In a country where the Army struggles for a reliable, home-made rifle, building a proven fighter jet goes beyond being ambitious. What if the ambition bears actually fruit?
For a long time, many have lived with that excitement for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. Efforts to get a ride on board to see its actual performance was said to be such an outlandish proposal that most would laugh it off.
However, earlier this month, at the 'Aero India 2017' conducted by Defence Ministry in Bengaluru, I was informed to 'kit up for the ride'.
It was in the first half of February 17. It was close to noon when I found myself on that coveted rear seat inside the digitised cockpit of KH T 2009. In the seat ahead was my flight commander, Air Vice Marshal AP Singh, Principal Director Test Flight at the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC). AVM Singh has to his credit over 4700 flying hours spent flying more than 30 different aircraft. Days before our flight, he had flown with Indian Air Force's (IAF) boss, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa. Singh, having completed physical checks on the exterior, initiated the indigenous digital Flight Control System (FCS) - a programmed internal scan which ascertains if the aircraft is 'ok' to fly. With the onset of the FCS, the machinery within moved hard seeking to impress the software. That achieved, 'Tejas 3 was good to go' said the controller. It took barely 10 seconds and a speed of 120 nautical miles per hour to lift off, powered by the imported GE F404 F2J3 engine. Early into the flight, AVM Singh offered me the control - a sign of confidence, not in his co-pilot but in the aircraft. He guided me as we, over 30 minutes, climbed six kilometres from the ground (Tejas can operate up to 15km/50,000 feet), underwent aerobatics pulling up 'g' of over 5. "Are you ready for some negative 'g' Jugal? " asked AVM Singh over the radio. I replied in the affirmative. With a stroke of the joystick, we were flying inverted. For the next 15 seconds, we pulled up to negative 1.5 'g'. "It is the more unsettling of the two, that is why I asked you before getting into it," Singh remarked upon landing. I was also briefed about the sensors and other applications on board.
What was the point in flying a journalist and why now?
Chairman of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Dr S Christopher answered this question when he said, "When foreign manufacturers can bring their jets in our country and fly our civilians and despite us having our own aircraft if we keep people away, it gives rise to a stigma. We are looking to export the LCA since many countries have exhibited interest and by allowing our own civilians, our journalists to fly, we are showing that we are open and confident of what we have achieved".Apart from the IAF chief, even the Vice Chief flew the Tejas at the Aero India 2017. On the condition of anonymity, a senior officer said, "It is a pilot's aircraft. It has the right power, the right drive for the role envisaged for it. We however need to ensure the quality of support and maintenance going forward".
India Today journalist onboard Tejas.
Responding to this, Dr Christopher said, "Once the series production will start, increased private sector participation will be seen and issues of product quality and support will get addressed". He however voiced his concerns. "The number of people we have as designers are less and given how many aircraft development programmes are on, there is a huge need of manpower. Lastly, we need long term funding. We must believe we will succeed and without suspecting us, if funding is smooth, we will deliver," he added.
In the years to come, the LCA Tejas of varying configurations will replace the eight squadrons of MiG21 in the IAF. Why stop at eight, however? The research and development community is confident that with assured funding and correct resource allocation, LCA Tejas could well evolve into something more than that a mere replacement of the MiG21s. Is the IAF listening?
TEAM TEJAS SPEAKS OUT
CD Balaji, Director Aeronautical Development Agency:
Our journey has been exciting, painful, and consisted of brickbats largely. To never give up is what I have realized. Last January, we took the LCA Tejas to Bahrain Air Show and with that began journey of change of mindsets. A lot of international press took interest and wrote good about the aircraft. From an earlier era when coverage of the Tejas comprised of negative feelings, today I see a change.
Air Vice Marshal AP Singh, NFTC
The part which makes Tejas stand out is that being our own design, we with our experience of Russian aircraft like the MiG, Sukhois and western ones like the Jaguars, Mirage 2000 have been able to pick the best from both designs and make it a happy mix. Needless to say this project sees the designer and users driven by national passion.
Group Captain A Kabadwal, Engineering National Flight Test Centre (NFTC)
The difference between us and the west is that they have been way ahead of us and we had to start from scratch. Even when we chose to start, we chose a big step. Many challenges have been ironed out. Our safety record is very impressive and a result of the stringent conditions we impose. We have had 3500 flights without a major accident Our is a cohesive team and most of us know each other for over 15-17 years and that helps. Few people understand why LCA Tejas is so important - it is our own technology and newer weapons and sensors can be easily integrated but if you try doing it on a foreign aircraft, the result will not be as satisfying.
Commander GD Raturi, NFTC
We are also developing the naval version of the LCA which is a different aircraft with multiple newer systems. This aircraft has to land on a moving carrier deck and several newer technologies have been developed for it. Final stage of integrations and tests is currently on.
Group Captain Himanshu Upadhyay, NFTC
The current version of Tejas is fully combat capable. It has eight hard points, a laser designation pod to identify and track the target area whether day or night, drop tanks for fuel (each with 1200 litres capacity) and 500 kg bombs, 250 kg bombs, beyond visual range missiles and it can take in both Russian and western stores such is the integration capability of LCA Tejas. Currently we also have a self protection suite which means any incoming missile can be detected and counter measures can be taken. We need to improve ranges, sensors, qualities, weapons, radars, jammers, gun facility etc which is being addressed in the upgraded version.
Mahesh Babu, Scientist ADA
We have developed flame retardant material for the pilot's jumpsuit so that even if there is a fire in the cockpit, the pilot can remain relatively secure. Same goes for the gloves. The G suit is currently imported. A pilot's gear also includes a helmet for communication, a knife, a life preserver unit also, aircraft approved boot. We have also developed cold weather pilot suit.