India’s long cherished and much anticipated dream of building a fully home grown, multi role, civilian transport aircraft seems to have crashed with the reports of Saras aircraft project spearheaded by the Bengaluru based National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) getting a decent burial doing the rounds.
After sixteen years and an investment of Rs.3000-million, the twin engine, turboprop Saras was nowhere near the take off stage.
After sixteen years and an investment of Rs.3000-million, the twin engine, turboprop Saras was nowhere near the take off stage. While the cutting off of funds has been cited as a major reason for stopping work on Saras development, factors such as technical flaws, failure to adhere to time schedule and the realization that there would be difficulties promoting this multi role civilian aircraft named after the Indian crane– based on the old fashioned and outdated turboprop system-all proved to be instrumental in the unceremonious termination of the project. Evidently, because the project was taking too much time, the funding was stopped by the end of 2013.
All said and done, it was the March 2009 crash of a Saras prototype on flight test on the outskirts of Bengaluru, in which two IAF pilots and one flight engineer were killed, which proved to be a jolt too serious to be overcome by NAL. As it is, NAL was already under severe criticism for its failure to reduce the weight of aircraft. Even so, the Indian Air Force (IAF) which was closely involved in providing test flight support to Saras had planned to buy fifteen of the aircraft. As it is, IAF wanted to replace Dornier with Saras for training, transport and logistics.
This 14 seater aircraft with its all up weight of 7500-kg. was designed to carrying a payload of 1.2-tonne. For IAF the most attractive feature of Saras was that this aircraft designed for a maximum cruise speed of 750-km per hour was equipped to takeoff from hot and high as well as semi prepared air strips.
Saras made its maiden flight in 2004. Right from the word go, the aircraft was overweight by 1000-kg and after much efforts NAL succeeded in reducing the “excess weight” by some extent.Taken up for development in the early 1990s as a Indo-Russian project, Saras became a totally indigenous venture after the Russian partner withdrew. And NAL took up the Saras development with the funding from the Technology Development Board (TDB), Ministry of Civil Aviation and the state owned aeronautical major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
…this civilian aircraft had many strategic potentials which the defence forces and government agencies could have put to use for a variety of purposes on a regular basis.
Saras development schedule was badly affected by the US sanction that came in the wake of 1998 twin Pokhran nuclear blasts. Saras, based on pusher propeller configuration was considered ideal for use in feeder airline and air taxi service as well as a cargo and passenger carrier to small towns spread across the country Other uses envisaged for Saras included VVIP transport, air ambulance, coastal ad border patrol, surveillance and survey, remote sensing as well as geophysical exploration. As such, this civilian aircraft had many strategic potentials which the defence forces and government agencies could have put to use for a variety of purposes on a regular basis.
Clearly and apparently, the March 2009 fatal accident exposed the poor expertise of NAL in designing, developing and flight testing a civilianaircraft. An investigation report on the mishap by country’s Civil Aviation regulator, DGCA (Directorate General of Civil Aviation) made the point that it would have been appropriate for NAL to consult aircraft manufacturers while carrying out qualification flights.”Incorrect relight procedure devised by the designer and adopted by the crew led to abnormal behaviour of the aircraft resulting in accident,” said DGCA. DGCA has recommended that Saras project would need to be monitored regularly by a team of experts specializing in aircraft design, safety and operational discipline.DGCA has identified asmany as sixty flaws for this mishap.
Certainly, NAL a constituent of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is not cut for the task of developing an aircraft from scratch. Because of its poor exposure to modern industrial practices and production techniques, NAL with its excellent research facilities and testing infrastructure under its wings, can at best play a supportive role in developing an aircraft. In fact, NAL had played a commendable role in supporting the development of India’s home grown, supersonic fourth generation fighter aircraft Tejas more than 100 of which will be induced into the frontline fighting formations of IAF. The project for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)Tejas was taken up by the Bengaluru based Aeronautical Development Agency(ADA) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation(DRDO) with a view to serve as replacement to the fast ageing Mig-21 Soviet era fighter jets.
…for eight years now, there has been a talk of developing a Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA) with 70-100 seater configuration with no serious action at the ground level.
Against this backdrop, during his April 2015 visit to NAL, the Union Minister for Science, Technology and Earth Sciences, Dr. Harsh Vardhan, had sought a white paper from NAL on the strategy to be adopted for civil aircraft development. “Let us have a new process of brain storming started to march ahead in a faster phase from where we stand today and I am sure that when we start deliberating on issues we will certainly find out what we have to do and what we have to do to accomplish what we want to do”.Though NAL was optimistic of the project getting revived with the government support and funding, Harsh Vardhan did not give any assurance of funding support to put the project back on the flight path.
India’s plan for a state of the art civilian aircraft continues to remain an exercise in shadow boxing with total lack of commitment to turn India into a hub of civil aircraft development on the lines Brazil has done through Embraer. For well for eight years now, there has been a talk of developing a Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA) with 70-100 seater configuration with no serious action at the ground level. In fact, the late lamented former Indian President and internationally acknowledged space and defence scientist had strongly advocated the need for such an aircraft with state of the art technologies highlighted by fuel efficient and eco- friendly features. In fact, the Indian Government had mandated HAL and NAL to spearhead the through floating a SPV (Special Purpose Vehicle) involving private sector participants with a risk sharing appetite.
Meanwhile, in a development that could that could cast a shadow of doubt over the long deferred RTA project, HAL has hinted that it would go ahead with its own plan for a civilian aircraft. Late last year HAL Chairman, T. Suvarna Raju had stated that HAL will take up a project to build a civilian aircraft with the support of domestic and overseas industrial partners. He also made the point that the aircraft will be powered by an engine being developed by HAL.This sudden talk of HAL taking up a civil aircraft project does not augur well for the ambitious RTA project which has so far remained a centre of discussion and debate with very little ground work to show up for its takeoff.
India lost six decades of opportunities in building up the necessary infrastructure for civil aviation aircraft. And the country is now paying a heavy price for this pathetic negligence of a strategic sector of vital national importance.
Confusion, ambiguity and equivocation seems to buffet RTA project.It high time that the Government of India took a firm decision as to how the project would be implemented, who we will be spearheading it, who will be the partners in the proposed SPV and the quantum of funding that Government would make and financial commitment that risk sharing partners wold make. There seems to be a difference of opinion between HAL, which is a defence Ministry owned public sector company and NAL, which is a civilian research organisation under CSIR, over how to go about implementing RTA project.
Unfortunate as it is, HAL which in 1960s had built Asia’s military aircraft, could not cover much ground in civil aviation sector due to rampant bureaucratic interference, shocking apathy of the successive governments that ruled India, the devious influence of the powerful import lobby and the myopic vision of men in uniforms who lorded over the fortunes of HAL for a long time. In fact, HAL had all the talent expertise and resources required to lay a strong foundation for building civilian and passenger aircraft. Clearly and apparently, India lost six decades of opportunities in building up the necessary infrastructure for civil aviation aircraft. And the country is now paying a heavy price for this pathetic negligence of a strategic sector of vital national importance.
Interestingly, Mahindra Aerospace, a part of the multi -billion dollar Mahindra group, is in tie up with NAL for developing a five seater civilian aircraft named CNM-5.Mahindra Aerospace whose Australian arm GippsAero produceseight seaterAirvan-8 and ten seater Airvan-10 utility aircraft for the global market is planning to make it big in small civilian aircraft sector.These aircraft described as tough, durable, safe and versatile can be used for carrying passengers, aero sports, freight as well as survey and surveillance. Incidentally, GippsAero is the focal point of the production and flight test CNM-5 prototypes. The five seater CNM can be used for cargo, charter, air taxi, air ambulance services.CNM-5 became a Mahindra portfolio after Mahindra group acquired the Bengaluru based engineering firm Plexion, which was in joint venture with NAL for CNM-5. In 2010,, Mahindra Group had acquired 75% stake each in GippsAero and Aerostaff Australia. While Gipps Aeroproduces small aircraft, Aerostaff Australia manufactures high tech aerospace components and aero structures and assemblies for global aerospace majors.
Mahindra Aerospace is also looking at the possibility of shifting its Australia aircraft production portfolio to India sometime in the future… could emerge as a key player in the civil aircraft production sector of the country.
Mahindra Aerospace is also looking at the possibility of shifting its Australia aircraft production portfolio to India sometime in the future. Mahindra Aerospace already has a facility at Narsapur near to Bengaluru devoted to the production of aerospace components and aero structure for global aerospace entities. As things stand now, Mahindra Aerospace could emerge as a key player in the civil aircraft production sector of the country.
Without doubt, China is marching ahead of India at a phenomenal speed in building large commercial ultra- modern jet that could ultimately help this communist giant challenge the monopoly of global plane makers, Boeing and Airbus.Late last year, the state owned aeronautical enterprise, Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China (COMAC) rolled out its 168seater C919 aircraft that has range of 3,444 miles The debut flight test of the aircraft is planned to take place sometime this year. Sources in COMAC revealed that there is a order for 517 aircraft from 21 customers. Majority of these customers are Chinese airlines. As things stand now, C919 is expected enter commercial service before the end of this decade. Clearly ad apparently, C919 can compete with singe aisle Boeing and Airbus jets for the simple reason that the plane would be offered for sale at a price much below the similar capacity passenger jets marketed by Boeing and Airbus. There is no denying the point that the success of C919 could pave way for development of a range of jets including large body ones catering to the different segments of users and in the process challenge the monopoly of big international players.
COMAC is also planning to build an aero engine production facility to take care of the power plant requirements of the aircraft it would be developing as a follow up to C919.C9119 is powered by a CFM engine As pointed out by China’s Civil Aviation Chief Li Jiaxiang, China’s air transport industry cannot rely completely on imported aircraft. Certainly, India can take a leaf out of Chinese experience.