Plants at Bangalore, Tumkur will be able to collectively build 100 LUHs every year

The new helicopter manufacturing facility of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at Tumkur is expected to start operations by March 2022. HAL sources say the facility will play a significant role in HAL's helicopter manufacturing strategy, particularly in relation to the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH).

Initially, the Tumkur helicopter facility will have the capacity to produce 30 helicopters annually. Experts point out that together HAL's Tumkur and Bangalore helicopter facilities will be able to roll out 100 LUHs every year. LUH’s test flights will also be carried out from HAL's Tumkur facility. Interestingly, the role of the Tumkur helicopter facility assumed further significance after the ministry of defence approved the procurement of 12 LUHs from HAL (six each for the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force).

As per sources in HAL, LUH has so far completed a total of 867 flights. The initial operational clearance (IOC) for the LUH (IAF version) was accorded on February 7, 2020, in the presence of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh during DefExpo 2020 at Lucknow. Similarly, the IOC for LUH (Indian Army version) was accorded on February 5, 2021, during Aero India at Bangalore. HAL sources say that while a letter of intent (LoI) has been received for 12 helicopters, there is a request to process the placement of order for production and supplies. Sources point out that HAL is looking at getting orders for 175 more LUHs before production begins at the new Tumkur facility.

The LUH is a three-tonne-class, new-generation, single-engine helicopter indigenously designed and developed by the Rotary Wing Research and Design Centre of HAL. It has features that make it suitable for operations in diverse operating conditions. It is expected that LUH will finally pave the way for the replacement of the ageing Cheetah and Chetak fleet of choppers.

India is also looking at jointly working with Russia to develop the Kamov-226T light helicopters. The Kamovs are also expected to replace the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. Experts point out that the $1 billion programme—under which Russia will supply 60 helicopters in flyaway condition and 140 to be manufactured in India—is yet to kick off. The army, air force and navy together need around 500 light helicopters.

The Ka-226T light helicopters make use of dual engines, which provide them with redundancy in case of an engine failure. “In terms of engine power and survivability, the Ka-226T has an advantage over the LUH. Ka-226T has advantage of higher payload and smaller footprint due to its coaxial rotors and absence of a tail rotor. The Ka-226T also has a unique, detachable mission compartment, instead of a conventional cabin. This allows helicopters to be adopted for different roles such as surveillance and cargo delivery. The detachable cabin module is unique to many Kamov helicopters and Ka-226T perfects this design and offers a lot of flexibility in operations. The module can be removed and attached in only around two hours,” explained Girish Linganna, an aerospace expert and the director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Limited.

He points out that the Ka-226T has a maximum take-off weight of 3,600 kg, maximum external payload of 1,300 kg and maximum internal payload of 1,000 kg. The LUH has a maximum take-off weight of 3,150 kg and can carry six passengers, while Ka-226T can carry 7 passengers along with 2 crew.

“The Ka-226T has better payload capacity due to its more powerful engine and coaxial rotor design. The Ka-226T has an operational range of 600 km and the India-made LUH has an operational range of 350km with a payload of 500 kg. Though technically there are not any issues with Ka-226T, the government is promoting indigenous platforms as it will help us improve our economy and ecosystem. However, we have already delayed the manufacturing and procurement of LUH and it would be better that a few Ka-226Ts are also procured along with Indian-made LUHs,” added Linganna.