Indian light helicopter gets clearance; can be a new turn in Indian aerospace

The Indian Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), designed and developed by state-owned aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), received Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) from the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) at the conclusion of DefExpo 2020 on  February 7 at Lucknow

Light Utility Helicopter (LUH)

The Indian Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), designed and developed by state-owned aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), received Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) from the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification (CEMILAC) at the conclusion of DefExpo 2020 on  February 7 at Lucknow. This is a significant milestone in the programme and paves the way for integration of mission and role equipment, production of the helicopter, and eventual Final Operational Clearance (FOC).

As of January 2020, three prototypes have been built that, as per HAL, "have cumulatively completed over 550 flights under various terrains and climatic conditions" complying with "stringent certification and user requirements".

Many posts in the Himalayas and Siachen Glacier area are supported by light helicopters of the  Indian Army and IAF. With landing pads in excess of 18000 feet elevation, the LUH will, over time, replace Cheetahs (Lama) in the mountains and Chetaks (Alouette III) in the plains. In September 2019, the LUH prototype self-deployed from Bangalore to Leh for 'hot and high' trials. HAL reported “the chopper revealed high reliability without any service support” during that deployment. Those trials were preceded by hot weather trials in 2018, cold weather trials at Leh in 2019 and sea level trials at Chennai and Puducherry in 2018-19.

All such trials are flown by HAL crew who are ex-IAF test pilots and flight test engineers. User services also depute their representatives. Typically, the services reserve comments till specialised  organisations such as Aircraft & Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), Army Aviation Trials Team (AATT) or Naval Flight Test Squadron (NFTS) complete exhaustive user evaluation trials and provide reports.

The LUH forms part of the Indian Army and Air Force's long-standing requirement for 394 light helicopters that must deliver against unique challenges of terrain and environmental conditions. These helicopters are the lifeline for communication, logistics, recce and air observation post (Air OP) tasks. As per reports, 187 of these would be LUH (126 for army & 61 for IAF), with the rest coming through an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for 197 Ka-226T helicopters to be manufactured by Indo-Russian Helicopters Limited (IRHL) - an HAL-Russian Helicopters joint venture company. HAL has moved fast on LUH, potentially displacing foreign players who have been fielding products in this range to India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD for years.

More interestingly, HAL is positioning the LUH as a product with potential civil application. A video quotes  HAL's Chief Test Pilot Wg Cdr Unni Pillai (retd) explaining that the LUH is HAL's "third design" (the others being ALH Dhruv and Light Combat Helicopter LCH). In next 4-5 years, HAL hopes to complete their fourth design - the Indian Multi Role Helicopter (IMRH).  "It (LUH) is a military aircraft right now, but it'll be in the civil variant soon", Unni adds.

This is particularly important because, right at the prototype stage, HAL has set its eyes on the civil customer. This is a rare admission and shows HAL's willingness to engage with civilian customers.

Large parts of hilly terrain in north and northeast India today are serviced by single-engine civil helicopters like Bell Flight's Bell 407, Airbus Helicopters' AS350 B3 Ecureuil, etc. If the indigenous LUH, designed to meet exacting requirements of Army and IAF, is able to prove its mettle in the civil world, it can potentially offer a competing product to Indian operators, especially in the heli-tourism sector.

But, HAL’s primary focus on satisfying military customers has come at the cost of benign neglect for civil variants. Past examples hardly add shine to present day claims. HAL's last product certified for civil aviation was the 5.5-ton civil-certified ALH Dhruv. Non-military  customers of the Dhruv today are limited to Border Security Force (BSF), Jharkhand government, Pawan Hans Limited (PHL) and a few other government agencies,  a total of just 4-5 helicopters in a country with about 350 civil helicopters. That's an unenviable 1.4% market share which HAL could look to improve.

HAL’s forays with Dhruv into the international market did not meet with much success either. Ecuador cancelled their contract in 2015 after a spate of crashes. The Indian government pushed the helicopter into Mauritius and Maldives where a military variant continues to be operated by Indian crew. However, this is more symbolic than representative of the helicopter’s competitive edge over other products in this class. The offshore market in India is 'NO GO' for single-engine helicopters, even if they are equipped with Emergency Flotation Gear (EFG) like the LUH claims to be. The Indian Navy doesn't seem inclined to rethink its options either.

How HAL plans to beat this challenge with the nascent LUH remains to be seen. The 2 to 3-ton category is packed with top-of-line helicopters certified to international  standards. They have been carrying the load for years globally while HAL continued to service a captive clientele from India’s armed forces. The LUH has to bring real 'value' to the civilian customer in India already grappling with regulatory overload and high operating costs - the universal bane of helicopters. Unlike armed forces, civil operators are not compelled to toe any 'Make in India' line when other products make economic sense.

That said, HAL's eye on LUH's export potential, however tentative, could mark a new turn in Indian aerospace. Gone are the days when military technology led the way, leading to successful derivatives for civil aviation. In India, particularly for HAL, the reverse holds true today. HAL has turned out the  ALH in large numbers; but their efforts to offer the civil-certified Dhruv for licenced production has not evoked much interest.

The reason is simple: aircraft availability, serviceability and maintainability requirements of civil customers. Armed forces (in peacetime) are forgiving of shortfall in these areas because the bottom line is not cost-driven. Even a large civil public sector operator like PHL would target contracts catering for a maintenance reserve of about 15-20%. Therefore,  to service a 4-aircraft contract, you  need to have five aircraft. One aircraft becomes the 'maintenance reserve' or 'Christmas tree' to be cannibalized for spares or rotables.

However counter-intuitive it may sound, if HAL wants to be seen and accepted as world-class, it must rise to the competition - not from Indian defence customers, but from number-crunching, hardcore civil customers who have to justify the business to their shareholders. Small operators certainly cannot deal with any machine with such large overheads. They have practically NIL maintenance reserves.

Therein lies the crux.  HAL - indeed India as a nation - must wake up to the harsh reality that we don't yet have a truly world-class helicopter (or airplane) that competes on the global stage. That, truly, is the high-water mark HAL or any private player from India must set for itself.

It may sound underwhelming against an impressive line-up of indigenous military helicopters bristling with weapons and sensors. But that, in my view, is the elephant in the room we can no longer afford to ignore. Not only to captive customers, but to global customers and the discerning civil operator who walks a thin line of survival daily - weighed down by maintainability, crippling import duty, product support, spares, non-revenue sorties for track & balance, intricate global supply chains, op-logistics, and the reality of balance sheet numbers in place of sentiment. There is no government bailout in the civil helicopter industry; only penalties and liquidated damages that can drive your business aground.  If HAL can compete in that space, perhaps we may be on to something. Anything else is only IOC, not FOC.

(The writer, a retired Indian Navy veteran, is a certified test pilot on helicopters)