The two-seater Tejas trainer aircraft are not expected to be delivered before 2021

Training of pilots to fly the Tejas is now restricted to simulators and a couple of so-called “instrumented aircraft” with the Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Agency

BANGALORE: The Indian Air Force has 11 Tejas fighters built by state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and is likely to receive five more by March, but it doesn’t have a single aircraft to train its pilots to fly the warplane.

The two-seater Tejas trainer aircraft are not expected to be delivered before 2021, a senior ministry of defence official said, asking not to be identified because he is not authorised to speak to the media. “The process of building the trainers hasn’t yet started,” he said.

Spokesperson for the Indian Air Force (IAF), Group Captain Anupam Banerjee, declined comment. Queries to HAL went unanswered.

Training of pilots to fly the Tejas is now restricted to simulators and a couple of so-called “instrumented aircraft” with the Bengaluru-based Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), an arm of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), a second defence ministry official said. An instrumented aircraft differs from trainer aircraft. “It is not a standard version of the aircraft. For instance, the instrumentation panel in an instrumented aircraft is not standardised,” a senior IAF officer said on condition of anonymity.

An instrumented aircraft is a prototype and requires a high degree of skill to fly. It is only used to test an aircraft, it is difficult to train new pilots in these jets,” the officer added.

“Pilots have to shuttle between Sulur (in Tamil Nadu) — where the Tejas squadron is based — and Bangalore to train. Both the simulator and the “instrumented aircraft” are located in Bangalore. They are the property of the DRDO and IAF can only use the aircraft when they are not being used by the DRDO,” a senior test pilot of the Indian Air Force said, asking not to be identified said, and added, “generally trainers are collated with the squadron.”

Senior HAL officials confirmed that trainer jets for the Tejas aircraft aren’t yet ready. “But we just underline that designs need to be frozen (finalised) before we can start producing the trainers,” one official said.

He added: “We understand the compulsion of the IAF and hope we can arrive at a solution quickly,” the HAL official, who did not want to be named, said. The HAL official also said the state-owned planemaker cannot start a production line without clarity on how many trainer aircraft has to produce and to what specifications.

“The DRDO, which designs the aircraft, did ask for changes. The IAF too changed the specifications. It asked for the four trainer jets under IOC (Initial Operational Clearance) configuration to be capable of refuelling mid-air. But that is because these are already a decade behind in being delivered. It makes sense to get trainers that are capable of refuelling mid-air than taking in trainers without these capabilities and then going for an upgrade,” a second defence ministry official said, explaining the changes in design.

The IAF ordered 20 fighters with Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and another 20 with Final Operational Clearance (FOC). The first contract for 20 jets under IOC configuration was signed in 2006. All 20 fighters including the trainers were to be delivered by 2011. The contract for 20 fighters under the FOC configuration was signed in 2011 with a similar delivery schedule.

Of the 40 aircraft, eight were to be fighters to train pilots. In addition, the IAF will buy another 83 Tejas fighters from HAL. The technical evaluation of the 83 fighters is complete. Much of the price negotiations are also in process,” said a third defence ministry official, who too didn’t want to be identified.

“Fighter flying has a syllabus, which cannot be done on a simulator. How does one supervise the flying of a youngster without flying with him on a trainer. The IAF?is now posting only qualified flight instructors and fight combat leaders to Tejas squadron because we cannot risk young pilots flying the fighters. Also, pilots going on leave or courses need to re-validate themselves when join back the squadron, how can these be done without a trainer?” Air Marshal SBP Sinha (Retd), the former commander of Central Air Command said.