Bengaluru, Feb 9: The first prototype (NP-1) of the Naval Light Combat Aircraft (NLCA), which had a ski-take off from the Shore Based Test Facility (SBTF) in INS Hansa in Goa on December 20, 2014, outperformed the expectations of its designers and engineers. In an exclusive interview to OneIndia, his first after the historic flight of NP-1, NLCA Programme Director Cmde C D Balaji (Retd) said that NP-1 gifted a ‘welcome bonus' at SBTF.
"There are many uncertainties and potential surprises when you attempt something for the first time. We had built in a detail plan after looking into all major possibilities of a failure. Accordingly, we wanted to have a minimum climb angle of 5.7 degrees during the first attempt," Balaji told OneIndia ahead of the forthcoming Aero India 2015.
With Lady Luck finally giving company to the NLCA designers at Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the NP-1's performance seems to have lifted the spirits of the entire team.
"We got an unexpected bonus in terms of NP-1's excess performance and the actual minimum climb angle was in excess of 10 degrees. It is welcome bonus for an aircraft that has been so often derided for lack of thrust, and this excess will be accounted for in future launches as well," a satisfied Balaji said.
ADA Chief P S Subramanyam too agrees with Balaji while sharing inside details of the NP-1's performance. "The Goa campaign turned out to be a memorable one for all of us. It is inspiring when an aircraft performs more that what was expected during its flight evaluation stages. NP-I's performance was better than anticipated in comparison to estimates earlier made purely based on its flight tests at Bangalore," says Subramanyam.
There are more prototypes to be added to flightline
Balaji said to meet the full missions requirements stipulated by the Indian Navy, three more prototypes will be rolled out in future. "We have a new programme with a higher thrust engine sanctioned under the LCA Navy Mk2 phase. It is aimed minimising the constraints of LCA Navy Mk-1. It will have significant changes in design to improve aerodynamics, landing gear & arrester hook optimization, structural design optimization, updated sensors, avionics and Flight Control System among others," says Balaji.
Interestingly, Balaji, the soft-spoken captain of the NLCA project had to bear the brunt of the Navy, Ministry of Defence and the media for the delays the project entered in the last couple of years.
The landing gear mass of the LCA (Navy) Mk-2 aircraft is likely to be reduced by 200-250 kg, albeit being capable of a higher take off mass. Prototypes likely to come from this Mk-2 flightline are NP-3 and NP-4 (both fighters). From the existing resources ADA has already begun the work for the third NLCA prototype which will be designated as NP-5, a trainer. Balaji says all trainers will be from the Mk-1 flightline.
ADA insiders tell OneIndia that the newly-appointed HAL Chairman T Suvarna Raju has promised all help for the NLCA project. "HAL Chairman was waiting to receive the NP-2 after it touched down during his maiden flight on February 7, 2015. His presence has inspired the entire team," says an official in ADA.
NP-1 to undergo minor changes
ADA says the wealth of data collected from the maiden ski-jump mission has been fully analysed. "The areas needing attention have been identified. The CLAW (Control Law) and Flight Control System (FCS) software will be updated for higher performance. The Nose Landing Gear (NLG) extension was faster than predicted. Minor modifications to the NLG will also be done," says Balaji.
When compared to NP-1, one major addition on NP2 is the presence of a Multi-Mode Radar (MMR). The aircraft performance is expected to be similar to NP-1. "The focus on sensor and weapon capability demonstration will be on NP-2," says Balaji.
Critical observations from the last trials
ADA says the AoA (Angle of Attack) after ramp exit reached 21.6 degrees which augers well for utilisation of even greater angles of attack for launch. "The maximum all up weight that an aircraft can be launched at is the primary determinant of its operational capability as it dictates the quantum of weapons and fuel that the aircraft carries.
For a ski-jump launch, the final design intent is to have a zero rate of climb after ramp exit to get the best performance of the aircraft," says Balaji.
More action lined up in Goa from March
Once the FCS software upgradation and minor rework on NLG is completed, NP-1 will hit Goa for the next phase of the campaign in March 2015. It will continue its ski-jump launches to progressively reduce margins till final performance levels are achieved. "Also, it is planned to initiate activities towards arrested recovery starting with dummy approaches on the landing area, ‘taxi-in' arrester hook engagements on to the arrester wire at the SBTF and final flight engagement," says Balaji.
ADA hopes to get a suitable slot for NLCA NP-1 during the upcoming Aero India 2015. "We are working on the slots available. It is likely that NP-1might fly," adds Balaji.
(The writer is a seasoned aerospace and defence journalist in India. He is the Consultant Editor (Defence) with OneIndia. He tweets @writetake.)