The Pilatus PC-7 to the Rescue

The Pilatus PC-7 Mk II has helped prevent another crisis that was brewing in the trainer fleet of the Indian Air Force

Issue: 11 / 2016By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Wg Cdr RS Chauhan (Retd) and Capt Aditya Singh Chauhan

Basic training in the Indian Air Force (IAF) for trainees selected for induction into the flying branch and to be assigned in due course to the three different streams, i.e. Fighters, Transports and Helicopters, is conducted in three stages designated as Stages I to III. Stage I which lasts for a period of six months is common to trainee pilots of all the three streams mentioned above. On successful completion of Stage I flying training, trainee pilots are trifurcated on the basis of their performance in Stage I as also their personal choice, into the three different streams. Thereafter trainee pilots undergo Stage II and Stage III flying training on designated trainer aircraft as applicable to their respective streams, with the training period of six months in each stage.

In the 1990s and in the early part of the first decade of the 21st century, Stage I training was being conducted on the HPT-32 single piston engine trainer aircraft designed, developed and manufactured by the Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). On successful completion of Stage I, trainee pilots of the Fighter stream then moved on to Stage II and were trained on the HAL-built HJT-16 Kiran Mk I single engine basic jet trainer. Stage III for trainee pilots of the Fighter stream was conducted on the HJT-16 Kiran Mk II. However, with the induction of the BAE Systems Hawk 132 Advanced Jet Trainer commencing November 2007, the HJT-16 Kiran Mk II fleet was progressively replaced by the new platform.

The fairly well crafted flying training pattern in the IAF encountered serious turbulence on account the rather sudden and premature grounding of the HPT-32 fleet in July 2009. The IAF was constrained to take this somewhat difficult decision on account of safety concerns in the wake of frequent episodes of engine failure in flight that apart from aircraft, resulted in loss of precious lives as well. Quite suddenly the IAF had a serious crisis on its hands as it was left with no aircraft for Stage I training. The HPT-32 aircraft reportedly had an inherent design flaw that proved to be insurmountable.

Circumstances therefore compelled the IAF to resort to carrying out Stage I training on the HJT-16 Kiran jet trainer that was already being used for Stage II. This arrangement was neither desirable nor sustainable in view of the depleting numbers of the ageing fleet.

As HAL was not in a position to provide a replacement for the HPT-32 in a respectable time frame, the IAF had no option but to explore foreign sources for a suitable platform and soon enough to resume Stage I training on a propeller driven aircraft. A global tender for a basic trainer aircraft floated on December 16, 2009, saw a number of contenders entering the fray namely Pilatus PC-7 Mk II from Pilatus Aircraft of Switzerland, KT-1 from Korean Aerospace, the Texan T-6C from the then Hawker Beechcraft, the EMB-314 Super Tucano from Embraer, Alenia Aermacchi M-311 jet trainer from Finmeccanica, PZL-130 Orlik TC II from EADS and the G-120 TP from Grob Aircraft of Germany.

In May 2012, the IAF declared the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II as the preferred platform. A contract was signed with Pilatus Aircraft of Switzerland for the supply of 75 aircraft in flyaway condition along with integrated ground based training system and a logistics support package. There was also the option for another 38 aircraft within three years of signing the contract.

THE ORIGINAL EQUIPMENT MANUFACTURER PILATUS AIRCRAFT OF SWITZERLAND HAS ALSO BEEN PROACTIVE IN PROVIDING EXCELLENT PRODUCT SUPPORT TO THE IAF

Induction of the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II commenced in February 2013 and deliveries of the first lot 75 aircraft on order was completed in November 2015. Meticulous adherence to the committed timeframe for delivery of 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II aircraft was in conformity with the the impeccable credentials of the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) Pilatus Aircraft of Switzerland.

Performance Par Excellence

Based at the Air Force Academy near Hyderabad, the premier flying training establishment of the IAF, the Pilatus fleet has recorded commendable performance and has had an accident-free record. The experience of the IAF indicates that the fleet demands low maintenance, offers high reliability and exceptional serviceability rates, all resulting in high flight line availability. The OEM Pilatus Aircraft of Switzerland has also been proactive in providing excellent product support. The credible performance of the fleet so far has inspired the IAF to embark on enhancement of intake of trainee pilots by 150 per cent as well as to increase the number hours in the basic flying training syllabus by 220 per cent. Solo flying by trainee pilots is also being increased from one to 14 sorties. This not only reflects a qualitative change in basic flying training in the IAF; but also the high level of confidence that the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II fleet has generated in the IAF. As per Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha who flew a sortie on the aircraft during his visit to the Academy, the induction of Pilatus PC-7 Mk II as a basic flying trainer has met the long aspired need of the IAF. The IAF has placed orders for another 38 of these aircraft under followon contract that will take the fleet strength with the IAF to 113 against a total requirement of 181 machines.

Change in Training Pattern

Timely induction of the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II has helped prevent another crisis that was brewing in the trainer fleet of the IAF and had the potential to seriously undermine Stage II training of fighter pilots. The HJT-16 Kiran fleet that was inducted beginning in the early 1970s, has already been overtaken by obsolescence and ought to have been retired from service. Unfortunately, the project undertaken by HAL to develop the HJT-36 Sitara as its replacement, appears to have encountered major design issues that would need redesign of the airframe. The time frame for the availability of the HJT-16 Sitara therefore continues to remain uncertain. With the retirement of the HJT-16 Kiran fleet looming large over the horizon, and no replacement readily available from the Indian aerospace industry, the IAF was contemplating procurement of an Intermediate Jet Trainer from foreign sources which given the complexities of the Defence Procurement Procedure, would have taken several years. Fortunately, the IAF found a far more expedient option and an immediate solution in the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II. Though procured for Stage I flying training, the performance envelope of the aircraft is large enough to undertake Stage II training for pilots of the Fighter stream. Training of fighter pilots in both Stage I and II is now being conducted on the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II.