Heightened awareness of the steady growth in regional air traffic among small and medium-sized cities has convinced the Indian government to commit some $2 billion for the development of a 70- to 90-seat civilian aircraft. “This is a strategic sector where there is a need to have a presence in the long term, particularly in view of the rapid growth of our aviation sector,” said Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Plans call for India’s National Aeronautics Laboratory (NAL) and Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) to participate in the design and manufacture of the airplane, expected to reach the market in seven years. “Development and production partnerships with Indian private-sector firms as well as overseas institutions are envisaged,” according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s office. “Efforts will be made to leverage the offsets that are available in the defense sector for building critical domestic capabilities in high-precision manufacturing and avionics.”
While the industry has welcomed a robust, indigenous aerospace program, execution requires adequate funding support, accountability, specific timelines, cost and quality targets, monitoring, and, most important, engagement with the private sector in India and abroad, noted Amber Dubey, partner and head of aerospace and defense at global consultancy KPMG. “[There is] no point in reinventing the wheel on technologies and sub-assemblies that may have already been developed elsewhere at a fraction of the cost,” Dubey told AIN.
NAL’s trysts with civil aircraft development have proved checkered. One attempt took the form of the (Regional Transport Aircraft) RTA-70, a 70-seat turboprop announced in 2007. Plans called for it to roll out of the factory this year. “Partnerships were signed but nothing happened,” said one industry official under the condition of anonymity. “It is highly unlikely that HAL and NAL will involve the private sector actively. Besides, they have been unable to make even a basic trainer.”
NAL’s attempt at India’s first multi-purpose civil aircraft, the Light Transport Aircraft, renamed Saras in 1993, started as an Indo-Russian joint venture in 1986, but a lack of funds prompted Ilyushin to withdraw from the project. Of the two Saras prototypes produced, the second crashed in March 2009 during a flight test, killing all three crewmembers. Investigators determined that the test pilots tried to relight an engine with insufficient recovery altitude moments before the aircraft crashed.