HISTORY: India’s LCA Makes 1st Landing On Aircraft Carrier Deck

Making it the first homegrown aircraft to land on an aircraft carrier deck, a prototype of the naval Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘trapped’ on the Indian Navy’s sole aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya today out in the Arabian Sea. Hailed as a major milestone, the Indian Navy has declared, ‘With this feat, the indigenously developed niche technologies specific to deck based fighter operations have been proven, which will now pave the way to develop and manufacture the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter for the Indian Navy.’

The historic sortie was commanded by Commodore Jaideep Maolankar, who heads the N-LCA flight test. The flight marks a milestone in a journey that has been beset with odds at virtually every level.

In a statement, the Indian MoD said, ‘After completing extensive trials on the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF), Naval version of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) did a successful arrested landing onboard INS Vikramaditya at 1002 hrs today. Commodore Jaideep Maolankar conducted the maiden landing. Captain Dahiya was the Landing Safety Officer (LSO) and Cdr Vivek Pandey Test Director on ship whereas Gr. Capt. Kabadwal and Cdr Ankur Jain were monitoring the aircraft through telemetry from SBTF. LCA Navy has been developed by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).’

The debut arrested landing on INS Vikramaditya’s deck took place during a pre-scheduled operational deployment of the aircraft carrier group in the Arabian Sea, and comes four months after the N-LCA test team conducted a first full launch and recovery from the shore-based ski jump test facility at the INS Hansa air station in Goa. Arrested night landings were conducted in September last year, with the the test team quickly becoming focused on achieving a deck landing before long. That it took four months to get there will be a huge confidence boost to a team that, ironically, faces giving up the N-LCA platform entirely.

‘This is great news! Cmde Maolankar & the whole ADA team have made us proud by proving the Tejas on a carrier’s deck. The navy’s 25-year old dream has come true & its faith in ADA justified,’ said Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd.), former Indian Navy chief and a veteran aviator himself (Listen to our podcast with the Admiral here).

The N-LCA crew will remain on board INS Vikramaditya for the next 10 days to complete a series of traps and launches. (Update on Jan 12: the N-LCA has completed its first launch today).

As Livefist recently reported, the Indian Navy has put a hard stop to the possibility of the single engine N-LCA ever becoming an operational aircraft in naval service, making it official that it will only commission a twin engine fighter platform. Despite misgivings and reservations within the DRDO that administers the LCA project, the latter has now proposed a twin-engine evolution of the Tejas to meet requirements. Designated the Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF), the DRDO has laid down a six-year timeframe to first prototype flight.

Unlike the Indian Air Force’s largely troubled relationship with the LCA Tejas, the Indian Navy has been committed and supportive of the program through its life. It was in 2016, thirteen years after the project began, that the Indian Navy decided it needed a more powerful and capable aircraft for flight deck operations. The platform was also the centre of a factional spat that spilt out into the open from within the navy.

The N-LCA deck landing today will also, therefore, be a huge emotional moment. The navalised version of the LCA was something of an afterthought, with the project being commissioned in 2003, two years after the first air force prototype made its debut flight. Nevertheless, a singularly committed Indian Navy has ensured that the program quickly put together a credible deck-based jet with technologies developed in-house for the first time, including control laws, a finely tuned flight control system, a strengthened undercarriage for deck landings (helped by a consultancy with Airbus) and aerodynamics that suited tactical deck ops.

Former director of the N-LCA program, Commodore C.D. Balaji told Livefist, “A journey from ‘Paper to Flight’ from April 2003 to this day. A journey traversed as a junior partner in the movement against the tide has culminated in this fantastic achievement the country can be proud of.”

The Indian Navy has also laid preliminary groundwork for 57 future deck-based fighter aircraft for its future flat-top CATOBAR aircraft carriers, a prospective contest widely seen to be a face-off between the French Rafale and U.S F/A-18 Super Hornet. Whether the path to that contest and beyond stands queered by the emergence of the TEDBF program remains a matter of speculation even the navy isn’t fully clear about. Expect to hear more from this front soon.

Meanwhile, we’ll update this piece with photos and videos from the arrested deck landing when they’re in.

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