HAL and the Indian Aviation Industry

Wing Commander (Retd) Inder Mohan Chopra is a distinguished test pilot who served as the Chairman and Managing Director of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited from 1988 to 1991. In this article he writes about the Indian Aviation Industry and the limitations keeping back HAL from becoming a world class leader in Aeronautcal design and manufacturing.


Many younger persons who may read this article may not know me. I graduated as a test pilot in December 1957, retired from the Indian Air Force (IAF) in July 1970, and was appointed Chief Test Pilot at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bangalore. I decided to stop flying in July, 1980. After familiarization with production/management, I was General Manager of two divisions, Managing Director of Bangalore Complex and Chairman from April 1988 to May, 1991 and then retired.

HAL has drawn a lot of flak of late. The organisation has failed on many counts and succeeded in a few projects. I have with interest read many comments/analysis on what Gp. Capt. Kapil Bhargava has written. Kapil and I spoke about the shortcomings of HAL and the reasons for the organisation not becoming world class. I agree largely with the analysis of Air Marshal B D Jayal (Brijesh). Kapil thought that having been in HAL I should write some comments on the status of the Aerospace industry.

I would like to analyse the industrial picture on a much wider canvas. HAL is no centre of excellence. Their design capability is limited and production skills are much better. In my opinion there are just very few centres of excellence in India. Indian Space Organisation ISRO) is one which competes with the world and IT industry also delivers service solutions to world standards. We also need to acknowledge that missile technology has been developed well to produce the Prithvi, Akash, Trishul, Nag and Agni. The missile programmme has been developed under the 'Integrated Guided Missile Development Program' (IGMDP). After the end of the IGMDP (on 8 January 2008), all the current and future missiles are being developed as independent projects *. The laboratories of Defence Research Development Organasition (DRDO) have delivered in case of missiles but not on schedule. In many other programmes their performance has been not up to the mark.

The industrial base in the country is extremely low and imported technology is our main stay. The main reason for this state is lack of Research and Development (R&D). HAL hardly does any R&D other than development connected with a production project. Government funded laboratories like in USA are needed for developing technologies which are comparable if not better than what other countries develop and give it to the industry. The scientist and engineers who man such laboratories should preferably come from world class institutions within the country. We have five top IITs (plus several others) which are considered world class. Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore is rated high according to Academic Ranking by Center for World-Class Universities at Shanghai Jiao Tong University and is an institution in its Global list in the 301-400 category for 2013 (Source Times of India dated August 16, 2013). The top ranked Indian students after graduation head for USA as they receive generous offers giving them satisfaction both in remuneration and the quality of work. It is the very talented young persons who need to be retained to do innovative work in our laboratories. This will happen only if we create world class laboratories and offer competitive remuneration. We have about seven global class Business Schools. Top talents from these Schools should also be retained by similar means. The annual output of these institutes is not enough and we need many more top class institutes to cater to our requirements in technology and management.

I will briefly try to analyse the weaknesses and strengths of HAL. As stated the design capability is very limited. Design engineers at the middle level are good with analytical ability but the leaders are absent. In my humble opinion, since my association with HAL from 1961 we had only two top level designers in the 1960s capable of being project leaders. HAL tried later to employ a Chief Designer from Europe /USA. One person was engaged who subsequently had to leave because the job was too big for him. HAL has never had a top class aerodynamicist.

The HF-24 Marut from design to first flight was in five years, a unique achievement perhaps not even achieved in the West. This schedule became a reality because Dr. Kurt Tank was an extremely good leader. He not only led the design team but also excelled in supervising the production of the prototype as he had experience of producing aircraft in thousands annually during World War II. The design team of Indian engineers and the workers provided excellent support for the schedule achieved. It is a pity that Orpheus 12, the engine around which Marut was designed was never produced. The aircraft was contemporary and with Orpheus 12, it would have excelled in performance.

Intermediate Jet Trainer, Sitara (IJT) has been designed and has gone through some flight tests. Several problems have been experienced which is not unusual and can be expected. However these problems continue to linger and remedies have not yet been found. A major setback has been the ejection of the two test pilots when the aircraft did not recover I believe from a spin. I understand spin tests were undertaken without an anti-spin parachute, an unexplainable omission. Why this decision was taken and was the aircraft model subjected to spin test in a special wind tunnel abroad as I think none exist in this country? A high tail is generally known to exhibit problems in recovery from a spin. The programme is not on schedule and expected date for completion of development is December 2013*. IAF has got the Pilatus PC 7 (Trainer) for training as HPT 32 has been discarded. The first Pilatus was inducted into IAF in May 2013 (Newspaper report). Alternative proposal from HAL for HTT 40 (Turbo-prop trainer) was not considered as it was still at the initial design stage. My opinion about lack of good leadership of the Design Bureau gets strengthened in view of the above.

Light Combat Aircraft (LCA-Tejas).

HAL serves as the prime contractor and Aernautical Development Agency (ADA) has the primary responsibility for the design and development of the LCA *. When I retired it was clearly agreed that HAL would be the Design Authority and this position should not have altered. Obviously the responsibilities changed and HAL in reality became a sub-contractor. I doubt with the primary responsibility being given to ADA whether the programme has benefited. The programme has slipped by several years. However one has to give credit for the technologies incorporated namely Fly-by Wire, extensive use of composites (about 45%) in the build of aircraft, glass cockpit etc. Eight Tejas of Limited Series Production have flown*. The weapons trials have yet to be completed. The failure of the development of the Kaveri engine for the Tejas is a big setback for DRDO. Many of us in the test pilot community thought it was too ambitious a project. Aircraft engine technology is very complex and difficult to master. Sanctioning the programme as an experimental programme would have been much better. Collaboration with a company in the West should have been explored. We are fortunate I believe to have recently got the technology for DS blades and Single Crystal blades for the turbines through our licence agreements.

Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH-Dhruv) I think is a success story though there may be slippage of schedule in the development. Composite Technology has been absorbed well as a large amount of composites have been used for fuselage structure. Nearly 45% of Tejas structure is also made of composites. A very modern Composite Shop has been set up at Bangalore Complex.

The strength of HAL lies in production and overhaul. The work force is experienced and normally produces aircraft to schedule. Optimistic schedules given in HAL Project Reports are sometimes difficult to meet. On other occasions schedules are not met because there are genuine difficulties. When I was MD at Bangalore Complex, the biggest challenge was producing the tooling for Jaguar. Tooling is a one-time activity and due to the large numbers involved subcontracting was the option to be explored. It was difficult to get subcontractors who would make tools to the close tolerances required. We managed by placing with the contractors for short periods machinist to help achieve the quality needed and quality control inspectors for maintaining the dimensions. This was done first time by HAL with success. It is worth mentioning that at the raw material stage of production even with about Rs. 2 crore amortisation of tooling on each aircraft on the 75 aircraft ordered, the price was cheaper than the imported cost. Sometimes the imported price is cheaper because of tooling cost and the high man hours taken at HAL because of the learning. The thumb rule for learning is that full learning is achieved after producing about 100 Jaguar class of aircraft. It is also important that piece meal orders are not placed. In the past continuation order has been placed for as low as 3-5 aircraft when the production of that type of aircraft has already ended. These types of orders lead to higher cost of production. It appears defence finance thinks “payment delayed is money saved”, a joke in the corridors of South Block.

HAL is a vertically integrated company. Practically every item is made in house ranging from accessories, avionics, and engines to aircraft. It is a management’s nightmare. No company in the world attempts such vertical integration. About 60-70% of a Boeing aircraft is made by subcontractors. When I tried to get engine fuel pump components for the Jaguar made by MICO, Bangalore (Bosch subsidiary), it was a non-starter because we needed manufacturing tolerance of 5 micron and MICO had experience of working with 25 Micron. I think now 20 years later it would be possible to induce private sector to set up high-tech units for building accessories etc. It should be possible also to subcontract high technology work as I believe a few companies have set up machining centres with very modern CNC machines. Such companies have started taking up Defence Sector work.

All of us are interested in indigenisation but there are difficulties to achieve it in high technology items. The technology for some licenced items exists. Even if we produce 100 aircraft/helicopters annually, the quantity required for units will be so small that manufacturing units will not be viable. For technology developed in India, again the quantities required are too little unless export market is available. Developed countries do not make every item required for their defence industries and resort to import from each other. I am glad to learn indigenisation achieved by the Indian Navy is substantial. I think large numbers of items used in ships are of lower technology compared to aircraft but I am open to correction. The diesel engines for the indigenous aircraft carrier are imported from General Electric, USA. I believe no diesel engine has been designed developed in India except for the Tata Indica.

I presume IAF has procedures to assess the organisation meets the required standards especially with high technology incorporated in the new aircraft inductions.

It is understood that in the recent reconstitution of the Board of Directors of HAL, two Directors (DCAS & AOM) from the IAF have been dropped. I consider this unwise and the reason for this move by the MOD is not known. The IAF Directors have a lot to contribute as the main user of HAL products.

Some comments have been made on the appointment of the Chairman, HAL. Serving Chief of Air Staff and serving/retired Air Marshals have been Chairman of HAL on many occasions and the performance of the company was no better than when others had occupied that position. However there should be no bar for serving/retired Air Marshals (but not of lower rank) being considered and interviewed for selection by the Public Enterprises Selection Board (PESB). HAL should have a succession plan for the top post. It is demoralising for the insiders not to be considered.

Several months back there was a news report that Government had decided to offer 10% equity of HAL for private sector investment. I think this a very good move. Private investors holding equity will also get a few seats on the Board and this will inject new ideas for the management. Soon after retirement I had suggested in an Article published in the Deccan Herald newspaper that the HAL Divisions doing substantial civil business should be privatised. Even though HAL is a Navratna company I doubt whether it has greater autonomy. The growth/performance of PSUs suffers due to bureaucratic delays and interference. I think ISRO does not suffer from bureaucratic interference as Chairman is also Secretary of Department of Space reporting directly to the Prime Minister. I read a newspaper report of an interesting suggestion by Chairman SAIL that a holding company for all PSUs be created which will interact with the Government and PSUs will have complete freedom of action. I wonder whether the Government bureaucracy will consider such a suggestion.