While the spotlight plays over the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) that will, on Friday, be certified fit for induction into the Indian Air Force (IAF), another India-built aircraft is at the cusp of readiness. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has revealed that its Sitara intermediate jet trainer (IJT), which has been in development since 1999, is now "just weeks away from certification".
Defence Minister A K Antony is flying down here to award the Tejas its initial operational certificate (IOC) on Friday. The Sitara's success in intensive flight-testing this year means that he could soon be making another trip to award an identical certification to the Sitara.
For the IAF, there could hardly be better news. The recent purchase of the PC-7 Mark II basic trainer from Swiss company, Pilatus; and HAL's simultaneous project to develop the HTT-40 basic trainer, caters for training of rookie pilots - termed Stage-1 training. The induction of the Hawk advanced jet trainer (AJT) in 2008 took care of Stage-3 training, after which pilots fly frontline IAF fighters. But Stage-2 intermediate training remains a gaping void that is inadequately filled by vintage Kiran Mark II trainers that date back to the 1970s.
"We have accelerated flight testing dramatically this year, doing 183 sorties - thrice as many as any preceding year. Last month we completed bombing trials and extra fuel tank trials in Jamnagar. Now we are completing the stall and spin tests, after which we will get the IOC," says Krishna Kumar, Project Manager IJT for HAL.
Business Standard visited the HAL division where the Sitara is undergoing flight-testing. One prototype was taxiing out for a test-flight, while technicians readied others. So keen is the IAF to get the Sitara into service that HAL has been allowed to press into flight-testing the 12 trainers the IAF ordered.
In March 2010, the IAF also ordered 73 Sitara trainers for Rs 6,180 crore. These would be based at the IAF flying school coming up in Deesa, in Gujarat; and in Tambaram, where the IAF trains flying instructors.
A tour of the Sitara makes it clear why the IAF is so keen. Unlike the clunky Kiran, the Sitara's clean-cut lines are distinctly 21st century. While the Kiran seated both instructor and trainee side by side, the Sitara has tandem seating with the trainee pilot seated alone in front, where he gets the feel of flying solo even though he knows the instructor is seated behind. The Kiran's quaint analog instruments are replaced with smart digital display screens, like those that equip modern fighters. From his rear seat, the instructor can control the trainee pilot's instruments, simulating flight emergencies for the rookie to handle.
"Everyone who sees the Sitara remarks upon its 'wow' factor. Many don't believe that this is an entirely India-designed aircraft," says Kumar.
HAL was sanctioned Rs 180 crore in July 1999 to develop the aircraft and build two flying prototypes. In 2005, two years after the prototype first flew, the budget was raised to Rs 467 crore to order a more powerful engine from Russia and to build an all-glass cockpit. Eventually, development has cost Rs 634.23 crore. In addition, the IAF ordered 12 limited series production (LSP) Sitaras in 2006 for Rs 486.82 crore. That works out to Rs 40 crore per trainer, a fraction of what would be paid abroad for a similar aircraft that also integrates rockets, guns and bombs.
The Sitara has faced its share of development setbacks. Around 2006, it was making good progress when it was decided to fit a new engine - the AL-55I engine, specially developed in Russia for the Sitara, which HAL will manufacture in Koraput, Odisha. In 2011, flight-testing suffered a major setback when a Sitara crashed in stall testing, fortunately without loss of life.
All that is history, say HAL project managers, as the Sitara is poised to enter service. It flies up to 700 kilometres per hour and up to 9,000 metres high. It can sustain gravitational forces from minus 2.5G to plus 7G (seven times the force of gravity). It has a range of 1000 kilometres, extendable to 1,500 kilometres with external drop tanks.