It was a brutal test of helicopter and pilot. As the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) shuddered towards the icy helipad on a 21,000-foot ledge overlooking the Siachen Glacier, the pilots could see wreckage from earlier helicopter crashes dotting the base of the vertical ice walls on either side. Ahead lay the Indian Army’s infamous Sonam Post, the highest inhabited spot on earth, and an extreme example of why the military so urgently wants the Dhruv, which has been customised by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for high altitude operations.
Very quickly, the Dhruv demonstrated its superiority over the military’s tiny, single-engine Cheetah helicopters, which can barely lift 20 kilos of payload to Sonam. Touching down on a tiny H-shape formed on the snow with perforated iron sheets, the Dhruv’s pilots signalled to one of the soldiers on Sonam to climb aboard. Effortlessly, the Dhruv took off, circled the post and landed again. Another soldier clambered onto the helicopter and the process was repeated, then with a third, and then a fourth soldier. Even with all Sonam’s defenders on board, the twin-engine Dhruv — painted incongruously in the peacock regalia of the IAF’s aerobatics team, Sarang — lifted off and landed back safely.
“This helicopter is simply unmatched at high altitudes,” says Group Captain Unni Nair, HAL’s chief helicopter test pilot, who flew the Dhruv that August morning during “hot-and-high” trials at Sonam. That term means flying at extreme altitudes in summer, when the heat-swollen oxygen is even thinner than usual. “The army wanted the Dhruv to lift 200 kilos to Sonam; we managed to carry 600 kilos.”
Powering that world-beating performance is a new helicopter engine, called the Shakti, which HAL commissioned French engine-maker, Turbomeca, to design for operations along India’s high-altitude borders. It is this engine that makes the new Dhruv Mark III — the first five of which were delivered to the army this month — far superior to the Mark I and Mark II Dhruvs, which were built with a less versatile engine. The Shakti, which will start being built under licence at HAL soon, will now power an entire family of HAL-built helicopters: an armed version of the Dhruv; the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH); and the single-engine Light Utility Helicopter that is still on the drawing board.
The Shakti-powered Dhruv Mark III is changing the operational dynamics on India’s high-altitude Himalayan defences. The capability to airlift soldiers will allow far-flung posts to be manned with fewer soldiers. In a crisis, jawans can be airlifted quickly from lower altitudes to threatened areas, and casualties can be evacuated.
HAL Bangalore has already begun handing over Dhruv Mark IIIs to the Leh-based 205 Aviation Squadron for operations in Siachen. With the military demanding 159 Dhruvs in quick time, HAL can hardly build these helicopters fast enough. This year’s production rate of 25 Dhruvs will be accelerated from 2012 to 36 helicopters annually. The current order includes 54 weaponised Dhruvs — termed Advanced Light Helicopter — Weapons Systems Integrated, or ALH-WSI — armed with anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, rockets and a 20-millimetre turret gun. The ALH-WSI is scheduled to begin weapons trials in Orissa in April.
The success of the ALH programme, heralded by the Dhruv Mark III, comes after years of struggle and criticism. Last August, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) noted, “Ninety per cent of the value of material used in each ALH is still imported from foreign suppliers.”
But HAL chief Ashok Nayak and his helicopter chief, Soundara Rajan, point out that indigenisation does not mean building every component of an aircraft. Citing the example of the Dhruv’s HAL-built mission computer, Rajan asks whether the imported microchips inside make the mission computer any less indigenous. He sums up HAL’s helicopter strategy as follows: “We will design our helicopters; develop the critical technologies of helicopter transmissions; manufacture composites; and integrate and assemble the helicopter. We will outsource the manufacture of sub-assemblies and components and structures to any vendor on the globe that offers us cost-effective solutions.”