Blade Folding System of Naval ALH – Clarifying the ‘Automatic’ vs ‘Manual’ Debate

This is a short post to address a debate that came up in media about main rotor blade folding requirements of naval variant ‘Dhruv’ Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH).

The Naval Staff Qualitative Requirements (NSQR) for ALH were released in 1985. Messerschmitt-BolkowBlohm (MBB) of erstwhile West Germany was HAL’s design consultant in initial years (1984-94). Similarities between MBB’s BK-117 helicopter & ALH are evident at first glance.

Air Marshal M Matheswaran’s IDSA paper on ‘ALH Dhruv and the Indian Helicopter Industry‘ is recommended reading before delving into single service issues. Another paper by test pilot Gp Capt (Retd) Hari Nair VM, who has been associated with the ALH programme since 1992, presents design and tri-service challenges imposed on the program. It can be accessed here.

ALH with blades spread on deck (image courtesy Indian Navy)

With a hingeless main rotor system (rigid rotor), four composite main rotor blades designed for high agility, integrated dynamic system (IDS) for battle survivability, and many challenging tri-service specifications, a simple & quick main rotor blade folding system – one of navy’s primary, non-negotiable requirements – already posed a design challenge from early days. So did the folded width, with three out of four blades having to fold backwards from the hub.

When first signs of trouble with manual blade folding system started to emerge, many rounds of discussion took place to explore if something can be done to ease the pain. Incremental changes based on feedback from the field were implemented. Life onboard a ship is hard enough without adding needless complications. Design has to cater for this reality.

Seaking landing on a naval deck (picture courtesy Indian Navy)

Automatic blade folding system is a complicated electro-hydraulic mechanism with concomitant weight penalty. It is arguably difficult to build this into the small, hingeless rotor system of the ALH. Auto-folding becomes “essential” in larger naval helicopters such as the Seaking Mk-42B, Merlin HM Mk-2, or CH-148 Cyclone. Their large, heavy blades cannot be ‘manhandled’ without serious risk of damage to man or machine (rotor diameter often extends beyond ship’s deck edge). Short, squat helicopter designs such as the Kamov-28 have fully articulated, small diameter, 3-bladed, coaxial rotors with a simple, manual blade folding system. Conventional helicopters in the 5-5.5T category do not accomodate fully-automatic blade folding; neither was it ever called-for in the naval ALH. Such a requirement does not exist for the 5-ton Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) either.

Kamov-28 landing on a small deck (Indian Navy photo)

NSQRs are “essential”, “must have” requirements, that go through several iterations (draft, preliminary, joint SQR etc) before finalisation and formal approval. ALH NSQRs never included a self-contained, automatic blade folding system. Naval specifications were broad-based and only called for a simple and quick blade-folding solution. Extended parleys did take place between navy and HAL on the need to simplify the blade fold procedure. Meanwhile, the project gathered momentum; crossing crucial milestones; closing some critical options for the navy variant.

In due course, the manual blade folding procedure on ALH evolved; with props like ‘bearing offloading device” to take blade’s weight off the elastomeric bearings during folding, ‘big bolt’, ‘main bolt’, ‘small bolt’, a large number of spares, tools & accessories. Two decades later, the manpower & parts-intensive process, even after several improvements, still remains complex & impractical across the full spectrum of naval ships and operating conditions (day/night, heavy seas, small decks, etc).

The 2-segmented blade proposal, a rudimentary example of which is available on the Chetak (Alouette III) for last 50 yrs, has now been offered for naval ALH by HAL. This blade design, meant for stowage and air transportation, is already flying on the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH).

Chetak (Alouette III) with blades folded (Picture courtesy Indian Navy)

The naval ALH blade-fold problem is thus intimately connected with basic design of ALH rotor head & rotor system optimised for IAF and army requirements.  Why did navy go along with this? There are many reasons; prime among them being institutional support for an indigenous project. Why did HAL never call out this design contradiction? I don’t know. However, recent comments by officials do admit that mixing so many requirements on a single platform was “not possible”.

ALH was India’s first twin-engine light multirole helicopter. It was a learning process for all participants. It may be fashionable to say ‘navy was never interested in ALH’ or ‘navy loves imports’. But it is patently unfair & completely untrue. It does grave injustice to the sweat and toil invested by designers, test crew, operators and stakeholders from both sides into this maiden project.

Indian Navy has remained engaged with ALH & continues to do so even today. From an initial order of over a 100+ ALH, navy almost closed the project, only to revive it with orders for 16 more Mk-3 ALH in shore-based role. ‘Orders-versus-investment in new design’ is a ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum. A world-class manufacturer should target global customers. This is unlikely to happen if domestic customers are unhappy. Being dismissive doesn’t help either.

Finally, every helicopter is but a bundle of contradictions held together by the glue of extreme engineering. Going forward, all sides must learn to differentiate between “essential” & “desirable” requirements and clearly identify the fine line between science and science fiction.

No world-class product can develop in an atmosphere of mistrust. While the services have been “fighting with what we have”, it’s time to reflect where such slogans often land us. Institutional memory is short. Past pain is easily forgotten. As we move towards increasing self-reliance in aerospace and defence, both sides must keep promises, demands, & expectations realistic. The blame game benefits nobody.

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Kaypius

© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. Cover photo courtesy Indian Navy. I can be reached at kipsake1@gmail.com. Views are personal.

3 thoughts on “Blade Folding System of Naval ALH – Clarifying the ‘Automatic’ vs ‘Manual’ Debate

  1. Closing lines are indeed the ‘Achilles Heels’ of context. Unfortunately, trust deficit has rarely been targeted by DPSU management. Additionally, the trust fabric is stressed with myopic blame game, biased oversight (if at all present) and absence of penalties for missing deadlines. Planning to compete in contemporary world, DPSUs will require revisiting doctrines, ongoing work ethics and methodology of oversight responsibilities.

  2. Wonderful piece sir. Yet again.
    I’d like to underline a point that you brought out so clearly. It’s gross injustice to many to say that Navy didn’t want ALH at the first place. Navy did invest and aplenty. However, when it didn’t fit into the very basic requirement of blade fold, it didn’t have another option.

    Over the years, the situation and processes have evolved for sure. Bearing off loading device, Big bolts, small bolts and teflon bolts invested, the two blade folding time on a good day is still bordering 40-45 minutes. That definitely isn’t anything great to write home about.

    The cumbersome hydraulic trolley, which forms the backbone of blade folding operations, is worth a separate story in itself. I wouldn’t say progress hasn’t been made. Only that the pace has been just half a notch above the snail; if not, equal.

  3. Having seen the ALH in an embarked role and seen the subsequent blade non foldable restrictions put forth to the Captain with a disbelieving look on his his face, way back in another decade, if the discussions still continue, then the HAL, needs to get their act together. Shore based ALH who needed to fold blades have horror stories as well. There is a difference between a Maruti product and that of VW. Just because the former’s numbers are more, does not make it a better, contemporary OR the quality conscious customer centric product. So is it with the NSQRS and the rest of the QRs. HAL would do well, if thats not asking for too much, to get this straight, before a TESLA disrupts here as well!

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