Bengaluru: A new variant of India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas completed its first flight successfully here on Monday. Piloted by Air Commodore K A Muthanna (Retd), Chief of Test Flying (CTF), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), the Tejas SP-21 (series production) fighter took off from HAL Airport here at 12:54 pm and landed back at 01:34 pm after 40 minutes of successful maiden flight.
This is the first Final Operational Clearance (FOC) variant of Tejas fighter produced by LCA Division, the youngest wing of HAL. In the next two years, HAL will have to roll out 16 FOC Tejas fighters (including SP-21) and eight trainers for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
One of the key features of the new Tejas variant is the air-to-air refuelling probe giving it an edge during enduring missions. The new variants will be able to fly non-stop for over eight hours with air-to-air refuelling support, thereby giving a fillip to IAF operations.
During Tuesday’s flight, the airframe profile was tested in which the engine and aircraft performance was proven. As a mandatory practice, the pilot is said to have also flown an inverted sortie that lasted for 10 seconds.
During today’s flight the pilot pulled 8G and touched supersonic speeds which proved the airframe and engine capabilities.
HAL sources say that Tejas SP-22 is likely to fly at the end of this month and two more fighters (SP-23, SP-24) will join the party by end of May. Tejas SP-22 is expected to undergo EGR (engine ground run) this week.
IAF sources say that the second squadron of Tejas (No 18, Flying Bullets) will be formed at Air Force Station Sulur by likely next month, with the induction of first four fighters.
Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria who held the Tejas review on March 2 has told all stakeholders to work in synergy towards the effective operationalisation of the Tejas fleet.
The IAF Chief also reviewed the IOC, FOC, Tejas MkIA and Tejas MkII variants and asked DRDO and HAL to hasten up the development schedules.
In a recent interview to Onmanorama, the IAF Chief said that with the induction of the second squadron, IAF will enhance the operational utilisation of the Tejas.
“The Tejas has very good capabilities and as we gain experience we will continue to expand its operational utility in IAF plans,” Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria had said.
HAL officials say that they have benefited immensely from the experience of producing 16 fighters in the IOC (Initial Operational Clearance) configuration.
“The lessons from the recent deliveries of Tejas fighters to IAF have come handy for us in the current scheme of things. SP-21 could have flown much earlier provided the clearance for software configurations came early from the authorities,” says an official.
The LSTT (low-speed taxi trial) for SP-21 was held on March 10 followed by HSTT (high-speed taxi trial) on March 13.
SP-21 boasts of key features like air-to-air refuelling probe, Gsh-23 mm gun, pressure refuelling with three drop tank configuration, improved wing navigation lamp, tandem pylon and auto-low speed recovery, to name a few. Here’s a quick glance at the new features:
• Air-to-air refuelling probe: This novel feature of mid-air refuelling introduced to FOC variants will enhance the range without additional touch downs or pit-stops to refuel. This is the first desi fighter to have this feature.
• Fuel system enhancement: Over and above 2350 kg fuel carrying capability of IOC variant with its external drop tanks of 1200 and 800 litres capacity, Tejas FOC has an additional 725 litres centre line drop tank with pressure refuelling.
• Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles: The reliable Derby missile has expanded the firing envelope making it more lethal. This feature was tested and cleared for the entire FOC envelope via exhaustive study of missile separation characteristics.
• GSH 23 mm twin barrelled gun: This Russian gun underwent extensive butt firing at Nasik before getting on board SP-21. The integral gun would give an edge to the pilot in case of a close-combat scenario.
Despite the delays in rolling out Tejas SP-21, LCA Tejas Division ensured that the young team flocked together and stayed focussed in the last six months.
“Everyone is motivated here and they own the Tejas programme. The leadership ensures that even the suggestions of the junior-most staff is factored in. We have been trained right from the first day at this Division that the voice of customer is paramount,” says an employee.
According to her, the flat structure being maintained at the Division has enabled smoother decision-making practices.
HAL Airport witnessed jubilant scenes soon after the pilot touched down after the maiden sortie. Engineers, pilots, technicians, security staff and senior officials cheered as the pilot taxied in.
The pilot was given the customary shower on the tarmac soon after he came out of the cockpit.
The team members lifted the pilot holding a Tricolour with the roars of ‘high josh’ reverberating all over.
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)