Showcasing the success of its burgeoning helicopter business, aerospace giant Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), will treat spectators at next week’s Aero India 2011 air show in Bangalore to a daring display of helicopter aerobatics by its newly-built Light Combat Helicopter (LCH).
HAL honchos promise that the LCH will fly manoeuvres that will eclipse the Indian Air Force’s globally-acclaimed Sarang aerobatics team, which flies the Dhruv helicopter. This is rare confidence in a helicopter that came onto the drawing board just three years ago; currently, there is only a single flying prototype of the LCH, which has flown 60 hours since it took to the air last May. The second prototype of the LCH is scheduled to make its first flight live at Aero India 2011. Eventually, India’s military plans to buy 65 of these heavily armed and armoured attack helicopters.
Alongside the LCH, the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter is also set to make a splash at the air show. Five Dhruvs will be handed over to the Indian Army as the first tranche of an order of 105 helicopters. In addition, the IAF has ordered 54 Dhruvs, which HAL supplies at a competitive price of about Rs 44 crore each.
All this is part of HAL’s growing focus on helicopters. “Our helicopter business is currently just 5-10% of our total turnover (HAL turnover: Rs 11,457 crores in 2009-10)”, says P Soundara Rajan, the chief of HAL’s Helicopter Complex. “By 2022, a range of home-grown helicopters will account for 25% of HAL’s revenues.” The foundation of this growing helicopter business is the Dhruv ALH, in which HAL developed the basic rotary wing technologies that are now being adapted into successor products that include the Weaponised Dhruv, the LCH, the Light Utility Helicopter, and the prospective Indian Multi-Role Helicopter.
Besides a gigantic Rs 7000 crore order of 159 Dhruvs from the Indian military, that helicopter is drawing attention from overseas. Ecuador, which bought 7 Dhruvs in an internationally tendered competition, is so pleased with the product that it is exploring the purchase of more. On a visit to the Dhruv assembly hangar, Business Standard witnessed the finishing touches being given to a Dhruv for the Ecuador Air Force, which is buying a replacement for one of the Dhruvs that crashed due to a pilot’s error. The nose of the Dhruv was being painted with a cobra head and — as requested by Ecuador’s air force — the word “cobra” was painted above it in Devanagari script.
“We are ramping up the production of Dhruvs to cater for the growing demand from the military, the paramilitary forces, and state governments. There is also overseas interest from the Indonesian and Malaysian armed forces”, reveals Ashok Nayak, HAL’s Chairman and Managing Director. “But our main focus is India’s military. This year, we will give them 25 Dhruvs; and, from next year onwards, we will hand over 36 Dhruvs each year. Orders from other customers will be delivered over and above this basic production.”
The key to HAL’s helicopter plans is the Shakti engine, which was jointly developed by French engine-maker Turbomeca, in partnership with HAL (Turbomeca 83%, HAL 17%). Especially designed for the 20,000 foot altitudes that characterise large sections of the Indian borders with Pakistan and China, a configuration of twin Shakti engines powering a 5.5 tonne helicopter has proven to be a world-beating combination.
Designed to allow two pilots to hover above a helipad at 20,000 feet, carrying 200 kilogrammes of payload, a Dhruv helicopter powered by the Shakti engine exceeded that requirement handily during tests last summer. At the Indian Army’s 21,000 foot high Sonam Post, astride the Siachen Glacier, the test helicopter hovered with a payload of 600 kilogrammes. Already an economical helicopter producer, HAL plans to cut costs by using common Indian-built parts across its planned range of helicopters. Besides the Shakti engine, HAL plans to use common communication and navigation equipment, and common cockpit equipment like pilots’ seats and avionics.
“Having entirely indigenised the Dhruv’s design, our next focus will be on developing component systems within the country”, says Soundara Rajan. “Today the glass cockpit, the auto pilot and the vibration monitoring system all come from abroad. Now we will cut down costs by increasing the level of indigenisation in our helicopters.”