On a bright sunny day on the Western seaboard, India crossed a significant aviation milestone when the indigenous naval prototype of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) carried out a copybook arrested landing aboard Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya.
In Sep 19, i wrote “Please stay the course, Team LCA (Navy). The best place to feather this momentum is OUT AT SEA. I am waiting for that test point. December, let’s do this?” On 11th Jan 2020, just four months later, they did it. At about 1003h with Cmde Jaideep Maolankar on the controls.
Take a look at the epic video shared by Indian Navy:
It is a proverbial ‘small step for man (‘Mao’, if you may, in this case), a giant leap for India’. Test crew around the world execute such ‘test points’ every day – breaking new ground, expanding envelopes, defining the corners, setting new boundaries, then stepping down from cockpit to work it all out with engineers, designers, scientists, maintenance folks, certification & quality assurance authorities. This is experimental flight testing of a very high order. Not all ‘experiments’ are successful, as history will tell us. But they are essential, indeed vital, to developing an aerospace product. This 20-second video was preceded by decades of team work by a committed team, of which, ‘Mao’ simply represents the arrowhead.
A round of applause is indeed due. We landed an indigenous fighter on a carrier, piloted by a Commodore, more than 100 years after Eugene Burton Ely landed his Curtiss Pusher airplane on USS Pennsylvania. That Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and the Indian Navy persisted against the horrible ‘one step forward two steps back’ system we have curated to land this one definitely deserves a collective ‘cheers’.
LCA (Navy) landing on VKD is a national team effort of gigantic scale. The test pilot bridges a gap between theory and practice. Despite best efforts, some things in prototype flight test may remain ‘unknown’ till rubber meets steel. Today, we have ‘trap’ data from an Indian program – that’s vitally important. No nation shares this kind of stuff.
If you watched the video closely, you will observe bright blue skies, calm seas, a ‘Jumbo’ (rescue helicopter) hovering abeam the carrier’s port beam, and three arrester wires that play ‘Newton’ to bring to rest a metal ‘apple of a billion eyes’ within a few metres. There are a few deck markings to guide you by day, a ‘Meatball’ and some lights by night. What you don’t see are the engineers below deck, test directors, ground crew, radar controller, Landing Signal Officer, FlyCo, Capt (air) or Air Boss, and an army of dedicated naval personnel – all tuned to a singular purpose: “SAFETY”. They all deserve equal applause.
Takeoff and landing performance is just a crucial subset of the mission. There’s miles to go before this bird can be of any use to the navy. The spinoffs from this phase of development will set the bar for LCA (Navy) Mk II. Navy has shown remarkable foresight in keeping the project alive despite steep challenges. Mao will leave behind big shoes to fill when he hangs the green coveralls soon. It is an eternal battle against forces that would like to see this iron bird ashore in a museum.
The naval LCA Mk1 is a prototype that will never go into production; just like Mao will never make ‘Admiral’. We are at a peculiar point in history where we celebrate a ‘first’ knowing fully well it will never become ‘the one’. We can only hope both Mao and the LCA have a ‘future’ in our scheme of things. In between, lie many mountains of bureaucracy, denial regimes, self-flagellation and self-doubt. These challenges will always remain. There are many trap doors that may open any time to swallow the program. One can only hope the project endures whims and fancies of a nation known to make sudden U-turns in indigenous aerospace product development.
You watched the video? Notice how the LCA’s nose wheel landed slap-bang on the centreline. That kind of performance doesn’t come cheap or easy. Experimental test pilots evaluate such test points with a ‘handling qualities rating (HQR)’ or Dynamic Interface Pilot Effort Scale (DIPES). They assign qualitative comments about ‘how did it feel’ versus ‘what was required’. Such qualitative comments corroborate scientific data to fine tune an aerial weapon system. Every man jack involved in the program must have worked their head around numerous challenges: availability of the carrier for such trials after a particularly bad season, operational deployments, refit schedules, to name a few. Yet within four months of the first ‘trap‘ ashore, Indian Navy has achieved this crucial milestone. That shows a remarkable level of commitment. There is definitely somebody in the driving seat here. A few days ago, the Deputy Chief of Naval Staff (DCNS) Vice Adm MS Pawar was on site, shooting pictures against a departing MiG29K’s flaming exhaust. It is symbolic and warms the heart. May I say, more ‘Pawar’ to you, Sir!
Don’t pop the bubbly yet. There’s the carrier launch (many more launches, infact), bolters, night landings, maintenance & upkeep at sea, op-logistic jigsaw puzzle – net sum of which will go into making the future LCA Mk2 / TEDBF a viable Deck-based Aircraft (DBA).
All this we must achieve while proven products like the F/A-18 Super Hornet or Rafale continue to snap at our heels. The Tejas must win this battle every day. It needs your help to survive many ‘traps’.
Meanwhile, enjoy the ‘chai’ and ‘chai pe charcha’!
Such test points come but rarely in a tester's career. Mao would've assigned an HQR/DIPES rating for this evol based on required performance vs handling qualities, while juggling with myriad other variables. Sea is an unforgiving medium. Remember that.
This one is for keeps ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Hmx2TClEmv
— Kaypius (@realkaypius) January 11, 2020
Love you, LCA Navy! You are the ‘Tejas’ of hope in an otherwise bleary season of hate. May your tribe prosper. May the nation send up a collective encore :”I am happy to be arrested”🙂
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy Indian Navy.