Bengaluru: India scripted naval history this weekend with the fighter variant of home-grown naval prototype (NP-2) of Light Combat Aircraft (NLCA) undertaking its maiden carrier landing on (arrested) and take-off (ski-jump) from the deck of INS Vikramaditya, successfully.
Piloted by one of the finest test pilots Cmde Jaideep Avinash Maolankar of the National Flight Test Centre in Bengaluru, the NLCA had its first-ever overnight stay (Saturday) on board the mighty aircraft carrier, only to wake up on a bright Sunday morning (January 12) to undertake its first take-off from the ship deck.
After take-off, the plane headed to Goa on Sunday evening probably paving way to its trainer variant (NP-1) to repeat the arrested-landing and ski-jump take-off during this week.
Sources told Onmanorama that Capt Shivnath Dahiya (Dax) is likely to undertake the mission on NP-1 soon. NP-1 is said to have undertaken some touch and go missions on INS Vikramaditya on Sunday afternoon ahead of NP-2's maiden ski-jump take-off.
The first ski-jump from the carrier on Sunday was a major event and the aircraft needed to be checked thoroughly before undertaking it. These checks were said to be a blessing in disguise as it helped the aircraft understand the ship's environment.
For the entire NLCA crew, including various support teams from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) and NFTC the experience of being on board INS Vikramaditya has been priceless.
"After completing trials on the SBTF (Shore Based Test Facility) successfully, NLCA did numerous approaches and touch and go on INS Vikramaditya. The first arrested landing and ski-jump take-off were successfully executed as per the plans," said an official.
The campaign team executed every step carefully ensuring safety of the ship and its assets.
"Every second on INS Vikramaditya will be precious for the entire team and NLCA. There cannot be a bigger learning than being on the carrier and quickly understanding the nuances, because on a carrier you don't have the luxuries of operating on the shore," said the official.
While the first few landings and take-offs will be done with at most care, the subsequent ones will be undertaken at a faster rate.
"All cautions will be applied as per the SOP, but the confidence of the pilots and the support crew will be higher. The ski-jump was flawless and we have proven many technologies on the deck. We plan to undertake a total of about 20 cycles in the next few days. Subsequent landings and takeoffs will be in quick succession to get the data," the official added.
Making NLCA ready for a ski-jump every time from INS Vikramaditya will give the crew new insights into the maintainability aspects.
"One must understand that everything we undertake on board the carrier will be for the first time. It gives us a opportunity to operate on the ship and below the deck. Important lessons about maintainability on the ship for each one of us," said a scientist part of the detachment now at Goa.
When asked why NLCA did not undertake the ski-jump on the same day as it did the arrested landing, the scientist said that it would have deprived them of the below-the-deck-experience.
"If we would have taken off immediately, we would not have been able to expose the aircraft to the environment on and below the deck. Time on an operational carrier for a developmental aircraft is not only precious, but very rare. So every second is precious," he added.
Among the many technologies that were to be tested, the alignment of INS (Inertial Navigational System) on the moving deck is said to be the most significant one.
"We have the software implemented for that and we will be checking it out. It is done normally when the aircraft is stationary on a known reference. Now since the ship is moving, there is no fixed reference even if the aircraft is stationary. It is a complex procedure of interfacing with the ship's INS and using that to align with the aircraft's INS. The avionics software has built this feature which can be tested out now," says the scientist, now with the project for over a decade.
"It is critical for the aircraft navigation in air," he added.
For the HAL crew on board, there couldn't have been a better opportunity to understand the upkeep of a fighter with very limited space available.
"The below-the-deck-hangar is very congested. The support crew is getting invaluable experience of operating the aircraft in the hangar. It is quite different from a hangar on land," he adds.
The Indian Navy termed NLCA's achievement as another important milestone.
"This landmark event demonstrates professional commitment and synergy between various agencies ADA, HAL, CEMILAC and Indian Navy in harnessing the potential of our scientists, engineers and naval flight testing community towards meeting the expectations of the nation," an official tweet read.
HAL Chairman R Madhavan said that the NLCA's successful deck operations will be a great boost to the indigenous efforts.
"Our contributions included landing gear, arrestor hook and support staff controlling at SBTF along with Indian Navy," Madhavan said.
When asked how significant the deck-landing and take-off is for India's naval aviation, Cmde C D Balaji (Retd), former Programme Director (LCA Navy) and Director ADA, said it was a proud moment for every Indian.
"I feel proud to have been involved actively right from the government approvals till flight-testing. The 'paper to flight' achievement is significant as we have mastered the nuances involved in the development, simulation, flight tests, conceptualization and build of various facilities including the SBTF. This achievement needs to be written in 'golden letters and it has given us the capability and confidence to develop our own deck-based aircraft," Cmde Balaji (Retd) said.
To a query, how the current events would augur for NLCA's future, he said that the Indian Navy should have a squadron of NLCA Mk1 to operate from the aircraft carrier.
"Whilst we can certainly design and develop a twin-engine deck based aircraft, I strongly believe that we should have a squadron of NLCA MK1 to operate from the aircraft carrier. This will help in understanding the aspects of consolidation of carrier-borne operations, maintenance, ground handling and development of procedures. I hope that the Indian Navy will favourably consider this," he said.
Speaking to Onmanorma, aviation writer and a former Indian Navy Test Pilot Cdr K P Sanjeev Kumar (Retd) said that the NLCA broke new ground with the current mission.
"Identify the right talent who speak, write and work fearlessly. If he or she has an audacious idea, nurture it, protect it and let it grow. Motivate small teams to go for big challenges," Cdr Sanjeev (Retd), widely known as 'KPS', said.
According to him, indigenisation doesn't have to mean everything to be made in India.
"An airplane is more than the sum of its parts. We must aim to become ace systems integrators. Invest and groom human capital. That's a veritable goldmine here in India," KPS said.
On the key takeaways India has got from the NLCA mission, KPS said that the field should be leveled for the private industry.
"We must have our own Blackbird or Raider streaking across the Indian skies one day. Believing it will happen through DPM (Defence Procurement Manual), DPP (Defense Procurement Procedure) or SP (Strategic Partnership) model is to live in a fool's paradise," he added.
Man of the moment Maolankar (Mao) is being hailed as a true champion by people from all walks of life for standing rock solid behind the NLCA programme, despite it going through several rough patches in the last one decade.
"His selfless work, including even letting go of his promotions, swallowing insults and many more is a testimony to his commitment, belief and integrity to the project. Extremely difficult to find such people in any organisation, leave alone in the government or in the military," said Sanjay Simha, one of the popular aviation shutterbugs in India.
Interestingly, in 2016, while giving a talk to a closed-door audience at National Aerospace Laboratories in Bengaluru, Mao batted for more support to the NLCA programme.
He had urged the need to break away from the shore-based mindset which is often hampering the pace of the home-grown naval fighter jet programme. He also wanted the resources devoted to naval flight operations hiked in addition to the Navy fighter jet programme being made a stand-alone mission.
"We cannot have an Indian Air Force programme linked to a naval one. We need to design airplanes that can survive sea and ship deck for 30 years," Mao had said during the talk.
"Taking a fighter to sea, attempting to land on a ship deck and later taking-off is a completely different ball game: There are many complexities involved," Mao had said.
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets @writetake.)