Takes wings: SARAS PT1N makes its maiden flight at HAL Airport in Bangalore

First flight trial of the new version of the indigenous civilian airplane successful

At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, a nondescript civilian plane, painted in grey, took off from the HAL Airport.

For residents nearby used to sights and sounds of fighter jets taking off from the defence airstrip, the event went by without a second glance. But for many in the National Aeronautical Laboratory, the flight held a special significance: the rise of their flagship programme.

Nearly a decade after a tragic crash of the 14-seater SARAS, which effectively stalled the indigenous civilian aircraft program, Wednesday saw the first flight trial of the new version of the airplane, PT1N (Prototype 1 New).

Touches 8,500 Feet

Those in the know-how said the first of the over six “design confidence building” trials went off successfully. For 40 minutes, the aircraft, accompanied by a defence escort, flew to speeds of 140 knots and reached a height of 8,500 feet, said officials.

“In the coming weeks, subsequent design and altitude alterations can see the flight reach closer to its top speed of 184 knots and 30,000 feet in height,” said an official.

Conceptualised In 1990s

While four pilots from ASTE (Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment) have been trained for the trials, two of them (Wing Commander U.P. Singh and Group Captain B. Panicker) flew the aircraft on Wednesday.

The aircraft program, named after the Indian crane SARAS, was first conceptualised in the 1990s as a way to establish a short-haul civil aviation market.

After decades on working out the design, NAL carried out its first flight on May 29, 2004.

On March 6, 2009, Prototype 2 crashed at Bidadi on the outskirts of the city killing two wing commanders and one flight test engineer. A subsequent inquiry found that incorrect drill procedures were given to pilots during a test where engines were to be switched off and then relit.

The accident, however, had a lasting impact on the project, and by mid-2013, monetary sanctions for the project dried up. It was only in 2015-end that the project restarted, and by Aero-India 2017 in Bangalore, NAL announced that CSIR had given the go-ahead and flight tests would begin in 2018.

“It is a big morale booster for NAL to see a long-pending project gather steam,” said an official, when asked about what the short-flight means to the defence public sector unit.