Final operational clearance for the LCA likely by 2015

Set to demonstrate its ‘swing-role’ capability by firing both missiles and laser-guided munitions at the Air Force firepower demonstration ‘Iron Fist’ in Pokhran later this month, the long-delayed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas will face its biggest ever challenge once it receives complete initial operational clearance, IOC-2 as it is called, hopefully by the end of the year.

From a guarded and secured environment, where it has been flying with a brilliant track record of 2,000 flights without an incident, Tejas will then move into an operational environment, where it will be subjected to field conditions.

It would be a test of Tejas’ capabilities, an official associated with the development of the LCA told The Hindu . “No matter how much care you have taken, some issues will always crop up when it gets exposed to the field, but the earlier we get these inputs, the quicker we can fix them,” he added.

Tejas — whose seventh Limited Series Production aircraft (LSP-7) is flying now — will soon be joined by the eighth, and the last, after which series production of 40 aircraft ordered by the Air Force will commence. LSP-8 has begun engine ground run and is expected to take to the skies in March. Meanwhile, cutting of metal is under way for the series production aircraft.

In the run-up to complete initial operational clearance, the aircraft would continue weapon trials in Pokhran to better its accuracy of delivery of ammunition. Besides test-firing laser-guided bombs, it would drop ‘dumb bombs,’ unguided munitions, with this aim, said the official.

“The phase between full IOC and final operational clearance, likely by 2015, will see the aircraft incrementally expand its flight envelope with a higher angle of attack — indicative of its agility and manoeuvrability without compromising on safety — and take on additional weapons like those beyond visual range [Derby, in this case] and an air-to-air gun [still not decided].”

“It is an aircraft intentionally designed to be unstable, so to speak, for better agility. So unless we exercise utmost care while taking it to a higher angle of attack, it could well depart from a controlled flight…” cautioned an ace test pilot.

“The LCA has had limited environmental trials in extreme hot and cold conditions, at sea-level and at high-altitudes in Leh. Every programme goes through this rigour, but being an indigenous programme that has come under fire time and again, the period between IOC-2 and FOC will be decisive for the LCA,” he said.

Wing Commander (retd.) P.K. Raveendran, group director (flight test) of the National Flight Test Centre that test-flies the LCA, during a chat at the recent Aero India 2013 at Bangalore, said weapon integration on LCA did not pose a challenge, given the aircraft’s modular avionics, open architecture and other anti-obsolescence features. “Adding a new weapon on the LCA is easy, as we know everything about the aircraft. It is entirely ours. It facilitates you to plug a new system in without hassles,” he said.

Futuristic thinking at the time of design, he said, had taken care of issues such as weapon suite change, upgrade of avionics, effortless maintenance, and reduction of turnaround time. “While its aerodynamics is almost plateaued, you are free to change the weapons and avionics. This is what gives an edge to the platform.”

Separately, it is learnt that handling flight of the LCA by the Air Force pilots will soon begin. “Once the aircraft is certified for induction, it will get detached from the umbilical. It will then become an Air Force fighter,” said an official of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which designed and developed the aircraft.

  • It will continue weapon trials in Pokhran to better its accuracy of delivery of ammunition

  • Weapon integration on LCA doesn’t pose a challenge