Facing high demand for small civil aircraft, govt revives shelved project

Even as the government pushes for the development of indigenous civil aircraft, there is unease over safety and other issues among some scientists at NAL.

Written by Johnson T A | Bengaluru | Updated: February 17, 2017 4:16 am

A civil aircraft initiative that ended in failure in 2009 following a crash that killed three test pilots has been revived again by the government in an effort to address the issue of India’s failure to manufacture a single civil aircraft on its own. The SARAS civil aircraft programme at the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), which was shelved in 2009, has been revived with funds from the Union Science and Technology Ministry. The decision comes on the back of projections for the civil aviation industry in India showing a steep demand for small civil aircraft to service regional needs.

“We have taken up the SARAS programme quite aggressively. In fact, in future we would want to convert it into a 19-seater aircraft. A new prototype has been developed with all modifications done after obtaining feedback,” Union Minister for Science and Technology Harsh Vardhan said at Aero India 2017 on Thursday. The project has been revived after analysis of the 2009 accident revealed that the crash of prototype of the 14-seater SARAS was a result of procedural lapses and not technical issues, a senior official at NAL said.

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The project has been revived through a prototype that was already with NAL and ground tests of the Pratt and Whitney engine are being conducted at the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment. A new test flight for the prototype is likely in a few weeks’ time, NAL officials said. New NAL Director Jitendra Jadhav, who was brought into the CSIR-affiliated laboratory recently with a mandate to revive the civil aircraft initiative, has stated that around Rs 400-500 crore would be needed to build new improved prototypes of the SARAS for testing in the coming days.

While the minister said the funding needed for the project had been provided, he did not specify the amount. SARAS, a 14-seater twin turboprop aircraft aimed at serving the maturing civil aviation market in India, was initiated in the 1990s. The fresh impetus has come under the government’s Make in India and regional connectivity programmes.

The development of SARAS is being projected as a precursor to a proposed 70-seater Regional Transport Aircraft involving NAL and HAL that was initiated in 2013 but was subsequently shelved with HAL concentrating on building Dornier aircraft for the civil aviation market in India. “We need to manufacture aircraft which we are not doing now….Right now we have 70-odd active airports and so in the next one or two years if we can bring in 50 more airports, you can imagine the growth. We can be the third largest civil aviation market in the world if we can sustain this,’’ Civil Aviation Minister Gajapathi Raju said at Aero India.

Even as the government pushes for the development of indigenous civil aircraft, there is unease over safety and other issues among some scientists at NAL. “This is primarily an aerospace technologies research lab and designing and building aircraft is not the forte of the lab. Engineering responsibilities have been foisted on the lab. There are some misgivings on the project because failures can be a setback for the whole aviation sector in India,’’ a NAL scientist said.

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