BS READS: Plane X, the first desi civilian aircraft India could never build

Topics BS Reads | Civil Aviation | HAL

In the first part of this report, Business Standard looked at how India’s plan to develop an indigenous civilian aircraft died a silent death. But nothing is known so far about the ideas that went into conceptualising the aircraft. The plan was to avoid duplication, work on core technical competency of India’s aerospace industry, and produce the first ‘Made in India’ aircraft in the shortest possible time.

The plane on paper

A high-powered committee, chaired by G Madhavan Nair, former chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro), and comprising various scientists and industrialists like Arun Firodia, was constituted in May 2010 to look at several options for the indigenous regional aircraft. Nair was given the assignment a few months after his retirement, in September 2009. 

It took almost 18 months to devise a plan for the aircraft. Developing an indigenous engine was never on the table. The plan was to just design an airframe that could be fitted with a suitable engine of any global aircraft engine maker. The option finally recommended by the committee was a low-speed turbofan aircraft with a range of about 2,500 kilometres. This was preferred to the high-speed turbofan models because companies like Brazil’s Embraer, Canada’s Bombardier, Japan’s Mitsubishi and Russia’s Sukhoi were already way ahead of India in producing such aircraft. 

An effort to develop a high-speed turbofan would not have been commercially viable, given the stiff global competition from these companies. In terms of performance, it was felt that a low-speed turbofan would have advantages over the high-speed turbofan due to its lower take-off weight, lower emissions and less fuel burn. While the low speed would increase travel time on short regional routes, this disadvantage was considered an acceptable compromise. Engine options for a low-speed turbofan were readily available from all major aircraft engine makers and it was felt that the plane would be cheaper to produce with a relatively simple configuration.

The other option considered was a turboprop aircraft on which National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) had been working for a few years before the committee was constituted. The turboprop was considered the most economical option – in terms of operating cost due to lowest fuel burn, lowest acquisition cost, and shortest runway requirement for take-off enabling it to connect remote locations in different regions of India. But the turboprop was bypassed because of limited engine options available globally for a 90-seater aircraft.

India’s own 90-seater plane – inside out

India’s domestic airlines had communicated their requirements to the Nair committee, which eventually led to the selection of a 90-seater aircraft with the option of a 70-seater variant kept open for future requirements. Designs were made for the cabin cross-section, sizes of overhead luggage bins were finalised, and underbelly cargo holding capacity of the aircraft was suggested. After allowing margins for headwinds and other factors, the range for the aircraft was set at 2,500 kilometres with 90 passengers on board without having to refuel during the flight. 

The maximum cruise speed for the aircraft would be set at a level to achieve the best fuel efficiency. This was much lower than a conventional jet aircraft or for that matter high-speed turbofans operating across the world. While a lower speed would increase flight durations and associated costs like maintenance, crew salaries and reduced flight frequency, the saving on account of lower fuel burn outweighed these disadvantages.

With these parameters, it was believed that operating, acquisition and maintenance costs would be significantly lower when compared with other options. Like most regional jets operating across the world, a low-wing design layout with engines attached to them and a low horizontal stabiliser were preferred to a high-wing layout option. India’s 90-seater plane would have substantially lower fuel consumption than jets with similar configuration manufactured by Embraer and Bombardier. Four major engine makers – Pratt & Whitney, General Electric, Rolls Royce and Safran – were approached for engine options. Of the options that were considered suitable, only one engine was found to be certified.

The Rs 7,555-crore plan

At the peak of the aircraft’s development, close to 600 engineers were expected to be working on the project. All of this was to be completed in seven years, with the first five planes being produced in 2019 – a plan that never materialised. After taking various factors into consideration, the cost of the design and development phase was estimated at Rs 4,355 crore. Another Rs 3,200 crore was envisaged as the series production expenditure. Effectively, in seven years, and with an investment of Rs 7,555 crore, India’s first ever home-made civilian aircraft should have been ready to fly commercially. 

Every aircraft’s production cost was estimated to be Rs 100 crore once the production started, with the engine alone costing an estimated Rs 33 crore. The plane would have been sold to buyers for Rs 133 crore. With deal prices involving discounts to initial buyers, the unit cost of the India-made aircraft was estimated to be almost 25 per cent lower than those of similar contemporary aircraft of various global aircraft manufacturers. 

Policymakers told the government that developing such an aircraft abroad would cost around $2 billion – twice the project cost of India’s indigenous 90-seater aircraft. An HAL official who was involved in preparing the plan told Business Standard: “We held wide-ranging discussions with many airframe and engine manufacturers abroad and considered various factors while informing G Madhavan Nair and his team about the costs. Manpower cost is one of the key components in airframe manufacturing or aircraft assembly. In India, these costs were just a fraction of what it would take to get skilled manpower abroad for such a project.”

Unaware of an Indian invention

While deciding on building a turbofan aircraft, the high-powered committee seemed to have been unaware of a crucial progress that was being made in developing an optimal turboprop aircraft based on an entirely new idea of a better wing to replace the country’s ageing fleet of ATRs. Scientist Roddam Narasimha was developing it along with his team of PhD students at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bengaluru. 

Narasimha, former director of NAL and a member of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi’s scientific advisory council, had developed this idea specifically for turboprops even before the process of developing India’s civilian aircraft had begun. He and his team had designed, especially for turboprops, a new set of wings that could significantly reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency. This was achieved by making the portion of the wing right behind the propeller concave at the trailing edge; this would make the wings further away from the propeller convex and curve up the tip of the wing. 

The much older ATRs and other turboprops have straight wings with relatively uniform wing chord lengths on which the propellers are mounted. By concaving the wing right behind the propeller, the slipstream (or the airflow generated by the rotating propeller) could be better harnessed to make an optimum distribution of lift. This would, in effect, reduce the drag on the aircraft’s wings.

“When we wanted to test the wings, we put the new wings and propeller on a wind tunnel model on the Saras aircraft, with the support of NAL and the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). We were surprised by the results. It was more than we expected. We got more than 10 per cent decrease in drag at cruise. The turboprop design we were working on had to have engines mounted on the wings instead of the tail. The key innovation we did was a complete re-design of the wings which reduced the drag and fuel consumption. After the success of the tests, we filed a patent,” said Narasimha. Unfortunately this crucial idea that helped achieve the most important objective of reducing fuel burn got no opportunity for use in India after the civilian aircraft development was put in cold storage. 

Discussions with industry top guns

A committee headed by former finance secretary Vijay Kelkar was set up to design the contours of a joint venture, draft an expression of interest, and generate a Cabinet note on the same. The note would detail the investments required and the organisational structure of the body executing the programme. The committee also included former Infosys board member T V Mohandas Pai and industrialist Arun Firodia among others. 

All these were submitted to the government in 2012. Meetings were held and letters written to top industrialists. The industry’s viewpoints were taken on four key questions. First, was the time ripe for India to have its own civil aircraft production programme? Second, what should be the role of the government in such a project? Third, if the public-private-partnership (PPP) model was relevant, what was the best strategy to execute it? And fourth, could an offset policy be leveraged for the civil aircraft production project?

The industrialists were unanimous in their view that India needed its very own civil aircraft industry, since it had the technological capabilities and market conditions for one. The development of this industry could also generate millions of skilled jobs. They suggested that a two-phased approach – design & development, and production – was appropriate. It was suggested that the joint venture would need a domestic anchor customer for the aircraft, as global competition was tough. It was recommended that the anchor customer could be India’s defence forces, which could also be involved in developing the aircraft for military use. 

Made-in-India plane back on radar?

The introduction of the regional-connectivity scheme Udan (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik) by the government seems to have rekindled the civil aircraft development programme. “We submitted a fresh proposal to the government in 2019 for developing a turboprop aircraft. This one is completely different from the old programme. The configuration is completely different, even though it will be a 90-seater aircraft. We are still awaiting the government's approval,” said Jitender Jadhav, director of NAL. 

The NITI Aayog also seems to have advised the government to pursue the project. In 2018, Parliament was informed that a meeting of Cabinet committee of secretaries was held after the Aayog’s suggestion. It was decided that a special-purpose vehicle (SPV) involving HAL, ADA and NAL would be formed with an initial contribution of Rs 10 crore from each organisation. The ministry of civil aviation was to submit a proposal on the SPV to the public investment board and the Cabinet. However, despite these developments, no concrete decision seems to have been taken on the project yet.

In September 2019, Union minister Harsh Vardhan, while addressing the media at an NAL function in Bengaluru, had given the latest official word on the project. He had said: “We will have to bring the civil aviation ministry on board. We have to take the approval of the Prime Minister's Office. Also, we will have to take scientists on board, so, as a science & technology minister, I will facilitate them to move in the right direction.” 

At the same event, NAL’s director was quoted as saying: “First, we will have to get in-principle approval from the ministries of science & technology, and civil aviation, and finance. Then we can finish the design phase. One-and-a-half years starting then will be the preliminary design phase. Then, we will submit it to the government. Once the government sanctions, we will develop it.” 

It seems the more things change for India’s civilian aircraft project, the more it remains the same. For Plane X, it’s back to where it all started.

This was the second of a two-part series on Plane-X. Read the first part here

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