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Desi trainer aircraft makes maiden flight

By Ajai Shukla
May 31, 2016 11:28 IST
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The test flight is a victory for public sector undertaking Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which has strongly backed the Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40 project, defying a skeptical Indian Air Force. Ajai Shukla reports.

On Tuesday morning, in a milestone in indigenous aircraft development, India's home-grown basic trainer aircraft, the Hindustan Turbo Trainer-40, made its first flight.

Last week, the HTT-40 completed high-speed taxi trials, in which it accelerated to take-off speed, and even lifted its nose slightly off the runway, checking all its systems for actual flight. Next, the pilots will go through a full take-off, and then carry out basic flying manoeuvres before landing the aircraft.

If this goes off well, it will be a victory for public sector undertaking Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which has strongly backed the HTT-40 project, defying a skeptical Indian Air Force.

The IAF had blocked funding for the HTT-40, telling the defence ministry the aircraft would be too expensive, too heavy and would not meet the air force's needs. HAL continued anyway, allocating more than Rs 350 crore of company funds.

The IAF was backing a Swiss trainer, the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II, importing 75 for Swiss Francs 557 million (Rs 3,770 crore at current rates), in a controversial deal signed in May 2012. Those aircraft have already joined the IAF fleet.

But the IAF needs another 106 basic trainers, and wanted the Swiss aircraft, not the Indian one.

In July 2013, then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne wrote personally to then defence minister, A K Antony, requesting the HTT-40 project be closed and 106 more aircraft be imported from Switzerland.

As Business Standard reported, Browne's letter to Antony was based on incorrect figures and procedures were violated to favour Pilatus. That was validated last year, when Business Standard reported a defence ministry internal noting that concluded Pilatus might not have been the lowest bidder.

Since 2015, indigenisation-friendly Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has goaded the IAF into accepting the HTT-40 and setting up an "integrated project management team" to oversee the project.

To meet the IAF's training needs while the HTT-40 is flight tested and brought into production -- which could take two years -- 38 more PC-7 Mark II trainers are being bought. The remaining gap of 68 trainers would be filled by the HTT-40.

HAL projects it will build the first two HTT-40 trainers in 2018, eight in 2019, and reach its capacity of 20 per year from 2020.

HAL hopes to build 200 HTT-40s, exporting a "weaponised" version to countries like Afghanistan, Myanmar, and some African customers.

HAL chief T Suvarna Raju told Business Standard the HTT-40 would be developed into a capable ground-attack aircraft, ideal for countries that cannot afford expensive fighters or air bases with long runways. HAL hopes to price the HTT-40 at about Rs 40 crore per aircraft, one-fifth the cost of a basic light fighter.

Stringent Swiss end-user restrictions prohibit weaponising the PC-7 Mark II.

The HTT-40, like the PC-7 Mark II, is a propeller-driven, turbo-prop aircraft for "Stage-1" training of rookie pilots. After 80 hours of basic training, pilots shift to "Stage-2" training on the HAL-built Kiran Mark II jet trainer.

Next comes "Stage-3" training on the Hawk advanced jet trainer, which HAL builds under licence from BAE Systems.

The HTT-40 features a pressurised cockpit, "zero-zero" ejection seats, and a state-of-the-art cockpit display with "in-flight simulation" that permits an instructor in the rear cockpit to electronically simulate various system failures, training the rookie pilot in the front seat in handling emergencies.

HAL says that 55 of the trainer's 95 systems have been designed and built in India. Another 35 systems will be built in India with transferred technology, including the aircraft's Honeywell TPE-331-12B engine.

This high degree of indigenisation would make it easy to support the HTT-40 through its service life.

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Ajai Shukla
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