Four missiles are visible on the Naval LCA as it takes off from the land-based test facility in Goa on Friday
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th Nov 19
In Goa on Friday, the naval version of the Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) set a landmark by taking off with the added weight of weapons on board – two long range and two close combat air-to-air missiles.
The LCA Navy prototype took off from the navy’s Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF), but exactly as it would have from an aircraft carrier. Restraining gear locked the fighter’s wheels as the engine revved up to maximum power. Then, as the restraining gear disengaged, the unleashed fighter rocketed forward. Exactly 204 metres later – the length of an aircraft carrier deck – the fighter sped over a ski-jump and was airborne.
Girish Deodhare, chief of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) agency in charge of the LCA programme, told Business Standard the LCA Navy has now completed over 50 take-offs from the SBTF, with increasing weight and decreasing take-off distance. In addition, the naval fighter has carried out 28 arrested landings.
“We are now confident the LCA Navy is ready for an actual carrier deck landing. In the first quarter of 2020, we will land the prototype on INS Vikramaditya and take off from the aircraft carrier as well,” Deodhare told Business Standard.
This requires the navy’s only aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, to be freed from operational duties and made available for testing. Before the first landing, the LCA Navy will first make a few approaches for the test pilots to see how the fighter reacts to the warships “wake” – the wind turbulence created by structures on the warship, which buffets the approaching fighter. Once the pilots are comfortable with that, they will actually land the fighter on the carrier’s deck.
A carrier deck landing is best described as a “controlled crash”. The fighter’s tail hook must engage with wires laid across the landing deck, which unspool, dragging the fighter to a halt quickly. To achieve the extreme precision this requires, the fighter must descend much more sharply than in a regular landing, with the impact absorbed by the heavy landing gear that characterises naval fighters.
If the first landing and take-off goes off uneventfully, it will be followed by more, as the test pilots generate inputs to fine-tune the software that controls carrier landings and take-offs, which are largely controlled by flight computers.
At the same time, ADA and the navy would fine-tune the drills for operating a fighter from a carrier. This includes maintaining an aircraft on board, preparing it for flight, taking it on a lift from the hangers below decks to the flight deck and the drills for getting airborne and landing.
ADA sources say about 200 technicians have already lived on aircraft carriers, to fine tune maintenance and operating drills on board.
The navy, however, does not intend to induct the single-engine Naval Tejas Mark I into service – it is merely a test-bed for the aviation systems that will equip the twin-engine LCA Navy Mark 2. The navy wants the safety back up of a second engine, the power to get airborne with more fuel and weapons, and a longer operating range.
“Using navy-specified technologies matured with the current Mark I, we are developing a twin-engine Mark 2 version, which we are calling the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TED-BF),” said Deodhare.
With the current Tejas’ single General Electric (GE) F-404 engine replaced by two, more powerful, GE F-414 engines, the TED-BF will be a far bigger and heavily armed fighter.
The current Tejas Mark 1 gets airborne with a total “all-up weight” (AUW) of 14 tonnes. The air force version of the Tejas Mark 2, which will have a single GE F-414 engine, will have an AUW of 17 tonnes. And the LCA Navy Mark 2 (or the TED-BF), powered by two GE F-414 engines, will have a beefy AUW of 24 tonnes, says Deodhare.
ADA is targeting 2025-26 for the first flight of the TED-BF. The navy wants the fighter to be inducted into service by 2031, to replace the MiG-29K/KUB that currently flies off INS Vikramaditya and will also serve on board the first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, when it is commissioned in 2021.