HAL helo deliveries mark program progress

 - May 19, 2008, 7:19 AM

There is an insect called a cicada that burrows deep into the earth in its larval stage, slowly, quietly growing out of sight, feeding modestly on tree root sap and finally emerging 17 years later as a formidable form of aphid that, while benign, appears to be anything but. Often as long as two inches, with a chunky body and massive wings, the adult cicada is far more often heard than seen, the high-pitched warbling “skree-eee-skree” of their cries a standard part of any summer in the Midwestern U.S.

The helicopter world has its equivalent of the 17-year locust in Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.’s (HAL) Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH), a 12,000-lb twin-turbine rotorcraft that actually has been in on-again, off-again development since 1984, making the ALH slightly older than the oldest cicada digging its way toward a first flight this summer. However long its sleep, the helicopter’s moribund time underground seems about to end and its entry into at least limited military and civil service about to begin.

The first seven ALHs–now dubbed the Dhruv, in honor of a favorite figure from Hindu mythology–have been delivered to the Indian military (two to the Indian air force, three to the army and one apiece to the nation’s navy and coast guard).

Meanwhile, talks are under way to begin production aimed at the civil market. First, however, HAL aims to hedge its bets on this heretofore unexplored market by lining up risk-sharing partners.

“We are in dialogue with private industries. Quite a few companies have come forward,” reported HAL chairman N.R. Mohanty, who admits to having conversations with a number of European and western Pacific Rim aerospace manufacturers. Mohanty hinted at possible transfer-of-technology issues that could facilitate the deal.

When it comes to tapping possible markets outside of India, Mohanty, a relative novice in this sort of business, has definitely learned how to walk the walk and talk the talk. “Since HAL is government owned, we’ll be able to use the government’s network of embassies and consulates to facilitate sales worldwide,” he predicted. “There is no helicopter comparable with the ALH in this weight class.”

An export edition of the ALH would sell for $6 million. The cabin can be configured for as many as 12 passengers in standard seating, and is capable of lifting a payload of roughly two tons. Power at present is provided by a pair of Turbomeca TM333-2B turboshafts, although HAL is said to be looking for more powerful powerplants for future follow-ons.