The Indian Air force (IAF) has committed to buying at least 15 units of a future production version of India’s indigenous SARAS light transport aircraft (LTA). This was revealed by Dr Harsh Vardhan, India’s Minister for Science & Technology (S&T) after witnessing the second test flight of a refurbished SARAS prototype, called PT1N, earlier today, at the HAL Airport in Bengaluru. The SARAS has been developed by the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Bengaluru, which falls under the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR) controlled by India’s Ministry for S&T (MST). Echoing, Dr Vardhan’s revelation was the IAF’s Air Vice Marshal (AVM) Sandeep Singh, also present during this second test-flight, who said that ‘The IAF is committed to test and thereafter induct the first indigenously designed and manufactured Light Transport Aircraft. IAF is fully supporting this programme and the design and configuration of the new version of SARAS would be frozen soon‘.
Indeed, this second flight of the PT1N was commanded by three IAF officers from the Aircraft and System Testing Establishment – Group Captain R.V. Panicker, Group Captain K.P. Bhat and Wing Commander U.P. Singh. A further 18 test flights are planned for the PT1N, before freezing the design configuration for the production version. According to NAL, the production model design is expected to be ready by June-July this year.The first successful test-flight was of course carried out on 24 January, earlier this year. You can watch a video of the first flight by the PT1N here:
A veritable phoenix
With these developments and the evidently enthusiastic support from both MST & the IAF, it can be safely said that the NAL SARAS project has risen from the ashes of the prototype crash in 2009 which basically saw the program being shelved. As such, the refurbished PT1N has incorporated several design modifications and improvements over the original SARAS PT1 prototypes. For instance, PT1N is powered by two 1200 shaft horse power (SHP) engines instead of the two 800 SHP engines that were used to power PT1 prototypes. PT1N also has a 104-inch diameter propeller assembly to cater to second segment climb gradient requirements. PT1N also has an improved flight control system, rudder area, main wheel and brakes in keeping with its ‘all-up weight’ of 7100 kg. Moreover, it has now incorporated an indigenous stall warning system as an added safety feature.
PT1N will, however, form the basis for the creation of three limited series production (LSP) SARAS MK-2 aircraft, which will have an empty weight that is some 500 kgs less than that of PT1N. The weight reduction will be achieved in the main through the use of composite wings & greater composite content in the fuselage itself. The SARAS MK-2 will also be a 19-seater aircraft in comparison to the current PT1N’s 14-seat configuration. Commenting on the pathway for the Mk-2’s development Dr Vardhan said that CSIR-NAL proposes to get the SARAS-Mk 2 version initially certified for military use following which it would be put up for certification for civilian roles. Adding to this, Dr Girish Sahni, Director General of CSIR, said that the cost of development and certification of the SARAS Mk-2 will be around Rs 600 crores, spent over a ‘time period of about 2 to 3 years’.
Cheaper than imports
Dr Vardhan, also believes that SARAS Mk-2 will be cheaper by 20-25 percent as compared to any imported aircraft in its category. Stating more precise figures, Dr Vardhan said:“The unit cost of the aircraft, with more than 70 per cent indigenous content, will be around 40-45 crores as against 60-70 crores for imported ones and has far more benefits than what the imported aircraft offer.”
Image: Dr Vardhan with PT1N and its flight team earlier today at Bengaluru
As such, HAL has been identified as the production agency for the military version of the SARAS MK-2, while the production of the civil version will be given to a domestic private company, yet to be selected. India apparently needs 120-160 aircraft in this category, including both civil and military versions, over the next 10 years. Underlining the potential demand for the SARAS MK-2, Dr Vardhan further said:
“SARAS Mk 2 will be ideal for commuter connectivity under Government of India’s UDAAN Scheme for variety of applications like air taxi, aerial search/survey, executive transport, disaster management, border patrol, coast guard, ambulance and other community services,” He also added that, “Its (i.e SARAS’s) successful development will be one of the game changers in the history of civil aviation in India.”
A bright future
It must be noted that the aircraft currently available in the same category as the SARAS are essentially based on 1970’s technology while incorporating iterative improvements. Examples would include the Beechcraft 19000D, the Embraer EMB 110 and the Dornier-228 family which is currently being license produced by HAL. These designs typically have higher fuel consumption and lower cruise speeds than the SARAS design and are unsuitable for sustained operations from hot and high-altitude airfields. SARAS is also expected to have lower operating costs as compared to these planes. SARAS also has a pressurized cabin which is not the case with most aircraft in its category. It can also be operated from semi prepared airfields thereby potentially opening up remote areas to air travel.
Indeed, the upgraded SARAS Mk-2 version, which will undergo considerable drag/weight reduction besides boasting a higher cruise speed, lower specific fuel consumption, short take-off and landing capability, low cabin noise, capability to operate from hot and high airfields, besides lower acquisition and maintenance costs, seems well poised to dominate this segment of the aviation market in India. Thereby paving the way for future exports.
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