Reminiscence of the Birth of Tejas

By Thomas Abraham 14-Jun-2018


Meet Dr. Kota Harinarayana, the man who played a major role in realising India’s dream of an indigenously developed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas. It was under Dr. Harinarayana’s guidance as the Programme Director and Chief Designer of LCA, the project has been led to flight testing and clearance for limited series production. In an interview with Aeromag on the occasion of his 75th birthday on May 14, Dr Harinarayana recollects the birth of Tejas, on which he and his team have worked for more than one and a half decades before the first Technology Demonstrator successfully completed its test flight in January 2001. A few excerpts from the interview.

1. In 2001, a team headed by you, as Programme Director and Chief Designer of LCA, successfully tested the first flight of their LCA Technology Demonstrator, overcoming all adversities including the US Sanctions. Could you recollect the historic moments of the first test flight?

It was an extraordinary moment for not just us but all the aviation groups around the world who have watched the test-flight. We had to overcome several challenges including financial constraints before the flight. Above all, merely two weeks before the test-flight there was an article in a U.S. magazine which made an analysis of the LCA programme and stated that India would not succeed in it. They have cited several reasons including the U.S. sanctions, lack of prior experience in any of the technologies involved and the inability to develop a safety critical software. Thought it has led to several apprehensions at the governmental level, they were not ready to give up. Moreover, then Defence Minister, George Fernandes, who was passionate about doing things indigenously had given us all support to go ahead. Finally, on 4 January 2001, the LCA Technology Demonstrator, indigenously developed by India, has successfully completed its first test-flight.

It was perhaps one of the most flawless first-flights ever done anywhere in the world. The entire team have worked for around one and a half decade. Especially after the sanctions, we have worked hard round the clock in three shifts to make the system reliable and error-free. Though the test flight took place only for 20 minutes, it was the realisation of our decade-long efforts. After the flight, the pilot, Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal, has called it a “beautiful flight” without any error warnings. It was both joy and relief for the entire team. And for people outside the team, it was unbelievable as a demonstrator, fully designed, developed, and tested by Indians became successful in its very first flight. It was really a dream-come-true moment for me.

2. Back then, no single organisation had the capability to develop such an aircraft by itself. Hence, the only way for the LCA programme to succeed was to start from scratch. Could you talk about various challenges faced during that period?

There was a huge gap of around 40 years between the previous flight and the first LCA test-flight. There was hardly any technology developed. Our main challenge was to build together a team comprising people from the industry, R&D, and the academia. Around 300 industries, from sectors like automobiles, general engineering, who have never worked for aviation, were brought into the programme. Our greatest achievement has been that we were able to identify the right industry and R&D and bring them together.

All the work centres have had the confidence that they could approach us for any support they needed. For example, the head-up displays in the cockpit, which was very crucial in the programme, has been developed by our CSIR laboratory in Chandigarh. The display developed by them was not effective enough as it broke when used. Finally, ADA has helped them in rectifying the problem and it came out well meeting all the safety requirements. The pilots were happy to see what they wanted to be implemented and the cost was only one-fourth of the imported ones. We have taken much time to overcome all the challenges, but we made sure that we overcame them and achieved the aim.

3. Not having the software for designing and analysing composite materials, ADA developed one for itself, which it later marketed extensively — Airbus was a customer, buying it for the A380 and other aircrafts. Could you shed more light onto it?

When we have started the LCA project, our minds were clear that unless we make the airframe with advanced composites, we will not be able to achieve the weight target. Then we have realised that the CAD software with which we could do the conceptual design, preliminary design, detailed design, manufacturing design, quality control etc. was not available in India. So, we have formed a team and networked extensively with academic institutions to create a new software. In about nine months we came out with a software which saved a lot of time in our work, in fact one-fourth of that what would have taken if done it manually.

We have never thought what we did was something great as we believed that almost every other country has it already. Later, a team from Warwick University led by its Director Professor Bhattacharya, who was also a board member of Airbus, has visited ADA and observed what we did. He has said that it was the same software Airbus had been looking for and asked us if we were ready to sell it to them. As we developed a software for fighter aircraft, we had to make some modifications to turn it viable for transport aircraft to meet Airbus’s requirements. Airbus has become our largest customer by making it the main software for their A380 and A350. The Russians and Boeing were also our customers and made a few million dollars for the country. Interestingly, it was largely bought by racing car manufacturers for its ability to reduce weight of the cars with accurate design.

4. LCA Tejas has been inducted into IAF 2016. How did you feel when Tejas became a part of the IAF after 15 years since its first flight?

I was very happy and above all proud to see that LCA, on which we have spent most part of our careers, finally secured its spot among the mighty fighters of IAF, though I felt that it could have been inducted five years earlier. Now, the IAF is quite happy with the performance of Tejas so far. In fact, Tejas is the most intelligent and pilot-friendly aircraft India has ever flown as it was the first to be made by Indian engineers for Indian pilots.Moreover, we have inculcated the inputs and suggestions by pilots even from the design stage. That’s the most advantageous feature of indigenous projects as user inputs play a major role in the effectiveness of the product.

5. Over these years Tejas has been marking several achievements. How do you assess the present state of the LCA programme?

The LCA programme is progressing fast. ADA is also working on the Mk II version of LCA, which they like to be called as a Medium Weight Combat Aircraft as it will weigh around 17.5 tonnes which is 4 tonnes heavier than the LCA. After listening to the features and technologies of the aircraft, I believe it would have far superior range and capabilities than the Mirage 2000. Also, there is a lot of support for the fifth-generation stealth fighter called AMCA and IAF has offered support to develop a technology demonstrator.

I don’t think the FOC has much significance. it is a mere upgradation process by integrating new weapons systems and technologies. When we built Tejas it had R-60 missile only. Now, there are Python and Derby missiles and more advanced missiles will come in future. So, it is just a lifelong process.

What HAL must do now is increasing the production rate of Tejas. This year they will produce 12 aircrafts and next year onwards it will be 18 aircrafts as the there are two production lines now. Moreover, they have identified private players who could play a major role in the production. I think it is very important to involve private players in the production, because if an OEM alone does it all it won’t increase production capacity. With companies which can produce the parts like front, centre and rear fuselages and wings, the production rate be increased largely. This will help to meet not only IAF’s requirements, but also other air forces in the world. I hope that India will be able to export Tejas soon.

6. What are the challenges you see before LCA Tejas in its roadmap ahead?

If there is one aircraft in which India could achieve high-level of indigenisation, it is Tejas.I think there is a great need to create an ecosystem in the country for production and testing. There are several small and medium scale firms which can contribute to the indigenisation in aerospace and defence. But, they lack enough facilities for testing and processing. We need to create more such facilities in all parts of the country.

Secondly, the startup culture emerged recently is highly promising. The startups will convert the technology of a laboratory to a project. They need to be supported by the developmental funds.

Also, the importance of unmanned aircrafts is increasing now. I feel that ADA should work on developing an unmanned combat aircraft. I would call it ‘zenith of combat aircraft development.