Talk to navy fighter pilots about their air force counterparts and you cannot miss the message: air force pilots are pussycats… real fighter jocks fly from ships!
One of the most breathtaking sights in military aviation is a modern fighter landing on an aircraft carrier deck. Flying in at over 250 km per hour, it must halt within 100 metres, one-tenth the distance available to most land-based fighters. The pilot aims at a cable stretched across the landing area; a tail hook on the fighter’s rear fuselage catches the cable, effectively dragging the aircraft to a halt before it runs out of landing deck, subjecting the pilot to a deceleration 4.5 times the force of gravity.
It is called a THUMP-BASH technique. As the fighter thumps down onto the deck, the pilot bashes forward his throttle, revving up the engines to full power. It seems a crazy thing to do when trying to halt really quickly, but there’s a reason: if the tail hook misses all three arrestor cables, the fighter must have the power and speed to get airborne again before the end of the flight deck.
To hit the arrestor cables accurately, the pilot must descend steeply, hitting the deck twice as hard as his air force counterparts, who enjoy the luxury of levelling out at ground level, descending slowly till the wheels touch the runway.
“An arrested landing on an aircraft carrier is actually a controlled crash,” naval flight instructors invariably warn their cadets.
If it takes a Top Gun pilot to pull off such landings, it takes a superbly engineered aircraft to repeatedly absorb the stresses of these controlled crashes. The naval variant of India’s Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is poised to enter this challenging playing field. And its prospects have been boosted by the Indian Navy’s commitment to indigenisation.
Business Standard has learnt that the navy has okayed the placement of an order for six Naval LCAs. At an approximate cost of Rs 150 crore per aircraft, that will provide a Rs 900 crore infusion into the Naval LCA programme.
That investment in the Tejas programme is rooted in the navy’s plan to operate both light and medium fighters off its aircraft carriers. The Naval LCA will supplement the heavier Russian MiG-29K, which has already been ordered from Russia. The Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC), being built at Cochin Shipyard, Kochi, has been designed with a separate aircraft lift and maintenance facilities for the LCA, in addition to facilities for the MiG-29K. That has linked the development of the Naval LCA with the construction of the IAC, which is expected to join the fleet by 2014.
But the LCA programme faces a bottleneck in choosing a new engine. Two uprated engines — the General Electric GE-414 and the Eurojet EJ-200 — are currently being evaluated, but will be supplied only by 2013-14. And only with the new engine will the LCA have the power to get airborne from an aircraft carrier.
P S Subramaniam, the Director of the Aeronautical Development Agency, which coordinates the LCA programme, explains: “We will fly the Naval LCA with the current GE-404 engine to test its flight characteristics, and whether its structural strength is sufficient for aircraft carrier operations. After the LCA is fitted with a new, more powerful engine we will take the next step of operating from an aircraft carrier.”
Meanwhile, a major shore-based test facility is coming up at INS Hansa, in Goa, which replicates an aircraft carrier deck on ground, complete with arrested recovery and a ski jump for take off. This facility, which is expected to be operational by October 2011, will be used for certifying the Naval LCA before actually flying off an aircraft carrier. This will also be used for pilots’ training and for training maintenance crews.