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Indian Naval Aviation: Indigenous N-LCA Advances, Pilot Training Expands

N-LCA

In keeping with its thrust on indigenous development, the IN has been funding the development of the homegrown Naval Light Combat Aircraft (N-LCA). Some 40-45 aircraft are ultimately required.

N-LCA NP-1

The Naval LCA (N-LCA) trainer prototype NP-1 on finals during its first flight. In retrospect, the design agency ADA now admits that developing the naval variant from scratch instead of adapting the AF version would have been the less difficult route given the unique requirements of carrier operations such as a 7.1m/s sink rate vs 3m/s for the air force versions. Note the tailhook fairing beneath the aft fuselage. Sanjay Simha photo

The N-LCA is a small, delta winged, single engine fighter derived from the Indian Air Force’s Tejas, but with leading edge vortex controllers (LEVCONs) and other modifications for operations aboard an aircraft carrier. After a lengthy delay, the twin-seater Mk. 1 prototype, NP-1, had its first flight on April 27, 2012. Following this milestone, the IN has placed orders for eight Mk. 1 limited series production (LSP) aircraft – four single-seaters and four trainers.

Development of the N-LCA seems to be progressing slowly but surely as the Bangalore-based Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) works on major design changes to adapt the underpowered and overweight Mk. 1 version into the definitive Mk. 2 version.

N-LCA

The Naval LCA has a few significant differences when compared to the standard LCA, including its LEVCON leading edge extensions at the wing roots of the compound delta. HAL photo

To date, the Mk. 1 NP-1 completed only four test flights before undergoing additional modifications and tests ahead of upcoming carrier compatibility trials, including ski jump launch tests at the Shore Based Training Facility (SBTF) in NAS Hansa, Goa, toward the end of 2013. The SBTF (modeled upon the NITKA facility in the Ukraine) is slated for completion in mid-2013.

Balaji adds that the second flight test article, the single-seater NP-2, has incorporated lessons learned from both NP-1 and the Air Force LCA flight tests. Consequently, NP-2 features 150 or so design changes, including a revised and lightened landing gear system (designed with help from EADS) from the NP-1.

According to NLCA Project Director Cdre. C.D. Balaji, (IN-Ret), this limited testing phase was sufficient to cover critical test points used to refine the simulation models utilized during the initial design and development. Further flight testing is to commence “before December 2013” said Balaji.

A crucial element of carrier compatibility trials is the validation of the fighter’s control laws as well as the functioning of the helmet-mounted display and sight (HMDS) and HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) controls prior to achieving initial operational clearance (IOC).

N-LCA taxi

The Naval LCA variant has a noticeably “drooped” nose for visibility during carrier landings, a stronger fuselage spine, and longer and stronger landing gear with powered nosewheel steering. HAL photo

The HOTAS, explained Shyam Chetty, a program director at CSIR NAL/ADA during a seminar at Aero India 2013, is necessary given the difficult flight dynamics and ballistic aircraft trajectory associated with ski jump take offs.  That said, the plane’s flying qualities are superb, with test pilots remarking that the plane’s unstable fly by wire (FBW) system performs exactly like the training simulator.

The definitive Mk. 2 variant will have a host of changes, including an uprated General Electric F404 IN20 engine, new avionics and fire control radar – a joint Indo-Israeli radar based on Elta’s EL/M-2052 – and an in-flight refueling probe, although a timeline for first flight has yet to be announced. Planned induction won’t be earlier than 2018, according to industry observers.

Balaji adds that the second flight test article, the single-seater NP-2, has incorporated lessons learned from both NP-1 and the Air Force LCA flight tests. Consequently, NP-2 features 150 or so design changes, including a revised and lightened landing gear system (designed with help from EADS) from the NP-1.

The definitive Mk. 2 variant will have a host of changes, including an uprated General Electric F-414 INS6 engine, new avionics and fire control radar – a joint Indo-Israeli radar based on Elta’s EL/M-2052 – and an in-flight refueling probe, although a timeline for first flight has yet to be announced. Planned induction won’t be earlier than 2018, according to industry observers.

 

Pilot Training

The procurement of the MiG-29K and development of the N-LCA have necessitated some changes in the training of Indian naval aviators. Currently, there are four dedicated training squadrons for Indian Naval aviation. Helicopter pilots cycle through the helicopter training school at NAS Rajali, earning their wings after 75-90 hours of flying time aboard Chetaks of INAS 561 “Rotors.”

Kiran Mk 2s

HJT-16 Kiran 2s of INAS 551 display team Sagar Pawans at NAS Goa during the induction ceremony of the MiG-29K in Feb. 2010. The team was disbanded shortly thereafter in the wake of a fatal crash during a display. INAS 551 is the fast jet training squadron.These ageing aircraft are to be replaced by locally built BAE Hawk Mk 132 from 2013 onwards.

For fixed-wing pilots, the Indian Air Force provides basic flying training. Those in the MPA stream cycle through BN-2T Islanders and Dorniers of INAS 550 “Flying Fish” in Kochi, while fast jet pilots cycle through HJT-16 Kiran Mk. 2 trainers of INAS 551 “Phantoms” at NAS Hansa. Sea Harrier pilots proceed to INAS 552 for converting to the Sea Harrier after advanced flying training on the Kirans of INAS 551. The Kirans are to be replaced by Indian-built Hawk 132 trainers in the coming years.

For those flying the MiG-29K, the initial batch of pilots did their advanced training with the U.S. Navy aboard T-34 Mentors and then T-45B/C Goshawks, becoming qualified “tail hookers” aboard U.S. Navy big deck carriers. They then proceed to INAS 551 for naval orientation before undertaking conversion on the Mig-29K with INAS 303.

Capt. Surendra Ahuja

The first Indian Navy pilot to be carrier qualified (CQ) was Capt. Surendra Ahuja, a SHAR pilot who evaluated the Mig-29K in April 2002. Ahuja trapped his T-45C ten times successfully on the USS Enterprise – Big E- in May 2007 to gain his DLQ, thus marking the Indian Navy’s return to tailhook aviation after a lengthy hiatus. Also of note is the serial of the T-45C, 303 which is also the same as the MiG squadron.

The first Indian Navy pilot to be carrier qualified (CQ) in the United States was Capt. Surendra Ahuja, a SHAR pilot who evaluated the MiG-29K in April 2002. Ahuja trapped his T-45C Goshawk ten times successfully on the USS Enterprise – the “Big E” – in May 2007 to gain his deck landing qualifications (DLQ), thus marking the Indian Navy’s return to tailhook aviation after a lengthy hiatus. Ironically, the “Big E” was the very ship that threatened the IN in December 1971 when it sailed into the Bay of Bengal in a bid to intimidate India during the India-Pakistan War.