Today, in Bangalore, Tejas is set to join the Indian Air Force in it’s own first squadron. This may appear a “typical” defence news story to many of us, but it is a very significant milestone for a project that was first conceived in 1983. An aircraft, from it’s first prototype till the time it gets inducted into the armed forces, has to pass through rigorous tests to confirm that it can withstand extreme conditions should there be a need for such operations during war. For example, here is a news story when LCA had to pass the flying tests after taking off from Leh. They froze the aircraft overnight in sub-zero temperature to test how it flies the subsequent morning.
Also, the whole project had come to a virtual standstill at least on two occasions — The failure of India’s ambitious aircraft engine program, “Kaveri” and a little before that, the sanctions imposed by the US Government after the Pokhran blasts. Much has been said about this project and many have termed it as a failure primarily because of cost overruns — but the truth is that despite the cost overruns, LCA is still a cheaper and at-par alternative with the best of it’s class in the world.
Moreover, the faith an airborne Tejas will instill in scientists and technicians for aiming higher, despite everything, is a priceless thing to achieve.
Anyway. Back in 2005, when I was a frequent visitor to the India Coffee House at MG Road, in Bangalore, I came across an elderly gentleman who used to work with the HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited). He was closely associated with the LCA program (later, known as ‘Tejas’). Over my next few visits, I had many conversations with Mr Vasudevan at the coffee house. Those were random meetings as we were both regular visitors to the place.
This post below was published on my old blog, in 2005 (pardon the quality of prose). I believe this is a significant day for many people who have been closely associated with the LCA project. I am not in touch with Mr. Vasudevan anymore but I am sure he is one happy, content man today.
In the Coffee House, with Mr. Vasudevan
The coffee house, as I expected was half full. With old furniture, its wooden benches and tabletops which had developed cracks of all lengths and depths, just like the wrinkles which were as common in almost every attendant, spelled the longevity of time this coffee house had witnessed.
As I said, the coffee house was half full, but no where was a complete empty table in sight. Next to its glass window, I chose to sit, on a table whose lone occupant was an elderly gentleman completely immersed in his reading. By the time I satisfied my hunger I thought of striking a conversation with the gentleman, who at that time, could be my only company.
As it was revealed, Mr Vasudevan, was a retired Aviation Quality Inspector. I knew his white hair suggested wisdom, but possession of wisdom of the aviation kind was not only a surprise but a pleasing one too. I could smell the prospects of an exciting conversation right there.
The mention of India’s latest indigenous combat aircraft, LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) struck the right chord. Excitement is inevitable, once LCA is mentioned to any Indian Aviation Enthusiast.
“I retired in 1992. When the LCA entered advanced stage of development in 1995, they needed people with experience. As it so happened, I was re-called and was a part of the LCA team. I was one of the four quality Inspectors. I was a part of the team when LCA took its first flight in 2001. I worked till 2003. Eight more years”, he said with a hint of excitement in his voice.
And what did he have to say about the first flight?
“Everyone was nervous. Our creation was touching the sky for the first time. During those moments, I went to a corner of viewing area, alone. I was too nervous. There are so many things that can go wrong in the first flight. My responsibility was to ensure the safety of the pilot. I was the quality inspector for Seat Safety/Ejection. But the take off went fine and people rejoiced. Obviously, I could not afford that joy.”
And why so? If the take-off was fine, why was he more nervous when the bird was in the air? I knew what he was coming to but I wanted him to say it himself. And so he did.
“Landing!!” he exclaimed with a new burst of excitement. “How can you miss that my friend! Touchdown is the most important aspect of the whole flight! That is when most things can mess up. Things can go haywire.”
“I remember”, he continued, “It was an 18 minute flight. The longest 18 minutes of my life. The machine we built was up there, and so was my heart.”
And how was touchdown?
“I cried. People came and shook hands and I had to hide my emotions. There were sweets distributed, accolades given. And after that, I tested 137 flights of LCA. In my career, I gave the quality thumbs-up for 138 of LCA flights. Nothing can match that.”
And on the current trends of aviation which are embedded in the LCA?
“1.6 Mach, I think should be the top speed of LCA. You have to understand, in our Air-Force, LCA has to play the role of a major force in Air-to-Air combat. Air-to-Air combat doesn’t go beyond 1.6 Mach. We have to suite those requirements. Plus the microprocessor handling of LCA is such that it lets the pilot concentrate on what he should- Combat”.
And on the wing-design? I remarked, that I had noticed LCA’s wings are the Delta-designed ones, similar to Mirage-2000.
“Ah, yes. They are critical to achieve a high lift for supersonic flights. Talking about wings, do you know how many flaps per second does a housefly make? 200. Imagine. And a dragon-fly? 600. These are god created miracles that most of us oversee in everyday life. The cobra manoeuvre that we talk so highly about in Sukhoi aircrafts, is performed by the housefly all the time. These facts inspire me.”
Here was someone, in his late 60’s or early seventies, who had dedicated his life to Aviation. And where did his inspiration came from? Houseflies and mosquitoes.
“I have the knowledge to tell you the most technical aspects of flight without quoting scientific principles. I was only a quality inspector, but I played a part in this achievement.”
“I like cricket, I like car-racing and I like books. But at my time I could not afford it simply because I did not have the time. Sometimes I regret this fact. But soon I am overwhelmed to realise that I have been one of the privileged few who have been able to realise the kind of dreams like I had.”
So true, Mr. Vasudevan. Ask those who couldn’t.