by Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd)

Having retired many years ago, my request to fly in the naval version of the light combat aircraft, also ‘Tejas’, may have seemed whimsical or eccentric to naval headquarters. Actually, it was motivated by intense curiosity to see for myself how an ‘outlandish’ concept visualised by the naval staff, a quarter of a century ago, in the face of scepticism and opposition, had survived many challenges to materialise into a flying prototype.

Given my long association with the light combat aircraft (LCA)-Navy project, now that a two-seat (trainer) version of the aircraft was available, I had an irresistible urge to get a feel of this ‘dream machine’. The Navy Chief, very graciously, acceded to my request and I flew a quick sortie on the LCA-Navy, earlier this week.

In the early 1990s, when the LCA program was languishing, the naval headquarters (NHQ) made enquiries about the possibility of a ship-borne version of the aircraft. On receiving a positive response about its feasibility, the NHQ formally sanctioned the LCA-Navy project. It soon emerged that a number of major design and engineering hurdles would have to be overcome, to make the land-based LCA carrier-capable. In addition to complex aerodynamic issues, the problem areas included insufficient engine thrust, a stronger undercarriage, installation of an arrester hook, and need for cockpit and fuselage re-design. Undaunted, the navy affirmed its faith in the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) by initiating a jointly-funded developmental program and providing engineers and test pilots for the project.

An important spin-off of this project has been the creation of a ‘shore-based test facility’ (SBTF) in Goa. Just one of two such facilities worldwide (the other one is a Russian-owned complex at Saki in Ukraine), it offers a simulated aircraft-carrier flight-deck ashore, including a ski-jump for take-off, optical aids for landing, and arrester gear for ‘trapping’ aircraft. Complementary to the SBTF is a unique and highly sophisticated telemetry centre for real-time monitoring and analysis of flight-test parameters — created by Indian scientists.

Having surmounted huge challenges and suffered many delays, the Indian Air Force (IAF) version of Tejas was inducted into service in 2011 and is now in serial production. The prototype LCA-Navy had emerged in July 2010, and its first flight took place in April 2012. The complex flight-test program is now at an advanced stage, and data is being gathered from ski-jump take-offs and high-speed arrester-wire engagements to validate its unique design and structural features. On successful completion of shore testing at the Goa facility, the LCA-Navy will commence extensive aircraft-carrier trials for obtaining ‘initial/full operational clearances’ (IOC/FOC) – a year or two from now. 

By preferring a ‘tail-less delta-wing’ configuration and an aerodynamically ‘unstable’ design, for a ‘light-weight fighter’, Indian designers had chosen a thorny path. Since an ‘unstable’ aircraft can only be flown via a computerised flight control system (FCS), billions of lines of software programs had to be written for this and other computers that process air-data, weapon-aiming, and navigational information. Weight shedding demanded development of pioneering carbon-fibre technology for airframe parts. To adapt this design for ship-borne operations added immense complexities.

Should it, then, have surprised anyone that a pioneering project of such difficulty (for a developing nation) should fall well behind schedule? In 2016, the navy, faced with uncertainties related to development of the LCA-Navy and accord of shipborne IOC/FOC, reluctantly took a decision to exclude it, for the time being, as a contender for its future aircraft-carrier programs. Does this mean that we should abandon the LCA-Navy project? Before addressing this question, let me describe my recent flight.

My brief exposure to the LCA-Navy was merely an ‘experience flight’ with a test-pilot at the controls; not quite a joyride, but certainly far from an ‘evaluation’ sortie. However, having undertaken similar flights over the past two decades in aircraft like the MiG-29 (M2), Sukhoi-27 (KUB), the Rafale-M and F/A-18(F) Hornet, it did provide useful insights into some characteristics of the LCA-Navy, which I summarise here.

Given its weight/size constraints, the LCA cockpit is a tight fit, but ergonomically designed, easily accessible and logically laid-out. Strapping into the (zero-zero) rocket ejection-seat and connecting up with aircraft services is swiftly accomplished. Multiple switches, buttons and toggles, have been squeezed in to provide the pilot a ‘hands on throttle and stick’ (HOTAS) facility for sensor-control and weapon-selection. The state of the art ‘glass cockpit’ has multi-function displays (MFD) to provide thousands of selectable pages of flight, navigation and sensor information as well as weapons/systems-status, emergency check-lists and much else.

The pre-start routine and start-up were crisp and simple, and sensible nose-wheel steering, via rudder-pedals, made for relaxed taxiing to the runway. I was shown a quick line-up and after-burner take-off, with the jet surging forward eagerly to get airborne. In the air, handling the Tejas was easy enough, given its responsive and well-harmonised controls and prompt engine-response. I lacked a head-up display (HUD) in the rear cockpit but an eye-level multi-function displays (MFD) made up somewhat.

A few turns and manoeuvres served to demonstrate the aircraft’s agility and high instant turn-rates. I had been told that the flight computer would assure ‘carefree handling’, and at no stage did we encounter judder, wing-rock or instability under g-loading. I was shown a typical carrier approach and a ‘touch and go’ before coming in for a final landing. The aircraft was stable on both approaches and the front cockpit afforded good visibility. 

I left the Tejas cockpit with a distinct feeling of elation, for three main reasons. 

1. I had just flown an Indian designed, ‘Made in India’ fighter that incorporated contemporary technologies, and was as good (better?) as any of its peers world-wide.

2. Despite long delays and sustained scepticism, the LCA-Navy would soon embark the aircraft-carrier, making India one of four countries capable of designing and producing a carrier as well as a carrier-compatible aircraft. 

3. The LCA’s computers and avionics software have been designed by Indian programmers, using ‘open architecture’. They can change, modify or update them in-house at will. We know that foreign companies guard such ‘source codes’ jealously and charge millions for modifying/updating them.

India’s promising aeronautics industry has suffered from egregious neglect by users and politicians alike, allowing countries like China, Brazil and Turkey to overtake us. In the next few days, there will be a new Raksha Mantri in South Block and I would like to offer the following unsolicited advice to her/him:

1. The Ministry of Defence (MoD), and preferably the new RM personally, should monitor, guide and nurture the LCA program so that the priceless experience and data generated by designers, engineers and flight-test teams does not go waste. This database should be used to sustain an ongoing, long-term fighter design/production process. 

2. Even if the LCA-Navy does not come up to the navy’s qualitative requirements for a ‘deck-based fighter’, its induction as a carrier-borne ‘air-defence fighter’ should be pursued as a prelude to development of the ‘naval advanced combat aircraft’.

3. An issue related to the LCA that demands urgent attention of the MoD is that of the indigenous Kaveri turbo-jet engine – another unfinished DRDO project of national importance that must be taken to its logical conclusion.

The author is former Indian Navy Chief