Tracing its roots: India’s aviation industry needs a new model

NEW DELHI: India’s aviation industry traces its roots to December 1940, when industrialist Walchand Hirachand established Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL) in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), with American technical assistance and capital and land provided by the Mysore government.
Soon after the outbreak of WW II, the Indian government, realising the strategic significance of this enterprise, bought a one-third stake in HAL.
HAL had barely started licensed production when it was nationalised, in 1943, and handed over to the US Army Air Forces (USAAF).
Functioning as an Aircraft Maintenance Depot, HAL repaired and serviced hundreds of flying boats, fighters, bombers and transport aircraft for the USAAF during the war.
Bangalore, thus, became the hub of aviation industrial support to Allied forces deployed in the SE Asia Command, and produced thousands of aeronautical technicians.
Soon after independence, HAL’s Chief Designer, eminent aeronautical engineer Dr V M Ghatage, boldly embarked on three aircraft design projects: Each of them attaining a substantial degree of success.
Over the next decade, HAL manufactured more than 400 Ghatage-designed aircraft: The HT-2 basic trainer for the IAF; the Krishak observation aircraft for the Army; and the Pushpak light-aircraft for the civilian sector.
Ghatage’s last outstanding achievement was the design of the HJT-16 jet trainer, Kiran, of which 190 were built and are still serving the IAF after nearly three decades.
HAL’s crowning glory, however, came in June 1961 with the flight of the HF-24, Marut, the first jet fighter-bomber designed and built in Asia.
The government, in a rare flash of inspiration, had acquired the services of WW II German designer Dr Kurt Tank, in 1956, to help HAL design a jet fighter.
An aerodynamically elegant design, the Marut had huge potential as a supersonic fighter, but powered by two, small British Orpheus turbo-jets its performance remained sub-sonic and sub-par.
It is disheartening that having initiated a far-sighted project, both the government and HAL failed to display the zeal necessary to salvage this national endeavour of strategic importance.
The IAF, too, remained a mute spectator, as HAL shut the Marut line after delivering just 147 aircraft.
Apart from the Marut, HAL has, since the 1950s, undertaken production of (an estimated) 3,000 aircraft, including the Vampire, MiG-21, MiG-27, Jaguar, Sukhoi-30 and Hawk.
The company has also built a few thousand aero-engines.
These statistics, however, refer only to “kit-assembly” or “licenced production” and, disappointingly, the HAL management failed to acquire, for its personnel, any aircraft/engine design and production skills.
So, when the time came for modernising 125 “HAL-built” MiG-21s, India had to approach Russia. This brings us to the well-known saga of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), designed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s (DRDO) Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), and now under production in HAL.
A CAG report of 2015 reads: “LCA was required to be inducted into IAF by 1994… the programme was riddled with delays right from the sanction of 1983, and even after three decades, it is yet to be inducted into IAF.” Further, it says: “Though ADA claimed achievement of 70 per cent indigenisation; half of these sub-systems are developed with imported electronic components and accessories.” The Tejas was notionally inducted into service in 2016, but no lessons had been learnt from the aborted Marut project. — IANS