Mumbai: Work may have begun on building India’s spacecraft to the moon, but it will take at least a decade longer to develop the country’s own passenger jet.
When the much-awaited funding for the 11th Plan (2007-12) is available, aerospace scientists want to return to the drawing board to design a 70-seat passenger jet that can fly up to 2,000 km, say from Mumbai to Kolkata.
The proposal is being quietly discussed even as the nation’s first indigenous light transport aircraft, the 14-18-seater Saras, is still undergoing test flights, after over a decade in development amid criticism over its excess weight and fuel consumption. But the plan for a ‘Made-in-India’ commercial jet has received a thumbs up from a panel of India’s top scientists in the steering committee on science and technology for the 11th Plan. Their report to the Planning Commission, submitted in December 2006, estimated the aircraft project would cost around Rs2,035 crore over a decade.
“Being a large country with a growing economy and having a large, capable science and technology expertise, it would be appropriate for India to have its own civil aviation aircraft design and manufacturing capability,” the report said. “Up to 2025, India will need about 350 passenger aircraft. The current proposal envisages development of passenger aircraft during the next 10 years,” it said.
Aircraft majors such as Brazil’s Embraer, or Empresa Brasileira de Aeronáutica S.A, and Bombardier Inc., dominate the global market for regional jets.
The latest report of the Centre for Asia-Pacific Aviation (Capa) said Indian carriers have about 480 aircraft on order for delivery till 2012, against a fleet size of 310 aircraft today. Capa estimated that India’s fleet will reach 500-550 by 2010.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has already budgeted Rs635 crore for the aircraft project in its 11th Plan proposal.
“Saras is in advanced test flight stage and will be ready in three-four years. It is time India thinks ahead,” said former CSIR director general and steering committee member Raghunath Mashelkar. “To begin with, we want to test the project’s feasibility and how to make it competitive.” CSIR’s National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) in Bangalore that developed Saras will lead the multi-institutional project if it is sanctioned. Its director A.R. Upadhya declined to comment, saying, “it would not be appropriate to talk about a project before its sanction.”
Air Deccan managing director G.R. Gopinath said he would buy an indigenous passenger aircraft provided it is of outstanding technology. “I’ll buy it if it is competitive on price, quality, product and financial support,” Gopinath said. “People should be ready to fund it and it should have a good resale market.”
The steering panel report did caution that for the project’s success, many technologies would have to be upgraded, and new ones developed. New international aerospace initiatives, such as the Silent Aircraft Initiative to design a noise-free, fuel-efficient aircraft involve the best researchers from 30 companies, and MIT, Cambridge researchers.
On its website, NAL says it has about 100 Ph.D. holders in its 350-strong research and development staff. Building Saras required about 700 skilled hands across many research centres and industries.
An Embraer market report says the number of regional jets in the US increased from 36 aircraft flying on 180 routes in 1995 to 1,338 aircraft on 2,824 routes in 2006. Despite India’s goal of regional connectivity, Gopinath said unless indigenous civilian aircraft production is made globally competitive, it wouldn’t survive.