Sunday, January 12, 2014

Indian Air Force wants to build Swiss trainer aircraft

Concerned over dip in the intake of pilots, a worried Indian Air Force (IAF) now wants to produce Swiss Pilatus PC-7 basic trainers at its own facilities. Sources said it was quiet a paradox that IAF was buying more aircraft and training fewer pilots.

The IAF, which remains skeptical about homegrown attempts to develop a new trainer aircraft, needs to train around 250 cadets in every course to meet the shortfall of around 472 pilots. The strength of last basic flying course at the IAF academy in Hyderabad was only 87. The course starting January would train a little over 100 cadets.

There has been a constant decline in the recruitment of IAF pilots since 2009, when HPT-32 trainer at the academy was grounded after it was rendered unsafe for flying. The entire flying training course was left in the lurch following the grounding of HPT-32 trainers. The IAF shifted to an interim, though risky, measure of making rookies learn their first flying skills on complex jets instead of basic aircraft.

The arrangement fraught with danger continued until IAF started receiving Swiss PC-7 mark II trainers last year. Seventy five of these trainers were bought for over 3,000 crore and the IAF academy has already received around 30, in which young cadets have started their lessons. The IAF needs 106 more trainers to smoothly run its pilot training program.

The defence ministry had allowed aircraft-maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to develop a new basic trainer, but IAF sees it's a futile exercise and had requested the government to go for 106 more Swiss aircraft instead. With HAL unable to make significant progress in the development of new aircraft, nor is it willing to produce PC-7s, the IAF has now proposed to make the Swiss aircraft on its own.

Sources said IAF's base repair depot-5 in Sulur can be entrusted with the task of producing Pilatus under license. A team of the Swiss aircraft-maker has already inspected the facility and is confident that it will be able to produce the aircraft. The cost of producing the aircraft at Sulur will be comparable with the price paid for the 75 aircraft purchased earlier. The South African Air Force is already producing Pilatus trainer on its own and the IAF's facility is considered to be even better, said sources.

The production can start as early as next year by when all the 75 PC 7 trainers would have been delivered. The requirement of additional 106 can be met by producing the aircraft at Sulur. As per the proposal, first 10 aircraft in the new lot of 106 can be bought directly off the shelf, 28 in semi knocked down kits and 68 in completely knocked down kits. The move is aimed at ending IAF's training woes. The IAF has already conveyed to the defence ministry that it would not be prudent to have two different trainers in the academy.

The HAL is determined to go ahead with its program to build HTT-40 trainer expressing confidence that it would be a cheaper option for the IAF in the long run. The HAL says IAF will not be dependent on erratic foreign vendors and can rely on support from the local manufacturers at its own convenience. IAF's training problems had come up at a recent meeting of parliamentary panel which has sought its early resolution. The panel will review functioning of HAL during its next meeting on January 24.


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