Navy to procure eight LCAs and 42 lighter aircraft

With the Navy reaffirming its faith in the naval variant of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), revised timelines are firmly in place for demonstrating the compatibility of air defence fighter, currently under development.

The first prototype (NP1) of naval LCA has had four test-flights so far, meant for gathering data required for its planned ski-jump from the shore-based test facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa in Goa before the end of the year. The Navy has initiated the process of procuring eight LCA Navy aircraft — four fighters and four trainers — in the Mark1 configuration, while it intends to buy at least 42 aircraft in the lighter, more powerful Mark2 configuration, which is expected to take to the skies in eight years from now.

During the flights, the prototype aircraft flew at low-speeds, with the landing gear extended and retracted. Flight tests of NP1 will recommence in March with at least half-a-dozen sorties flown before the ski-jump. The shore-based facility, readied using 800-tonne steel replicates the carrier-deck of the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) being built at the Cochin Shipyard. Its restraining gears (flaps) are being function-tested at the moment, says Commodore (retd.) C.D. Balaji, Project Director of LCA (Navy) programme.

The control law, developed in tandem with the National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL) for hands-free launch of the aircraft during ski-jump so as to validate its handling quality, has passed muster, with the US Navy, with which the Aeronautical development Agency had entered into an agreement for consultancy in fine-tuning the combat platform for carrier suitability, giving the thumbs-up in December last year.

Recovery/landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier is the single-most critical milestone in the development of a carrier-borne fighter and LCA Navy will demonstrate this capability on the shore-based facility by mid-2014. The aircraft is fitted with an auto-throttle to evaluate its behaviour as it lands.

“Unlike Air Force fighters that carry out flare-out landings, naval aircraft thumps down on the carrier deck given the limited runway available. The pilot is, therefore, required to maintain the angle of attack [by constantly changing throttle] during landing,” says Mr. Balaji.

Within global average

The development of the aircraft, rather the conversion of an air force fighter into a naval fighter, has been well within the global average of eight to nine years, from the time the project receives sanction to its first flight.

“The initial timeline we set for ourselves was a bit too ambitious. But we were able to fly it in April last year, exactly nine years since April 2003 when the project was approved,” he says.

While the naval fighter is largely the same as the Air Force aircraft in terms of hydraulics, pneumatics, flight control systems, line-replacement unit (LRU) and the like, its undercarriage was strengthened for carrier landings. This, coupled with a long landing gear rendered it heavier by about 900 kg.

With each test-flight of the Air Force version, the changes suggested are being incorporated on the naval fighter as well, adding to its delay.

  • The initial timeline we set for ourselves was a bit too ambitious, says Balaji

  • Undercarriage and long landing gear renders it heavier by about 900 kg