NEW DELHI: The Defence Ministry (MoD) is pressing ahead with the Rs 1,800 crore purchase of seventy-five PC-7 Mark II basic trainer aircraft from Pilatus Aircraft Ltd of Switzerland. For the last one year, the purchase of desperately needed trainers for the Indian Air Force has been stalled by a protest from a rival vendor, Korea Aerospace Industries. KAI alleged that Pilatus’ bid was incomplete and, therefore, did not conform to the Defence Procurement Procedure of 2008 (DPP-2008) that governs this tender.
Now the MoD has ruled Pilatus’ bid valid. Today, in a written reply submitted to the Rajya Sabha, Defence Minister A K Antony stated that, “A representation submitted by M/s Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), one of the bidders, has been found to be devoid of merit.”
As Business Standard reported last month (“Pressure mounts for air force basic trainer aircraft”, April 15, 2012) the Korean government had strongly backed KAI’s protest against awarding the contract to Pilatus. The South Korean embassy in New Delhi had formally protested; and South Korean defence minister, Kim Kwan-jin, wrote to Antony asking for a “high-level review” of the “allegations on irregularity.”
The decision to go ahead with the purchase is a relief to the IAF, which has resorted to ad hoc — and heavily criticised — methods for training its rookie pilots since July 2009, when its basic trainer fleet of HPT-32 Deepak aircraft was grounded following a fatal crash. The obsolete Deepak trainer has already claimed the lives of 19 pilots in 17 crashes.
Parliament’s Standing Committee on Defence, in its report released on Monday, has commented on the “critical deficiency of the trainer aircrafts” (sic), pointing out that the IAF was making do with just 255 trainers out of the 434 that had entered service (including basic, intermediate and advanced trainers). Highlighting the IAF’s accident rate, the Committee noted that, “as per the replies furnished by the ministry, in the 46 per cent of the cases the cause behind accident of aircraft is Human Error (Aircrew)” (sic).
The Committee also noted that training simulators are in short supply, with just 30 of the IAF’s 46 training simulators operational.
In addition to buying 75 Pilatus trainers in fly-away condition from Switzerland, the IAF has asked Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to develop an indigenous trainer aircraft (dubbed the Hindustan Turbo Trainer–40, or HTT-40), and to build 106 of those trainers for the IAF.
But the MoD and HAL have dragged their feet on this indigenous project, says Pushpindar Singh, editor of Vayu aerospace magazine. “Since HAL has made little headway so far, they could end up building 106 PC-7 Mark II trainers under licence from Pilatus, instead of developing an indigenous trainer. That would be an opportunity lost,” says Singh.
Indicating that the Pilatus PC-7 Mark II might soon be available to the IAF, Antony told Parliament that the MoD would stick to laid down procurement timelines. The purchase, he said, “is awaiting consideration of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).”
The Pilatus trainer will overcome the key shortfalls of the HPT-32, which did not even have an ejection system; in emergencies, pilots ejected manually. Poor instrumentation and avionics restricted training to good weather. The HPT-32 had no recording equipment, so instructors never knew when trainee pilots, flying solo, had violated flying procedures. The PC-7 Mark II is capable of aerobatics, instrument and night flying and tactical operations. It is a hybrid aircraft, with a PC-9 airframe mated with a smaller, PC-7 engine to lower procurement, flying and maintenance costs. It is in service with several air forces, including South Africa and Malaysia.