After wrapping up a rigorous flight testing of prototype helicopters in challenging conditions, state-run plane makers Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) set August 2022 as the deadline for carrying out the maiden test flight of the first chopper in the indigenous light utility helicopter (LUH) limited series production, senior officials familiar with the development said on Thursday. LUH’s first test flight will be carried out from the new Tumkur facility in Karnataka, another official said.
LUH will replace the army and the Indian Air Force’s ageing fleets of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters, whose safety record has been blemished by a string of crashes — two army pilots were killed last month in the latest Cheetah crash near Patnitop in Jammu and Kashmir.
Around 15 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters have crashed during the last 10 years, killing several pilots. Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat (then a lieutenant general) survived a Cheetah crash in Dimapur on February 3, 2015.
“The first test flight of the LUH in the limited series production (LSP) will be carried out next August. HAL is on the verge of getting an order for 12 LUHs – six each for the army and IAF,” said one of the officials cited above. At his annual press conference on October 5, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari said the air force would soon place an order for six LUHs.
The design of the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters is more than 50 years old, and their airworthiness was questioned once again after the Patnitop crash. HAL expects the army and IAF to place combined orders for at least 187 light helicopters in the coming years (126 for the army and 61 for IAF).
“All trials on the four LUH prototypes are over. The last set of trials to establish LUH’s extra manoeuvrability concluded in Ladakh this week. The army and IAF wanted some changes and LUH performed better than expected,” said a second official.
HAL is expected to deliver the first set of LUHs to the services in two to three years of the signing of the contract. Subsequent orders will be executed at a faster pace as LUH production will also begin at HAL’s new helicopter factory in Tumkur, Karnataka. The Bengaluru and Tumkur facilities will be capable of rolling out 100 light helicopters every year, the second official added.
“The Cheetah and Chetak replacement has been long overdue. They were designed in the 1960s. LUH has proved its capabilities in multiple rounds of trials in extreme conditions in the northern sector. It’s quite an achievement in indigenous helicopter manufacturing,” said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), Director-General, Centre for Air Power Studies.
Currently, the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters are a critical lifeline for troops in high-altitude areas, including the Siachen glacier. HAL has licence-produced 625 Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. It no longer builds them but is responsible for their maintenance and repair.
The Army Aviation director-general Lieutenant General AK Suri on Thursday visited aviation squadrons in forwarding areas, including Leh, and flew a test sortie in LUH whose trials have been completed, the Udhampur-based Northern Command said.
India is also looking at jointly building with Russia the Kamov-226T light helicopters in the country. The Kamovs are also expected to replace the Cheetah and Chetak helicopters. However, the $1-billion programme, under which Russia will supply 60 helicopters in flyaway condition and the remaining 140 will be manufactured in India, is yet to kick off. The army, IAF and navy together need around 500 light helicopters.
HAL is also awaiting a contract from the defence ministry for 15 light combat helicopters (LCHs) and expects follow-on orders as the army and IAF have a combined projected requirement of 160 LCHs.