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Saras makes maiden flight — Second prototype by next year

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Mr Kapil Sibal, Union Minister of State for Science and Technology and Ocean Development, at the inaugural flight of Saras aircraft at the Bangalore airport on Sunday. - G.R.N. Somashekar

Bangalore , Aug. 22

SARAS, the indigenous civilian light transport aircraft, made its first official inaugural flight on Sunday morning.

Watching its smooth glide of 17 minutes at the HAL airport here, Mr Kapil Sibal, Union Minister of State for Science & Technology, described it as a historic moment and a "flight into the future" for the country.

Conceived in the 1980s and sanctioned in 1999, Saras is the Rs 157.38-crore brainchild of National Aerospace Labs (NAL), Bangalore. By NAL's reckoning, the 14-seater aircraft could be in the market by late 2007, serving multiple roles as an air taxi or ambulance; as airbridge to the North-East and inaccessible regions, as cargo, transport or surveillance mechanism for the Coast Guard and the armed forces. NAL surveys have estimated a military/civilian market of 150 such aircraft in 10-15 years.

Describing the making of Saras as a Herculean task, the NAL Director, Dr B. Ramachandra Pai, said, "A lot more needs to be done." The new challenges are in design corrections to the weight of the craft which is over 950 kg more than the desired 6,000 kg; power optimisation to meet the single engine failure conditions; a more ergonomic cockpit layout; and changes in equipment location.

Two 800-hp Pratt & Whitney Canadian engines power Saras. The second version would be of a higher configuration engine, Dr K. Yegna Narayanan, Head and Saras Project Director of NAL's Centre for Civil Aircraft Design & Development (C-CADD), said.

All these changes would need another Rs 30 crore - Rs 33 crore before Saras can go into production mode, with a planned indigenisation of up to 70 per cent.

"But such design optimisation is quite common in any aircraft development programme," Dr Pai said. A main drawback for NAL was the lack of supportive databases unlike foreign aircraft design houses.

The changes would be put into the second prototype that would fly next year. The two prototypes need to totally put in 500 hours of flight-testing over the next 24-30 months before Saras gets the air-worthiness certificate from the DGCA. Since its maiden flight on May 29, Saras has made seven flights totalling three hours.

Though the prototype aircraft is still far from perfect, its flight today was no less a feat for the country than the Wright Brothers' historic air dash 100 years ago, said Dr T.S. Prahlad, NAL's former Director and now Project Co-ordinator at C-CADD. He said work is on to upgrade Saras into a 19-seater. "Now there is a new measure of confidence in the aeronautical community that is asking for new challenges like the 50-60-seater planes with short take-off and landing distance. If Brazil can do it, why can't we?"

Dr Pai and Dr Prahlad said Saras almost got derailed by the post-1998 US sanctions over procuring components for which NAL had signed contracts with US firms. Several in-house and indigenous alternatives from the private sector were found quickly, including how to form the aerodynamic shape for top skin, and numerically controlled machining capacity for the fuselage rings. These added to the cost, first put at Rs 131.38 crore.

CSIR plans to set up SPV

NAL has received a LI from the IAF for buying six Saras aircraft.

Its parent body, CSIR, is planning to set up an SPV with HAL and private industry to coordinate the batch production at HAL as soon as the orders are received.

The Technology Development Board of the DST, CSIR, the Ministry for Civil Aviation and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd have funded the project. Soon after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests, the US stopped the supply of a propeller engine item and an auxiliary power plant that drives the accessories.

The DST Secretary, Dr V.S. Ramamurthy, the CSIR Director-General, Dr R.A. Mashelkar, and HAL's Mr Mohanty, watched the test flight.

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