India revives its dream of manufacturing passenger aircraft

It was March 6, 2009. A 14-seater prototype aircraft called Saras Prototype 2 crashed during a trial flight in the outskirts of Bengaluru, killing all three crew members — two pilots of the Indian Air Force and a flight engineer.
During the investigation, the cockpit voice recorder disclosed the commander calling out, “aircraft has departed”, just 10 seconds before the crash, indicating that the plane had gone out of control as soon as it took off.
The 75-page investigation report pinpointed human errors, but did not spare the manufacturer of the plane, Bengaluru-based National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), for devising engine relight procedures — a midair test that involves switching off an engine before switching it on again — without consulting the propeller manufacturer MT-Propeller of Germany.
The plane had lost altitude and crashed, but the tragedy had a direct fallout: India’s dream project of manufacturing a small civilian plane, the Saras — the Sanskrit word for crane — was stuck in limbo.
By 2016, NAL, the agency that comes under the administrative control of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), announced that its Rs 300 crore fund for the project had dried up, forcing it to suspend Saras for the time being.
It was a project that began in 1991. In fact, there was another prototype — the Saras PT, which flew successfully many times since 2004. It has been modified as the 14-seater Saras PT1N and flown again earlier this year, for a surprise trial.
Something much bigger than Saras is in the offing now. Nine years after the PT-2 crash, the Centre is thinking of indigenously manufacturing aeroplanes for civilian use.
Earlier this week, a 21-member jumbo expert committee, headed by the civil aviation secretary, was set up to look into the various aspects of manufacturing planes and helicopters in India, apart from finding ways to upscale and diversify production of aero-components.
Significantly, this is the second panel being set up in the last two and a half months; the first was headed by the ministry’s economic adviser, Vandana Aggarwal, with a mandate to give a roadmap for creating a special purpose vehicle (SPV) to develop what it calls regional transport aircraft, or RTA.
The need for such a segment has been increasingly felt after the government rolled out its UDAN scheme for regional connectivity a couple of years ago.
18/11/18 Shantanu Nandan Sharma/Economic Times

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