By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 14th Sept 19
On Friday, India took a giant step towards designing and building a Tejas fighter capable of operating off aircraft carriers, when a Tejas prototype fighter carried out an “arrested landing” in the navy’s Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) in Goa.
Even air force pilots accept that the most dangerous and spectacular flying mission is one that naval fighter pilots perform every day: landing a fighter on an aircraft carrier deck, which is often just 200 metres long.
Such a landing is only possible if the pilot can successfully snag a “tail hook” on the tail of the aircraft onto a series of “arrestor wires” on the aircraft carrier’s landing deck. The wires then unspool, dragging the aircraft to a halt.
That is what Commodore Jaideep Maolankar, flying a naval Tejas prototype developed by the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO), demonstrated on Friday on a land-based airstrip, with the aircraft absorbing the huge deceleration stresses. This opens the door to actually landing the Tejas on an aircraft carrier, and thence to introducing the fighter into operational service.
"Today is a golden letter day in the history of Indian naval aviation. This has put India on the world map as a nation with the capability to design a deck landing aircraft,” said a DRDO official who briefed the media after the event.
To be sure, the naval Tejas is still a long way from operational service. The navy has stated that the Tejas Mark 1’s current General Electric F-404IN engine is not powerful enough. This means that the navy will wait for the Tejas Mark 2, which will be powered by the peppier GE F-414 engine.
Yet, a small but highly motivated team of designers, flyers and technicians at the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the DRDO agency responsible for the Tejas, are continuing to develop the Naval Tejas Mark 1 as a prototype for perfecting key elements needed for carrier deck operations – such as a rugged undercarriage that can absorb the impact of the aircraft with the landing deck.
This has been a delicate process, in which designers must strike a balance between weight, strength, speed, maneuverability and other flight aspects. For example, strengthening the fighter’s undercarriage adds weight, which reduces speed, climb rate and turning radius.
“Over multiple iterations over a sustained period, we have balanced these aspects in the naval Tejas. This has resulted in our developing a body of priceless technical experience and knowledge. Today’s achievement is not so much about developing an aircraft, as it is about building up a team of designers that will form the backbone of Indian naval aviation design in their working lifetime,” said a senior ADA official on Friday.
The Naval Tejas flight test team that executed the landing will remain in Goa over the next month, consolidating the experience and conducting further testing.
Of the total budget of Rs 14,047 crore sanctioned for the Tejas project, the naval fighter has been sanctioned Rs 3,650 crore. Of that amount, Rs 1,729 crore has been allocated for the naval Mark 1 fighter, while Rs 1,921 crore is earmarked for the Naval Tejas Mark 2.