(photos: courtesy Ajai Shukla)
By Ajai Shukla
9th February 2009
Visitors to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL’s) high-security helicopter hangars in Bangalore nowdays confront a startling sight. Dominating the tarmac are five shiny new Dhruvs, the HAL-manufactured Advanced Light Helicopter, emblazoned with the insignia and the roundels of the Ecuadorian Air Force.
With Aero India 2009 around the corner --- India’s biggest-ever air expo, scheduled from 11th to 15th February --- HAL is readying to hand over, ahead of schedule, its first ever export order won in a competitive contract, run last year by Ecuador for seven helicopters. Not only did the Dhruv outperform rival machines from global majors like Eurocopter (the world’s biggest helicopter manufacturer), but HAL’s price of just $7 million per helicopter conclusively won it the contract.
HAL is out to make a splash. The Ecuador Air Force chief will receive five Dhruvs at a high-profile media event in Aero India 2009. The remaining two will be handed over within six months. And instead of the conventional (and cheap) way of transporting helicopters across continents --- by painstakingly dismantling them and sending them by ship --- HAL has decided to fly the Dhruvs to Ecuador in a giant Antonov-124 transport aircraft.
“Transportation in an AN-124 will merely involve removing the rotor blades and quickly reassembling them after they land in Ecuador,” explains N Seshadri, Executive Director of HAL’s Rotary Wing R&D Centre. “This is something that we in HAL are quite familiar with; the Indian Air Force Sarang team, which regularly displays helicopter aerobatics in major air shows abroad, often transports their helicopters in AN-124s.”
HAL will have to pay about Rs 3.5 crores for ferrying the Dhruvs by AN-124, but the company believes that the goodwill generated will be worth the expense. Several South American countries besides Ecuador --- Columbia and Chile amongst them --- are evaluating the Dhruv. HAL knows they are carefully watching the Ecuador contract.
HAL, therefore, has pulled out the stops to ensure that Ecuador has no problems with maintaining its Dhruv fleet. A specially selected team of ten HAL engineers is being posted in Ecuador for the two-year period when the Dhruvs will be under warranty. They will carry with them the entire requirement of tools and spares required to keep the helicopters serviceable. During these two years, the HAL engineers will train the Ecuadorian Air Force to maintain its Dhruvs.
Serviceability was a problem that brought HAL flak when the first Dhruvs were supplied to the Indian military. At that time, HAL was focusing so strongly on producing more Dhruvs, that the army and the air force had to complain that HAL was not providing adequate maintenance back-up.
“We are now very comfortable with supporting the Dhruv, wherever it is flying”, asserts Ashok Nayak, Managing Director of HAL’s Bangalore Complex, and the man who has been selected to head HAL when the current chief, Ashok Baweja retires on 31st March 09. “We are already carrying out major maintenance --- including the servicing that is done after flying 250 hours and 500 hours --- in places like Nasik, Yelahanka and Manasbal in J&K. We will reliably do that in Ecuador as well.”
The Dhruv assembly line in HAL Bangalore is already busy, fulfilling the Indian military’s order for 159 helicopters. That notwithstanding, the Ecuador contract is seen as a major milestone, validating the Dhruv as an internationally competitive machine. The ALH has been supplied earlier to Nepal and to Israel, but without competitive bidding and trials. Now one Dhruv is also ready for sale to Mauritius.
(Tomorrow: The Light Combat Helicopter project encounters delays)