The IAF has opted to employ the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II for both Stage I and II adopting a radically new pattern with two aircraft types for three-stage training
Flying training in the Indian Air Force (IAF) took root a few years after the foundation of the Royal Indian Air Force was laid with the raising of No. 1 Squadron equipped with just a few Wapiti biplanes. In 1941, a need was felt to create a training infrastructure in the country and as a start, flying instructors of the Royal Air Force (RAF) were assigned to flying clubs in India to train on Tiger Moth biplanes those volunteers who were aspiring to join the fledgling organisation. Under this scheme, as many as 364 pupils were to receive elementary flying training at the seven flying clubs in British India and two in different princely states by the end of 1941.
Subsequently, No. 1 Flying Training School was established at Begumpet in Hyderabad and was equipped with Tiger Moths and Harvards. In addition, No. 2 Flying Training School was set up at Jodhpur and was equipped with Prentices and Harvards. At the end of 1945, a few of the Fairchild Cornell FZ 380 piston engine trainers were introduced at No. 2 Flying Training School. The Hindustan Trainer 2 (HT-2) that was designed, developed and produced for the IAF commencing in the early 1950s by the Indian aerospace major the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), bore a remarkable resemblance to the Fairchild Cornell FZ380. For some reasons, the Fairchild Cornell FZ380 piston engine trainers were phased out in 1946, just a year after these were inducted.
As the flying training system stabilised, the IAF settled for a three-stage training with piston engine trainer HT-2 employed for Stage-I and the Harvard IVD/Texan T6G for Stage-II. For Stage-III, pilots selected to go into the fighter stream were trained at Hakimpet in Hyderabad on the de Havilland Vampire jet trainer which again was manufactured under licence by HAL. The pattern of flying training was structured generally on the system followed at the RAF flying institutions.
In the 1970s, the Harvard IVD and the Texan T6G employed for Stage-II were retired from service and were replaced by the Hindustan Jet Trainer 16 (HJT-16) Kiran Mk I of indigenous design, developed and manufactured by HAL. Subsequently, the fleet of Vampire jet trainers employed for Stage-III were also retired from service and was replaced by the Kiran Mk II, a weaponised version of the Kiran Mk I. In 1989, the fleet of HT-2 that had been in service for nearly four decades, was replaced by the Hindustan Piston Trainer 32 (HPT-32) once again designed, developed and produced by HAL. In February 2008, induction of the Hawk 132 advanced jet trainer (AJT) from BAe Systems commenced to replace the fleet of Kiran Mk II for Stage-III training. With the induction of the Hawk 132 AJT which incidentally took over two decades to procure, the system of basic flying training in the IAF had achieved a reasonably high degree of stability.
Stage-I — Flying Through Turbulence
Troubles for the IAF in respect of its trainer fleet began when in July 2009, the fleet of basic trainer aircraft HPT-32 was grounded rather suddenly and somewhat prematurely following a series of crashes on account of engine failure in flight. Apart from the loss of aircraft, tragically, the IAF lost a number of trainee pilots as well as qualified flying instructors. As the HPT-32 fleet had been in service for less than two decades and still had as much airframe life left to go, HAL had not yet planned for its replacement and hence was caught off guard. However, as it takes more than a decade to design and develop a new aircraft, HAL ought to have embarked on the development of a suitable platform to replace the HPT-32. Unfortunately this was not the case and as a result, the IAF found itself literally high and dry. The only option before the IAF at that point in time was to procure a suitable basic trainer aircraft from foreign sources which as is well known is an extremely laborious and time consuming process as laid out in the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP).
In the absence of a replacement for the HPT-32, the IAF was conducting a highly abridged flying syllabus for Stage-I training on the jet trainer Kiran Mk I.
While HAL was eventually tasked to develop a suitable and contemporary basic trainer aircraft, a project that has since been dubbed as the Hindustan Turbo Trainer 40 (HTT-40), simultaneously, the IAF initiated the process of procurement of a turboprop trainer from abroad. In the interim, in the absence of a suitable replacement for the HPT-32, the IAF resorted to a conducting a highly abridged flying syllabus for Stage-I training on the jet trainer Kiran Mk I. This indeed was a compromise that was perhaps not conducive to standards that trainee pilots were expected to attain by the end of Stage-I.
Despite the bureaucratic impediments in the DPP route, it goes to the credit of Air HQ that the induction of the fleet of 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II turboprop trainers from Switzerland commenced within four years of the grounding of the HPT-32. This procurement was unique as it was at that point in time, perhaps the only successful exercise for the IAF initiated through DPP! Yet even after the lapse of four years, the indigenous HTT- 40 was nowhere on the horizon. And now, even after the lapse of over six years since the launch of the project, the time frame for the availability of the HTT-40 cannot still be predicted with any degree of certainty. Meanwhile, the IAF has obtained sanction for another 38 Pilatus PC-7 from Switzerland even as the Ministry of Defence continues to bank on HAL to provide 68 of the indigenous HTT-40 turbo trainers. However, even if the HTT-40 finally becomes a reality, two different types of trainers from two different original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for Stage-I, will pose its own new set of challenges which the IAF will have to find ways to contend with.
Stage-II — A Serious Dilemma
The IAF was confronted with even a more serious dilemma with regard to the availability of an intermediate jet trainer (IJT) to replace the ageing Kiran fleet that has been in service for the last around four decades and is due to be retired from service. Thus it was that the programme for the development of the IJT was conceived and HAL was given the go-ahead for the project in the late 1990s. In 1997, HAL embarked on the design work for the IJT platform and the first prototype undertook its maiden flight on March 7, 2003. While it was an achievement of sorts, unfortunately, the IAF found the aircraft to be underpowered. The HAL identified a more powerful engine, the NPO Saturn AL 55I from Russia, that could deliver a thrust of 16.9 kN as against the thrust rating of 14.1 kN of the Snecma Turbomeca Larzac engine originally fitted on the IJT. The decision to install a more powerful engine led to considerable delay in the IJT project as the first AL 55I engine was received only in December 2008. The project suffered further delay on account of a number of accidents to the prototypes during test flights.
But perhaps the most devastating piece of news for the IAF on the IJT project was that the aircraft was unable to clear stall tests and consequently could not be put through spin trials. It is understood that the airframe of the IJT has serious aerodynamic flaws which HAL has not been able to correct even with the involvement of consultants from some notable global aerospace majors. It now transpires that the airframe of the IJT would have to be redesigned. So far, over 12 years have elapsed since the maiden flight of the prototype and as to how many more years it would take to successfully redesign the airframe and repeat the entire test profile, is anybody’s guess.
For the IAF, the obvious option is to procure a suitable platform from abroad. While the IAF did take some preliminary steps in this direction, it goes without saying that this will be a herculean task and in all likelihood, an IJT from abroad may not be available in the required time frame even with a much improved DPP which is expected to be issued in the near future. In the event that no aircraft, indigenous or foreign, is available to replace the Kiran fleet, the IAF would be confronted with a dilemma about the status of Stage-II training.
The Road Ahead
As HAL is unlikely to make available the IJT and the time frame for the procurement of an alternative platform from abroad will remain uncertain, the IAF has opted to tread a new path. It has opted to employ the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II for both Stage-I and -II which means it has adopted a radically new pattern with two aircraft types for three-stage training. Even though the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II is a turboprop aircraft, its operational envelope is large enough to meet with the requirements of Stage-II training. Apart from being cost-effective, this option is perhaps the best way out of the logjam the IAF is in on account of the inability of the indigenous industry to deliver the IJT.
Undoubtedly, this new pattern of training will be a major departure from the past, but the IAF is confident that it will be able to produce pilots for the fighter stream with the right level of competence. This will be evident only when combat pilots trained under the new system join the fighter fleet and put in a few years of service.