Not since the dark decade of the 1990s, when the Indian Air Force crashed 177 aircraft -- losing 54 young pilots and some Rs 1,000 crore worth of equipment -- has the air force faced such a pilot training crisis.
The long-delayed Hawk trainers, which began arriving in India in 2007, have improved advanced training for IAF flyers. But the crucial introduction to flying, conducted in antiquated HPT-32 Deepak and HJT-16 Kiran aircraft, is taking a growing toll on pilots' lives.
On July 31, after two senior flying instructors from the Air Force Academy near Hyderabad, died in a crash, the IAF halted all "Stage-1" training, which is done on Deepaks.
Chronically prone to engine failure (100 engine emergencies reported in recent years), 10 Deepak trainers have crashed this last decade. A recent CAG report has slammed the aircraft as "technologically outdated and beset by flight safety hazards".
But "Stage-2" training, which is done on the HJT-16 Kiran trainer, is an even grimmer story: 13 crashes over the last decade have taken a deadly toll on pilots' lives.
Now Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd has stepped into the breach, renewing an offer to develop a modern replacement for the Deepak. Ashok Nayak, chairman of HAL, told Business Standard: "Two years ago, we offered the IAF a replacement for the Deepak. This single-engine aircraft, which we call the Hindustan Turbo Trainer -- 40 (HTT-40), can be delivered within six years."
But a flustered IAF, short of pilots and keen to recommence training, is demanding immediate purchase of Stage-1 trainers from the global market. The Ministry of Defence is evaluating whether the IAF's immediate requirement can be bought off-the-shelf, while HAL goes ahead with a programme to design and build the HTT-40. A total of 200 basic trainers is the estimated requirement.
The last purchase of trainer aircraft, the BAE Systems Hawk, took 18 years to materialise.
HAL executives are confident that the HTT-40 can be delivered in six years. They point to the success of HAL's ongoing project to develop and build an Intermediate Jet Trainer, which will replace the Kiran as a Stage-2 trainer. Powered by a custom-designed AL-55I engine from Russia, the first Sitara trainer from the production line is scheduled to fly next week.
Says the HAL chairman: "The IJT project has demonstrated HAL's capability to design, build and deliver trainer aircraft on time. We will deliver the IAF's current order of 12 IJTs by the end of next year."
If the HTT-40 enters service as a Stage-1 trainer, the entire spectrum of fighter training for IAF pilots will be conducted on HAL-built aircraft. After Stage-1 training on the HTT-40, Stage-2 will be conducted on the Sitara IJT; Stage-3 training will be done on the Hawk advanced jet trainer, now being produced in HAL Bangalore, under Transfer of Technology from BAE Systems, UK.
Meanwhile, HAL is pushing the concept of Phase-4 training on a supersonic fighter: its newly developed twin-seater Light Combat Aircraft. So far, the IAF hasn't bought the idea.