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HAL's star not shining bright at Aero India

india Updated: Feb 11, 2009 06:08 IST
Rahul Singh

The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited's `star' has been eclipsed by technology glitches at Aero India 2009. A day before Defence Minister AK Antony declares the biennial air show open, the blue-chip firm has backed out from flying its intermediate jet trainer (IJT), called Sitara.

Conceived some 10 years back, the HJT-36 IJT project is expected to replace the IAF's ageing Kiran aircraft that have been in service for over 45 years.

The embarrassing decision to withdraw the IJT comes after a trainer belly-landed at the Yelahanka air force station on February 5 while rehearsing for the air show that has proved to be jinxed for the aircraft. This is not the first time that the IJT has let the HAL down.

At the previous edition of the air show in 2007, the subsonic trainer veered off the runway after its canopy unlocked during the take off run.

Pradeep Kumar, secretary, defence production, said on Tuesday, "The HAL had indicated that the IJT would be flying. But the flight has been called off. They want to be sure of the trainer being able to fly."

The single engine HJT-36, which made its maiden flight in 2003, is intended to replace over 200 HJT-16 Kiran aircraft for training fighter pilots. The project was sanctioned in July 1999 with a grant of Rs 180 crore. But progress has been rather tardy.

Interestingly, the trainer, first powered by a French engine and now a Russian, was expected to get initial operational clearance by 2006 with deliveries to the air force scheduled for the next year.

But there have been a series of mishaps arising from human error and mechanical failures in recent years.

With the IJT being pulled out from the air show, the HAL has lost out on the opportunity of flaunting the trainer before an international audience comprising 25 countries and close to 600 defence firms. Two prototypes of the IJT have completed close to 300 flights. The prototypes were initially fitted with French firm Snecma's Larzac turbofan engines but later HAL inked a deal with Russia to power the IJT with NPO Saturn's AL-55I engine.

The HAL plans to produce around 225 HJT-36s, which will form the backbone of the air force's stage II combat pilot training.

The HAL's participation in the air show will be restricted to the export version of the advanced light helicopter, light combat aircraft and the licence-built Hawk advanced jet trainer.