(Picture: The first made-in-India Hawk being painted in Air Force colours at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bangalore)
Business Standard, 21st June, 2008
Dateline: HAL, Bangalore
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been flying the British-made Hawk advanced jet trainer (AJT) since November last year, but now a significant new landmark has been kept secret: the first Indian-built Hawk has taken to the skies.
On the 7th of May --- just eight days after a British-made Hawk trainer crashed near Bidar, in Karnataka --- a group of more than 100 technicians of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) gathered at the company runway in Bangalore. The Hawk had been restricted from flying after the accident on 29th April; but HAL was going ahead with an unannounced first flight of the first Hawk trainer manufactured in its plant in Bangalore.
As Chief Test Pilot, Squadron Leader Baldev Singh, lifted the Indian Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) off the ground, the tension evaporated into applause. A normal test flight takes about an hour, but Baldev took an extra fifteen minutes on his test routine, finally ending with an audacious barrel roll manoeuvre right above the cheering group of watchers.
No announcement has yet been made; HAL wants to shake off all the demons of the earlier crash before inviting a VIP for its formal unveiling. But at HAL, the celebrations have already unfolded.
“We were all pumped up”, Baldev admitted to Business Standard, “there’s always a certain thrill when you’re putting a new aircraft into the skies. And in the case of the Hawk, for which we have waited for twenty years to build ourselves, it was a special feeling.”
At the high tech painting plant in HAL, the first Indian Hawk is being painted in the matte grey finish that all Indian Air Force (IAF) planes wear. By this weekend, the aircraft will be ready, but HAL says it will conduct several more tests before handing it over to the IAF.
The first Hawk was to have been handed over in April, but was delayed by two months by the complexity of the assembly, which involves putting together 11,000 components which were shipped in individual plastic packets from the Hawk plant near Brough, in Yorkshire, UK.
HAL says it will make up for this delay while building the 42 Hawks that the initial contract stipulated. (24 were to be built in Brough and transhipped to India). That order, say senior HAL officers, will be executed on schedule by mid 2011.
“We’ve been working in three shifts, practically round the clock”, explains Ashok Nayak, the Director of HAL’s Bangalore Complex. “The initial learning curve is slow while building a new aircraft, but by the time the 5th or 6th aircraft is completed, everyone knows exactly what to do.”
Now HAL has received orders for another 57 Hawks: 40 for the IAF and 17 for the Indian Navy. At the targeted production rate of 20 Hawks a year, this order will keep the production line going till early 2014.