Bangalore: The Indian Air Force, or IAF, will buy 15 Saras aircraft, the indigenously-developed civil plane of the National Aeronautics Laboratories, or NAL, to replace its ageing German Dornier fleet, beginning next decade.
IAF currently uses the Dornier 228 built by India’s state-run aircraft maker Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, or HAL, under licence since the 1980s from Dornier Gmbh, a German plane maker that no longer exists. HAL is the only firm to make these planes in the world.
NAL, the designers of Saras, said for the first time in February that the 14-seat multi-role plane would cost Rs39.4 crore apiece, making it among the most costly plane in its class.
But the Saras plane, named after the Indian crane, is still under development—two prototypes are doing flight trials while one-third production-standard aircraft is being developed at NAL’s facility in Bangalore.
The IAF has placed an indent for its first lot of 15 planes with NAL for the aircraft to be made by a private partner, which NAL would identify by July, a person familiar with the development said. A final order and its cost would be decided after negotiations with the partner, said the person who did not want to be named, as he is not authorized to speak to the media.
An IAF spokesman said he could not confirm the development immediately. NAL director A.R. Upadhya declined comment.
The Saras aircraft, which faced delays due to design flaws and non-availability of components following US sanctions in 1998 after India tested a nuclear weapon for the second time, has been criticized of being heavier than initially expected.
The weight of the plane with seats and systems is some 7,100kg, including two Pratt and Whitney-made turboprop engines.
Designed to take off and land on small runways or airstrips, the aircraft has a pressurized cabin and can fly at altitudes of 30,000ft.
NAL is working with Cades Digitech Pvt. Ltd, a Bangalore engineering firm, to make changes in tail and wing designs, to lower the weight of the plane by 500kg. The metallic tail assembly and wings in the earlier two prototypes would be replaced with composite material in the third.
With this, the aircraft should mark its first flight by June 2009, a delay of around six months, the person said.
Despite a huge growth in India’s civil aviation sector, carriers own or run planes built by companies such as Boeing Co., Airbus SAS and Franco-Italian plane maker ATR as local aircraft manufacturing is yet to take off.
Analysts said IAF’s commitment means the Saras programme gets a much-needed lifeline that could eventually end in aircraft production in India. “It means everything (for Saras). Without the support of defence forces or the government, indigenous aircraft development would not flourish,” said Air Marshal (Retd) T.J. Master, chairman of Master Aerospace Consultants (Pvt.) Ltd.