The last Jet-Engine laugh.
January 4, 2001 was a cloudless Thursday. The Met office forecast light winds over Bangalore. In the 39 years that he had spent as a commissioned officer of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar had seldom seen conditions better than these to fly a fighter jet.
The phone in his home rang at 6.30 am. The man on the other end of the line, Dr Kota Harinarayana, Programme Director of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project, said the multi-role fighter was being towed to the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) runway after final pre-flight checks. Air Marshal Rajkumar hurried to the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC), which he had set up in 1994 at the HAL airport for the express purpose of evaluating the LCA.
He was met by Air Chief Marshal AY Tipnis, who, as the head of the Indian Air Force, had recently overseen sorties deployed to take out high-altitude positions held by Pakistan-backed insurgents in Drass, Kargil and Batalik sectors on the Indian side of the Line of Control. Dr VK Aatre, scientific adviser to Defence Minister George Fernandes and Dr Harinarayana were among others gathered in the test centre. The flight briefing began at 8 am.
Two hours later, on the airstrip outside, Air Marshal Rajkumar, who was deputed by the IAF to help develop the aircraft, walked with Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal to the narrow white band of paint known as the flight line, where the LCA was parked. "It was all white as prototype aircrafts are usually painted in a high visibility paint scheme for ease of tracking with optical trackers," Air Marshal Rajkumar, who retired as the Programme Director of the LCA project in 2001, recounted in his 2007 book The Tejas Story: The Light Combat Aircraft Project. "It looked beautiful and had IAF roundels on its wings and the tricolour flash on the tail fin. The tail number was KH 2001 in honour of Dr Kota Harinarayana, and the year of the first flight."
At 10.18 am, Wing Commander Kothiyal, a 42-year-old graduate of the Unites States Air Force Test Pilots School, raised the LCA's nose wheel, angling the country's first indigenous fighter jet into the air.
As IAF's records have it, the LCA was conceived in 1981, when Air Chief Marshal Idris Hasan Latif, vexed by the unreliable Ajeet ground attack aircraft flown by the Air Force and anticipating the need to replace the ageing Russian MiG 21 fighters, which he determined would have to be eased out of service in the 90s, had several conversations with his prime minister, Indira Gandhi, urging her to constitute a search committee to recommend a substitute.
According to a senior aerospace and robotics scientist with intimate knowledge of the proceedings, the panel, headed by Dr Sitaram Rao Valluri, Director of National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), which has its offices in Bangalore, gathered at regular intervals but was unable to arrive at a consensus. "Dr Raja Ramanna, who was the Scientific Adviser to R Venkataraman, the Defence Minister at the time, was quite frustrated with the lack of progress and looked for a way to hasten the process," the scientist told Mumbai Mirror.
Dr VS Arunachalam, the 46-year-old Director of the Defence Metallurgical Research Laboratory in Hyderabad, who had been moved to Delhi to take Dr Ramanna's place as Venkataraman's confidant in 1982, was asked to precipitate matters. "I began to develop a few ideas that summer," he said. "It soon became apparent to me that we would have to build a fighter aircraft from scratch and not go shopping for one."
Dr Arunachalam assembled a presentation to bolster his case for an indigenous solution and made the pitch to Gandhi and Venkataraman, arguing for Bangalore as the base of operations. "There were many sceptics at the time, but Venkataraman was convinced," he said - privately, those critical of the project, which was officially denominated the LCA, began to refer to it as Last Chance for Arunachalam.
Despite the resistance, a budget of Rs 500 crore was sanctioned for the LCA in 1983. "It is to Arunachalam's everlasting credit that he convinced the government to fund the project," Air Marshal Rajkumar told this paper.
What the scientific adviser did next was unusual by the standards of accepted practice. Instead of fashioning a typical defence research laboratory peopled with scientists recruited for the specific purpose of creating a multirole fighter jet, Arunachalam set up a cooperative society of sorts. "It might have seemed unconventional - (Krishnaswamy) Raosaheb (the Cabinet Secretary) even took me aside and said, 'you're creating a society for bombers and fighters,' - but there was no doubt in my mind that this was the method to adopt," Arunachalam said.
The division that was created, named the Aeronautical Development Agency, would serve as an orchestra conductor - drawing on the depth of scientific resources available at the various Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) labs in the city, incubating micro departments within larger host laboratories, and generally fostering a massively complex collaborative exercise that spanned Bangalore and reached research bureaus in several parts of the country. "Bangalore had so many venerable institutions - NAL, HAL, Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) - so it was evident that all the talent we needed was resident here," he said.
The IAF, however, wasn't entirely convinced the gambit would work. "The scientists who were deputed to work on the LCA had never been near an aircraft of this sort before, but they projected confidence," an IAF pilot associated with the project said. "This was a confidence born out of ignorance." He maintained that the air force was a reluctant client, preferring instead to set out into the market to look for a fighter jet. "We were also unconvinced by the ridiculous timeframe that was being touted - five years," he added. Because it was evident that the DRDO and government were unflinching in their commitment to building the LCA, the pilot said the IAF thought it best to make the most of the situation by proposing a compromise. Srinivasapuram Krishnaswamy, a distinguished airman who would be appointed the country's Air Chief Marshal in 2001, proposed that the aircraft be built as a Technology Development project.
"Four critical aspects would be tested during the build - the creation of a glass cockpit (in which all instrumentation is digital), engineering a fly-bywire system (electronically controlling the aircraft), building a composite airframe (out of multiple materials) and fashioning microprocessor mounted systems (driven by a computer chip)," explained Air Marshal Rajkumar.
Of the 15 major Bangalore institutions that arrayed themselves around the LCA programme, NAL, which was set up in 1960 as the nation's second largest aerospace firm, in the Mysore Maharajah's stables on Jayamahal Road (it moved to its headquarters in Kodihalli in the mid-60s), played a pivotal role in addressing two of these aspects. "Apart from the airframe, NAL developed the LCA's flight control systems," said Professor Roddam Narasimha, former director of the establishment. Although Dr Arunachalam came to represent the public face of the LCA project in 1983, very few people outside a small tribe of scientists know that Professor Narasimha chaired the first meeting at which elemental aspects of an indigenous light fighter jet were discussed, at the offices of NAL, in 1979.
It isn't entirely accurate to describe the LCA as a home-grown bird. While the idea was birthed in a conference facility in Bangalore, approved in New Delhi's South Block and built and tested in and around Bangalore's HAL facility, several foreign consultants assumed critical roles in its development. "General Electric (GE) supplied us 11 engines and British Aerospace and Martin Marietta helped with airframe integration," a test pilot associated with the LCA's build said. "And in 1985, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had become friendly with US President Ronald Reagan elicited a promise from the Americans that the Pentagon's facility in Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, Ohio would help build the fly-by-wire systems. Apart from this, Dassault Systems (a French company) and Lockheed Martin too were roped in to create the avionics. In fact, a team of avionics experts from DRDO were flown to Lockheed Martin's offices in Binghamton, New York, to work with American engineers to develop the software."
It was in 1998, close to a decade after several such collaborative efforts were established and Phase 1 of the undertaking was apace, that Indian ingenuity was really tested. On May 11 and 13, Atal Behari Vajpayee's National Democratic Alliance government ordered the detonation of one fusion and five fission devices at the Pokhran Test Range, Rajasthan. Two months later, after an incensed US administration declared punitive sanctions against India, the avionics engineers were evicted from Lockheed Martin's New York facility, with the LCA's fly-by-wire system far from complete. "But they came back home and built the whole thing themselves," said Dr Arunachalam. "We'd also managed to keep one of the 11 GE engines," added Air Marshal Rajkumar. "Our scientists stripped the thing down to its bones and reverse engineered it from scratch."
In the next two years, the flight controls were developed, hardware and software married, verification and validation of the software completed and "hardware-in-the-loop testing achieved" - in which the actual physical controls are evaluated on a ground-based frame. The aircraft was now ready for taxi trails. "We did 17 of those," recalled Air Marshal Rajkumar. "We began with a 75 kmph run and eventually went up to 200 kmph (the aircraft begins to lift off between 250 and 270 kmph)." On December 24, 2000, he notified the programme director that the LCA was ready to fly.
On the Thursday of the first trial flight, Squadron Leader Suneet Krishna watched from the cockpit of a Mirage 2000 chase aircraft as the LCA lifted off on one of 12 short trips in Phase 1 of testing - two of the French planes tailed the jet that morning, one piloted by Air Chief Marshal Tipnis and Wing Commander Tarun Bannerjee and the other by Wing Commander Raghunath Nambiar and Squadron Leader Krishna. By 2002, Krishna would find himself tugging at the joystick of the light combat aircraft for the first time - in the next two years he would fly over a 100 flights, each lasting between 20 minutes and an hour.
On May 4, 2003, Vajpayee officially baptised the aircraft as Tejas.
"I left the programme in 2004 and returned in 2009," said Krishna, who is now a Group Captain. "By the time I came back much of the changes that were under development had been incorporated. We flew it with all sorts of weapons on board. In 2011, we dropped the first laser guided bomb from the Tejas." Since then, Group Captain Krishna has flown the fighter over 400 times, the most by any test pilot at the NFTC.
Two years later, in December, Tejas received Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) from the IAF, meaning it was ready to be flown by air force pilots, with limited weapons on board. On September 30 this year, the first of 20 production aircraft with IOC certification was piloted by HAL's chief test pilot, Air Commodore K A Muthanna. "The aircraft is now ready for IAF operations," said HAL Chairman Dr R K Thyagi. Several scientists gathered at the event were of the opinion that Tejas could enter service by March 2015, after it receives Final Operational Clearance in December this year.
The IAF, however, isn't as sanguine. "Some of the doubts that sprung up in 1983 still persist," a former combat pilot who is familiar with the project said. "The Air Force has asked for changes to be made to the cockpit and for some additional weapons systems to be included in the specs." On October 4, a television channel, citing defence ministry sources, claimed that the IAF expects the first Tejas "squadron to be available by 2017-18."
Professor Narasimha, who was emphatic in his endorsement of the project - "I don't think there has ever been a more exciting time for aeronautics in India," he said - was just as forceful in putting on record his chagrin about the delay in the IAF inducting the Tejas into its fleet. "There is a much deeper problem here," he said. "What is singularly lacking in this country is a strategic vision. It's a pity that we haven't created a single, overarching agency to resolve all these issues. This would have prevented such delays. I can tell you with confidence that the LCA is ready to fly for the Indian Air Force."