The initial PC-7 Mark II aircraft that were flown to India by IAF pilots in tandem with Pilatus pilots
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 1st Sept 13
Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is continuing with developing a made-in-India basic trainer aircraft, despite Indian Air Force (IAF) attempts to scupper the project. On Monday, top IAF air marshals would visit Bangalore to discuss with HAL the proposal and roadmap for an Indian trainer, dubbed the Hindustan Turbo Trainer–40 (HTT-40).
Last month, IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, had personally targeted the HTT-40. In a letter to Defence Minister AK Antony, Browne asked for the scrapping of the project to build 106 indigenous basic trainer aircraft (BTA). Instead, Browne wants 106 BTAs to be bought from Swiss company, Pilatus. These would supplement 75 PC-7 Mark II trainers already contracted last year with Pilatus for Rs 4,000 crore (Swiss Franc 557 million).
Browne’s letter demanded the immediate purchase of 38 more Pilatus trainers under an “Option Clause”; and then 68 more as “Repeat Procurement”. For Pilatus, that means contracts worth Rs 6,000 crore (Swiss Franc 848 million) without further tendering.
The defence minister has not acceded to that request. For HAL this means a lease of life to the HTT-40 project, which it has pursued with Rs 150 crore of company funds.
Business Standard has learnt that top defence ministry (MoD) decision-makers have serious concerns about the air chief’s request. In end-July this newspaper had revealed serious factual inaccuracies in Browne’s letter to Mr Antony. The IAF chief had claimed that the Swiss trainer cost just Rs 30 crore, far cheaper than the HTT-40. But his calculations were incorrect, since the sliding rupee had raised the cost of each PC-7 Mark II (Swiss Francs 6.09 million) to Rs 40 crore. At current exchange rates each PC-7 Mark II will cost over Rs 43 crore.
Pilatus is paid for each trainer at the time that it is delivered. Several of the 15 trainers delivered so far have cost Rs 41 crore each; the Swiss company will be paid Rs 43 crore for each PC-7 Mark II delivered today.
Furthermore, the IAF inexplicably diluted 12 benchmarks between March and October 2009, including some relating to pilot safety. These changes benefited Pilatus, bringing the PC-7 Mark II into compliance with the tender specifications.
Procurement rules prohibit diluting or changing equipment specifications. The on-going CBI enquiry into the VVIP helicopter purchase from AgustaWestland is specifically examining how requirements were changed to benefit AgustaWestland.
Also raising eyebrows within the MoD is the alacrity with which the IAF grounded the HPT-32 trainer after a fatal crash in 2009. Grounding this aircraft, on which IAF rookie pilots learned to fly, created a pilot training crisis that opened the door for the purchase of the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II.
The IAF labelled the HPT-32 unsafe after 19 pilots were killed in 17 accidents over 23 years of flying, during which the HPT-32 logged 4,00,000 flight hours. That is less than one crash per year on average, a tragedy for the victims but not unusual in flight training.
In contrast, the IAF continued flying the MiG-21, despite its far more horrific safety record. In Jun 2003, then IAF head, Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, told the media that 98 MiG-21 crashes had occurred in 5,53,000 sorties between 1994-2003, claiming 43 lives --- a record twice as bad as the HPT-32.
MiG fighters have sustained this alarming trend over four decades. Mr Antony has told parliament that 482 IAF MiGs (of all types) have crashed over the years, killing 171 IAF pilots, 8 other servicemen, and 39 civilians.
Grounding the MiG-21 would not have led to the import of a fighter. It would only have increased pressure on the IAF to induct the indigenous Tejas LCA more quickly. But senior MoD officials wonder whether the HPT-32 was unnecessarily grounded to make way for a foreign trainer.
On Jun 25, 2003, when asked why the IAF continued with the MiG-21 despite so many crashes, Air Chief Marshal Krishnaswamy retorted, “It is my responsibility to exploit every IAF aircraft to the end of its service life. I can’t just throw out serviceable aircraft.”
Today, the IAF has thrown out 110 HPT-32 trainers. Most of them could fly till 2018-2024, assuming an average of 250 flying hours per year. More than 2000 IAF pilots --- including the IAF chief and his son, a Sukhoi-30MKI pilot --- have learned to fly on the HPT-32.
Once grounded, the HPT-32 was never allowed to fly again. HAL implemented a series of safety recommendations made by a high-power committee, headed by an IAF air vice marshal. This included fitting each HPT-32 with a parachute recovery system that would safely bring down an aircraft that had suffered engine failure. But the IAF did not allow any further testing of the trainer.
Interestingly, over the last two decades, HAL has twice offered the IAF a modern trainer. In July 1993, HAL submitted a detailed proposal for building a trainer called the HTT-35, even fabricating a full-scale mock up. Air Headquarters did not respond. In Feb 2004, HAL submitted another detailed proposal, which the IAF again ignored. The fate of the HTT-40 is now in the MoD’s hands.