India flies second light combat helicopter prototype (With image)

July 25th, 2011 - 5:03 pm ICT by IANS  

Paris/New Delhi, July 25 (IANS) India has successfully test-flown the second prototype of its indigenous high altitude Light Combat Helicopter (LCH).

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Chairman and Managing Director Ashok Nayak told India Strategic defence magazine (www.indiastrategic.in) in interviews at the Paris Air Show and in New Delhi that the second aircraft was a “considerable improvement” over the first prototype as HAL and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) scientists had been able to achieve substantial weight reduction.

“Not only that, the human and weapons payload capacity of the rotorcraft had already been exceeded than the parameters mandated by the Indian Air Force (IAF).”

Although a derivative of the advanced light helicopter (ALH) Dhruv, the LCH has been re-designed and reconfigured from the beginning to operate at the Himalayan heights of 20,000 feet. It carries two pilots, one as a weapons operator, in tandem seating. The helicopter is powered by the same Shakti engine that is used by the ALH.

The first helicopter was flown last year, for 20 minutes in the first flight, and the second June 2011-end. The combined hours that the two helicopters, prototype-1 and prototype-2, have done by now are 76.

Nayak said the second prototype was flown to a height of 10,000 feet with an all-up weight (AUW) of 4,900 kgs. The parametres successfully tested by HAL test pilots included general handling, slow speed handling, basic automatic flight control system (AFCS) checks and 60 degree bank turns.

Images of the helicopter in flight, with digitally designed camouflage paint, have been made available to India Strategic. Later, radar absorbent coating to increase its stealth features would also be added.

After the basic tests are conducted and all parameters established, the helicopter would progressively be taken to higher altitudes like Leh, Kargil and Siachin as also in the deserts of Rajasthan.

A few more prototypes and several more tests are scheduled before the LCH gets into the production line and becomes operational in about five years. The initial operational clearance (IOC) is however targeted to be achieved in 2013, Nayak said, adding that the IAF is actively involved in all stages of the aircraft testing and system approvals.

The IAF has a highly reputed Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) in Bangalore which checks and approves all kinds of aircraft. Test pilots constitute the creme-de-la-creme of any air force, and these daredevils take even the new machines to their extremes before they are put into routine flying operations.

Nayak said that the desired weight of the LCH is 5.5 tonnes. Besides the two pilots, it will have a glass cockpit, gun and rocket pods, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles to attack and destroy hostile positions high in the mountains like the ones set up intruding Pakistani troops during the 1999 Kargil War.

Suitable applications as are found possible during the testing would be carried out to boost the lethality and survivability of the aircraft.

At present, the IAF deploys the Soviet vintage Mi-35 combat helicopters. These are being replaced with 22 newer combat helicopters, and the IAF is just about to announce its choice from two contestants, an up-rated Russian Mi-35 and the US Boeing Apache AH 64D with a new generation combat radar. The winner is likely to be the one which, first, qualifies in the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) tests, and second, if both go through that, then the lower bidder in terms of initial price, operating costs and life cycle costs over 40 years.

As for operations in 20,000 feet terrain, although some helicopters built by leading foreign companies reach those heights, they are not designed to operate from there as nowhere in the world are there high altitude battlegrounds like Siachin, where helicopters are the lifeline to support the troops against foreign intrusions and attacks.

The LCH requirement is unique for India, and the IAF accordingly had projected a need for several combat helicopter squadrons to operate from the Himalayan bases. The initial requirement was given as 66 in 2006 but the numbers could well touch 100 once the production line is going in about five years.

Notably, for high altitude operations, a substantial chunk of any aircraft or helicopter has to be made of composite materials and metals like titanium to withstand exposure to extreme temperatures and environment. This makes the machine expensive but enables it operate, and that also with higher payloads from high altitude bases.

(Gulshan Luthra is a defence analyst. He can be reached at Gulshan.Luthra@IndiaStrategic.in)

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