On May 17, a group of Indian Air Force’s finest were gathered around in a room buzzing with radio transmissions and lined with consoles. There was nervousness in the air and frowns on faces. Their day in Bengaluru had started according to plan. India would witness the performance of the Tejas fighter jet, their boss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, would be flying in it for the first time, he would take over controls halfway into the 30-minute flight and the jet itself would be flown by ace pilot Group Captain Madhav Rangachari.
But as Group Captain Rangachari fired up the engines of the twin-seat trainer version, Air Chief Marshal Raha, from the rear seat threw up a surprise. He told the pilot he would take over completely — take off, check the jet’s agility, throw it into dives, pick a ‘target’ and then return to Bengaluru’s HAL aiport. And as the group of stunned IAF officers in command & control stared into monitors, their boss shot off in the direction of Krishnagiri in Tamil Nadu, 90 kilometres away, picked a dam as the ‘ground target’, simulated a strike, tossed the jet around with one of the moves generating a body-crushing 5Gs and then headed back to Bengaluru for a smooth landing.
The Air Chief Marshal was flying after 17 years and in command & control many were looking around for chairs to sit. Because besides the relief, there was much joy. For those who had worked on the plane, this day was once a waking dream. Tejas, and its May 17 flight, is the result of over 30 years of work and through those three decades, the plane’s engineers endured unending taunts and even threats of imprisonment.
Dr V.S. Arunachalam, a former scientific adviser to the defence minister and chief of DRDO remembers the day they almost lost the plane. “At one meeting in 1991, chaired by then Defence Minister Sharad Pawar, MP Suresh Kalmadi, said we should be sent behind bars because he had found large-scale misappropriation of funds. But Ratan Tata, who was invited to the meeting along with other industrialists had a contrary opinion. Tata told the minister that we had chosen the best technology and if for some reason the government wished to scrap the project, the Tata Group would take over and make the aircraft themselves. Pawar then decided to support us as many others had agreed with Tata,” he says.
India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme (christened ‘Tejas’ by former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee later) began when Indira Gandhi was furious with the Soviets for playing truant while supplying spares for fighter aircraft. Soon, the challenge to make a jet for ourselves, fell on the shoulders of Dr Arunachalam and just about 300 others. They would face much of the bureaucratic hell Indian innovation was during its earliest years.
His successor, the late Dr A.P.J Abdul Kalam too, faced problems while steering the project. A major blow came in 1998 — after India’s nuclear tests in Pokhran. Two companies —Lockheed Martin and General Electric — who had agreed to provide expertise to the LCA project pulled their engineers out after a US technology embargo. Their ejection turned the clock back by four years for the project.
The plane first flew on January 4, 2001. “One of the early jokes was that LCA stood for ‘Last chance for Arunachalam’. And when I took over (as Chief of DRDO), they said it was Last Chance for Aatre. Today, critics are all quiet,” says Dr Vasudev Aatre, who headed DRDO when ‘Tejas’ made that first flight 15 years ago.
Also, for Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar (Retd), who served as a formidable bridge between IAF and DRDO, and later as project director, the fact that Tejas clocked close to 3,000 hours without a single snag is a formidable achievement. He now wants more of these planes inducted as soon as possible. He joins Air Chief Marshal Raha and many others who believe the Tejas has become, an asset. And to think we almost lost the plane to mountains of paperwork and Suresh Kalmadi’s accounting.