HAL: the backbone of the indian air force

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by G S.Jamadagni

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd or HAL as it is known from its initials, turned 78 this year and has always been the backbone of the Indian Air Force. Two-thirds of the IAF's workhorse aircraft are from HAL. Today, HAL manufactures the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas with advanced technologies; and the 25-tonne Sukhoi-30MKI fourth generation fighter aircraft of Russian origin right from raw materials.

As a nation we have to be proud of these accomplishments. Unfortunately, in recent weeks, HAL has been unduly blamed and - it seems - systematically tarnished on the basis of myths, wrong notions and false charges.

In the area of design, HAL has to its credit the indigenous design of Glider, basic piston engine trainers (HT-2, HPT32), jet trainers (Kiran Mk I and Mk II), supersonic fighter (Marut), agricultural aircraft (Basant). It also has to it’s credit a number of aircraft upgrade programs that it license-manufactured - Gnat, Jaguar, Mirage-2000 and the MiGs - all of which meet the Air Force's requirements.

Design, production and technological capabilities of HAL should have been reckoned before it was knocked down as an industry not capable of producing the Rafale fighter aircraft. (The government is buying 36 of them in flyaway condition outright from their original French manufacturer Dassault Aviation.) The fact that two thirds of the aircraft in IAF are from HAL is enough testimony to HAL’s manufacturing capability.

All these years, HAL used to be the major partner in the IAF’s induction of new weapon platforms. The government seems to have ignored HAL's track record and its contributions while keeping its own company out of the recent programme to acquire a fleet of 36 French-origin Rafale fighter planes for the Indian Air Force.

Rafale Without HAL

HAL being knocked out of the the IAF's Rafale acquisition program at the last minute and for reasons best known to the authorities is astonishing. Rafales without HAL can be likened to a chariot without a horse. A start-up company of any magnitude cannot be a match for HAL’s capability that has been built over decades.

Political battles apart, this action is a matter of serious concern in the larger interest of the nation. It is understood from an article that appeared in The Indian Express - "Don’t ground the Rafale" -written by former Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy that there were two reasons.

The first one is the refusal of Dassault Aviation to take the responsibility for the work-share of HAL and further insistence of the IAF on such a guarantee due to what is said was the unsatisfactory performance of HAL in the past.

The second one is that the estimated man-hours required to produce aircraft at HAL are three times the man hours taken at Dassault Aviation. While the first one is a myth, the second one is based on wrong notions. The actual situation is contrary to what has been presumed and propagated blatantly, as we will see from these examples.

While the negotiated price per aircraft is closely guarded under the secrecy clause of the contract, the poor performance wrongly alluded to HAL, unfortunately, and has been made a subject of open debate that has harmed its image. This has seriously damaged the Indian aviation industry as the image and credibility of its beacon, HAL, is under question in the global aviation market. This is an omission of serious nature that warrants immediate corrective measures.

Let us consider the impact of outright purchase of Rafales without local manufacture. It would end up in an enormous life cycle cost which may drain out the exchequer. Apart from the point of keeping HAL's workforce busy, from all other considerations such as self-reliance, ‘Make in India' drive, transfer of technology, spares support over the product life cycle of 35-40 years, HAL should have been a major partner in the Rafale acquisition program.

A Brief History

A brief history of the defence undertaking would be relevant here. It was started way back in December 1940 by industrialist Seth Walchand Hirachand with the support of an American aviation expert, William Douglas Pawley, who was the director of the erstwhile Harlow Aircraft Company, California. It was a quantum jump for India at a time when it was not even manufacturing an automobile or a bicycle.

HAL started off with an attractive order book position to deliver 30 Harlow trainer aircraft, 48 Hawk fighters and 74 Vultee attack bombers in two years. Seth Walchand and his group swiftly got on to the task. Their hunt for a site to set up the factory took them on a tour of the four princely states of Baroda, Bhavnagar, Gwalior and Mysore. The Maharaja of Mysore Krishnarajendra Wodeyer, a great visionary, on the advice of the then Dewan Sir Mirza Ismail, offered free of cost 700 acres of land, supply of electricity and water at concessional rates to start the company in the erstwhile state of Mysore. Thus began the journey of HAL at Bengaluru which has now become the aviation hub of the country.

The task ahead was formidable and the performance of this start-up company was unbelievable but true. In a short span of two years, the selection of the site, construction of factory and office buildings, recruitment and training of engineers and technicians, procurement of machinery, aircraft components, assembly and testing were all accomplished within the time line. US experts were impressed by the quality and ability of Indian personnel who took over the running of the factory very quickly. The spirit with which the organisation was started is still alive today in the third generation of work force of HAL.

Track Record & Capabilities

Since then, HAL has grown from strength to strength. HAL is now a flagship aerospace company with 11 research and development centres, 20 production units with a work force of 29,300. HAL is ranked in the 34 position amongst the top 100 global aerospace industries. As on date, HAL has produced or overhauled 1,416 aircraft (of 17 types) of indigenous design, 2,097 aircraft (of 14 type) under license and a total of 5,015 Aero engines.

The turnover of the company during 2017-2018 was Rs.18,284 crore. In the last five years HAL's contribution to the exchequer has been Rs.30,429 crores (dividend including taxes paid to the Central and state governments) and it has made a (cumulative) profit of Rs.16,884 crores.

Work Share Guarantee

Back to the present situation. It is stated that the IAF insisted on a work share guarantee from HAL because of what it says was the unsatisfactory performance in the past. This is a myth originating from a rigid mindset that ‘videshi is achha and swadeshi is kachha’. Unless this mindset is uprooted, self-reliance in defence aviation will remain a dream forever.

During the year 1993, the government constituted a committee on fighter aircraft accident (COFAA) headed by Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam, who was then Secretary, Defence R&D. The committee was to recommend remedial measures to contain fighter aircraft accidents. The data of the Technical Defect (TD) accidents presented in the report clearly brought out that the rate of TD accidents (number of accidents per 10,000 hours of flying) on fighters, trainers, helicopters and transport aircraft of HAL origin is nearly 50% of the rate of accidents on aircraft of non-HAL origin of comparable technology and vintage

(Aircraft type-Accident rate: MiG-27 - 0.50 / MiG-23- 0.95; Jaguar-0.30 / MiG-29 -0.62; Kiran - 0.17 / Iskara -0.42; Cheetah/Chetak-0.05 / Mi helicopters - 0.18)

It established beyond doubt that HAL-made aircraft have been superior in quality and performance to those purchased directly from the OEM. In view of this, Dassault's demand for work share guarantee does not hold any water.

Unravelling The Myths

Apart from the statistical data culled out from COFAA report, the following cases recalled from the writer's experience should bring out some of the facts and bust the myths clouding HAL.

(a) Ground flame-out of R-11 engines: In a span of one month there were 12 incidents of ground flame outs. HAL was blamed for poor quality of overhaul. It was established that maintenance lapse resulting in fuel contamination was the cause.

(b) Inability to recover from nosedive position -Type 77 aircraft: There were two accidents of Type-77 aircraft in quick succession where pilots were unable to move the stabiliser servo booster from the nosedive position and they ejected safely. Quality of overhaul at Nasik division was subjected to scrutiny. It was established that these accidents were due to omission of routine check on inlet filter. Maintenance lapse was the cause for these accidents.

(c) Failure of 4th stage compressor disk of R-29 engine of MiG-27 aircraft: Bursting of 4th stage compressor disc on ground was yet another case where a shadow was cast on the quality of discs manufactured at HAL. The Russian experts while giving clean chit to the quality of discs manufactured at HAL, established the failure to the skipping of an operational drill during taxing. The problem was eliminated after following this procedure. These accidents were due to operational laps.

(d) Fatal accident of Avro aircraft: There was a fatal accident of Avro aircraft (HS-748) where the crew and Air Force band of 28 died. There were indications of ‘Fire Warning’ and ‘Auto Feathering of propeller’ prior to the accident. IAF sentenced the quality of engine overhaul.HAL was not in agreement as many of the tell-tales on the aircraft were contrary to this theory. HAL independently referred the case to B.Ae with a brief narrative of the sequence of accident and the conclusions of the CoI for their independent opinion. M/s B.Ae promptly replied that the accident had not happened the way it has been visualised by CoI. Accident was due to maintenance and operation lapse

(e) Jaguar accident / incident due to failure of hydraulic system: There were two identical failures of hydraulic system of Jaguar aircraft in quick succession where the pilots could not lower the under carriages for landing. This was an emergency where the pilot had to abandon the aircraft. The first one culminated in an accident. IAF sentenced that quality lapse during aircraft overhaul as the cause for the accident. M/s B.Ae after investigating the second incident sentenced IAF for the operational and maintenance lapses resulting in these failures. Independent Investigation carried out by HAL established that the component failure was caused due to ‘Low cycle-High load’ fatigue. After initial reservation, M/s B.Ae accepted that the cause was due to design deficiency in the brake body of the combat slat motor. Finally, M/s B.Ae was held blame worthy which was accepted.

There are many more examples to the case. Summing up, in all the five cases cited above, maintenance, operational lapses and poor quality of the component supplied by OEM were the cause for unsatisfactory performance and not the HAL quality as made out in the first instance.

Wrong Numbers

HAL has also been blamed for the `high' man-hours - thrice that of the OEM - that it requires to bring out an aircraft. When we compare the man-hours taken by the OEM and a licensed manufacturer to produce an aircraft, comparisons cannot be between oranges and apples. If self-reliance is the primary objective, the key should be the acquisition of ‘technology’ while cost should not be a mandate. In any major programme of the type and size of the Rafale, ToT is of paramount importance. Decisions based on comparison of only man-hours / cost will lead us on the wrong path and set us back.

Comparison of the man hours of the OEM and the licensed manufacturer would not be fair. Back home in France, Dassault Aviation would have outsourced a good percentage of the work content and therefore its man-hours would be relatively less. It is also a fact that industrial productivity in tropical countries is lower than their Western counterparts.

Since HAL is anyway required to give the fixed price quotation for each batch of aircraft on order, IAF will have the benefit of reduced man-hours due to a learning phenomenon on the production order.

More important than the productivity is the life cycle cost. The OEM's cost of spares support over the product life cycle over 30-40 years is bound to drain the operator. There is no doubt that HAL's pricing will be cost-effective over the life of the Rafales.

In the package procurement of 36 Rafales, if Dassault Aviation has promised 75% serviceability of the fleet, it should be taken with a pinch of salt. Serviceability of the fleet is the joint responsibility of the operator (IAF) and the OEM. The role of the operator in ensuring the expected level of serviceability is much bigger than that of the OEM. If a lower serviceability is attributed to operational and maintenance lapses, the OEM will disown its commitment. These aspects need careful consideration.

Damage Control

The original 2007 RFP (request for proposal) for buying 126 MMRCAs (medium multi-role combat aircraft) had a condition: that `the OEM (Dassault Aviation) must take the responsibility for HAL's share of work and IAF has further insisted on such a guarantee from the OEM on the impression of unsatisfactory performance of HAL in the past’. Such a condition based on misconceptions has caused serious damage to HAL. It has gone against the basic objective of self-reliance in defence aviation and the most ambitious scheme of ‘Make in India’.

Inclusion of such a condition in the international contract and further insistence of the OEM’s guarantee is a serious omission jointly committed by IAF, Top officials of the Ministry of Defence and the Political bosses of that time. The need of the hour is a damage control exercise by ensuring that HAL gets the rightful place it deserves. The Company's capabilities and its significant contribution cannot be ignored based on falsehood. Non-inclusion of HAL at the initial stage has created a situation where the IAF has to once again go through the route of direct purchase to meet its further requirements.

The damage control exercise has to be initiated sooner rather than later. The Government of India has to initiate action with the highest priority and enter into another inter-governmental agreement to have the remaining Rafales required by the IAF manufactured by HAL under license. The process of ToT has to start at the earliest to ensure continuity in deliveries.

The Government of India has to take a serious relook at ways to protect the interest of HAL. If the wrong committed on HAL is not corrected in time, the expertise it has built over the decades will be wasted away for lack of challenging tasks. And eventually it could even be a wrong on the nation and its people.

The author, G.S.Jamadagni, retired from HAL in 2001 as General manager (Quality Assurance),Corporate Office

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