If we don’t plan today, we won’t be able to produce even a toy plane, says Suresh Prabhu

Former civil aviation minister Suresh Prabhu had in early 2019 announced that India would roll out a road map for manufacturing aircraft in the domestic market, and was open to join hands with top global players.

For quarter of a century, India has been working towards indigenously manufacturing passenger aircraft with little or no success despite the country’s large aviation market.

This ambition once again got a boost in February this year when Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) received a modification document of its manufactured 19-seater multipurpose light transport Dornier-228 (upgraded) civil aircraft from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for UDAN scheme. The aircraft is currently being used by the defence forces. Recently, the aviation regulator gave ‘certificate of airworthiness’ to this aircraft paving the way for its civil use.

India is home to the world’s ninth largest $16-billion civil aviation market. Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing the joint Indo-US business conclave in July last year had said India needs at least 1,000 medium-capacity aircraft for regional air connectivity and invited investors to come forward. Before this, former civil aviation minister Suresh Prabhu had in early 2019 announced that India would roll out a road map for manufacturing aircraft in the domestic market, and was open to join hands with top global players. Aviation experts said the idea to produce local passenger aircraft has become all the more significant given the Centre’s thrust on local manufacturing with missions like Make-in-India and Aatmanirbhar Bharat.

However, a former DGCA official said the main issue is that the country till date does not have a design for any narrow-body or medium range turboprop except the Dornier aircraft. “Manufacturing of an aircraft is a later stage, firstly we need to come up with a prototype. Take the design approval from DGCA, build the prototype, get it certified and then start manufacturing,” he said. “Cost is also a major issue as each Dornier 2 certified aircraft (of HAL) came up at a massive cost of ₹55-crore, an amount in which a scheduled or non-scheduled operator can bring in three aircraft,” the official said.

Moreover, HAL-produced aircraft was unpressurised which means it had height restrictions for flying. “So even if the aircraft performance is good and it is fuel-efficient, there would be issues in case the aircraft has to fly over hilly terrains. These were its drawbacks. Hence we need pressurized aircraft to start with 70-90 seater turboprop followed by Jet.”

Even as a section of experts say this is the best time for the country to take a plunge and realise its long-cherished dream of having its aircraft, another section is of the view that the plan will not pay-off unless India achieves critical mass for such a high-capital intensive industry.

“It (domestic manufacturing of aircraft) is a great idea but there are numerous challenges. It is important to build the Indian civilian aerospace industry by removing a large number of entry barriers which are a big challenge,” said Dhiraj Mathur, former partner at PwC, a global consultancy firm. “We have tried to manufacture these planes. Various efforts have been made over a period of time by NAL or National Aerospace Laboratory (to make a passenger plane) but the attempts have not been successful as designing and manufacturing aircraft is not easy.”

Story of India's Indigenous Aircraft Development

The idea of giving a thrust on aircraft development in the country was mooted by former President late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam during his association with the premier Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

The project took of the ground in 1991 with NAL teaming up with a Russian partner. The foreign entity however pulled out of the project mid-way, leaving it in a limbo. In 1999, the then Government gave its go-ahead to NAL, under Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) to build on its own a multi-purpose aircraft, SARAS, named after an Indian bird.

NAL designed and developed the first prototype of the aircraft from scratch, which made its first flight on May 29, 2004. This marked the beginning of the indigenous civil aircraft program in the country. However, after an improved version of the aircraft met with an accident in 2009, the project was once again put on a pause button.

In 2010, the then Government set up a 15-member high-level committee under former ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair to explore feasibility of manufacturing a passenger aircraft locally, which submitted its report in 2011. In 2017, the government announced a program for development of a 90-seater aircraft in two phases- design and development, and manufacturing with private sector participation with an estimated budgetary requirements of ₹7,555 crore, reviving SARAS project after approving certain modifications to the cockpit and cabin formation.

On January 2, an upgraded SARAS undertook high-speed taxi trial at Bangalore’s HAL airport. According to the revived plan, SARAS will be used as a test aircraft for the development of SARAS-MK-II, a 19-seater transport aircraft. CSIR has already started working on the design of the indigenous next-generation commuter transport aircraft to be used for the Government’s UDAN scheme.

What Will It Take To Manufacture An Indigenous Aircraft

According to Prabhu, the aviation ministry had prepared a roadmap in 2019, presenting a broad overview on how aircraft manufacturing should happen in India because Boeing had said it might manufacture aircraft in India. Admitting that manufacturing aircraft is not an ‘easy task’ as millions of components go into it, he said, “The idea was that we need to develop an ecosystem in the form of manufacturing various parts of an aircraft which finally get into the end-product. The plan, to begin with, was that original equipment manufacturers would be manufacturing the components at the companies overseas and may sell them too.”

Prabhu added, ”Once that critical mass comes in, then the eventual assembly will happen for a simple reason that the market is here,” he said. Prabhu said he had personally gone to Airbus in France to discuss the plan in detail with them, adding, “It (these talks) needs follow up actions, but I am not aware if it was done,” he said.

Emphasising that the government without private sector participation can’t manufacture an aircraft, former DGCA official said, “Inputs from airports and private entities will have to be taken into consideration to successfully manufacture an aircraft. Even if we start in 2022, I don’t think that an aircraft will be available for airlines in the next 8-9 years as the certification process itself takes five years for big aircraft and three years for smaller ones and this is defined in all the country’s regulations.”

Emphasizing that not all countries are in the business of aircraft manufacturing , Mathur said that one way of doing it is to talk to (existing) aircraft makers for manufacturing and outsourcing. More than being complicated, the main thing is that one needs demand and the market for these planes. “But the market has always been the same,” Mathur said. He said that the general slowdown in the last 5-6 years coupled with the ongoing pandemic is going to be a major gap creator.

“Aircraft making needs 10-15 years of planning as the ecosystem has to be developed. So, the present state of the economy cannot be looked at if you are looking at 10-15 years ahead in time. If you don’t plan today, knowing today’s economic situation, then you will never be able to manufacture even a toy aircraft,” Prabhu said.