Air Cmde Muthana got a ‘dousing’ reception as he got out of the TEJAS after the flight that landed it the Final Operational Clearance

As Muthu taxied back to the dispersal after the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) sortie of the TEJAS Mk1 SP-17, now with a tail number of LA-2017, on March 17, 2019, he was clearly surprised by the reception he got. The spontaneous celebration that involved some water-dousing and hoisting him on their shoulders by his Light Combat Aircraft team and the large group of HAL employees was heart-warming to say the least.

Air Commodore Kalianda Appaya Muthana has been probably among the few outstanding fighter pilots and professionals of my generation who did not rise to the very upper echelons of the IAF leadership. Reticent and soft-spoken, but with just a hint of swagger, he was a natural flier from the word go, and though I never served alongside him in any squadron, he was a highly rated fighter jock wherever he went.

No one knows this better than Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa (Retd) , the IAF’s previous chief and Muthana’s squadron-mate on MiG-21s in 29 Squadron (Scorpios). Dhanoa reminisces, “We were together for the first time in the early 1980s on the MiG-21 Type 96 in Sirsa, and then again as senior squadron leaders on the same type in Jamnagar, where I was the flight commander. The squadron was assessed very highly by the IAF’s inspection team and after I left, Muthu took over as flight commander – the good run continued, with the Scorpios winning the IAF’s marksmanship trophy called Ekalavya. He was free, frank, fair and fearless.”

After tick-marking all the boxes in his career, Muthu followed the traditional path of the creamy layer of fighter pilots as he transitioned from being a flying instructor to joining the elite band of test pilots, commanding a squadron and a fighter base. Chosen to lead the SU-30 upgrade project in Russia, he returned two years later to take charge as the Chief Operations Officer of Air Force Station Pune, home to the first SU-30 MKI squadron (20 Squadron).

After leading the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC), which was closely involved with HAL in pushing the TEJAS towards squadron induction, Muthu quit the IAF to join HAL. It was a time when the TEJAS project had taken off for sure but had not lit its afterburners yet! Though the first order for 40 aircraft had already been signed and production of the initial series had commenced, the project needed further credibility as it grappled with issues of maintainability and sortie generation rates in the first IAF squadron. It was an ideal transition and a win-win situation for both HAL and the IAF as there could not have been a better professional to steer the project from Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) to the recent FOC.

His fellow HAL test pilots on the programme, Harsh Vardhan Thakur, Subroto Chaki and Pratyush Awasthi highlighted two solid outcome-driven achievements during his stint as Chief Fixed Wing Test Pilot. He first managed to convince the MoD and the IAF top brass to back the ‘doable’ TEJAS MK-1A rather than the over-the-top TEJAS MK-II. It is now almost a done deal. The second was his initiative to create a formal practitioner and subject matter expert-driven strategic process within HAL that has resulted in the emergence of synergy between pilots, designers, engineers and management, and allowed HAL to communicate effectively with users and think big. The possibility of developing a twin-engine TEJAS, both for the Indian Navy and IAF, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft and a range of unmanned aerial vehicles are now all within the realm of possibility.

India’s TEJAS project has still some distance to go before it wins the complete trust of the IAF’s fighter pilots, with several of them arguing that even a futuristic twin-engine TEJAS MK-II will not match up to the Rafale in every domain. However, it now appears to be on a stable footing with complete government and corporate backing, and an excellent and committed team. A current TEJAS test pilot argues, “TEJAS now represents India in a big way – not just HAL anymore. TEJAS-bashing should get behind us, sooner than later.”

If HAL can ramp up its production rates, address reliability and maintainability in the field, the TEJAS MK-1A may well have triggered a renaissance in contemporary Indian fighter development, and Muthu, who retires from HAL today (March 31), can well be certain that he has been a major catalyst in this transformation.