(Photos: copyright Ajai Shukla)
The first pictures of an LCA, fitted with bombs, fuel pods, dummy missile and a camera pod, taxiing out and taking off for a bombing test.
11th Feb 09
At 3 p.m. on 7th Feb 09, it was “all systems go” at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in Bangalore, the organisation that is developing India’s Light Combat Aircraft. I sat by the runway, watching two Tejas fighters, as the LCA is named, carrying out pre-flight checks before leaving for a crucial mission. After over 1000 test flights, involving 560 hours of flying over several years, the Tejas was checking out its teeth and claws by dropping bombs on a ground target. For the first time I was looking at a Tejas which had, other than its dummy R-73 missile and fuel pods, bomb pods as well. (see photograph)
Three days earlier, the first bombing run had been made; this test was to validate another method of bomb delivery.
Group Captain R Tyagi, in the lead Tejas, was to fly several hundred kilometres to a live range and deliver the bombs on a ground target. The tarmac outside his air-conditioned cockpit was blistering, as his onboard health-monitoring systems conducted self-checks, a crucial six-minute operation to ensure that his engines, controls and electronics were functioning normally. I could see the flaps and control surfaces lifting and dropping; all of this was a part of the testing process.
Just metres away, naval test pilot Captain Jaideep Maolankar, sat in another Tejas fighter, carrying out the same checks on his aircraft. Jaideep would perform the role of “chase aircraft”, flying alongside Tyagi’s aircraft and visually observing every step of the mission. In addition, a high-speed camera was tracking Tyagi’s bomb pod, clicking hundreds of frames every second.
With a surprising lack of fuss, the two aircraft revved up their engines and taxied out to the runway. I put my hands over my ears as the fighter engines roared into a crescendo and both aircraft took off, first Tyagi and then Maolankar in quick succession, banking to the right and then quickly out of sight.
The pilots were now physically alone in their cockpits, but they had lots of company over the radio. At the end of the runway was the high-security Telemetry Centre of the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC), tracking every moment of the mission. Each aircraft, from the time it started up, was being monitored in detail, the data transmitting live from the aircraft over a high-speed data link. Eleven critical aircraft systems, such as the fuel system, hydraulics and flight controls, were being watched by eleven engineers, each responsible for one particular system. In addition, a senior flight test engineer, designated the Test Director, oversaw each of the two aircraft; beside each Test Director sat another test pilot, called the Safety Pilot, continuously monitored what the aircraft pilot was seeing through his Head-Up Display (HUD). Anything going wrong and the Test Director would alert the pilot in his aircraft. In a serious emergency, he made the split second decisions that could spell life or death.
“It’s a bit like Formula One racing”, explained Wing Commander Aslam Khan, the Test Director. “The driver, or in this case the pilot, is concentrating too hard on his mission to worry about how the aircraft systems are doing, or about what is happening outside. So we watch those parameters and tell the pilot over radio.”
As the two Tejas aircraft approached the bombing range, the Telemetry Centre cleared Group Captain Tyagi to release his weapons. Flying just 70 metres away, Captain Maolankar watched carefully as Tyagi’s bombs were released; it was easy for him to see the white-coloured bombs as they headed down towards the target. Back at the Telemetry Centre, they replayed the live footage from the high-speed camera to check that the bombs had been released cleanly. I could see that they had.
The data --- including that relayed from ground cameras near the target --- would be examined in detail over days, but for now it was a successful test; the aircraft headed back to base. One more phase of the LCA test flight programme was proceeding smoothly.
The NTFC is reputed to be amongst the best test flight centres in the world. So far, not a single accident has marred the LCA programme, a perfect record compared to fighter development programmes in most other countries. In the Gripen programme, two aircraft went down in the first year of testing. In the F-104 programme in the US, 13-14 test pilots were killed in just two years of testing. (The aircraft was dubbed “the widow maker”.
“This centre has been set up entirely indigenously”, explains Air Commodore Rohit Varma, who heads the LCA flight testing. “Also, unlike other countries where test pilots are retired airmen, our test pilots are all serving pilots, bringing in contemporary experience of our operating environment.”
Amongst the ADA’s five test pilots (that I had the pleasure of having lunch with… a delicious meal!) were officers who had recently commanded a Su-30MKI squadron; a Harrier squadron; a MiG-21 squadron and a fighter base. All top guns, fresh from the field. Clearly user input counts for something!!