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The Indian Air Force (IAF) may be forced to junk its transitional training for fighter pilots because of HAL’s continuing failure to deliver its Sitara intermediate jet trainer (IJT) which was sanctioned in 1999 but still cannot stall-and-spin, a critical manoeuvre to transform cadets into top-gun fighter pilots. It teaches them how to handle emergencies, hold their nerve and retrieve their planes from a spin, as was depicted in Shashi Kapoor’s film Vijeta of the early 1980s. The Sitara IJT has been hit by a delay of another four-to-five years after missing seven deadlines for getting initial operational clearance following the formal approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security in March 2005.
The Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) designed, developed and manufactured a singleengine jet trainer, the redoubtable Hindustan Jet Trainer 16 (HJT-16) Kiran, to replace the vintage fleets North American Harvard IVD and the Texan T-6G piston engine trainer aircraft that were employed by the IAF for Stage II training of pilots. With the induction beginning in 1968, the Kiran fleet of over 200 aircraft that has now been in service with the IAF for around four-and-a-half decades, has been overtaken by obsolescence and has for some time been due for replacement. In 1997, HAL embarked on a project to design and develop a single jet engine trainer aircraft dubbed as the HJT-36 intermediate jet trainer (IJT) to replace the HJT-16.
The metal cutting ceremony for the first HJT-36 was held at HAL Bengaluru in the middle of 2001 and the first prototype, the PT-1 undertook its maiden flight on March 7, 2003, just about 20 months later. This was a record of sorts. However, the first roadblock that the project came up against was related to the Turbomeca Larzac engine from Snecma of France, that delivered 14 kN of thrust on account of which the engine was regarded by the IAF as being underpowered and hence unacceptable. The search for a new adequately powerful engine came to fruition only five-and-a-half years later when the first AL-55I engine from NPO Saturn of Russia that was selected as replacement for the Larzac, arrived on December 28, 2008. The PT-1 fitted with the AL-55I engine flew for the first time on May 9, 2009. The project remained practically stagnant during the six years that had elapsed since the maiden flight in 2003. Of course, two major accidents, the first at Air Force Station, Yelahanka, during Aero India International Airshow in February 2007, the second at the HAL airport in Bengaluru in February 2009, proved to be serious impediments to the project. This was on account of interruption in the test flight schedule as the prototypes had to be grounded for investigations and repairs.
The IAF placed an initial order for 73 aircraft equipped with the AL-55I engine and in 2009 itself, the project graduated to the Limited Series Production (LSP) stage for the first 12 aircraft. The first test flight for the LSP 1 was undertaken in January 2010. However, the project suffered another setback when on April 28, 2011, one of the prototypes while on a test flight went down in Krishnagiri district of Tamil Nadu making it the third crash for the family of aircraft since 2007.
As of the beginning of 2014, the HJT-36 Sitara had completed sea level trials, night flying trials, high altitude trials as well as weapon and drop tank trials. Yet there was no sign of initial operational clearance (IOC).
It appears that the major problem that the project has run into pertains to adverse handling characteristics. Controllability of the aircraft at high angles of attack is poor on account of which the prototypes could not be put through stall and spin trials. This would not be acceptable to the IAF especially in an aircraft employed for basic training. In August last year, the then Minister of Defence, Arun Jaitley, only confirmed the worst fears of the IAF when in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha stated, “HAL, which has been developing the IJT as a replacement for the Kiran aircraft, has not so far been able to resolve critical wing and airframe design and development issues related to stall and spin”.
It is understood that even the global aerospace major BAE Systems who were employed by HAL as consultants for the project, though at a late stage, have not been able to resolve the issues. In the final analysis, the IJT Sitara will have to be redesigned which will include increase in the size of the fuselage and other refinements. Even after an investment of Rs. 4,500 crore in the project, the IJT Sitara continues to remain a distant dream. The Minister also informed the house that this situation had compelled the IAF to explore options for the procurement of an IJT from foreign sources. As this will take a few years, the IAF is going in for a not-so-desirable option of life extension for the Kiran fleet. However, given the large performance envelope of the Pilatus PC-7 Mk II basic trainer, the IAF could seriously consider switching over to a two-stage training pattern.