the first flight of the Light Combat Aircraft to take place. The aircraft has not been developed with adequate rigour, and safety aspects have not  been fully looked into. It would be a catastrophe if you allow it to fly.

This was the gist of a cable which landed on then defence minister George Fernandes’s table in 2001. It came from a major US military aircraft manufacturer on January 3, a day before the maiden flight of the indigenously designed and developed Tejas.
Even in India, many people were sceptical about the success of the fighter project, which started way back in 1983. In the subsequent 27 years, countless work-hours and ?14,000 crore were spent on developing it. Justifiably, people wondered why India should invest so much on developing it when fighter aircraft were available off the shelf in the international market.

Fernandes, with supreme confidence in Team LCA, ignored the cable. The following morning the homegrown fighter, flown by Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal, soared into the clear Bangalore sky. “He [Fernandes] told us about the letter from the US only after the first flight was over,” recalls Air Marshal (retired) Philip Rajkumar, head of the LCA flight test operations at that time and author of The Tejas Story: The Light Combat Aircraft Project.

But doubting Thomases sniggered. They said Tejas “flew somehow” and the real test for it would be to fly frequently and be part of the Indian Air Force. And exactly a decade after that historic first flight, the aircraft is now combat ready. The scientists at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the nodal agency for developing the fighter, and the test crew at the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) are confident. “Missiles, practice bombs and drop tanks have all been integrated and tested successfully. It is a very potent weapon now,’’ says P.S. Subramanyam, project director (combat aircraft) and director, ADA.

According to K. Tamilmani, chief executive, Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC), the LCA is ready for Initial Operational Clearance (IOC).
CEMILAC, which is part of the Defence Research Development Organisation, is the certifying agency for all military aircraft and airborne systems in India. It goes only by the demonstrated performance of the aircraft and systems to certify it. All major envelope requirements for the IOC have been completed and safety aspects proved, says Tamilmani. “Some small things that still need to be completed would be done soon,” he says.

A few parameters like firing missiles through radar targeting will be done before getting the IOC and handing over the aircraft to the IAF, which has ordered 40 LCAs. Bangalore-based state-owned aircraft maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will start rolling out Tejas in the next few months.
Flying with the IAF would be a major milestone for this multi-mission tactical fighter capable of air combat, offensive air support and other combat missions. At the flight test stage, on an average, each aircraft does eight sorties per month, but in the operational squadrons, they will be flown almost every day. “It is a fully combat-ready aircraft that encompasses all features that the IAF wants,’’ says Group Captain Suneet Krishna of the NFTC, who has been test flying the LCA and has been associated with the project for 10 years (see box). The NFTC pilots, from the IAF and the Navy, have so far completed 1,500 sorties, testing a number of parameters or test points.

“Tejas is so agile and so good that it sometimes surprises you,” says NFTC Project Director Air Commodore Rohit Verma. The veteran pilot, who has flown the Russian MiGs and French Mirages, is in love with Tejas.
Like pilots, flight test engineers, too, played an important role. Sitting at the hi-tech Telemetry Centre at the end of the HAL airport’s runway, they monitor the test flights. In fact, the test director always has a better situational awareness of the aircraft than its pilot. All through the flight, the director is in touch with the pilot, while a specialist monitors the crucial parameters in the aircraft.

Says retired wing commander P.K. Raveendran, group director (flight testing), NFTC: “Each test flight requires a lot of preparation and analysis. Soon after the flight there will be a ‘hot debrief’, the first impression of the flight by the pilot and test engineers. That will be followed by ‘data debrief’, where each aspect is discussed in detail so that corrective action can be taken in time.” He has been associated with the project from 1995 and is heading the team of “back room boys and girls” assisting the project.

“Young boys and girls worked late in the night and would report to work again by 7 a.m. That also included a woman, who had a kid to take care of at home,” says former ADA director Dr Kota Harinarayana. “When I asked her, she said: ‘Sir, my mother-in-law has told me she will take care of the baby so that I can focus on the national project.’”
“Like any true patriot, I feel happy to be part of this project,” says Devadatta Maharana, who integrated the complex Airborne Separation Video System that captures the trajectory of bombs and drop tanks dropped from the aircraft. The special cameras mounted on Tejas capture 1,000 frames per second. Though it sounds simple, analysing separation of missiles, bombs or drop tank is crucial as any slight deviation in separation, at a very high speed, can prove disastrous for the aircraft.

State-of-the-art technologies like fly-by-wire, digital flight control and all composite structures have made Tejas technologically superior to many IAF fighters. “The LCA is far superior to the upgraded MiG 21s. It will be as good as any fourth generation fighter,’’ says Rajkumar, who has 5,200 flying hours on 75 different aircraft. It was Rajkumar who set up the NFTC in 1994.
Says Verma, “The LCA is a good bedrock for any future projects. The platform-neutral technology can be used for other platforms. After IOC, final operations clearance (FOC) would be a bit of challenge for us as we would be going in for a high angle of attack, more sensors, more weapons and big envelope. We will do FOC by the end of 2012.”

Experts say Tejas is best suited for short duration missions, while heavier aircraft like the Sukhois can fly longer missions. But Sukhoi costs around ?240 crore, and an upgraded Jaguar around ?300 crore. Su-30MKI is one of the most capable flying machines in the IAF. However, the IAF cannot afford to have only those as they are very expensive and the operational costs are too heavy. The LCA, which is relatively less expensive—it costs around ?150 crore and, with the upgrades, can go up to ?200 crore—will fit into the light class of fighters. The IAF is acquiring 126 medium multi-role aircraft for $11 billion to strengthen its medium class fleet.

So far, a total of ?25,000 crore has been invested on the LCA project. “Of that, around ?14,000 was for development and rest of the money for making 40 aircraft,” says Subramanyam. “If we look at 200 aircraft [for the IAF and the Navy], we will be getting business worth ?50,000 crore.’’

Though the project is now on the right flight path, the going was tough a few years ago. “When we started, 999 out of 1,000 people did not believe us,” says Kota, known as the Father of the LCA. Long before the LCA project was even born, he had done his Ph.D thesis on the 'Design of an air superior fighter for India', at IIT Bombay. It was to honour Kota's contribution to the project that his initials 'KH' were inscribed on the aircraft that made the maiden flight.

Kota and his team were very cautious in their approach. “We were willing to accept criticism on account of delays rather than putting the project in danger,” says Kota. “We conducted many tests, more than what are normally done. The aircraft was ready to fly in 1999, but we took one full year to test and re-test before deciding to fly it in 2001.” An unassuming person, Kota is now working on the Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA) project.

Bridging the technology gap, too, was a huge challenge. HAL, the only aircraft-maker in the country, had not done much after its Marut programme in the early 60s, and India was two decades behind developments in aviation. In aviation, they say, one needs to keep running to stay where you are. And India was not even walking!
Next was the difference of opinion between the IAF and DRDO.  “The IAF was looking for an aircraft which would be on the frontline in 15 years or so,” says Rajkumar, “while the aeronautical community felt that the technological gap had to be bridged by developing technologies like fly-by-wire, composite structures, and digital avionics. The IAF knew that it would take a long time to do this.’’

After sitting on the fence all through the 80s, the IAF started supporting the project in the 90s. The project got a meaningful funding of ?2,188 crore in 1993. Then came the US sanctions after Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998. Many thought it to be the end of the fighter project as the US firms GE and Lockheed Martin, which were helping with engines and avionics, respectively, pulled out overnight. Says Shyam Chetty, head of flight mechanics and control division: “When sanctions were imposed, we were in the US working with Lockheed Martin. They immediately asked us to leave the country and did not even allow us to enter their campus to collect our equipment and papers. It took many years to get them back. Meanwhile, we had to start from scratch to develop flight control law (FCL), which was a very important part of the project. That was a big challenge.''

To tackle the crisis, then DRDO head A.P.J. Abdul Kalam formed national teams to develop the crucial technologies within India. “We took it as a challenge and worked day and night,” says Kota. “We developed all the required systems before the sanctions were lifted.”

The teams conquered complex technologies like composite materials, digital fly-by-wire system and glass cockpit and established various testing facilities. Says National Aerospace Laboratory Director A.R. Upadhyay: “In my 18 years of association with the LCA project, I have become a better aerospace professional. Technologies like FCL and carbon fibre composites developed at NAL are helping many programmes including our Saras, a 14-seater aircraft, and also the RTA project.”

A.K. Sood, RTA project adviser and former chief designer at HAL, has the same opinion. “The technology and expertise we developed for the LCA were used for conducting full aircraft vibration tests on Sukhoi and for vibration tests on external stores on Mirage 2000. That reduced our dependency on the foreign aircraft makers,” he says.
But the ambition to develop a complex jet engine and equally difficult Multi-Mode Radar (MMR) led to delays. Even now, Tejas flies with a US-made engine and an Israeli radar.
Says Rajkumar: “It was an absurd managerial decision to give the task of developing a jet engine to GTRE [Gas Turbine Research Establishment] and radar development to HAL Hyderabad. They never had any experience of doing such complex work. The only organisation that could have developed the radar was LRDE [Electronics and Radar Development Establishment] and the HAL Engine Division in Bangalore, which had the experience of developing engines. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, we can say the decisions were wrong, though we cannot blame anyone.”

The LCA Mark I that is now ready for IOC will fly with GE 404 IN20 engines while Mark II, the first flight of which is likely to be in December 2014, will fly with the more powerful GE 414 engines. Mark II will have a retractable fuel system and will improve on all deficiencies noticed in the former.

Lack of adequately trained workforce was also a problem. Says Rajkumar: “When the IJT [Intermediate Jet Trainer] project was taken up by HAL, the manpower got split. That had an adverse effect on the progress of the LCA project.’’
But a transparent working system helped the project. Everyone in the ADA, IAF and airworthiness teams knew what the challenges were. “The system was so transparent that I used to joke that the LCA project was like a cabaret artiste without a G-string. It was totally transparent. There was nothing hidden,’’ says Kota, with a hearty laugh.

Looking back at the long development period, Wing Comander Ajey Lele of Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi, says: “It was possible to complete the project a little earlier, but one must understand that developing aircraft is not a simple job. The criticism was very harsh, as if we were manufacturing something like a mobile phone.’’

Fighter development projects take a lot of time. The development of European fighters took 25 years and the F22 Raptor of the US was a Cold War era project. “If it took over two decades for the US to develop the F22, India, too, will take time,’’ Lele says.
The process of developing a fighter helped private industry as well. Says Ashok Saxena, MD, Navvavia Technologies Private Limited: “Small and medium enterprises played a major role in the production of test equipment and components. Those companies are now getting business from many foreign firms looking for good quality, low-cost outsourcing for their own programmes.” Saxena was managing director of HAL Bangalore Complex and was closely associated with the LCA project.

HAL will find it a challenge to meet production requirements. It will have to produce around 200 LCAs for the IAF and the Navy in the coming years. As of now, it is capable of making only eight aircraft a year and is planning to increase the capacity to 12. Which means, it requires nearly 18 years to make 200 fighters. Neither the IAF nor the Navy can wait that long.

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