After 16 Years and Rs 300 Crore, Civil Aircraft Dream Crashlands Published January 20, 2016

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India’s most ambitious civilian aircraft project has been given a quiet burial. Rs 300 crore was spent on the project, started way back in 1999 to build an indigenous 14-seater aircraft that was expected to put India in the big league and pave the way for the development of bigger passenger airplanes in future.

Bengaluru-headquartered National Aeronautics Limited (NAL) has stopped all work on Saras, the mutli-role aircraft that was named after the Indian crane. The planes already built have remained grounded and those working on the project have been redeployed.

NAL is part of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) headed by the prime minister.

Confirming that work on the project has been completely stopped, NAL director Shyam Chetty told Express: “Funding for the project stopped from December 31, 2013, but the work went on much beyond. Eventually, we had to stop the work when we ran out of lab funds. It was a Rs 300 crore project.”

“People who were working on the Saras project were redeployed for other projects where skills sets required are similar as NAL takes up lots of work in the strategic sector,” he said.

The aircraft made its maiden flight in 2004, but the project has always been plagued with glitches. Weight was a major concern as the aircraft was overweight by 1,000 kg. In fact, during the maiden flight, all seats except three — for two pilots and a flight test engineer — were removed to bring down the weight.

A turning point for the project was when a Saras aircraft on test flight crashed in 2009, killing two pilots and a flight test engineer from the Indian Air Force. IAF’s Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment located close to the HAL airport in Bengaluru was conducting tests and the aircraft was carrying out an ‘engine relight’ procedure when it crashed. The project never fully recovered from that crash.

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The Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) came out with a report 18 months after the crash. “The DGCA report made it clear that there were no problems with the aircraft or its design. However, those heading CSIR at that point were not too keen on the project, so it never received the kind of encouragement it should have got,” a former NAL officer who was associated with the project told Express. “The flight testing resumed in 2012. But, we had only one aircraft.”

The IAF had evinced keen interest in the aircraft as it could have been used to train its transport pilots. NAL was also hoping to find other buyers as the aircraft was being built for multiple roles. There was even a plan to develop a 80-seater plane based on Saras’ success.

“This was India’s first project to design and develop a civilian aircraft. At one point, around 600 people, including those from NAL, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and private sector were working on it,” the former NAL officer said.

“Now, all that work seems to have gone for a waste as the aircraft and the infrastructure created for the purpose are rendered useless.” Currently, two aircraft – one fully built and the other nearly complete – are parked at NAL’s Belur campus in the city.

NAL had built two aircraft and was in the process of making a third one using composite materials to reduce the weight. Saras also flew at air shows in the city. In fact, NAL was able to address the weight issue to some extent in the third aircraft that never took to the skies. In the second one, they used a more powerful engine. Saras aircraft were powered by Pratt and Whitney engines.

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The NAL director still seemed hopeful that the project may be revived in future. “Even now we are maintaining the aircraft and we hope that the project will be revived,” he added. Those in the know of the developments, however, are not that optimistic. According to them, the message from the government is very clear – it is not willing to invest in a project that is taking far too much time.

Sources said NAL officials recently gave a detailed presentation to Science and Technology Minister Harsh Vardhan, who is also vice-president of CSIR. “The minister did not give any assurance,” a source said.

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