And for Sqn Ldr (retd) Baldev “Baldy” Singh, HAL’s chief fixed wing test pilot and the man who was behind the stick on the IJT’s first flight on March 7, 2003, it’s a little worse. But to understand just how inopportune February 8 was for HAL, things have to be wound back just a little bit.
In 1999, six years after the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) got its first programme extension, HAL made an inspired proposition to the air force. It said it could build a fine stage-two trainer to replace the HJT-16 Kiran. And those lessons from the LCA programme had emboldened HAL into suggesting that it could deliver results rapidly. From project sanction in July 1999 to a first flight in March 2003, the IJT made all promises a lush reality, much to the credit of HAL’s Aircraft Research & Design Center (ARDC).
In August 2005, HAL signed on Russia’s NPO Saturn to license build Al-551 jet engines for the IJT that will be commissioned into the IAF. These would give the IJT a markedly higher thrust to weight ratio than the French Lazarc engines that power the two prototypes. Reports suggest HAL intends to build at least 1,000 of the Russian powerplants at its Koraput, Orissa factory. HAL chairman Ashok Baweja wants to sell the IJT in West Asia, South East Asia and East Africa as a far cheaper proposition than European, American and Brazilian products.
Since the certainly worthy first-flight, the two IJT prototypes (PT-1 and PT-2) have logged about 300 flights so far and are gunning toward inductions into the IAF by early 2008. That’s an intended induction target of less than ten years from project sanction, and it cannot be ignored. And if one were to momentarily – fleetingly – set aside the initial consultations with Snecma and Smiths Aerospace, the IJT can be safely described as a true-blue Indian machine.
And that’s precisely why February 8 will go down as one of the most unneeded, redundant accidents in the history of HAL. The IJT’s canopy flew open, and pushed the jet careening to one side, exploding the starboard tyre and coming to a stop on its side, in front of thousands of spectators, potential foreign buyers and, probably most immediately importantly, our very armed forces.
How difficult will it be for HAL to convince them that the accident was caused by human oversight rather than any technological flaw? Very. Remember how the near-closed deal to sell ALH Dhruv helicopters to Chile dive-bombed after the November 2005 crash in Andhra Pradesh?
This is no elegy to shoddy technology. If there’s one thing that’s marked the IJT out, it is the aircraft’s incongruously clean development trajectory. And to destroy that by forgetting to close the canopy, while finally only human, is as near unforgivable as it can possibly get.