The current crisis in the IAF’s training fleet is partly because successive governments have focussed on operational aircraft and ignored the pleas for modern trainer aircraft
Excellence is an art won by training and habituation, said Aristotle. The Indian Air Force (IAF) in its relentless pursuit of excellence, takes training very seriously, more so pilot training. Flight trainees, just out of college, are put through a rigid and demanding syllabus. The only relaxation permitted is a few extra flying hours to help the slow learners iron out their weaknesses. If that does not work they are swiftly “weeded out” – for their own good and that of the service. Turning a blind eye to a flaw may trigger a catastrophic accident later resulting in the loss of a costly aircraft and even more valuable lives.
The three-stage pattern currently followed in the IAF for training of pilots commences with Stage I on turboprop aircraft for all trainees, thereafter trifurcating into the fighter, transport and helicopter streams. Stage II is conducted separately for the three streams on appropriate aircraft. The successful trainees become commissioned officers and undergo Stage III training before moving to operational squadrons. A prerequisite for excellent training is a good trainer aircraft or rather their progression from the basic trainer to the intermediate to the advanced and then on to operational aircraft. And that is where the problems for the IAF begin.
Till 2009, all trainees began with the IAF’s basic trainer, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) built HPT-32 Deepak. However, a series of major accidents that took a heavy toll of lives and aircraft, compelled the IAF to abruptly ground it, despite 15 to 20 years of residual life available. HAL was neither able to rectify the inherent design flaw responsible for the mishaps nor could it offer a suitable alternative in an acceptable timeframe. This left the IAF’s training schedule in utter disarray and forced it to conduct Stage I on the HAL HJT-16 Kiran jet trainer that was meant only for Stage II training. This was both undesirable and unsustainable.
The IAF then projected an urgent demand for 181 basic trainer aircraft (BTA) to meet its commitments. After considerable delay due to convoluted procurement procedures, 75 Pilatus PC-7 Mk II turboprop aircraft were imported from Switzerland and the schedule finally began to limp back to normal. However, it still left a deficit of 106 aircraft.
The IAF found the PC-7 to be of excellent performance, low maintenance and high reliability and was able to secure exceptional serviceability and an accident-free record. Consequently it rejected the HTT-40, HAL’s proposed replacement for the hapless HPT-32, on grounds of tardy progress and higher cost than the Pilatus. However, in 2015, the government decided on only 38 additional PC-7s (even these are currently not assured), while the IAF was compelled to accept 68 or more HTT-40s as and when these will be delivered by HAL.
The Elusive Star
HAL’s HJT-36 Sitara basic jet trainer was intended as replacement for the obsolescent HJT-16 but is beset by problems. Their severity can be gauged by the fact that the Sitara first flew in 2003, yet 14 years later, it needs at least another five years at the very least to be operationalised. One major issue is the short lifespan of its NPO Saturn AL-55I engine which requires overhaul after every 150 hours of flying. The HJT-36 also has issues with critical stall and spin characteristics that defy resolution, despite the involvement of foreign aerospace experts, making the jet unacceptable for training.
Makeshift solutions often entail a long-term adverse impact. And so it was with the misuse of the HJT-16 to fill the void created by the sudden departure of the HPT-32 till enough Pilatus PC-7 aircraft arrived. Precious HJT-16 flight hours were squandered on Stage I training whereas they were planned only for Stage II, thus reducing the service life of the fleet of HJT-16s. Till a suitable replacement emerges, the IAF now has no choice but to use the PC-7 for Stage II training as well to tide over the crisis. The pressure on the PC-7 will only be relieved if an IJT is quickly imported (a rather bleak prospect) or the HAL speedily makes the HTT-40 operational – a big question mark.
The bright spot in the IAF’s training pattern is currently Stage III fighter training. The BAE Systems Hawk Mk 132 is the world’s most successful advanced jet trainer (AJT) and an ideal springboard for IAF fighter trainees slated to fly fast jets. Induction of the first batch of 66 jets began in February 2008. Another 40 Hawks were ordered in 2010, some being produced by HAL under licence.
Focus on the Future
At present the transport stream is fairly well set with trainees progressing to the Dornier Do-228 and the Antonov An-32. However, the avionics and cockpit displays need to be modernised to prepare pilots for aircraft such as the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules and the Airbus C295 to be inducted in the near future. The helicopter stream trainees are badly off. Their first taste of helicopter flying is on the obsolete HAL Chetak which is even older than the HJT-16 and in dire need of replacement. Once the twin-engine Kamov Ka-226T, with its up-to-date avionics and engine control systems arrives, it would be suitable for Stage III training till the HAL Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) currently under development, becomes operational.
With the HJT-16 finally due to retire from service by 2018-19, the IAF appears resigned to conducting Stage II fighter training on the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II basic trainer. This is not a bad prospect as the PC-7 is fairly suitable for intermediate training too and should result in significant overall savings. However, it implies that the requirement for basic/intermediate trainers has increased from 181 to 210 aircraft. These are expected to be a mix of the PC-7 and the HTT-40.
The long-overdue HTT-40 finally completed its first flight on May 31, 2016. According to HAL, it is in an advanced stage of development with two prototypes undergoing flight testing and a third being built. HAL has accorded priority to the critical stall and spin trials that have been a bugbear with its other trainer aircraft. It promises to complete certification by December 2018, followed by series production. It is crucial for HAL to stick to this schedule if IAF training is not to suffer further.
The current crisis in the IAF’s training fleet is partly because successive governments have focussed on operational aircraft and ignored the pleas for modern yet unglamorous trainer aircraft. Clearly a racing driver hoping to win the Formula One cannot train on a two-wheeler; neither should a fledgling pilot who may one day fly the Dassault Rafale be put in a 1960s cockpit. And if the requirements of HAL and ‘Make in India’ continue to be put above the fundamental needs of the IAF, the situation is unlikely to improve in a hurry. Should HAL fail to deliver on its promises (as seems not unlikely given its dismal track record) the training programme of the IAF may be in bigger trouble than it is in now.