Ravi Sharma

This follows NAL's plans to build regional transport aircraft

Work on RTA project expected to begin next year

It will study NAL's expertise, manpower and infrastructure

BANGALORE: The Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has set up a committee to study the capability and of the National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL) here to build civil aircraft.

The panel will be headed by K. Kasturirangan, eminent space scientist and member of the Planning Commission. The development work for the Rs. 2,000-crore RTA project is expected to begin next year,

The move comes in the wake of NAL's plan to build a 70 to 90-seater regional transport aircraft (RTA) and attempts to resurrect the flight tests of the 14-seater Saras programme.

The Saras programme suffered a major setback when a prototype crashed during an experimental flight in March 2009, killing two test pilots and a flight test engineer from the Indian Air Force's Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE).

The Kasturirangan committee will have Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar (retd.), a former programme director of the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft programme, as its co-chairman; the commandant of ASTE; and representatives from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the Centre for Military Airworthiness and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation as members. Though its final terms of reference are yet to be given, CSIR officials said these would be finalised during the panel's initial meeting this month.

Official sources told The Hindu that the committee would study whether the NAL has the expertise, manpower, infrastructure and capability to design, develop, certify and ensure that a civil aircraft built by it goes into service, not just cost and technically effective, but also on time.

The committee would also come out with suggestions such as finding an industrial partner and carving out a separate business unit from NAL that would focus primarily on civil aircraft design.

On the issue of Tejas programme's dedicated flight test pilots, the CSIR officials felt that if NAL was to successfully build civil aircraft, it would need to have its own flight test pilots and not depend on the ASTE or any other organisation.

Though NAL is primarily a laboratory that focuses on research in composites, it is the only government agency (not even HAL) that had made attempts to build civil aircraft. The Saras and the two-seater Hansa trainer are the examples. While the Saras project has suffered weight and design issues, it had been difficult for NAL to market the Hansa. The government has so far sanctioned around Rs. 300 crore for the Saras programme. (NAL has asked for more funds to build a second Saras production standard aircraft).