With a plan to manufacture naval utility helicopters under a strategic partnership model in the doldrums, all eyes are on a critical trial of an indigenous Advanced Light Helicopter being modified for ship-borne operations of the Navy.

A crucial trial of the folding tail boom – the aft section of the chopper – is planned by next month to demonstrate that the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) can easily fit into hangars and heli-decks of frontline warships, people familiar with the development told ET. The first ALH with a modified tail section as per the navy’s specifications is ready and is expected to fly within a month as part of the developmental tests, they said.

The trial is being conducted by state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd that manufactures the said ALH. The modification gains importance as the navy’s plan to acquire 111 new utility helicopters under the strategic partnership model reached a dead end with no progress being made in over a year. The plan has been stalled after concerns were raised on the non-inclusion of HAL in the competition that was restricted to Indian private sector players. As first reported by ET, the Navy has already floated a requirement for more than 20 utility helicopters to be taken on a lease basis to meet immediate requirements. This is a short-term plan till a suitable platform is ready.

The ALH – which is already in service with air force, army and navy – was being pitched as an option for the navy for ship-borne operations, but it lacks a folding tail and a fully retractable rotor blades that are crucial for such operations. Sources said the folding tail will soon be demonstrated and the next step of retractable rotor blades is also being worked on and is expected to be ready within two years. The design work for the folding rotor blades has been completed and specialised machinery has been ordered to commence the manufacturing, they said.

“The modified helicopter will meet the navy’s requirements for storage on board the warship,” one of the officials involved in the project told ET. “The new version of the ALH can also be fitted with any kinds of sensors or weapons required by the user. The coast guard has already received an ALH with a nose mounted surveillance radar,” the official said. As reported by ET, the navy has been facing an acute shortage of utility helicopters for ship-borne operations, with the legacy Chetak fleet well past its prime and facing major maintenance issues.