Bangalore: Foreign aircraft makers, with their big planes and jets, rule Indian skies. But on ground there is a growing bunch of small players from Bangalore and nearby areas who make and sell hand gliders, microlight and light sport aircraft at home and abroad.
Bangalore-based Raj Hamsa Ultralights is the oldest among them. Its factory churns out hand gliders and microlights flown by enthusiasts in Europe and the US. The firm, founded by French-born Joel Koechlin with seed money from J.R.D. Tata, the late patriarch of the Tata Group, has sold over 1,200 aircraft, 600 of them in France, each costing between Rs10 lakh and Rs40 lakh. It counts itself among the top five tiny aircraft makers in the world.
“Our customers are retired pilots or hobby fliers in Europe and the US,” says Vrata, head of sales and marketing for Raj Hamsa.
Raj Hamsa, which expects revenues of Rs4.5 crore in the year to 31 March, has its own design of products under the brand X-air, and makes around 100 aircraft a year.It has a two-seater light aircraft Hanuman, which it had sold to the Indian Army for its adventure flying.
“Though our labour costs are low in India, we don’t sell these machines cheap. We add value and improve quality to compete with those in the international market. Customers like that,” says Vrata, the 33-year-old son of Koechlin.
A few miles from the Raj Hamsa office, huddled in the middle of several high-end restaurants in Koramangala, the posh extension that has incubated some of big names of the software sector, a showroom has an aircraft on display.
The two-seat American designed Thorp T21 aircraft is for sale for Rs45 lakh aimed at the highly-paid professionals in the tech sector. But IndUS Aviation, owned by Ram Pattisapu, an Indian-born surgeon in the US, is learning a leaf from the software industry’s success story: leverage the cost arbitrage in labour by assembling the aircraft in India, without the engine and sell it in the US. IndUS, incorporated in the US, contracts the work to the Bangalore-based Taneja Aerospace and Aviation.
IndUS exported 20 aircraft to the US and has orders for 20 more. It has sold six of them to flying clubs in India that are certified by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, with an option to sell four more, but things are still not rosy. “Aviation raw material is still not available in India. Unless we have material for aircraft structures and engines, it is a tough task ahead,” says Ravi Kiran Kota, head (Indian operations), IndUS. Besides raw materials, analysts say, India lacks policies and consumer awareness to build a viable domestic aircraft industry.
The total number of small aircraft in India currently is less than 100 and a few hundred pilots. With over 400 unused air-strips, the country has an opportunity to add 200 small aircraft in the next few years, says Ram Suresh, chief operating officer Indus Aviation, a consulting firm in the aerospace sector, not related to Pattisapu’s company.
ACE Aviation, which has a factory in the hilly resort town of Ootacamund, makes up to 10 single-seat aircraft for hobby fliers, while Albatross Flying Systems in Bangalore, makes around 20 microlight aircraft.
Companies such as Reinforced Plastic Industries, which built under license the Hansa composite trainer designed by the state-run National Aerospace Laboratories, and Agni Aviation, which assembled Czech-made Zenair aircraft for the National Cadet Corps are focusing on the domestic market.