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Scrabbling for solutions

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

The Indian Air Force’s crisis in training its pilots saw a farcical twist recently when an Egyptian diplomat posted in India helpfully offered Cairo’s assistance. The Egyptian Air Force, he suggested to a senior IAF officer, could send a training team to Hyderabad, along with several of its trainer aircraft, the K-8 Karakorum. Was the Egyptian aware that the Karakorum trainer has been jointly developed by Pakistan and China? Nobody is certain but, since the offer was not followed up in writing, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was spared the embarrassment of having to reply.

Even as the IAF spends billions of dollars in a global shopping spree for fighters, helicopters and transport aircraft, the training of pilots to fly these has been practically stalled since last July. That was when the IAF’s notoriously unreliable basic trainer, the HPT-32 Deepak, was grounded after a horrific crash that killed two experienced pilots. In 17 Deepak crashes so far, 19 pilots have died.

The Deepak, as the IAF has long known, has two major design flaws. When it flies upside-down the flow of fuel gets blocked, shutting the engine; and, since the Deepak cannot glide without engine power for even a short distance, a serious crash in inevitable.

Stage-1 Deepak
(80 hours)
Kiran Mark 1
(20 hours)
New turbo-prop
trainer (80 hours)
Stage-2 Kiran Mark 1
(About 60 hours)
Kiran Mark 2
(About 60 hours)
Sitara IJT
(About 60 hours)
Stage-3 Kiran Mark 2
(As needed)
  Hawk AJT
(As needed)

The IAF’s concern is evident from the radical methods it is exploring. It now proposes to fit each Deepak with an enormous parachute that opens when the engine shuts off, bringing down the aircraft slowly with the crew still in their seats. Limited (HAL), which manufactures the Deepak, is being asked to fit a number of trainers with this Ballistic Recovery System (BRS). It remains unclear whether the Deepak has the structural strength to support a BRS.

Meanwhile, improvisation governs training. After evaluating and ruling out several options — including training IAF flight cadets in civilian flying clubs; or handing over training to foreign contractors on a “Power by the Hour” payment basis — the IAF is now putting absolute rookies into the relatively complex, jet-engined Kiran Mark-1 aircraft for their very first taste of flying. The Kiran, too, has a dubious safety record, with 13 serious crashes over this last decade.

Before the Deepak was grounded, it took 80 hours of basic training on that aircraft before selected cadets — only those found fit to become fighter pilots — graduated to the Kiran Mark-1. The third stage of training was on the Kiran Mark-2; which the (AJT) is gradually replacing. After those three stages of training, IAF pilots graduated to the frontline fighters that they would fly into battle.

“Conducting basic training on a jet aircraft is risky”, admitted a senior IAF decision-maker to Business Standard. “But what choice do we have? The air force must have pilots to fly its planes.”

In fact, the IAF has several good choices, but all of them are some time away. To replace the “Stage-1” Deepak trainer, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has approved the fast-track purchase of 75 aircraft from the global market. Requests for Proposals (RfPs) have gone out to 10 aircraft manufacturers. The hot contenders include the Pilatus PC-21 (Switzerland); Embraer Tucano (Brazil); and the Grob (Germany). Bids are due before April 14, but the aircraft will be delivered only by 2013-14.

For “Stage-2” training, that is, to replace the Kiran Mark-1, HAL is developing an Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT), the Sitara. The IAF is pleased with the prototype, and has ordered a limited series production of 12 aircraft. Eventually, the air force plans to buy 73 Sitaras, but it will take at least 3-4 years before it is available in the numbers needed for organised training.

Finally, for the “Stage-3” training, the Hawk should have been available in large enough numbers by now. But, production delays at HAL, accompanied by a blame-game between HAL and the Hawk’s vendor, BAE Systems, has meant that just 29 Hawks have entered service against the scheduled induction of 44 Hawks by now.

A much needed strategy for training IAF pilots has now become clear. Before the trainers to implement this plan are obtained, several years of makeshift training lie ahead for the air force.

First Published: Mon, April 05 2010. 00:22 IST