Remembrance of Aeronautical Matters Past

HF-24 Maruts information: this was cover story of the first issue of this journal in November 1974, thirty years ago

On 17 December 2003, the world celebrated the hundredth anniversary of man's first powered flight. Momentous advances have been made in aviation and what marks these developments is the will to succeed and explore new frontiers of knowledge and so achieve those historical milestones.

India's first efforts in aeronautics were started more than six decades ago by Walchand Hirachand and the then Mysore Government. The aircraft company started by them was taken over by the Government during the Second World War to initially function as a repair base depot for South East Asia Command. Thus was established what is now Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Sixty years on is not a small period of time to take stock of the progress in aeronautics in the country. For anyone who has been associated over the years with aeronautics at policy levels, the question that frequently arises in one's mind is the extent of commitment to obtain a measure of self reliance in this important field of advanced science and high technology.


The legendary Dr. Ing. Kurt Tank  spent over a decade with HAL

The aircraft industry is characterised by long gestation periods, with development of appropriate technologies demanding a long term vision. It is the lack of such clear policy that has hurt the development and growth of indigenous aircraft programmes. Dr.Kota Harinarayana, former LCA Programme Director has in a recent lecture drawn attention to the "need for pro-active designing". He stated "Quality parameters would have to be incorporated at the design stage of aircraft-building instead of attempting corrections at the testing and manufacturing levels". The fact of the matter is that if quality parameters have to be incorporated at the design stage itself, forward technology development in anticipation of future requirements is essential.

It is this vision that has been lacking in a healthy growth of the Indian aircraft industry. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) development programme has shown how serious the situation could become without such a vision. An overview of the growth of our aircraft industry indicates that we did not pay adequate attention to creating self reliance by building a strong research and technology base, but instead depended over the years more and more on licenced production. It would be instructive to recall our past acts of commission - and omission - if only to learn from these.

It was around 1967 that Vikram Sarabhai, the visionary space scientist, visited the Belur campus of the National Aeronautical Laboratories (NAL). Looking across the runway towards HAL, he expressed his ambition to put an Indian-made satellite into orbit with an Indian-made launch vehicle, before the next generation Indian-made fighter aircraft would take to the skies. His ambition was subsequently achieved by Satish Dhawan, his successor, with APJ Abdul Kalam as the Project - Director for the SLV-3 programme. It is important to note that in Space matters, R&D, the launch vehicle and satellite development were vertically integrated and the Department headed by scientists and technologists who were technically familiar with their respective fields. Their successes, and those in atomic energy, conclusively demonstrated that given the political will, and professional leadership, we could achieve successes in developing technologically sophisticated hardware in aeronautics as well.

In the mid-fifties, under leadership of the German designer Dr.Kurt Tank, India launched development of the HF-24 supersonic fighter aircraft. Regrettably the Government of the time was unwilling to sanction Rs 5 crores to Bristol Siddeley for development of the afterburning follow-on engine to the Orpheus 703 as its power plant. The HF-24 could not achieve its designed performance without this, a serious error in policy, causing serious setback to the fighter's development and for that matter, the future of developing a substantially self reliant aircraft industry. In this situation, the Air Force continued to buy outright or take up licenced production (through HAL) of aircraft needed by them. Development of the HF-24 also underlined the importance of developing own engines as an essential precursor for fighter aircraft development.

One of the consequences of the HF-24 development programme was the belated awareness that if we did not have a strong R&D base, it would not be possible to achieve any self-reliance. This awareness resulted, during the late '50s in creation of the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) and the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DR&DO), as also the National Aeronautical Laboratories (NAL) under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), being the R&D organisations to back aircraft development activities in HAL. While development of the HF-24 was proceeding under Kurt Tank, HAL took On the concurrent responsibility for design, development and series production of the jet trainer HJT- 16 Kiran. This was the first major attempt made by HAL to design and develop a jet aircraft on its own without any foreign assistance in its design. Then OSD and later Managing Director for Design & Development at HAL, was Raj Mahindra who played a significant role in the Kiran 's development.

During those days ADE was mostly concerned with development of hovercraft, pilot less target aircraft (PTA), remotely piloted vehicles, simulators etc. It was only when the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme was taken up in the 1980s and responsibility for developing the "fly-by-wire'' (FBW) control system for the LCA was given them, their interaction with HAL really began.

The first major task that GTRE took up, with specific end objective was development of an afterburner for the Orpheus 703 engine for the HF-24, after the Government had rejected the earlier Bristol Siddeley proposal. GTRE was able to demonstrate (on the test bed), the desired 20% increase in thrust in the reheat mode and also concurrently took up development of the various major subsystems such as the compressor, the
combustion chamber and the turbine stage that go into making a 5000 kg-class flat-rated gas turbine. This knowledge eventually helped GTRE in prototype development of the experimental GTX-35 gas turbine.


India's first home-designed produced fighter: the HAL HF-24 MK.1 Marut

The need for generating crucial high speed wind tunnel data for the HF-24 on our own, highlighted the importance of having such facilities within the country. Satish Dhawan, then at IISc and V.M.Ghatage, then with HAL's Design Bureau, were the driving forces for establishing the Wind Tunnel Centre which became core of NAL activities. Homi J.Bhabha, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission was instrumental in prevailing upon Prime Minister Nehru to establish the NAL within CSIR, a civilian organisation, hopefully to obtain better interaction with other countries. The UNDP thus helped NAL with a grant to build the infrastructure and start research activities, primarily intended to support airframe development in HAL. NAL latter collaborated with the Space Department in development of their launch vehicles and also took up, as in-house activity, forward looking basic and applied research, with some technology development in certain critical areas, which is the key to self reliance.

By the late 1960s, the Kiran jet trainer went into series production but the matter of any future fighter aircraft development in the country remained in a state of suspended animation. It was against this background and substantial dependence on licensed production, that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi appointed C.subramanyam, former Cabinet Minister, as Chairman of an Aeronautics Committee to examine the situation, its study group for R&D having clear instructions from the Chairman to recognise the problems and take appropriate decisions.

An aspect looked into by this Committee was to ascertain as to what had wrong when the afterburner developed by GTRE was installed in the HF-24. It was quite apparent that adequate attention had not been paid in redesigning aft-end of the HF-24 in accommodating the afterburner. The 20% increase in thrust demonstrated on the test bed was washed out owing to an increase in fuselage drag.

An important recommendation of the Aeronautics Committee was creation of the Aeronautics Research and Development Board (AR&DB) as the focal point for supporting forward looking R&D, so as to support future aircraft development. C.subramanyam took up the matter directly with the Prime Minister as such an establishment was considered vital for establishing a firm indigenous aeronautical base. If enough attention was not paid to develop necessary technologies through futuristic R&D, aircraft development programmes would be delayed, or subjected to sanctions by other countries, as eventually happened in the HF-24 programme.

Unfortunately after its creation, the AR&DB functioned on an ad hoc basis, without any long term R&D policy of its own.
Furthermore, the funds made available to it were pathetic, considering the scope of responsibilities. Shortly after its creation in the 1970s, a proposal was made to then Scientific Advisor to the Minister of Defence and Chairman AR&DB, that this should become the focal point. With a particular DR&DO laboratory not agreeing, integrated planning for R&D and centralised support for it remained on hold till the LCA programme came along a decade later.


The HAL HJT-16 Kiran Mk.1

The Aeronautics Committee had recommended development of light fighter aircraft, light transport aircraft and light helicopters. The helicopter programme was launched with Raj Mahindra initially heading this. HAL continued to carry out feasibility studies of the several Air Staff Requirements (ASR) being projected from time to time, with the hope of eventually launching a fighter aircraft development programme. The ACA, GAF I and GAF II, were the subject of feasibility studies. Considering latent potential of the HF-24, HAL also tried to obtain the Rolls Royce RB- 199 as the power plant for a new variant (the HF-73). It was however widely felt that the HF-24 with RB-199s, would upset plans for what was planned: licence production of the Jaguar in India. The Indian Air Force thus continued to buy aircraft outright, or get those required by them to be produced under licence by HAL.

Development of a transport aircraft, primarily in response to civil requirements, did not come through and so HAL only produced the Avro 748 and later, the Dornier 228 under licence. A far reaching proposal by Dornier to HAL for the joint development and production of new generation regional airliners did not get support. Subsequently Dornier went into collaboration with a US company and India missed a key opportunity to enter the global arena.

Owing to the limited Indian market and difficulties in penetrating international markets on one's own, commercial aircraft development has just not been a priority for HAL. In recent times, to control its destiny to some extent, NAL took upon itself the responsibility of developing the Glass Fibre Reinforced Plastic (GFRP) two seat trainer aircraft Hansa, and the 14-passenger multi role Saras. The Hansa has been type-certified and a few of them produced by NAL for flying clubs.
Its eventual series production will have to be based on its commercial viability. The Saras was conceived as a Rs 130 crore project and the prototype has recently flown. It would appear that its development as a successful commercial aircraft demands significant weight reduction, which may even call for redesign of its structure to make it commercially viable and which may result in delay of its eventual type certification and cost over runs, thus impacting on its commercial future.

Coordination among the aeronautical institutions in planning their R&D has continued to be negligible. Until Dr.Krishnadas Nair came on the scene as Chairman of HAL, corporate R&D work in HAL was not significant. Elsewhere in the world,
corporate R&D plays a crucial role as an interface with other R&D and academic institutions, to absorb such knowledge and use it in tangible development of aircraft.

In this context, it would be interesting to look at the American scene. Faculties from academic institutions are frequently used as consultants by the US aircraft industry. Problems posed by the industry then become assignments for technical students. The more complex ones are submitted to NASA or the US Air Force for project specific support, which frequently results in PhD theses, with the results eventually becoming inputs to the industry, thus closing the cycle of specific knowledge generation and its utilisation by the industry. For example, when the US Air Force desired to increase the turbine entry temperature of jet engines to obtain higher operational efficiencies, it supported several programmes in academic and research institutions as also the industry running into millions of dollars. When such cooled turbine blade technology was successfully developed, it superceded all ongoing programmes.

Recognising the lack of progress in self reliance, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi constituted an Aerospace Group in 1976 under Chairmanship of the then Scientific Advisor. It was a high level committee which deliberated for about two years but could not come to any conclusions that would further the cause of self reliance. There was inherent conflict in perceptions of the scientists and the civil servants placed on the committee. The scientists argued that it would be impossible to obtain any self reliance without close coordination between industry and the R&D, and that these should be integrated along lines of the Space Commission to evolve appropriate policies, programmes and procedures. If this had been agreed upon, a technocrat might well have headed the new agency as was the case with Space, something the civil servants were implicitly unwilling to agree upon. After extended discussions, the civil servants recognised the need for some integration and reluctantly agreed for achieving this through a form of "evolution", but were not willing to set a time dead line (as they felt that it would weaken their authority?). As it subsequently turned out, even the Scientific Advisor, who had little understanding of the complexity of aeronautics, was unwilling. It became quite clear that it would be easier to create a new department of the Government than restructure existing ones.

Dr.Raja Ramanna took over as the S.A. around 1978. He felt that achieving some manner of self reliance was still not a lost cause and that it could perhaps be achieved through a tangible fighter aircraft development programme - if the Indian Air Force would support it. It was indicated to the then Air Chief that if the Air Force did not want an indigenously developed aircraft, the relevant research laboratories might as well diversify and take up other (non-aviation) activities. However if the Air Force believed in a measure of self reliance, then that was the time to support an indigenous fighter aircraft development programme. The ability of the Air Force to protect Indian skies would not be compromised, as the MiG-21 aircraft was still under licenced production and the Jaguar was also contracted for. The Air Chief gave his full support. The aeronautical community owes much to Air Chief Marshal Idris Latif for this. This most important hurdle was crossed and a major breakthrough was achieved 25 years after launch of the HF-24 programme.

The Scientific Advisor wisely suggested that some European aircraft industries be retained as consultants, to come up with their own feasibility studies of the Air Staff Target. Simultaneously an integrated Indian design team was constituted comprising personnel from HAL's Design Bureau and the R&D and academic institutions, the first time that such an integrated team was constituted. Thus was born the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) development programme.


The way it was: HAL design engineers at their drawing boards

Results of those diverse feasibility studies submitted by the French, German and British aviation industries were most revealing. It was clear that our designers were in no manner inferior in conceptual design, but we did not possess some of the crucial technologies needed for the new generation LCA. The carbon fibre composites (CFC) technology for the airframe and the "fly-by-wire" (FBW) control systems, with relaxed static stability were found to be critical for the LCA's development. CFC technology development had received steady support over the years in NAL and did not therefore pose serious problems. FBW technology was a different matter. Attention had not been paid on its development earlier neither on any detailed studies of the problems posed by relaxed static stability design.

Noting that in 1981 British Aerospace had converted a Jaguar as its flying test bed to study relaxed static stability and FBW problems, it was proposed to the HAL Board of Directors that an HF-24 be converted into such a flying test bed to study such aspects, as these technologies would be essential in responding to future needs of the Air Force. Forward technology development to respond to potential future needs is a vital characteristic of the aircraft industry. But, the proposal was rejected by a civil servant from the Defence Ministry (who was on the HAL Board), stating that if the Government did not eventually sanction an aircraft development programme, the test bed would be considered as "in fructuous expenditure!" In spite of such negative reactions, a project was jointly proposed by HAL and NAL, well before the LCA development itself was launched, but this did not receive tangible support.

The LCA programme was formally sanctioned by the Government in July 1983, following which the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) came into existence, with Scientific Advisor to the Defence Minister as Chairman of its Governing Body. A Director General ADA was to be appointed as its chief executive to fund, manage and monitor the programme. At that time it was clearly understood that the ADA would be a lean organisation, which could, if necessary, be wound-up at short notice. It was agreed that the primary responsibility for design and development of the LCA would be vested with HAL with various other agencies functioning on a subcontractor mode under the auspices of ADA. However, soon enough, functioning of the ADA changed dramatically with this body taking on major design responsibility for development of the LCA by itself!

The principal architect in the initial phases for conceptual design of the LCA was Raj Mahindra. ADE was given responsibility for the FBW technology development by ADA, which in turn gave a back-to-back contract to a US company for its development. The General Electric GE F.404 was chosen as the initial power plant. The Kaveri engine (currently under development by GTRE), was not even on the drawing board at that time. The GTX- 37 engine under development was found unsuitable and could not achieve the performance required. NAL interacted closely with HAL in airframe development of the LCA, taking major responsibility for its carbon fibre composite (CFC) structural components, including the wing centre box which helped to significantly reduce the weight of airframe.


Raj Mahindra, whose contributions to India's aircraft design & development have not been fully acknowledged

Then the curse of ugly politics intervened. Raj Mahindra was to be removed from the LCA programme. The then Chairman of the ADA Governing Body was cautioned that there would be serious delays if Raj Mahindra was not to be with the LCA, as he was the only person in the country then who had understanding and experience in the designing of jet aircraft. Nevertheless, in May 1985 the Chairman desired that Raj Mahindra be eased out owing to reasons that had nothing to do with his technical capability. If the Chief Executive of ADA did not command confidence of the Chairman in such matters, it was considered to be inappropriate for him also to continue. Accordingly they both tendered their resignations in June 1985, which were made effective in November 1985. The aeronautical community owes much to Raj Mahindra for his contributions to the cause of self reliance in Indian aeronautics.

Before the resignations became effective, a presentation was made on status of the LCA development, in July 1985 to the General Body of ADA presided by the Defence Minister. It received unanimous appreciation from all (including the Chief of Air Staff) for the progress made till then. The Minister was also informed that it was essential to meet the time schedules, as such aircraft were expected to counter the perceived threat scenarios at a future finite time. He was informed that in order to comply with this requirement, ADA had to obtain certain technologies such as FBW control systems from abroad, with Indian engineers working alongside the contractors. If the programme were to be delayed too long, the threat scenarios might well change, making the LCA irrelevant to the Air Force needs. The Minister was also informed that indigenous engine development by GTRE was essential even if this did not meet the time schedules of the LCA, so as to avoid facing a similar situation as with the HF-24. The GE F.404 was chosen as the interim power plant for the LCA, with the expectation that when the Kaveri engine was type-certified, it would become the standard engine.


The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft

Dr.Kota Harinarayana became Programme Director of LCA in 1986. Given the circumstances under which he took over the onerous responsibility, he did a commendable job of the task entrusted to him. The LCA prototype first flew in January 2001, but has a long way to go before the aircraft receives full operational clearance. Flight testing of such combat aircraft is not only demanding but time consuming.

At the first General Body meeting of the ADA in 1984, the then Finance Minister desired to know the anticipated cost of the LCA programme. He was informed that after taking into consideration inflation within the country and abroad, and providing 8 years for the first flight and three to four years for flight testing, the cost of development was estimated to be Rs.1250 crores, with about Rs.150 crores to be added for every year of delay. Series production was expected to start around 1995. Reportedly, some Rs.2700 crores have already been spent and hundreds of flight tests have yet to be conducted before the LCA can obtain type certification, thus involving more expenditure. Neglecting the development of FBW technology necessitated ADE giving a side contract to a US company. Embargos by the US Government following the May 1998 nuclear tests delayed the programme still further. Subsequent work done within the country indicates that FBW technology could certainly have been developed in-country at the beginning itself.

Considerable progress has since been made in the LCA development in spite of the early, avoidable, delays and several self-made hurdles. Years of experience in Indian aeronautics indicates that it was not a lack of intrinsic capability but lack of political will, professional leadership and a serious lack of forward looking R&D, that led to the situation. If we do not closely coordinate R&D with the industry, preferably along the lines of the Space Department, we will continue to repeat mistakes of the past. Even if the Indian Air Force does not fully accept the LCA, it is essential that its progress up to the type certification stage be pursued vigorously if only to learn how to design and develop such advanced aircraft for the future.