India's first civil plane Saras takes to the skies after nearly a decade

A prototype of Saras, the country's first indigenously developed civil aeroplane, flew on Wednesday for the first time in nearly a decade, kindling hope of revival of the civil aircraft programme.

The Saras (PT-1N), an upgraded version of the first prototype, took to the skies here for about 40 minutes, which a scientist at the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), the design agency, said had met the expectation. Piloted by Wing Commander U P Singh and Group Captains R V Panicker and K P Bhat. The three belong to the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment, the air force's school for test pilots and engineers here.

The 14-seater civil aircraft, named after the Indian crane, was conceived in the 1990s as a joint project of India and Russia. NAL took it on its own when Myasischev Design Bureau, the Russian state agency for civilian planes, backed out due to the financial crisis after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

It took nearly two decades for scientists at NAL to first fly the plane, in May 2004. In 2009, the second prototype of Saras on a test flight crashed on Bengaluru's outskirts, killing three Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots and engineers. Investigation by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation blamed NAL for faulty programme management.  Since then, the project was in limbo.

In 2017, NAL said it was reviving the project and sought funds. To prove the concept, the unit of the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research dipped into its reserve and over the past 10-odd months, upgraded the first prototype and conducted tests, leading to the test flight on Wednesday.

However, the prototype is still heavier than it is supposed to be by 500 kg. The aircraft needs to test fly for 40 hours and meet safety requirements, following which NAL would freeze the plane design, to be then incorporated into a production variant.

“For two limited series production aircraft, we need Rs 4-5 billion (Rs 400-500 crore). Final production will be taken care of by the Air Force, which will fund the money,” said NAL director Jitendra J Jadhav during the Aero India show in February 2017.

Despite an aviation boom in India, airlines in the country operate planes built by foreign plane makers such as Boeing, Airbus, ATR and Embraer. Analysts say Saras could fit into a gap to serve what the government is focusing on to connect smaller towns through its Udaan programme; "have 14-15 seater planes that connect to smaller places", said Ajey Lele, an aerospace expert with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis.  "It also goes with the India-centric programmes the government is looking at."

An aerospace expert, who did not want to be named, said it was too early to celebrate. "Investments in civil aerospace design and manufacturing is very low. It requires a mission-mode approach and building capability that meets the goals," said the person.

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