It has been more than a decade and a half since, India’s aerospace child – LCA Tejas took to skies for her maiden flight. The debut flight itself was an achievement of epic proportions for India. Wing Commander Rajiv Kothiyal, a veteran of the IAF, who handled the prototype aircraft on its maiden voyage, throttled India into aeronautical history pages.

LCA programme was perhaps the most gruelling test for the maturing aerospace fraternity of India, as it demanded them to work in unison to achieve the impossible. Today, LCA Tejas is considered as one of the best aircraft in its class. Developed in-house with minimum foreign help, the aircraft is a symbol of achievement for India’s aeronautical sector that went through some of the most treacherous patches.

Credit for development of the aircraft rightly goes to a number of engineers, who relentlessly worked with various developmental agencies. Due credits also has to be paid to the ever hard working technicians, who moulded the aircraft with great pride and honour. It is perhaps this unmatched level of patriotism and dedication that has kept the aircraft flying against all odds. Various unseen hands have also played a major part in realizing India’s aerospace dreams.

The hard work, dedication and commitment of the developmental agencies and all stockholders reaped results on July 1st 2016, when IAF raised its maiden Tejas squadron. Cherished ‘45 Squadron – the Flying Daggers’, it will be based in the ‘Mecca of Aeronautics’ for couple more years, before being shifted to Sullur Air Force Station in Coimbatore. The aircraft flying in IAF’s colours will wonder around the skies it grew up.

When India ventured into designing the aircraft minimal resources were available at its disposal. There was hardly any precursor or feeder technology and infrastructural base available in India, as opposed to global powers that wielded a sound history in development of aircraft. Almost two decades had passed since India’s first indigenously designed fighter Marut had taken to skies. Developmental activities in aeronautical establishments had almost but ceased after the Marut flew.

Ambitious plans were drawn up to develop and absorb technologies as the developmental cycle progressed. India planned to suffice foreign technology at places were necessary. The program was evolving with great pace and several foreign firms were drawn-in to support the programme. However, India’s decision to test nuclear devices under the Pokran-II tests came as a major backburner for the programme.

Global powers imposed stringent sanctions and slashed any help to Indian firms. Developmental data generated at foreign institutions was withheld and Indian scientists were deported over night. The whole programme was left in cold waters. The world wrongly believed India’s Tejas would crash under the sanctions it mounted.

LCA Tejas. Source - Deb Rana.

LCA Tejas. Source – Deb Rana.

But these very mere sanctions inspired Indian scientific fraternity to develop several state-of-the-art-technologies indigenously. The struggle of developmental agencies to get the aircraft flying is filled with tales of sadness and happiness. There was backlash in India, not once but several attempts were made to scrub the programme.

Then, there were a few motivated souls that guided the programme through the foggy skies. Project Directors (PD) of LCA, several senior scientists and fewer pro-indigenous technology supporters, who worked from within the ministry and elsewhere can find their names etched for eternity on Tejas.

The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) that was set-up in 1984 to exclusively manage the LCA programme has worked relentlessly to get Tejas flying. ADA was formed with a futuristic vision to not just develop an aircraft, but to develop a conducive environment for aeronautical development in India.

That today has paid benefits of unmatched proportions. Several path blazer technologies have emerged from this vision. It was an up-hill climb to develop almost everything indigenously for the aircraft. However, the agency dared to take due risk and that today has made us self reliant in various fields. The indigenisation level today stands at a staggering 75%; big names in aerospace industry had chuckled when India envisioned for a mere 40%.

The efforts of ADA were supplemented by the work done by various DRDO laboratories. DRDO established several laboratories just to funnel the technology for LCA. The joint efforts of ADA, DRDO and various private entities saw India developing several key aerospace technologies. Notable among these developments is the extremely reliable Fly-By-Wire system India developed.

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the principal partner of the LCA programme has been another propelling force for Tejas. It was HAL that built the aircraft from scratch and in the due course turned a vision into reality. The company has throughout improvised and brought forward some of the latest aeronautical technologies.

The HAL manufactured 'LCA Tejas'.  Credits - Deb Rana.

The HAL manufactured ‘LCA Tejas’.
Credits – Deb Rana.

Several historical feats were achieved as the programme bloomed in HAL’s Bengaluru facility. If ADA can be called the dream machine for the LCA programme, HAL can rightly be called as a tool that turned the dreams into a reality.

Another entity that has worked in close knots with the programme is the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) situated in Bengaluru. NFTC is in-charge of carrying out tests up on aircraft rolled out by HAL.  It is under the watchful eyes of this centre that an aircraft makes its first leap to the sky.

Men at NFTC work round the clock to find the minutest errors that may have crept in during development. The error found is ironed out until a safe flight is guaranteed. It is said errors may be invisible to the eyes of a designer, manufacturer and even to the certifying agencies, but not to the eyes of men guarding consoles at NFTC.

Another community that works with-in the programme are the attached test pilots, who are in-charge of flying the maturing aircraft. Only the best of the best from the air force and navy are attached to take part in testing activities done under the watchful eyes of men at NFTC.

To these test pilots every day is a new beginning. On every single flight the aircraft is flown to its limit. Pilots, either exploit the aircraft to achieve higher speeds or deliberately fly at extremely low speeds. It is this bunch of battle hard men that have made Tejas, a combat ready aircraft.

It was a moment to cheer when Madhav Rangachari, CO of the flying daggers, gently lifted Tejas to the sky after its induction ceremony. Describing Tejas the CO said “I felt like being on top of the world when flying Tejas. It’s an excellent aircraft and generation ahead of other fighters in the world. Being the only one of its kind, it’s not comparable with other military aircraft”.

It’s been a successful campaign through the year for the LCA programme. Tejas apart from successfully completing planned tests and development schedule hosted the CAS Arup Raha for a flight. The aircraft also put up a vibrant show during the Air Force Day in Delhi.

The developmental activities will continue for years to come. Agencies will continue to toil for hours to make Tejas the best of the best. Under the LCA programme, the nation has not just received an aircraft but a guaranteed aerospace ecosystem that can take any future challenges head-on.

Tejas has begun a vibrant journey towards serving the motherland. For men and women, who worked relentlessly and saw the programme through its most treacherous phase it’s a moment of jubilation. It’s after all their child breaking another historical barrier.

© Karthik Kakoor