By Ajai Shukla
The Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which has remained grounded for more than three months, finally resumed flight-testing last week. Seven flights of the Tejas have taken place since then without mishap.
The grounding of Tejas, which was kept secret, took place because of the new pilot’s helmets. Since these protruded above the ejection seats, the helmets could have prevented a smooth ejection by smashing into the fighter’s canopy before it was blown off. Since that constituted a serious safety issue for pilots, flight-testing was halted since August.
The Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) chief, V K Saraswat, confirmed to Business Standard that the problem had been resolved. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the DRDO agency that oversees the Tejas programme, has now provided a backup mechanism to blow off the canopy before the pilot’s head struck it.
“Yes, we had about three to three-and-a-half-months of gap (in flight testing). Now, that problem has been resolved. We have modified the Martin Baker ejection seats, making these more reliable and giving more confidence to our pilots. With that behind us, I think we are roaring now,” said Saraswat.
For the Tejas’ flight-test programme, which is already behind schedule, this three month delay has been a blow. The Initial Operation Clearance (IOC), which was scheduled for end-2010, and which the Indian Air Force (IAF) accorded only provisionally in January 2011, is now expected only around mid-2013.
The Final Operational Clearance (FOC), which clears a fighter for combat operations, was scheduled for end-2012. This could be delayed by at least two years. An upbeat Saraswat says the three-month delay gave ADA an opportunity to resolve several other problems, which needed to be done on the ground.
“We have made use of this time by solving many of the problems which were part of the feedback that came from the flight test programme. I feel by middle of next year we should complete (the IOC),” said Saraswat.
The Rs 14,047-crore LCA project involves building an air force version of the fighter in two models — Tejas Mark I and Tejas Mark II — as well as a naval version that will operate from aircraft carriers.
The IAF has already placed orders on Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for two squadrons (42 fighters) of the Tejas Mark I aircraft. Defence Minister AK Antony told Parliament on May 21, that the IAF would be delivered six squadrons (126 fighters) by the end of the 13th Plan, i.e. by 2022. While this was not specified, the next four Tejas squadrons will be of the Mark II fighter, which will field the more power General Electric F-414 engine. The government has allocated Rs 4,353 crore for developing the Mark II fighter.
Meanwhile Pakistan’s light fighter, the JF-17 Thunder, which was developed in partnership with China, has achieved combat status. Three squadrons of the JF-17 are already in service in the Pakistan Air Force, which expects to eventually operate some 12-13 squadrons of the fighter.