For a quarter of a century, India has struggled to manufacture passenger planes locally with little or no success despite the country’s large aviation market.

This ambition was further reinforced in February this year when Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) received a modification document for its 19-seater Dornier-228 (upgraded) general-purpose light transport civilian aircraft from the Directorate General of the civil aviation (DGAC) for UDAN scheme. The aircraft is currently in use by the defense forces. Recently, the aviation regulator issued a “certificate of airworthiness” to this aircraft, paving the way for its civil use.

India is home to the world’s ninth largest $ 16 billion civil aviation market. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, speaking to the joint Indo-American business conclave in July last year, said India needed at least 1,000 mid-capacity aircraft for regional air connectivity and called on investors to come forward.

Prior to that, former Civil Aviation Minister Suresh Prabhu announced in early 2019 that India would roll out a roadmap for domestic aircraft manufacturing and was ready to partner with major global players. .

Aviation experts said the idea of ​​producing local passenger planes has become all the more important given the Centre’s focus on local manufacturing with missions such as Make-in-India and Aatmanirbhar. Bharat.

However, a former DGAC official said the main problem is that the country so far has no design for a narrow- or medium-body turboprop other than the Dornier aircraft. “The manufacture of an aircraft is a subsequent step, we must first come up with a prototype. Take the design approval from the DGCA, build the prototype, have it certified, and then start manufacturing, ”he said. “Cost is also a major issue as each certified Dornier 2 (from HAL) aircraft has a huge cost of ??55 crore, an amount in which a scheduled or non-scheduled operator can bring in three planes, ”the official said.

In addition, the planes produced by HAL were not pressurized, which means that there were height restrictions for the flight. “So even if the aircraft performed well and it was fuel efficient, there would be issues in case the aircraft had to fly over hilly terrain. Such were its drawbacks. Therefore, we need pressurized airplanes to start with a 70 to 90 seat turboprop followed by a Jet. “

While one section of experts says it’s the best time for the country to dive in and fulfill its long-cherished dream of having its plane, another section believes the plan will only bear fruit if the India is reaching critical mass for a capital intensive industry.

“It’s (domestic aircraft manufacturing) a great idea, but the challenges are many. It is important to build the Indian civil aerospace industry by removing a lot of barriers to entry which are a big challenge, ”said Dhiraj Mathur, former partner of PwC, a global consultancy firm. “We tried to make these planes. Various efforts have been made over time by the NAL or the National Aerospace Laboratory (to manufacture an airliner), but attempts have not been successful as the design and manufacture of airplanes is not easy.

History of the development of indigenous aircraft in India

The idea of ​​giving impetus to the development of aircraft in the country was mentioned by the former president, the late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, during his association with the first organization of research and development for defense (DRDO).

The project started in 1991, NAL teaming up with a Russian partner. The foreign entity, however, withdrew from the project mid-term, leaving it in limbo. In 1999, the government of the day gave the green light to NAL, under the direction of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to build itself a multipurpose aircraft, the Saras, named after an Indian bird. .

NAL designed and developed the first prototype of the aircraft from scratch, which made its maiden flight on May 29, 2004. This marked the start of the native civilian aircraft program in the country. However, after an upgraded version of the aircraft crashed in 2009, the project was once again put on a pause button.

In 2010, the government of the day established a 15-member high-level committee under the leadership of former ISRO chief G Madhavan Nair to study the feasibility of locally manufacturing a passenger aircraft. , who submitted their report in 2011.

In 2017, the government announced a program to develop a 90-seat aircraft in two phases – design and development, and manufacture with the participation of the private sector with budget requirements estimated at ??7,555 crore, relaunching Project Saras after approving certain modifications to the cockpit and cabin formation.

On January 2, an upgraded Saras performed a high-speed taxi test at Bangalore HAL Airport. According to the relaunched plan, the Saras will be used as a test aircraft for the development of the Saras Mk2, a 19-seat transport aircraft. CSIR has already started work on the design of the next-generation indigenous commuter transport aircraft that will be used for the government’s UDAN program.

What will it take to make a native plane

According to Prabhu, the aviation ministry had prepared a roadmap in 2019, presenting a broad overview of how aircraft manufacturing should go in India, as Boeing said it could manufacture planes in India. . Admitting that manufacturing airplanes is not an “easy task” because millions of components go into it, he said: product. The plan, to begin with, was for original equipment manufacturers to manufacture the components at companies overseas and be able to sell them as well. “

Prabhu added, “Once that critical mass comes in, final assembly will take place for a simple reason that the market is there,” he said. Prabhu said he had personally visited Airbus in France to discuss the plan in detail with them, adding: “This (these talks) requires follow-up actions, but I don’t know if this has been done,” did he declare.

Stressing that the government without the participation of the private sector cannot manufacture an airplane, a former official of the DGCA declared: “The contributions of airports and private entities will have to be taken into consideration for the successful manufacture of an airplane. Even if we start in 2022, I don’t think an aircraft will be available for airlines in the next 8-9 years as the certification process itself takes five years for large planes and three years for smaller ones. and this is defined in all the regulations of the country.

Stressing that not all countries are active in aircraft manufacturing, Mathur said one way to do this is to talk to (existing) aircraft manufacturers about manufacturing and outsourcing. More than being complicated, the main thing is that we need the demand and the market for these planes. “But the market has always been the same,” said Mathur. He said the general slowdown over the past 5-6 years, coupled with the ongoing pandemic, will create a major gap.

“The manufacture of airplanes requires 10 to 15 years of planning because the ecosystem must be developed. So, the current state of the economy cannot be looked at if you look 10 to 15 years ahead. If you don’t plan today, knowing the economic situation today, then you will never be able to make even a toy plane, ”Prabhu said.

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