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Special: A day in the life of a Tejas test pilot

Last updated on: February 15, 2011 08:36 IST

A day in the life of a Tejas test pilot

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Ajai Shukla in Bengaluru

The headphone crackles in his ears as Wing Commander Pranjal Singh looks out from the cockpit of his Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, codenamed LSP-3, at the sun-baked runway stretching ahead.

Once again he blesses the Indian designers who built the Tejas cockpit: in the Sukhoi-30MKI that he flew before test pilot school, he would have been dripping sweat.

"Trims neutral, brakes okay, all systems go from telemetry," says Group Captain Toffeen's calm voice.

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Photographs: Courtesy Ajai Shukla
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Toffeen and his flight test engineers in the telemetry room of the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) will monitor every system in Singh's aircraft right through the flight, poring over radio data transmitted from LSP-3's vitals.

No patient in intensive care is watched so closely. Any serious glitch means aborting the mission.

"Confirm, monitored," Singh acknowledges.

Toffeen clears him to go: "Take off with max AB, rotation at two-four-zero." In test pilot jargon, that means take off at full throttle (maximum afterburner), rotating the joystick to get airborne at 240 kilometres per hour.

"LSP-3, ready for take-off," says Singh to Air Traffic Control, which clears every aircraft. ATC is prompt: "LSP-3, cleared for take-off, wind 270, ten knots."



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Singh guns his engine to full power and the Tejas hurtles forward, the acceleration driving him backwards into his seat. In seconds he is at 200 kmph 220 240 and, as he pulls the stick, LSP-3 is sweetly airborne and climbing fast. This is the moment that every fighter pilot lives for.

But Singh is more than a combat fighter pilot, operating within tested and certified performance limits.

As a test pilot for the Tejas LCA programme, his job is to push the performance envelope of India's new fighter, checking how it reacts as he nudges it into uncharted territory.

"Each flight is a mission into the unknown," explains Air Commodore Rohit Varma, project director, flight-testing.



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A day in the life of a Tejas test pilot

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Varma, a tall, greying veteran who has spent a lifetime flying the unforgiving MiG-21 fighter, explains how each test flight deliberately takes the Tejas faster, slower or higher than it has ever been before, or on a mission like firing rockets or missiles, which could shut down the fighter's engine by sucking up all available oxygen.

Business Standard was at the National Flight Test Centre in Bengaluru to spend time with the pilots who test the Tejas, India's first attempt to build a modern "fourth-generation" fighter aircraft.

Since the first fledgling Tejas lurched into the sky in 2001, they have flown it to the limits of its flight envelope, but without rashly endangering the aircraft. While there are disasters in almost every fighter development programme, the zero-risk approach would make a Tejas crash a programme-threatening disaster.



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A day in the life of a Tejas test pilot

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Finely honed judgement is the first hallmark of a test pilot. Chatting with these men in the briefing room, I am struck by their maturity. This is no bunch of swaggering top guns, but experienced professionals in whom brash youth has given way to an impressive calm that must prevail in a life-threatening flight emergency.

Group Captain George Thomas, built like a bull, has commanded a squadron of Su-30MKIs. Group Captain Ritu Raj Tyagi, the most experienced of the group and a former Jaguar combat commander, ran the last Mumbai marathon as a diversion from flight-testing.

Captain Jaideep Maolankar, who cut his teeth flying Sea Harrier fighters off naval aircraft carriers, commanded warship INS Ganga as it chased pirates off the Somali coast. Group Captain Venugopal, like Varma, has commanded a MiG-21 squadron on the Pakistani border.



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A day in the life of a Tejas test pilot

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Even Singh, the baby of the team, is by conventional standards a veteran pilot, having commanded a Sukhoi-30MKI squadron. Now learning the ropes at NFTC, he will extensively test the first two Tejas fighters that Hindustan Aeronautics delivers to the IAF this year.

The LSP-3 streaks into the sky. Singh's mission is to test a new smoke winder -- an under-wing pod that trails smoke. The device will help NFTC test the Tejas' reaction when it flies into a jet wake, a deadly 250-kmph blast of air emitted by a jet engine flying ahead.

Jet streams confuse fly-by-wire fighters like the Tejas, which are kept stable by on-board computers.

Swedish company Saab crashed one of its Gripen fighters during testing when it flew into one. But these NFTC pilots seem to believe that flying the Tejas into a jet stream is just another day at the office.



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A day in the life of a Tejas test pilot

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This matter-of-fact approach to the unknown leads NASA to choose most of its astronauts from the test pilot community.

"Test flying only seems glamorous from the outside," says Thomas, dismissing my suggestion that every young IAF fighter jockey must idolise him.

"Our daily routine involves a great deal of what any fighter pilot would consider drudgery. There is plenty of daily paperwork, and loads of study across the aerospace domain."

But the passion for flying keeps these aces motivated. "We have all finished commanding our fighter squadrons and would normally be moving on to flying a desk," says Maolankar.



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A day in the life of a Tejas test pilot

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"This allows us to stay in the cockpit longer, connected with the business end of combat aviation. We are a few metres away from a fighter plane at all times."

In western air forces, like the US Air Force, test pilots do nothing but flight-testing.

While specialisation allows them to stay in close touch with test programmes, pilots become disconnected from combat flying. IAF's philosophy is different.

"Our tactics are evolving so quickly that we feel it is better to keep moving pilots between test flying and operational squadrons. That brings the latest operational doctrines into aircraft development," explains Thomas.



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A day in the life of a Tejas test pilot

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In the telemetry room, Toffeen controls Singh's mission. The atmosphere is charged; hawk-eyed technicians are glued to their monitors to detect the first sign of trouble.

Toffeen has done this for 21 years. "It is a really interesting job," he laughs, relaxed and confident.

"Every day is a new day." Singh's voice booms over the speakers that broadcast all communication between pilot and flight engineer. The smoke winder has been successfully tested. Toffeen tells him to head back to base. There is no cheering or clapping; this is business as usual.



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"Do you guys ever party, get drunk, let your hair down," I ask Varma.

"Not this week, definitely. We will be doing aerobatics twice daily and, as an article of faith, we don't drink for 48 hours before flying." But then the professional mask slips just a fraction and there is a gleam in the Air Commodore's eyes.

"But don't go away with the impression that these guys are loners. Test pilot school parties are famous in the Air Force."



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