The induction of the Tejas is a good opportunity to remember HF-24 Marut, India’s first indigenous fighter. The first of the Maruts, which were developed as part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s dream of attaining self-reliance in the aerospace sector, was handed over to the Dagger squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF) on April 1, 1967.
The story of the Marut started in the mid-1950s, when the government asked the IAF to spell out what they wanted from an indigenous fighter. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bangalore, was tasked with the project. The surprise lay in the choice of the designer: Kurt Tank, who had designed the Fockë-Wulf-190 for Hitler’s Germany in the Second World War, was invited to head the project.
In August 1956, Tank, accompanied by his deputy, Herr Mittelhuper, arrived in Bangalore to establish and head the design team of the Marut. There were only three senior Indian designers and the German duo had to build the entire infrastructure from scratch. By April 1959, they had produced the first prototype of the wooden glider, a style preferred by German fighter designers. The two-seater glider — fitted with a camera on the rear — had 78 successful flights till March 24, 1960, many of them with Tank in the rear seat. Former intelligence official Anand Arni, who grew up in Bangalore, has “vivid memories of witnessing drop tanks being ejected into a lake near the HAL airport, with Tank sitting on one side with a pair of binoculars”.
The construction of the first prototype started soon thereafter and the first official flight of the prototype took place on June 24, 1961, in the presence of then defence minister V K Krishna Menon. But the aircraft had a problem with its Bristol Orpheus 703 engine, an engine already being used in the IAF’s Gnat fighters. The IAF was reluctant to take an aircraft which offered only a marginal improvement upon the Hunter, but the government took a decision, in late 1962, to induct 18 pre-production aircraft and 60+ series production Mark-1s, an improved version, into service.
The plans to design an indigenous engine did not materialise and Indians looked far and wide for a better engine to replace the Bristol Orpheus 703. The Soviet Klimov K-7 was tried but couldn’t fit the existing airframe. The RD-9F axial flow engine met the same fate. India then sought an Egyptian engine, EI-300, which was being developed by Ferdinand Brandner, an Austrian repatriate from the Soviet Union. A pre-production Marut was taken to Helwan in Egypt in July 1966 for trials with the EI-300 engine. In June 1967, the Arab-Israeli war led to the stalling of the development of the EI-300 engine and the Indian test team was recalled in July 1969. The aircraft sent for trials was left in Helwan where it lay for many years, derelict and useless.
Meanwhile, a second IAF squadron, Tiger’s Head, was equipped with the Maruts in April 1969. The two squadrons participated in the 1971 war in support of the land forces in the Rajasthan sector. More than 300 combat sorties were flown by the Maruts during that fortnight of hostilities. No Maruts were shot down or damaged by the enemy aircraft throughout the war. By the time the third squadron was equipped with Maruts in December 1973, the fighter had reached 70 per cent indigenisation.
But the problems with the engine continued. Pushpindar Singh, author of Spirits of the Wind: The HAL HF-24 Marut says that “the Marut was unbeatable at low-level flying but it was underpowered for manoeuvrability. It also had problems of maintainability and that caused problems during operations.”
By 1982, the Air Headquarters was proposing phasing out of the HF-24 fleet on the grounds that it was “no longer operationally viable”. Late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, who was with the Operations Branch of Air Headquarters then, argued that Maruts had done well in the 1971 war and that their flight safety record was far superior to other fighters such as the Ajeet and Gnat. With brand new aircraft just delivered from HAL production lines — over a score of them had less than 100 hours of recorded flight — the Maruts could be employed for other roles.
“The HF-24 Marut was ahead of its times and had the government persisted with that programme, India would have been a generation ahead in design and development of aircraft today. We lost 25 years in the bargain,” argues Pushpindar Singh.
The F-24 Marut lives on at two places. One aeroplane is parked at the HAL Heritage Complex in Bangalore, but more interestingly, another shining aircraft stands in a corner of the Deutsches Museum in Munich. The Germans consider the Marut as part of their technological achievements. But it is often forgotten in India.