The first heavier-than-air flight was achieved in America in December 1903. Seven years later aeroplanes were flying in India. New facts have emerged that while the first Indiandesigned aircraft was made and flew in Madras in March 1910, earlier in late December 1909, an unnamed Punjabi flew his aircraft in Calcutta. Various biplanes and monoplanes were thereafter assembled and flown at Patiala, Allahabad and Secundrabad. Even more amazing is that there was an Indian Flying Corps, albeit with a handful of early biplanes flown by British officers of the Indian Army, which ‘went to war’ in the Suez Canal area in late 1914. That is another story but what is recorded for posterity is that some intrepid Indians distinguished themselves in aerial combat during the Great War, flying with the RFC. Ten years later the first Flying Clubs were founded at Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Allahabad and Karachi. In the late 1920s the stage was set for a major impetus in India’s Civil Aviation environment, with pioneering efforts from the House of Tatas.
The Air Race of 1930 inspired Indian youth to take to aviation professionally even as the Indian Air Force (IAF) was established in October 1932. World War II saw the fledgling IAF expand tenfold and when India became independent, the IAF resolutely defended the country’s territorial integrity, to be called time and again over the next many decades to defend the nation, expanding and modernising steadily to become one of the world’s largest and most professional air arms extant. India’s aircraft industry, founded in December 1940 at Bangalore, is exemplified by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), spread over seventeen divisions in various parts of the country, having now produced over 5000 aircraft, both of indigenous design and of licence manufacture. These range from light trainers to new generation combat aircraft while its aerospace division is a world class manufacturing centre for space hardware, including Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicles.
While HAL is regarded as the ‘spine’ of the aviation industry in India, the National Aerospace Laboratories in Bangalore is involved in advanced technologies and the design of civil training and transport aircraft. It is indeed ironic that except for the Society of Aerospace Studies (SAS) which organised a seminar in the capital to herald completion of a century of aviation in India, the government and other aviation bodies completely missed the event. Interacting with this writer, noted aviation historian Pushpindar Singh, heading SAS and publisher of Vayu magazine, said “This is an opportune time to establish the long cherished National Air & Space Museum to enshrine India’s aviation heritage and so inspire future generations.” If Indian defence analysts sound sceptical most of the time, they cannot be blamed altogether.
Because the combination of politicians, bureaucrats, denial regimes and the politics and bureaucracy of the Armed Forces itself also, have often created many problems combat service support, special operations and logistics. The force structure should be tailored to meet evolving operational requirements. Corps headquarters should have aviation brigades in the orbats to provide proper command and control and ensure optimal utilization of all diverse aviation assets located within the Corps”. Deliveries of the Dhruv began ten years after the prototype’s first flight, and nearly twenty years after the program was initiated. The Indian Coast Guard, first to induct Dhruv helicopters, was followed by the Army, Navy, Air Force and the Border Security Force. Seventy five Dhruvs were delivered to the Indian armed forces by 2007 and the plan is to produce forty helicopters yearly. Having been cleared for high-altitude flying in the Siachen sector after six-month long trials, in October 2007, a Dhruv flew to an altitude of 27,500 feet (8,400 m) above sea level over the glacier, higher than the 25,000 feet (7,600 m) record set by an IAF Cheetah helicopter in 2005. A further order for 166 helicopters were placed with HAL.
While the Navy already has eight maritime variants of Dhruv, its ambulance version, with all emergency medical equipment for the treatment of casualties is also expected to be produced. For the first time in June 2010, the Tejas flew in the configuration that will be finally delivered to the Indian Air Force. Senior scientists from Aeronautical Development Agency, National Aerospace Laboratory, Bengaluru and Aeronautical Development Establishment were involved in the development and flight test planning for the newly integrated flight control software which was used by the test aircraft. The IAF reportedly requires 200 single-seat and 20 two-seat conversion trainers, while the Navy may order up to 40 single-seaters to replace its Sea Harrier FRS.51 and Harrier T.60.
During its sea level flight trials off Goa , Tejas notched a speed of over 1,350 km per hour, thus becoming the second supersonic fighter manufactured indigenously by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited after the HAL Marut. Former Naval Chief Admiral Arun Prakash PVSM, AVSM, VrC, VSM, a naval aviator, in a discussion with this writer, had much to say on the Tejas. He was all praise for the formal induction of the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas into the IAF on January 10. “It is not just a historic landmark for our aerospace industry, but also a significant step forward in India’s quest for the status of a great power.
Not more than a handful of countries can claim the ability and competence to successfully bring a project of such complexity to fruition. This achievement of our aircraft designers, scientists, production engineers and the flight-test team for having delivered – albeit belatedly – a state-of-the art combat aircraft to the IAF, is commendable.” Admiral Prakash pulled no punches in analysing the past problems in his paper on lessons from the Tejas, for the future , which he reiterated. “The LCA project attracted maximum criticism because of the time it took and the cost overruns it had.
Obviously, the DRDO over-estimated its own competence. This led to the ambitious claim that they had the capability to develop, in-house, not just the airframe and engine, but also the radar as well as a complex fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system required for an ‘agile’ (or aerodynamically unstable) fighter. This blunder was compounded by trotting out hopelessly optimistic cost and time estimates, on the incorrect premise that since India had earlier designed and built the HF-24 Marut, we possessed the design skills and manufacturing expertise”, he said Admiral Prakash went on to explain that India’s first indigenous fighter aircraft, Marut, was, in fact, designed by a contracted German team led by Kurt Tank, designer of the famed World War II fighter, Focke-Wulf FW 190.
Inducted into the IAF in 1965, the Marut was only a qualified success, since its advanced airframe was a mismatch to the under-powered Orpheus engine. The assumption that the advanced LCA would benefit from the expertise acquired from the 30-year-old Marut project was, therefore, largely fallacious. Lamenting the decision of the DRDO, typically, to pursue this strategic project without ensuring adequate involvement of the end users, the armed forces, he said that IAF, understandably, more concerned with extant problems of meeting its operational roles and missions took a detached view of the LCA and remained focused on looking abroad for its needs. This, arguably, deprived the project of impetus, moral support and funding. The last and most crippling impediment for the project, the Admiral pointed out, was the denial of crucial technologies by the West.
Postliberalisation advice and consultancy in certain key areas of the LCA design, notably the FBW system, was obtained from aerospace firms in the US and Britain. Unfortunately, the sanctions imposed after Pokhran II brought this crucial cooperation to an abrupt halt. “This is where our scientists showed their true mettle and went on to develop and qualify the incredibly complex flight control algorithms,” he said. All aircraft manufacturers whose aircraft have been flown by Indian military aviators, owe them great kudos for testing them to the limits of endurance of their product well beyond their imagination.
—Col Anil Bhat (retd) an independent defence and security analyst, is Editor, Word Sword Features