Indian Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), received Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) from Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) on 7 February, 2020. This is a significant milestone in the program and paves the way for integration of mission and role equipment, production of the helicopter, and eventual Final Operational Clearance (FOC).
The certificate was handed over to R Madhavan, CMD HAL, by G Sateesh Reddy, Secretary, Department of Defence R&D and Chairman, DRDO at the ‘Bandhan’ programme during DefExpo 2020. Defence Minister Shri Rajnath Singh and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath were also present at the function.
Missing from the picture were representatives from uniformed services who will be the ultimate beneficiaries of the program. Army and air force will get to work in due course with user evaluation trials against General / Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (GSQR/ASQR). As per HAL’s media release, “LUH is a single engine, light weight, highly agile 3-ton Utility Helicopter, indigenously designed & developed to meet the operational requirements of Indian Army & IAF.”
‘Silent service’ Indian Navy is missing from the quote as they have not invested in this program, perhaps owing to a policy decision that precludes single-engine helicopters. The LUH features an Emergency Flotation Gear (EFG) meant for water landing in emergency. This could enable over-water operations in future. ‘EFG’ is different from ‘float landing gear’ meant for planned water landings. Here’s an example of inflated EFG on a Bell 412 in offshore configuration.
As of Jan 2020, three LUH prototypes have been built that as per HAL “have cumulatively completed over 550 flights under various terrains and climatic conditions” complying with “stringent certification and user requirements”.
Many posts in the Himalayas and Siachen Glacier area are supported by light helicopters of Indian Army and IAF. With landing pads in excess of 18000 feet elevation, the LUH will, over time, replace Cheetahs (Lama) in the mountains and Chetaks (Alouette III) in the plains. At such super-high altitudes, the competition, like the prevalent air density, thins out to allow only a few rotorcraft in the world. To India and HAL’s credit, we are one in that exclusive orbit.
In Sep 2019, the LUH self-deployed from Bangalore to Leh for ‘hot and high’ trials. HAL reported “the chopper revealed high reliability without any service support” during that deployment. Those trials were preceded by hot weather trials in 2018, cold weather trials at Leh in 2019 and sea level trials at Chennai and Puducherry in 2018-19.
Such trials are flown by HAL crew: mostly ex-IAF test pilots and flight test engineers. User services also depute their representatives. Typically, the services reserve comments till specialised organisations such as Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), Army Aviation Trials Team (AATT) or Naval Flight Test Squadron (NFTS) put the aircraft through exhaustive user evaluation trials and render reports.
The LUH forms part of Indian army and air force’s long-standing requirement for 394 light helicopters. These helicopters are the lifeline for communication, logistics, recce and air observation (Air OP) tasks. As per reports, 187 of these would be LUH (126 for army & 61 for IAF), with the rest coming through an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for 197 Ka-226T helicopters to be manufactured by Indo-Russian Helicopters Limited (IRHL) – an HAL-Russian Helicopters joint venture company. HAL has moved fast on LUH, potentially displacing other OEMs who have been fielding products in this range to Indian MoD for years.
More interestingly, HAL is positioning the LUH as a product with potential civil application. This has been revealed during formal and informal interactions. A video shared on Twitter by Journalist Anantha Krishnan M (@writetake) quotes HAL’s Chief Test Pilot Wg Cdr Unni Pillai (retd):
Unni Pillai is CTP and represents HAL’s cutting edge. He is understandably proud of his team’s achievement. In the short video, Unni explains that LUH is HAL’s “third design” (the others being ALH Dhruv and Light Combat Helicopter LCH). In next 4-5 years, HAL hopes to complete their “fourth design” – the Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH), he states.
Just over 550+ flights down a prototype program, Unni endorsed the LUH as “an excellent machine, extremely reliable”. The model on display is in VIP configuration, seating four. There is a palpable civil pitch in the static display. “It is a military aircraft right now, but it’ll be in the civil variant soon”, he adds.
The last line is particularly important because right at the prototype stage HAL has set its eyes on the civil customer. This is significant and shows HAL’s willingness to engage with customers from the civil segment.
Large parts of hilly terrain in north and northeast India today are serviced by single-engine helicopters like Bell Flight’s Bell 407, Airbus Helicopters’ AS350 B3 Ecureuil, etc. If the indigenous LUH, designed to meet exacting requirements of army and IAF, is able to prove its mettle in the civil world, it can potentially offer a competing product to Indian operators, especially in the heli-tourism sector.
But many a slip between the cup and lip. HAL’s primary focus on satisfying military customers has come at the cost of benign neglect for civil variants. Past examples hardly add shine to present day claims. The cookie often crumbles when you encounter world-class competition outside the high walls of HAL. Their last civil-certified copter was the 5.5-ton ALH Dhruv. Civilian customers of the Dhruv today are limited to Border Security Force (BSF), Jharkhand government, Pawan Hans Limited (PHL) and a few other government agencies, totalling just 4-5 helicopters in a country with about 350 civil helicopters. That’s an unenviable 1.4% market share which HAL should definitely look to improve.
HAL’s forays with Dhruv into the international market did not meet with much success either. Ecuador cancelled their contract in 2015 after a spate of crashes. Indian government pushed the helicopter into Mauritius and Maldives where a military variant is operated by Indian crew. The offshore market in India is ‘NO GO’ for performance class 3 (single-engine) helicopters, even if equipped with Emergency Flotation Gear (EFG). The Indian Navy doesn’t seem inclined to rethink its options either.
The odds are daunting. How HAL plans to beat this challenge with the nascent LUH remains to be seen. The 2 to 3-ton category is packed with top-of-line helicopters certified to FAA and EASA standards. They have been carrying the load for years world over while HAL continued to service users from Indian armed forces. The LUH has to bring real value addition to the civilian customer in India already grappling with regulatory overload and high operating costs – the universal bane of helicopters. Unlike armed forces, civil operators are not inclined to toe any ‘make in India’ line unless it makes business sense. Market forces and best performers outshine ‘white elephants’ overnight in civil aviation. Look around the landscape at any civil airport or heliport if you need evidence.
That said, HAL’s eye on LUH’s civil / export potential, however tentative, could mark a new turn in Indian aerospace. Gone are the days when military technology led the way, leading to successful derivatives for civil aviation. In India, particularly for HAL, quite the reverse holds true today. HAL has turned out ALH in large numbers; but their efforts to offer the civil-certified Dhruv for licence production did not evoke much interest.
The reason is rather simple: aircraft availability, serviceability and maintainability requirements of civil customers. Armed forces (in peacetime) are terribly forgiving of shortfall in these areas since the taxpayer foots the bill. Even a large operator like PHL would target contracts catering for a maintenance reserve of about 15-20%. Simply put, it means if they have to service a 4-aircraft contract, they will need five aircraft. One aircraft becomes the ‘maintenance reserve’ or ‘Christmas tree’ that is cannibalized for spares or rotables. It also implies aircraft availability of the order of 70 to 80% – a far cry from the reality military operators face. Huge downtimes like 45 days spent on a 600-hourly scheduled inspection for the ALH can bring the curtains down on any civil operator.
However counter-intuitive it may sound, if HAL wants to be seen and accepted as ‘world-class’, it must rise to the competition – not from Indian defence customers, but from tough-talking, number-crunching, hardcore civil customers who have to justify revenue to shareholders. Small operators cannot deal with any machine with large overheads. They have practically NIL maintenance reserves.
HAL – indeed India as a nation – must wake up to the harsh reality that we don’t yet have a truly world-class helicopter (or airplane) that competes on the global stage. That, truly, is the high-water mark HAL or any private player from India needs to set for itself today.
Above words may sound underwhelming against an impressive line-up of ALH Mk IV ‘Rudra’ or the LCH bristling with weapons and sensors. But, in my view, this is an elephant in the room we can no longer afford to ignore.
Hot cakes must sell – not only to captive customers, but to global customers and the discerning civil operator who walks a tightrope of daily survival – bogged down by maintainability, crippling import duty, product support, spares, non-revenue sorties for track & balance, intricate global supply chains, op-logistics, and balance sheet numbers in place of nationalist sentiment. There is no government bailout in civil helicopter industry; only penalties, lawsuits and liquidated damages that can drive your business aground with just one ‘collective high-end failure’ (pun intended).
If HAL is able to reserve comment and work hard to compete with pride in that space, we may be on to something big. Anything else is only IOC, not FOC, in my view.
(An edited version of this article was first published by South Asia Monitor run by Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi. You can access that piece here).
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. Views expressed are personal. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cover photo courtesy HAL’s twitter handle.