Clears hot weather trials in Jodhpur, to face trials in Leh next month
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 27th June 15
Over the last week the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), designed and built in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), moved a crucial step closer to operational service by successfully completing a set of gruelling trials in the desert areas around Jodhpur.
These were the LCH’s “hot weather flight trials”, designed to check whether it could meet its performance requirements even in blazing temperatures, with oxygen in short supply. HAL pilots proved their helicopter’s ability to meet its performance specifications, handling qualities and loads, even at low speeds when a helicopter engine is gasping for air.
In February, the LCH had successfully completed “cold weather flight trials” in North Pullu in Ladakh. There the LCH was required to start up on internal batteries and get airborne after an overnight “soak” in the minus 20 degrees Celsius cold. Operating from a helipad at 4,600 metres (15,000 feet) above sea level, the LCH test-flew at altitudes of 6,500 metres (21,300 feet).
Next month, the LCH faces “hot and high” trials in Leh, where the relative summer warmth will further reduce the oxygen, already in short supply due to the high altitude.
HAL has custom-designed the LCH for the world’s highest battlefield, Indian Army posts on the Himalayan watershed. With severe limits on the weaponry that soldiers can physically carry at those altitudes, the heavily armed LCH will support infantrymen with its cannons and rockets, while defending itself from enemy aircraft with air-to-air missiles.
In the plains of Rajasthan, Punjab and Jammu, the LCH will be primarily used to destroy enemy tanks with guided missiles at ranges of up to 7 kilometres.
Each of these tasks presents challenges that few helicopters can meet, and that the Indian Army will not compromise upon. Yet, HAL designers appear confident that the LCH will meet every requirement.
Describing last week’s tests in Jodhpur, HAL chairman, T Suvarna Raju said, “Test flights were carried out in the temperature range of 39 to 42 degrees Celsius. These were done with the involvement of customer pilots from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Army…”
HAL’s confidence stems from the fact that much of the LCH has already proved itself in two earlier helicopters. While the flying platform was proven in the Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), the weapons and sensors were proven in the Rudra, an armed variant of the Dhruv.
The LCH has many commonalities with the Dhruv. Both share the Shakti engine and the same dynamic components --- the main rotor, tail rotor, and gearbox. But the LCH has an advantage over the Dhruv. As one designer explains: “While designing the Dhruv, we were feeling our way, adding on systems one by one. But in the LCH, we knew all those systems would be needed, so we were able to integrate them from the beginning. That makes the LCH a sleeker, faster, more integrated aircraft.”
Even so, the LCH has several new features that made engineering a challenge. First, it is heavily armoured to protect pilots from enemy fire. Next, its fuselage was redesigned to make it “stealthy”, or hard for enemy radar to detect. If it is shot down, a crash-resistant landing gear would help pilots to survive even when the LCH impacts the ground at 10 metres/second. Finally, to be sleeker, the LCH seats its two pilots --- one flying, the other operating weapons --- one behind the other, not side-by-side like in the Dhruv. That required a redesign of the flight controls, hydraulics and fuel system.
On the sub-continental battlefield, the LCH will be pitted against the Zisheng-10 (Z-10) light attack helicopter, developed by China’s Changhe Aircraft Industries Corporation (CAIC). There are reports that Beijing is providing Pakistan with the Z-10, as a replacement for its older Huey Cobra attack helicopters.
HAL already has a commitment for the LCH, with the army wanting 114 helicopters and the air force asking for 65. There could also be orders from the international market, where the LCH will compete against the Z-10 and the Eurocopter Tiger. For that, HAL will have to establish production facilities and after-sales support with greater efficiency than it has done for its otherwise admirable Dhruv helicopter.