(Photos: courtesy Ajai Shukla)
Right: An elevated view of HAL's Dhruv assembly area. The new ALH squadron being raised has its hangar alongside.
Left: HAL's helicopter test pilots, Wing Commanders CD Upadhyay and Unnikrishnan, after giving me a demonstration ride on the Dhruv behind us.
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Sept 08
At the prestigious Farnborough Air Show in 2006, India’s Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) got a parking slot beside a US Army Apache Longbow, the world’s most feared attack helicopter. HAL’s chief helicopter test pilot, Wing Commander CD Upadhyaya, who was display-flying the Dhruv there, describes the respect between the Apache and the Dhruv pilots. On the final day, after a particularly exhilarating display by the Dhruv, the Apache pilots strolled up and, only half in jest, folded their hands and bowed before the Dhruv. “This guy can fly any manoeuvre that we can”, one said.
Upadhyay has a fund of stories about the splash the Dhruv always makes. At the Berlin Air Show, three months ago, he gave Airbus president, Thomas Enders, a ride in the Dhruv. On landing, Enders remarked that the Dhruv’s glass cockpit was as advanced as that of his flagship Airbus A-380.
This is hardly surprising, considering that the Indian military --- acknowledged as the world’s most discerning arms buyer --- has tested, okayed and bought more than 80 Dhruvs, and ordered another 159 from HAL. But the foreign accolades have not translated into the flood of international orders that HAL had hoped for, even though the Dhruv is a cost-effective buy. At about Rs 40 crores (US $9 million) per piece, it is about 15% cheaper than competitors from market-leader Eurocopter and 10% cheaper than US brands like Bell Helicopter Textron.
So far, besides two Dhruvs gifted to Nepal, Ecuador has bought 7, Turkey has bought 3; meanwhile Bolivia and Venezuela are negotiating for some 23 more. Chile seemed set to buy the Dhruv, but that fell through at the last moment, as Washington allegedly piled on the pressure on behalf of Bell helicopters.
The Dhruv’s only disadvantage is that --- being newly introduced into service --- it is a comparatively untested product. But HAL has a three-fold strategy to bring down the Dhruv’s price to what it calls “an irresistible level”.
The biggest savings are planned through import substitution; 70% of the Dhruv’s price consists of imported components. Savings are expected once the Turbomeca Shakti engine rolls out from a new plant in Bangalore by end-2009. HAL has committed Rs 1000 crores to French company, Turbomeca, to develop the Shakti engine, provide 60 engines fully built, and supply parts for 320 more to be built in Bangalore. HAL plans to rapidly develop local suppliers for Shakti engine parts, thereby bringing down the price.
Next, HAL is banking on economies of scale to bring down the unit price. Mr J Shankar, General Manager, Helicopters, points out that current orders for the Dhruv will almost certainly increase as non-military users discover its utility. He expects paramilitary and police forces to buy the Dhruv, companies that implement projects in far-flung areas, such as hydro-electric projects, and corporations that will use the Dhruv for flying senior executives.
Mr Shankar explains, “The Cheetah and the Chetak (previous generation utility helicopters) eventually sold more than 600 helicopters. The worldwide trend is that the military develops helicopters and then civilians find uses for them. For someone setting up a BPO unit, Mysore is far cheaper than Bangalore. It is four hours away by road, but only 20 minutes away by helicopter.”
And finally, HAL is cutting costs by using common parts across its entire range of helicopters. Orders are in hand for 159 Dhruvs, 76 weaponised Dhruvs, 187 Light Observation Helicopters (LOHs) and at least 65 Light Combat Helicopters (LCHs). All of these will use the same Shakti engine, the same communication and navigation equipment, and common cockpit equipment like pilots’ seats. HAL is also awaiting another order for building 350 Medium Lift Helicopters, possibly in collaboration with a foreign partner.
HAL is not revealing how much prices will fall through its three-point strategy --- import substitution, economy of scale, and commonality of parts. But experts say that if the Dhruv can be priced at around Rs 35 crores, it will become hard for any other helicopter maker to compete with HAL in the growing global market for utility helicopters.