THE first Indian-made civilian passenger aircraft Saras, named after the Indian crane, took to the air in its maiden flight last week. Media stories and various commentators have promptly hailed this as a historic achievement, as is usually the case with achievements in science and technology, which may show that India is at least catching up with developed countries. Perhaps patriotic fervour and understandable excitement lay behind some of the opinions such as that Saras represented a milestone in aviation or that it had launched India into the forefront of the world’s aviation industry. Sadly, neither is true. Saras is indeed a considerable step forward in Indian aeronautics but, given the rather long history of the Indian aviation industry, longer than in most developing countries, and the huge investments made in it in terms of infrastructure and human resources, a more objective look at Saras would reveal it to be no giant leap.
Saras has been conceived as a multi-role small aircraft which can operate as a passenger carrier, executive craft, air ambulance or air rescue craft or for coast guard and other similar roles, with capacity to operate from semi-prepared airfields including in hot and high-altitude conditions which call for greater power and operational flexibility.
In its primary role as a commuter or air-taxi craft, considered best suited for short hops in regional sectors or in hub-and-spoke operations i.e., connecting smaller airports to major ones, Saras is designed to seat 14 passengers, expandable to 18. Its executive version with longer range will have 9 deluxe seats and a “combi” or combination version will have 7 economy class seats with space for mail and light packages. Saras is expected to have a maximum range of 1942 km or 6 hours endurance, a maximum cruising speed of 550 km per hour at 6000 meters (20,000 feet) altitude, with a maximum take-off weight of 6100 kg, fuel load of 1326 kg and a payload or load-carrying capacity (passengers, cargo or equipment or fittings) of 1232 kg.
Saras is driven by two time-tested Pratt & Whitney PT-6A-66 turbo-prop-engines (made by the Canadian subsidiary of the US aero-engine giant), or turbine-based engines which drive propellers. In Saras, the engines are mounted facing backwards in a “push” configuration at the rear of the fuselage (rather than, as is more usual, being mounted on the wings). This rather distinctive configuration, far less common in propeller-driven aircraft than in jets, has several advantages, chiefly substantial reduction in noise within the cabin and smoother airflow across the wings uninterrupted by engines and mountings. The aircraft has a pressurized roomy cabin and is fitted with the latest instrumentation and avionics as is common in contemporary small commuter and regional aircraft which seek to provide increasingly demanding paying passengers with “near-jet” flying conditions.
Saras has been designed by the National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL) in Bangalore, a constituent laboratory of the CSIR, an interesting aspect in itself in the context of Indian aviation. NAL has no great experience or background in aircraft design and even less so in manufacture, but it has over the years acquired considerable specialised expertise in some areas of aeronautical research such as aerodynamics, structure, composite materials, wind tunnel and other research and testing using sophisticated facilities and heavy-duty computing ability with India’s first parallel computer Flosolver. This experience and capability, together with strategic partnerships with agencies such as the Hindustan Aeronautic Limited (HAL), the backbone of Indian aircraft manufacturing and design-development overwhelmingly in military applications, and the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), itself a consortium of several research entities and which spearheaded the development of the Light Combat Aircraft, all in Banglore, gave NAL the confidence to position itself in the ‘90s to play a major role in catalysing a “vibrant civilian aviation industry” in India.
A series of market studies in the late ‘80s, two conducted by NAL itself and two others commissioned by it, brought out the need and market potential for a “fourth level” airline in India which would operate in a “feeder” role connecting small airfields in far flung, remote or otherwise low-density locations to regional hubs or airports in larger towns or cities. The world over, it is in such sectors that small or “commuter” aircraft with 10-25 passenger capacity operate whereas “third level” carriers connecting regional hubs with metros or national hubs operate with “regional” aircraft typically with 40-70 passengers capacity. In India, aircraft in “fourth level” roles would require to be rugged, with relatively short take-off and landing lengths and capability to perform well under diverse climatic and altitude conditions, so as to operate from small, semi-prepared airfields in different parts of the country. Such capability would also enable such aircraft to perform secondary roles such as air rescue, air ambulance, coast guard, reconnaissance etc.
These studies, with considerable mutual consistency, had indicated a market potential for around 200-250 such aircraft in India itself over the next 20 years. Besides this, the studies showed good potential for such an aircraft in different markets worldwide where it could be positioned appropriately to suit prevalent conditions and passenger profiles, for example in Africa, especially in the tourist and safari circuits in rugged terrain with short runways, in the Asia-Pacific and Middle-East regions as a commuter or tourist aircraft with performance and comforts comparable to small jet aircraft, and as a low-cost aircraft to replace the ageing An-2 in the former Soviet Union. The export potential of the Saras is expected to be enhanced by its cost advantages projected to be about 30 per cent lower than comparable aircraft available in the international market.
This somewhat rosy picture, however, is in need of a reality check.
Let us first look at the aircraft design and development programme. The NAL had begun conceptualising a programme to develop a small commuter type aircraft in 1991. But the Rs 139 crore project was beset by several hurdles, chiefly the difficulty faced by NAL to mobilise the funds required and later, after approval by the Cabinet in the late ‘90s and release of funds, the denial of critical components under US sanctions imposed in the wake of the Pokhran nuclear weapons tests blasts in 1998. Whereas detailed design exercises of various aircraft surfaces had commenced at NAL in 1996, the Project as a whole was seriously revived in 2001 with a cost escalation of 20 per cent, with funds coming from the CSIR itself, the Technology Development Board (set up by the Ministry of Science & Technology as a venture fund to promote productionisation of innovative technologies, Saras being the first governmental project to be funded by the TDB) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. NAL’s private-sector partner Banglore-based Taneja Aerospace contributes to the project in terms of manufacturing important sub-assemblies.
Saras is touted as a great achievement of indigenous science and technology. Nobody seriously expects this to mean an isolated endeavour or one not involving at least some borrowing of technologies from elsewhere and innovative “reverse engineering” to absorb new technologies into the indigenous infrastructure and capability. Yet there has been extreme shyness in acknowledging that Saras originated from a collaborative venture with the Russian (formerly Soviet) Myasischev Design Bureau based heavily on one of the latter’s highly similar aircraft codenamed “Duo” which was first displayed in the MAKS-2001 Moscow air show. Myasischev being one of the smaller Russian aviation companies, all of whom are struggling to keep their head above water in the changed environment in which the Russian aircraft industry now finds itself, had been looking for strategic investors in the ‘90s and a collaboration with NAL was agreed upon. Current developments seem to suggest that Myasischev has completely sold its “duo” technology to NAL.
Apart from the somewhat clever masking of this collaborative contribution by the Myassischev Bureau, a more serious problem has arisen with the final design and fabrication of the prototypes, the first of which flew last week. The prototype weighed 5118 kg which is disturbingly high, close to 25 per cent higher than the design empty weight of 4125 kg. On being questioned about this overweight, NAL’s project director said it was a “minor problem” which would be corrected in due course of development. Fact of the matter is that a 25 per cent weight penalty is huge and reducing it will take considerable work including some re-designing, especially since the prototype carried only 4 seats and few of the fittings and attachments which the flight model will carry. The weight penalty is likely to seriously compromise the range and fuel-carrying capacity, the fuel economy, the 3 year schedule to obtain flight certification, and will almost certainly have a negative impact on project costs and hence on the ultimate price of the aircraft, all adversely affecting the project viability.
NAL’s projected cost differential between Saras and comparable aircraft available internationally, which could have at least to some extent offset the above likely cost escalation, also do not bear close scrutiny. While NAL has claimed that Saras would cost anywhere around “a third less” than comparable aircraft, several experts have estimated the cost gap to be less than 15 per cent, considering the extent of foreign sourced components including the engine, and especially taking into account the possible poor economies of scale even with the projected demand of around 250 aircraft in 20 years.
The market, both globally and domestically, have changed significantly since the NAL studies carried out in the early ‘80s. The NAL Director informed the press soon after Saras’ maiden flight that Saras has “a market potential of about 100-150 in the domestic civilian and cargo domains”, and that too predicated on the projected 30 per cent price differential, a substantial downward revision from the 200-250 projected as the basis for launching the project. In the domestic sector this possibly shrinking market is also evidenced by the induction of 30-45 seater aircraft by feeder airlines and budget carriers in India which leaves a much smaller niche for a 14-seater commuter aircraft like the Saras except in a few regional locations. There is also considerable competition from smaller aircraft in the commuter and even in the executive segment such as the widely sold and famous planes from Beechcraft, Piper and Citation, which are nowadays also available on lease on quite favourable terms.
After the maiden test flight, the Indian Air Force promised an initial order of six Saras aircraft. Some other public sector carriers may follow suit later. But such purchases, perhaps even on cost-plus basis as in the past, may not suffice to keep the Saras programme buoyant.
The problem confronting NAL today is one familiar to observers of the Indian scene and the past performance of major players such as HAL. Faulty planning, time and cost overruns, lack of foresight and, to cap it, an absence of a professional work culture allowing for thoroughgoing review, criticism and a self-correction mechanism. In the Saras case, these latter flaws were pointed out by a very senior and now retired doyen of Indian aviation in a letter to a leading national daily stating that the problems of overweight and other design and fabrication problems were brought to the attention of senior NAL and CSIR officials but to no avail. These systemic problems have held Indian aviation back whereas those of some other developing countries have galloped ahead.
A good example is the Brazilian aircraft company Embraer which is now a world-class global manufacturer of regional aircraft with 40-100 seat capacity. It is worth briefly recalling the Embraer story as, by comparison, it brings out the weaknesses in the Indian system.
Embraer was set up in 1969 by the then military government in Brazil in the state sector and then privatised in 1994, whereas HAL in India which functions under the Department of Defence Production but started up in the private sector during World War II. Embraer early on identified a potential gap in the market for medium-capacity regional aircraft and based on considerable design-development work beforehand, started marketing 37-50 seater aircraft in the mid-‘90s which were virtually an overnight success. Embraer faced stiff competition from the American manufacturer Fairchild and the Canadian Bombardier and had also to contend with a World Trade Organisation ruling forcing the Brazilian government to scale back subsidies. Overcoming these odds, since 1996 Embraer has sold over 700 regional jets with capacity ranging from 35 to 90 to airlines around the world including in the US, Europe and Asia, and some Indian carriers are also currently in negotiations with the Brazilian manufacturer. Last year, it earned USD135 million on sales of USD 2.1 billion and expects sales to reach USD 3.3 billion in 2004.
Now Embraer is trying to break into a new market, for jet aircraft seating 70-100. According to the US Transportation Department, 61 per cent of all flights in the US take off with roughly that number of passengers. The new Embraer aircraft are designed to fit into a niche where larger planes of capacity greater than 100 made by Boeing and Airbus usually operate but uneconomically, using the same avionics, controls flight deck and engineering as larger planes, passenger headcounts in that range. Thus the Embraer, 170/190 series of commercial jets is designed to fill a gap between regional planes, which usually seat up to 70 people, and large commercial jets but with all the comforts of the latter. As a result of these development, Embraer is considered one of the hottest manufacturers in the aviation industry today.
It is indeed ironic that Russian manufacturer Ilyushin, maker of many famous large civilian and military transport aircraft including several in service in India, had proposed a collaboration agreement with HAL in the early ‘90s to make aircraft in just this market segment. The project was sought to be pushed during several high-profile visits by Russian government leaders to India. Even MoUs were signed but the project never even reached the drawing board stage. Today, the market for regional aircraft is nearing saturation with each of the 3 big players including Embraer having roughly 30 per cent market share. The Russians are still trying with different potential partners including China, but the task is proving increasingly difficult with over USD 30 billions worth orders having been placed for this class of aircraft.
Another bus missed by the Indian aviation industry. And Saras may prove to be a bus with few passengers left to carry.