The Indian Air Force (IAF) continues to grapple with difficulties in training its pilots. While quality basic training will become possible as the Pilatus Aircraft Company delivers the 75 PC-7 Mark II basic trainers that India bought last year for Rs 2,900 crore, the next stage of training remains an issue. IAF officials say the failure of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to develop an Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) is now a serious hurdle to training.
HAL has been developing an IJT, called the Sitara, since 1999. The IAF has forked out R&D costs of Rs 600 crore (up from an initial estimate of Rs 180 crore), and assured HAL of an order of 12 prototypes and 73 operational trainers. But, with the IJT delayed by almost a decade and still at least three years from delivery, rookie pilots will continue to train on outdated and inadequate aircraft.
The IAF trains its fighter pilots in three phases. Stage-1 training will now be carried out on the propeller-driven Pilatus PC-7 Mark II. From there, pilots graduate to Stage-2 training on jet aircraft, which is currently carried out on the vintage Kiran Mark I since the IJT Sitara, which was supposed to replace the Kiran long ago, has not been delivered. Finally, pilots carry out Stage-3 training on the vaunted Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT), which was acquired in the mid-2000s.
“The IJT has been a very poorly planned programme by HAL and a decade-long delay is unacceptable in a trainer aircraft. Given how much time and money the IAF has already committed, we have to stick with the IJT programme and induct it into service as a Stage-2 trainer,” a top IAF official bitterly complained.
But patience is running out in Vayu Bhawan, the IAF headquarters. A senior air marshal told Business Standard that, if the IJT was not delivered within three years, the IAF would consider using the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II as a Stage-2 trainer, in addition to its primary job as a Stage-1 trainer.
“The Pilatus could also be used for Stage-2 training until the IJT is ready. This could be done using the same aircraft, by putting the trainee pilots through more complex flying exercises,” explains the IAF official.
The IAF brass believes that HAL made a major blunder in deciding to change the IJT’s engine, replacing the French Larzac engine around which the Sitara was designed, with a more powerful AL-55I engine built by Russian engine-maker, NPO-Saturn. In 2005, HAL signed a $350 million contract with Russian defence export agency, Rosoboronexport, to build 250 AL-55I engines under license in Bangalore, with an option for 1000 more. After developing the engine, Moscow insisted on payment of another $64 million.
“HAL should never have gone in for a new engine mid-way, because an aircraft is always designed around its engine. Instead, they should have upgraded the Larzac,” points out a top IAF planner.
Contacted for comments, HAL has not responded. According to engineers involved in the IJT’s development, the testing regime that governs the new Russian engine has delayed the flight-testing of the IJT. This was predictable, since any new engine requires extensive and progressive testing. In this, the Russian certification agency allows the engine to fly only a fixed number of hours, after which the agency examines the engine and then clears it to fly a small number of additional hours. This progressive certification often holds up flight-testing.
Business Standard has followed the IJT Sitara’s development since the early 2000s, on regular visits to HAL. Design began in 1999, and the aircraft flew in 2003, a remarkably quick development process. But then, the engine was changed and problems began. Last year, an IJT prototype crashed, fortunately without loss of life.
HAL has said that it intends to build the IJT in its Kanpur facility, at a cost of about Rs 50 crore per aircraft.