December 5, 2000


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The Rediff Special/ George Iype

Will the LCA fly?

After seven postponements and several technical hiccups, India's most ambitious indigenous aircraft project -- the Light Combat Aircraft -- is finally expected to be test-flown this month.

The LCA, however, is not expected be inducted into the Indian Air Force until 2003 at the very least; the single-engine tactical fighter aircraft is still plagued by numerous technical problems.

First, though, the good news. According to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited Chairman Dr C G Krishnadas Nair, the LCA's high-speed taxi trials -- conducted on the first technology demonstrator aircraft -- have been successfully completed. "The final system integration tests leading to the first flight are in progress now. The LCA will be test-flown before the end of this year," he told

The project has been managed and monitored by the Aeronautical Development Agency and nearly 80-odd small and big defence and other related organisations under the umbrella of the Defence Research and Development Organisation.

HAL -- an important partner in the LCA project -- is working on some of the aircraft's crucial aspects, including its Kaveri engine, airframe, system integration and fly-by-wire control systems. HAL will also conduct and monitor the flight trials.

After its induction, the all weather, multi-role combat LCA is expected to be the IAF's frontline fighter. It is expected to replace the MiGs which, nowadays, are better known for adding to the accident statistics in the Indian skies.

The LCA test station DRDO and HAL claim the LCA will be the country’s new generation, state-of-the-art aircraft for the 21st century. They say it integrates modern design concepts such as the tail-less compound delta platform, relaxed static stability, the fly-by-wire flight control system, advanced digital cockpit, multi-mode radar, integrated avionics system, the advanced composite material for its structure, flat rated engine, high manoeuverability, excellent maintainability and the ability to use a wide range of weapons.

The aircraft will also be able to handle short take offs and landings.

Now, the bad news. The 18-year-old LCA project, which was once showcased as the symbol of defence friendship between India and the United States, is still riddled with a host of technical problems.

For instance, its airframe is said to be deficient in vital parameters of aerodynamic configuration, volume and, most importantly, weight. The LCA is meant to be a fly-by-wire aircraft, which means it is critically dependent on the relevant software. Which, say sources, is yet to fully tested successfully, thanks to difficulties in integrating the system.

But HAL's Nair says judgement on the performance of an aircraft -- including its weight and other parameters which are under development -- should wait until the aircraft is completely ready. "During the development phase," he points out, "there are a number of technological requirements and challenges have to be analysed and solved."

The Kaveri engine He refutes the allegation that the LCA project has been delayed because of defects in design. "The project faced delays because of technological and political challenges. As a result, we had find solutions by developing appropriate indigenous technologies and equipment." The oblique reference is to the sanctions imposed by the US after India's Pokhran tests.

The two governments originally entered into an agreement to produce LCAs in the early eighties. In doing so, the Indian government overrode the claims of the French and the Germans, who had already been collaborating with DRDO.

When the development of the LCA was at an the advanced stage, India conducted nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998. The US retaliated by pulling out of the project. Thus, a week after the explosions, Indian scientists working in different fields linked to the LCA project at aerospace giant Lockheed Martin in Binghamton, New York, were asked return to India.

Meanwhile, the Indian engineers were working to validate a computerised control law software for the on-board computers that would eventually fly the aircraft. The US also denied India key components like hydraulic actuators -- that help the aircraft to manoeuvre, gain altitude and determine the trajectory -- and the ring-laser gyros to make inertial navigation systems.

As per its agreement with the US, DRDO had earlier purchased 11 frontline 404 engines from General Electric and fitted them on to early versions of the aircraft. But, after the imposition of the sanctions, GE withdrew its technical support personnel from India, forcing HAL-DRDO to quickly develop the indigenous Kaveri engine and almost every other system needed by the LCA.

Official sources say that indigenisation is now the most technologically complex challenge faced by the LCA.

LCA wheels and carbon brakes A senior HAL official is more practical: "Defence ministers and the DRDO have been creating a hype about indigenisation. The fact of the matter is that indigenously designing and producing a world class aircraft like the LCA takes considerable time. First of all, India does not have the requisite technology to design and manufacture a product like the LCA. For instance, the Kaveri engines which will be used for the aircraft still has problems."

Sources said that HAL and the DRDO are yet to determine whether the Kaveri engines can withstand high altitude conditions like low pressure and temperature.

In fact, if and when the LCA is test flown this month, it will not be on the Kaveri engine. Officials said the frontline 404 engines from GE will be used for the flight trials. "We are speeding up the flight trials because of pressure from the defence ministry," comments an officer wryly.

The LCA's test flight seems to have become something of a credibility issue with both DRDO and HAL, especially since defence ministers have been announcing the test flight dates all these years without any subsequent results.

It first happened when DRDO and HAL rolled out an LCA in the presence of then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao on November 17, 1995. The government had then announced that its maiden flight would take place in early 1997.

LCA flight data recorder The dates were then revised to June 1998 and again revised to February 1999. The latest test date was announced by present Defence Minister George Fernandes in August when he said: "The LCA is ready and has passed all ground tests. It will be test-flown in two months."

The two months have passed -- the test flight is yet to happen. Now, everyone is waiting to see whether the LCA, which has already consumed Rs 25 billion -- a far cry from the original Rs 5.6 billion cost projection -- will indeed take to the air in December.

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