Nine years af­ter the fa­tal ac­ci­dent that paral­ysed the project, the Saras got air­borne once again and rekindled hope of re­vival of the in­dige­nous civil air­craft pro­gramme

SP's Airbuz - - Table Of Contents - — B.K. PANDEY

ON JAN­UARY 24 THIS year, a pro­to­type of the Saras, the coun­try’s first in­dige­nously de­vel­oped civil air­craft in the light trans­port air­craft (LTA) cat­e­gory, took to the skies at Ben­galuru. De­vel­oped by Na­tional Aero­nau­tics Lab­o­ra­to­ries (NAL) un­der the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search (CSIR), the twin-en­gine, 14-seater air­craft with test pi­lots and flight en­gi­neer from the Air­craft and Sys­tems Test­ing Es­tab­lish­ment (ASTE) of the In­dian Air Force (IAF) as the crew on board, got air­borne from the air­port at Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Limited (HAL) for a test flight that lasted for 40 min­utes.

The Saras has had a trou­bled his­tory of de­vel­op­ment. The ori­gin of the project to de­velop this air­craft lay in a fea­si­bil­ity study car­ried out by NAL in 1989 which in­di­cated that there was a sig­nif­i­cant de­mand in the coun­try for a 14-seat, multi-role LTA and es­ti­mated a mar­ket po­ten­tial of around 350 air­craft over a decade. And now with the thrust on Re­gional Avi­a­tion and the launch of the Re­gional Con­nec­tiv­ity Scheme, the de­mand in the In­dian air­line in­dus­try for this cat­e­gory of air­craft is ex­pected to be con­sid­er­ably higher.

Ini­tial ef­forts to launch the project in 1991 in part­ner­ship with a Rus­sian com­pany did not ma­te­ri­alise. Later, sanc­tions im­posed by the US fol­low­ing the nu­clear test in 1998, proved to be an­other im­ped­i­ment. The project was fi­nally sanc­tioned on Septem­ber 24, 1999 as to­tally an in­dige­nous pro­gramme with the maiden flight sched­uled for March 2001. How­ever, the first pro­to­type PT-1 com­pleted its maiden flight on May 29, 2004, three years be­hind sched­ule. The PT-1 was pow­ered by two Pratt & Whit­ney tur­bo­prop en­gines mounted in the pusher con­fig­u­ra­tion.

Un­for­tu­nately, the Saras project was struck by a ma­jor dis­as­ter when on March 6, 2009, the sec­ond pro­to­type while on a de­vel­op­men­tal flight, fell out of the sky and crashed about 30km North West of Ben­galuru and caught fire. All the three crew mem­bers on board who were from the IAF, per­ished in the ac­ci­dent. In­ves­ti­ga­tions into the fa­tal crash re­vealed that the air­craft went out of con­trol when the crew had shut down one en­gine and were car­ry­ing out en­gine re­light drill. The pro­ce­dure de­vised by the de­signer is to be car­ried out in the event of en­gine flame out. The crew were do­ing pre­cisely that when they lost con­trol of the air­craft. As it was estab­lished by the in­ves­ti­ga­tion later, the pro­ce­dure was es­sen­tially flawed and even­tu­ally con­trib­uted to the crash. In­ves­ti­ga­tion car­ried out separately by the Direc­torate Gen­eral of Civil Avi­a­tion, apart from point­ing out de­sign flaws and hu­man er­ror be­hind the tragedy, also held the or­gan­i­sa­tion re­spon­si­ble for faulty pro­gramme man­age­ment. As a re­sult of this trau­matic event, the project came to a grind­ing halt. Till this point in time, there were only two air­craft built and the third was un­der con­struc­tion. How­ever, all the ef­fort put in and the re­sources ex­pended thus far which was es­ti­mated to be around Res 300 crore, seemed to have gone waste as the air­craft and the in­fra­struc­ture cre­ated for the pur­pose were ren­dered use­less.

Opin­ion in the or­gan­i­sa­tion re­gard­ing the fu­ture of the project was di­vided. The mes­sage from the gov­ern­ment was very clear that it was not agree­able to con­tinue to in­vest in the project given the time it was tak­ing and the un­cer­tain­ties in the wake of the dis­as­ter in 2009. Even in NAL, there was a sec­tion that was not very op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of the project. The Di­rec­tor NAL how­ever, was hope­ful that the project could be re­vived in the fu­ture. The first pro­to­type was up­graded to meet the lat­est de­sign cri­te­ria in­clud­ing the more pow­er­ful Pratt & Whit­ney Canada PT6A-67A en­gines each de­liv­er­ing 1200hp as also im­prove­ments to the flight con­trol and other sys­tems. The up­graded PT-1 was sched­uled to make its first flight by the end of 2011 lead­ing to cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and first de­liv­er­ies in 2013. Un­for­tu­nately, the project con­tin­ued to re­main in limbo on ac­count of lack of fund­ing and for this rea­son, was prac­ti­cally shelved be­tween 2013 and 2016. In fact, in Jan­uary 2016, it was re­ported that the Saras project had been can­celled. How­ever, to­wards the end of 2016, the project was re­vived. On Fe­bru­ary 14, 2017, the re­con­fig­ured first pro­to­type had been handed over to ASTE for test­ing and the aim was put the Saras back in the air by Septem­ber 2017.

Nearly nine years af­ter the fa­tal ac­ci­dent that led to paral­y­sis in the project, the up­graded pro­to­type of the Saras fi­nally got air­borne once again and rekindled hope of re­vival of the in­dige­nous civil air­craft pro­gramme.

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