Bangalore: State-owned aircraft maker Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has delayed by one year the launch of the country’s first home-grown helicopter gunship, light combat helicopter, or LCH, continuing the trend of delays seen in several HAL projects.
The delay was caused by late delivery of equipment by a private firm, said HAL chairman Ashok Baweja. He did not disclose the name of the vendor.
The combat helicopter’s maiden flight will now take off in September, according to HAL. But certification and induction may take as much as three years as the chopper has to undergo flight trials, including accuracy checks of its weapons. LCH, the combat version of HAL’s advanced light helicopter Dhruv, has been in the works since 2004.
Late flight: The much delayed intermediate jet trainer will now take off in March. Hemant Mishra / Mint
This is not the first HAL project to be hit by delays. It took nearly two decades for the firm to build Dhruv. Selecting engine partners and certification held up the process and the helicopter was inducted into the armed forces in 2001.
In March, HAL will fly the intermediate jet trainer, or IJT, with a higher-powered Russian engine, built by NPO Saturn. The delay in securing the engine built over four years, twice its intended time, would put off its induction in to the Indian Air Force (IAF) by three years. HAL took 20 months to build and fly the plane in March 2003 with an engine that did not meet its requirements. IJT is expected to replace the ageing Kiran trainers of IAF dating back to the 1960s.
“In aircraft developments, you are testing new design and technology, there will be delays. It could relate to trials, supply of spares or certification,” said Baweja. In aircraft or chopper development, the first phase is from freezing of the design to producing a prototype that will fly. That is the maiden flight.
Following that, a number of prototypes are flown for trials to test and achieve the design parameters and then certified.
HAL has taken up five new projects: a light utility helicopter, a multi-role transport aircraft, a fifth generation fighter that it will develop with Russian help, a 70-seater passenger plane called the RTA-70 in association with the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) and a 10-tonne helicopter for which it is yet to select a partner. HAL has added an extra year while committing completion dates to customers for these projects to account for unexpected delays.
The biggest of India’s homegrown aerospace projects, Tejas, the light combat aircraft has been in the works for at least two decades. The fourth generation single-engine, multi-role fighter was conceived to replace the ageing MiG-21.
Aeronautical Development Agency, or ADA, a unit of Defence Research and Development Organization, or DRDO, and the design lab of Tejas, expects the aircraft to be certified for initial clearance by end 2010. Once inducted into the air force, it needs another four years to receive final clearance before it is deployed. “We are confident of meeting this deadline,” said P.S. Subramanyam, programme director of LCA at ADA.
Seven Tejas planes, powered by an engine of General Electric Co. have flown at least 1,000 sorties. DRDO, which build the Kaveri engine for Tejas on its own, has admitted failure and has selected France’s Snecma, a unit of Safran Group to jointly build a new engine.
Analysts say for a country that does not have a history of building indigenous military aircraft, it is difficult to suddenly do so. Since 1980, it has become a pattern in the US and Europe for such projects to take at least 20 years from launch of competition to initial operational capability (defined as a squadron of aircraft able to sustain operations), said Bill Sweetman, editor-in-chief of Defense Technology International that tracks technology trends in defence.
Ricardo Traven, chief test pilot of the F/A-18 programme, the twin-engine fighter of Boeing Corp., said building the class of Tejas planes is very difficult. “If you say (you are) building a fourth generation airplane, the first question that comes in mind is, show me your third or second generation plane. If you haven’t built an earlier generation plane, how can you possibly build the next one?” he said.