NAVY-DHRUV SPAT: Let’s Stop Fighting, HAL Test Pilot Says

By Wing Commander ANIL BHAMBHANI (Retd).
Senior Test Pilot (Rotary Wing)
Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL)
*Views personal

Please tolerate my frankness. The current imbroglio is the outcome of sensational journalism. Well that’s how the media works (I accept that) and people play into the hands of the media. Usage of strong words and adjectives can only lead to bad blood (which is headline news). Is it doing any good to anyone, I suppose no, the loser in all cases is the nation? The experts may win the media war, but the nation would have lost an opportunity to move one step closer towards self-reliance.

I have been reading whatever has been published till date and have deliberately avoided getting pulled into the quick stand where nobody is going to be the winner. I am a HAL Test Pilot and I fly the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH Dhruv) and all other HAL aircraft on a daily basis with an implicit trust that the company has done its best to offer me a safe aircraft. In more than 12 years that I have spent with HAL I have not been disappointed. Problems do occur but they are not because the men behind the machines did not do their jobs; there are limits to knowledge and one learns from experience. Tendulkar did not score his 51 test centuries in one season. Rome was not built in a day. Experience counts and one needs to build on it.

What I am penning down are some random thoughts, borne out of frustration because all experts are hell bent on flogging an old horse. It’s kind of fashionable to pull down your own product, especially if it’s from a public sector undertaking (PSU).

None of the naval pilots have flown or assessed the current generation ALH. It’s sad that with 16 ALH in the pipeline, the Naval Project Team at HAL does not have a Test Pilot or a Test Engineer on its strength. The last Test Crew was posted to the project team some 6-8 years back and that too with no mandate to participate in the ongoing ALH flight trials. Compare this to the Air Force and the Army which have a dedicated team of Test Pilots and Test Engineers co-located with HAL flight ops. These test crew participate in all the flight trials and are abreast with the current progress on them, thereby keeping the respective Service HQs updated on the changes/progress made on each program and if required provide service inputs so that they are addressed at an early stage in the program. On the naval side, the role of the project team is reduced only to following up on the aircraft that come here for maintenance. There is no one to advise NHQ on what exactly HAL’s current capability is and how it has improved over the years. So, most of what you get is hearsay.

Some background. Let’s try to see what everyone is saying in terms of criticism about the ALH. Surprisingly most of the articles have one common theme – How bad HAL is and why it should not be given further orders. Very few mention the fact that the Army and Air Force have been effectively using the ALH at high altitudes and in forward areas where it has proved its mettle. The recent rescue of stranded aircrew from 17500’, use of ALH in CI ops in Kashmir, surgical strikes, Kerala floods, Uttarakhand disaster and many other natural disasters are a few examples of the capability of the aircraft. These have also been manufactured by HAL.

All the not-so-good comments that have been made recently are based on the ALH of the year 2000, and out of experience of operating the limited ALH (Mk1s) that are in the Indian naval inventory. These ALH were from the LSP (Limited Series Production) line up and the initial batch of production. The aim of LSPs is to get feedback from the field once they start exploiting the aircraft. So what the Navy encountered was no different from what the Air Force and the Army experienced. These feedback/design shortcomings/manufacturing anomalies were addressed in a systematic manner and ALH continued to mature. It is a process followed across the world and not limited to HAL alone. This remains an ongoing process and all observations that the HAL gets are addressed in due course, with Services remaining an integral part of the process. The benefits of the series production wherein the observations have been addressed, have been passed on to the Army and Air Force in the ALH Mk III/IV versions. However the Navy continues to hold only the Mk I (LSP) variants, hence the poor experience.

Yes, I agree that ALH did not meet the NSQR of that era and HAL did accept the same. The NSQR was based on the Sea King (equipment payload and endurance for missions) which was and is still the pride of Indian Navy. If a realistic assessment had been done after the design freeze of ALH, it would have been obvious that ALH would not meet the naval requirement. No flight testing was required to know that the ALH will not meet the NSQR.

Remember, this was the first helicopter designed in India; we as a nation had no skill set or knowledge, HAL by itself had no history in designing helicopters and it had taken Germany’s MBB as a partner for the design. ALH was specifically designed for high altitude and some intensive manoeuvring which are exactly opposite to what the Indian Navy needed. Naval aircraft primarily need long period hover (time on station) and stability, which is the opposite of manoeuvrability. The design requirements were on the opposite ends of the spectrum hence there was no way that ALH would have met the NSQR. It’s easy to say in hindsight that HAL should have used a different rotor for the Naval ALH. As a nation in the 1990s we did not have any background in helicopter design, we were just learning to take baby steps, there was no margin within the project to make two different helicopters. The moment the rotor is changed, the helicopter would have become a different type entailing complete testing afresh, here we are not just talking about flight testing but ground testing also which takes much longer than flight testing.

Also, the lead service for ALH were Army and Air Force (compare their numbers with Naval requirement); their requirements were for Siachen heights and an extraordinary requirement of a max 3.5 ‘g’ limit. The performance requirement was genuine however all other requirements were taken from other contemporary helicopters of that era (BO 105/BK 117). The 3.5 g requirement and battlefield survivability for controls were the major factors affecting the design of the rotor and the rotor head. To enable ALH to make such high ‘g’ maneuvers the rotor had a large hinge offset which was partly accomplished by the large rotor head. The large rotor mast also accommodated the controls which passed through the centre of the MGB. With a large rotor head, the ALH with its blades folded became too big to manoeuvre into the ship hangars. It could enter but with inches to spare only. (Hence, ALH was destined to fail in that configuration). As for the mission equipment the contemporary systems of that era were heavy and when fitted on the ALH the time on task required could not be met.

This was all in the years of 1995 to 2005. Are these limitations valid today in 2020 for the NUH, mostly NO.

Let’s look at the current NUH requirement. Is the NSQR same as that which was issued for ALH? No, it’s been modified as the primary roles of NUH are utility based. It’s also aimed to meet what Airbus or Sikorsky have to offer and to keep ALH out. How? Let me share:

Blade Fold: HAL is ready to make a segmented blade for ALH which will meet the blade fold requirement. It’s not just a claim or a false hope; LUH uses a segmented blade (it’s been flown adequately and is well proven). The segmented blade is a proven blade and not a pipe dream. Blade folding on LUH has been demonstrated to the Navy. Time taken for blade fold was approx 6 mins, well within the requirements asked for NUH. HAL is also working on tail boom folding (yet to be flight tested). With these in place the stowed dimensions of the ALH would meet the Indian Navy criteria.

Auto Blade Fold: A lot has been said on Automatic Blade Fold, I don’t think it is asked for in the NUH. ‘Airbus Panther’ also has a manual blade fold. I am not aware of the S-76. The weight penalty for an automatic blade fold would be excessive for a 5 Ton class helicopter. (Sea King has an automatic blade fold, but it’s a 9-10T class aircraft)

Current Status of Blade Fold: In the interim, ALH is currently offered with a 2-blade fold which makes the length longer. In this configuration it can fit in some of the ship’s hangars but surely not in the old ones without the forward bulkhead being cut. The suggestion of using the space ahead of the bulkhead is not HAL’s idea in isolation. It was a recommendation from a joint team of HAL and Navy (Old timers can vouch for this). We give too much credit to HAL, no one in HAL would know what lies ahead of the hangar, how high is the armament stack up etc.

In the interim Navy has inducted a lot of new ships which have a larger hangar. Can you find out how many ships are still in service in which the ALH cannot be fitted with 2 blades folded. Remember 20 years have passed and a lot of new ships have been inducted and some phased out.

Range and Endurance: With the use of current generation contemporary systems, the mission requirements of NUH can be met easily if ALH is allowed to use its max AUW capability. The current NUH is primarily a utility helicopter while the old NSQR also included ASW roles. Remember ALH is slightly bigger/heavier than the others in the fray, its max AUW is 5.75 T. A glass ceiling of 5T has been set so that ALH cannot meet the QR. Is it a deck limitation? Surely no, because the current order of 16 ALH for the Navy does not say anything like that. Yes, the current order is for shore-based aircraft, however, all requirements for ship borne operations are also asked for and are being met.

Mission and Weapon Systems: Most of the mission systems required for NUH have already been integrated for ALH except for new generation weapon systems. If required these can be easily integrated. HAL has adequate experience and a good track record in integration of weapons systems. In fact, ALH can boast as having one of the most state-of-the-art cockpit, mission systems and sensors.

What is HAL asking? I suppose a level playing field. Allow ALH to compete and allow HAL the same margins that are given for development and integration of systems to foreign vendors. Don’t make a QR which keeps ALH out. Allow it to compete on its own merit rather than forcing it out by making a skewed qualitative requirement.

Conclusion: So, let’s stop fighting and if we are serious about “Aatmanirbhar Bharat”, then get HAL and Navy sit down together and work out what ALH as NUH should be. Give ALH a fair chance. Do not squander the national gains made in design and development of rotorcraft. Bringing an assembly line to India will help in improving the manufacturing process but not in learning the design process. If it were so, existing Indian companies would already have been designing rotorcraft and not just making airframes. Foreign vendors only care about the gains that they will make, they do not want a self-reliant India. They want an India which they can continue to milk for years.

Ending with the hope that the Indian Navy and HAL can work together and resolve their differences. Both institutions owe this to the nation.

Wing Commander Bhambhani is a veteran helicopter pilot from the Indian Air Force, currently an experimental test pilot focused on HAL’s Light Utility Helicopter program. He as a Qualified Flight Instructor (QFI) and a DGCA type rated instructor on the Dhruv. He is a test pilot for HALs ALH, LCH and LUH programs. He has 5000 hours on 22 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft with 2,500 hrs of test flying on rotary wing. He has been a Senior Test Flying Instructor and Experimental Test Pilot with the IAF’s Aircraft and System Testing Establishment (ASTE), and associated with testing at HAL since 2006 while still serving, and from 2012 post retirement. His views here are personal and not to be construed as an official comment from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).

16 thoughts on “NAVY-DHRUV SPAT: Let’s Stop Fighting, HAL Test Pilot Says”

  1. Thrre points standout from this article. (1) ALH is optimised for high altitude operations, not naval sea level operations. This design philosophy stands whatever be the version now available. (2) HAL’s request for diluting the NSQR appears to be a plea for special treatment. The Navy, as a fighting service and as a client spending taxpayer monies should get a product fit for purpose; not become an employment creating department of the GOI. Finally (3) If HAL has been lackadaisical, as was the original charge by Admiral Prakash and an exhibit no. 1 of bad manufacturing practices as per Cmdr Marathe, then nothing I have read so far has given me comfort that there is a recognition of those criticisms. Without the acceptance of criticism from the client, how can there be an effort to overcome those shortcomings? I despair for HAL and the Indian Navy.

    1. I guess ur understanding of aircraft design is limited . There is no such thing as a design philosophy being restrictive .. There are so many platforms which are being used in different areas .. It’s about synchronising each aspect to requirements .
      Next you say NSQR being , few requirements are just not necessary in there and few requirements HAL is totally ready to meet if allowed to participate , lately HAL was not even allowed. In india except HAL no company can promise to supply without foreign help . HAL is still growing itself in design and development cause scope of R&D is not supported in India . Yes we have to nurture . We can invite all indian agencies to develop their platforms from designing phase . Cause if one purchases already developed platform what u do is just copy paste .. No learning’s at all . And you send ur complete defence budget to sustain that. You say HAL has not made significant design changes , that’s cause NAVY has never made significant order . for design and development from start . a significant order is must . Atleast allow HAL to participate in the bid . One fact probably not related . Ppl loath HAL for their delays in LCA , but after FOC taken by ADA which is a separate agency , HAL is making all deliveries before time .
      Next you say which I also agree that there is bad practices of manufactiring and customer service in HAL , but HAL is taking steps to address the issues for sure ( I have been very close observant ) . however , I would advocate for ministries to motivate other industries also to design and develop their own platforms . which will give India more indigenous options other than HAL.

  2. Richard Fernandes

    There is no doubt on HAL’s capabilities or competency. What I am bringing out is to focus on customer requirement and having worked with commercial Aerospace company this is one thing I have learnt to focus on customer satisfaction whether it is internal or external and asking HAL to inculcate the same rather than justifying internal issues.

  3. Sir, your knowledge about Naval Helicopter operations is appalling. Please refrain from posting such baseless articles based on Army and Airforce requirements and your vast experience in that field. Ofcourse, being a HAL employee your loyalties are towards HAL but please don’t put the interest of a Nation and combat potential of a force down and climb up your ladder of loyalty. It is a humble request please don’t blunt the knife to accomodate its sheath.

    1. You are doubting integrity of an ex officer of Indian airforce , just cause you agree with something else . Shameful . You may not agree with him but atleast don’t say that he is trying to protect his own interest than country’s. Counter him with ur knowledge and facts of naval helicopters, if you have that ..

  4. So if its such an awesome machine, why doesnt anyone outside India touch it with a barge poll. This gentleman is HALs uncle Tom Navy guy

  5. If ALH was designed and built optimised for Army and Air Force roles and operational requirements then why was it pushed to Navy in the first place where the operating environment itself is different. Is this because HAL could not think of designing (albeit with foreign design houses) a naval helicopter from scratch instead wanted to try their luck everywhere … from civilian transport, VVIP, Army, Air Force, Navy you name it – one size fits all. Tax-payers money needs no accountability it seems!

  6. With all due regards to your professional qualifications and flying experience, I would just like to comment that the Naval Ship design NSQRs were indeed base on ALH for a substantial number of projects, however HAL could not meet the blade folding requirements for the ALH which resulted in design alterations in the Aviation facilities of the ships. If I may comment, how many technicians in RWRDC really understand the critical requirement of ship borne operations? Helicopter facilities onboard war ships is a small puzzle of a big design, therefore, we can not expect the Navy to undertake endlessly design modifications to ships. Unlike the ground based helicopter operations, the onus of complete shipborne operations which includes the maintenance and movement of the aircraft rests with a very limited crew. ALH is not a comfortable and ergonomic design for ship borne operations. At no stage I am doubting the efforts that have been made by HAL to improve the helicopter to its current Avtar. The 16 ALH project is not for shipborne operations and has been recommended with minor modifications to the current MK III design.

  7. Rome was not built in a day agreed. In todays warfare preparedness with possible 2 strike future wars from China and Pakistan Indian Navy preparedness is key to India security. By allowing SP model u have ready made solution high technology , endurance requirements etc. Agreed it may cost more. Lets talk about cost overrun during development and opportunity cost , cost of Security risk for wait to get new technology. Compare it with ready available solution ; time bound Make in India deliveries ; and compulsion to foreign OEM to offer complete Rotor technology including MGB transmission solution for make in India. By such strategic decisions India will graduate to manufacture next generation high technology reliable efficient flying machines and develop a ground for internal competition with Hal and SP MODEL Partner company a win win situation for India , thus becoming NET EXPORTER OF SUCH HIGH QUALITY FLYING MACHINES WHICH WILL BE ACCEPTABLE GLOBALLY BY INTERNATIONAL CUSTOMERS DUE TO FOREIGN COLLABORATIONS. ULTIMATELY IT IS ALSO A Business proposition India must become globally acceptable high quality eqipment supplier???

  8. Well written Anil. Clears the air. A balanced non negative perspective. If we do not buy Indian no one else will.

  9. In Shiv’s defence, this is possibly the LEAST sensational coverage by media standards (it may be a poor reflection on the media but it’s a compliment to LF) that can be expected, given the high stakes involved. He has merely stated what Adm Prakash has said ON THE RECORD and judging by HAL’s slightly immature backlash, calling it a spat in the headline is an understatement!

    Many of Wg Cdr Bhambhani’s comments are indeed worth noting and it would be interesting if Cdr Marathe or someone else could give point by point rebuttals/responses so that a clearer picture of the truth emerges over several back and forth discussions. The advantage a platform like LF has is that it isn’t a 30 mins TV shouting match where everyone has to make their case in 2 mins – one can dive deep into the issue. Civilian citizens both in their capacity as patriots and taxpayers would certainly like to get a clearer view beyond the banal stated positions of either party and this forum is ideal.

  10. From what I understand, all HAL is asking is for change only on one parameter, AUW. 0.75t is not a big deal on ships, they are not rockets. As long as it does work qualify in all other parameters (including range and endurance), what’s the big deal?

  11. Sir,
    A simple question. How many customers ( not MoD, MHA or State Govts) have bought the civil version of your product? Any foreign customers ( gifting does nt count) ? If the numbers are miniscule or a zero, does nt that imply that HAL’s product still has a long way to go before if competes with other manufacturers? Our adverseries will have the best, should nt we too? And there are no runners up in war, am sure you ve heard that. So while you, the TPs do your best and more, it is ultimately the manufacturer, HAL, who isnt delivering. And the why, am sure you know more than most of us. If the IN isnt happy with your product, lets not use the MoD to thrust it down their throat, like the 16 enroute. The IN has done it’s bit, perhaps HAL needs to walk the talk. So when HAL has atleast a few civil orders, hopefully from foreign countries, that’s the day they can scream rebuttles from roof tops. Until then, it would be best for HAL to remain silent and let the ‘silent service’ deliver on its mandate with the aircraft that they want.

  12. Rustom Jamasji

    I think the problem lies elsewhere but within HAL
    The AFs when they criticize HAL, do not want to criticize, the design , engineering or the Testing Team of HAL.

    The Grouse lies in 2 others facets.
    A) Top HAL hierarchy which compromises of mainly Babus who think the AFs are inferior n need to do as they are told.
    These top heavy babus r neither interested in addressing challenges. The challenges are addressed by the engineers, Test Pilots, Design dept.
    The top heavies are interested in being close to Pol circles, Red light cars, and being yes men to the MoD and one-up on the AFs. They do not know, and want to know the whys of what the AFs are saying. The brunt is then borne by the facet of HAL that works, n would have better synergy with the AFs had they been involved in decision making

    Grouse Facet 2)
    The workforce which is unionised, lethargic with an attitude of ” To kya hua”.
    An aircraft having a part with a different serial no than on the certification is a definitely a no no n inexcusable.
    Let not the Test pilots n all those that brilliantly toil at HAL try n justify the unjustifiable done either by the lethargic unionised workforce nor the top heavy babudom whose only aim is ” March / year ending” books .

    Instead the AFs n the facet that toils in HAL should come together to address deficiencies in the top n lower rung of HAL and wherever within the AFs.

    While the messengers are shooting each other, once again,like everytime, the lethargic babu in the top hierarchy n the unionised work force go scott free

  13. Some of the comments posted seem like they were posted by foreign PR firms. It’s time to build in India, we can’t hope to be a regional power(forget super) unless we can meet our own defence needs.

  14. HAL just needs the money , that’s why wants to be a part of every contract . If they want to play in a level playing field there is no need to bend rules for them. They will compete when they a create a Product worth buying.

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