Men and their flying machine: a day at the National Flight Test Centre with the pilots who test fly the Tejas - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Saturday 12 February 2011

Men and their flying machine: a day at the National Flight Test Centre with the pilots who test fly the Tejas

By Ajai Shukla
National Flight Test Centre, Bangalore
Business Standard, 12th Feb 11

The headphone crackles in his ears as Wing Commander Pranjal Singh looks out from the cockpit of his Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, codenamed LSP-3, at the sun-baked runway stretching ahead. Once again he blesses the Indian designers who built the Tejas cockpit: in the Sukhoi-30MKI that he flew before test pilot school, he would have been dripping sweat.

“Trims neutral, brakes okay, all systems go from telemetry,” says Group Captain Toffeen’s calm voice.

Toffeen and his flight test engineers in the telemetry room of the National Flight Test Centre will monitor every system in Pranjal’s aircraft right through the flight, poring over radio data transmitted from LSP-3’s vitals. No patient in intensive care is watched so closely. Any serious glitch means aborting the mission.

“Confirm, monitored,” Pranjal acknowledges.

Toffeen clears him to go: “Take off with max AB, rotation at two-four-zero.” In test pilot jargon, that means take off at full throttle (maximum afterburner), rotating the joystick to get airborne at 240 kilometres per hour.

“LSP-3, ready for take-off,” says Pranjal to Air Traffic Control, which clears every aircraft.

The ATC is prompt: “LSP-3, cleared for take-off, wind 270, ten knots.”

Pranjal guns his engine to full power and the Tejas hurtles forward, the acceleration driving him backwards into his seat. In seconds he is at 200 kmph… 220… 240… and, as he pulls the stick, LSP-3 is sweetly airborne and climbing fast. This is the moment that every fighter pilot lives for.

But Pranjal is more than a combat fighter pilot, operating within tested and certified performance limits. As a test pilot for the Tejas LCA programme, his job is to push the performance envelope of India’s new fighter, checking how it reacts as he nudges it into uncharted territory.

“Each flight is a mission into the unknown,” explains Air Commodore Rohit Varma, Project Director, Flight Testing. Rohit, a tall, greying veteran who has spent a lifetime flying the unforgiving MiG-21 fighter, explains how each test flight deliberately takes the Tejas faster, slower or higher than it has ever been before, or on a mission like firing rockets or missiles, which could shut down the fighter’s engine by sucking up all available oxygen.

Business Standard is at the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) in Bangalore to spend time with the pilots who test the Tejas, India’s first attempt to build a modern “fourth-generation” fighter aircraft. Since the first fledgling Tejas lurched into the sky in 2001, they have flown it to the limits of its flight envelope, but without rashly endangering the aircraft. While there are disasters in almost every fighter development programme, the Indian MoD’s zero-risk approach would make a Tejas crash a programme-threatening disaster.

Finely honed judgement is the first hallmark of a test pilot. Chatting with these men in the briefing room, I am struck by their maturity. This is no bunch of swaggering top guns, but experienced professionals in whom brash youth has given way to an impressive calm that must prevail in a life-threatening flight emergency.

Group Captain George Thomas, built like a bull, has commanded a squadron of Su-30MKIs. Group Captain Ritu Raj Tyagi, the most experienced of the group and a former Jaguar combat commander, ran the last Mumbai marathon as a diversion from flight testing. Captain Jaideep Maolankar, who cut his teeth flying Sea Harrier fighters off naval aircraft carriers, commanded warship INS Ganga as it chased pirates off the Somali coast. Group Captain Venugopal, like Varma, has commanded a MiG-21 squadron on the Pakistani border.

Even Pranjal, the baby of the team, is by conventional standards a veteran pilot, having commanded a Sukhoi-30MKI squadron. Now learning the ropes at the NTFC, he will extensively test the first two Tejas fighters that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited delivers to the IAF this year.

The LSP-3 streaks into the sky. Pranjal’s mission is to test a new smoke winder--an under-wing pod that trails smoke. The device will help the NFTC test the Tejas’ reaction when it flies into a jet wake, a deadly 250-kmph blast of air emitted by a jet engine flying ahead.

Jet streams confuse fly-by-wire fighters like the Tejas, which are kept stable by on-board computers. Swedish company Saab crashed one of their Gripen fighters during testing when it flew into one. But these NFTC pilots seem to believe that flying the Tejas into a jet stream is just another day at the office. This matter-of-fact approach to the unknown leads NASA to choose most of its astronauts from the test pilot community.

“Test flying only seems glamorous from the outside,” says Thomas, dismissing my suggestion that every young IAF fighter jockey must idolise him. “Our daily routine involves a great deal of what any fighter pilot would consider drudgery. There is plenty of daily paperwork, and loads of study across the aerospace domain.”

But the passion for flying keeps these aces motivated. “We have all finished commanding our fighter squadrons and would normally be moving on to flying a desk,” says Jaideep. “This allows us to stay in the cockpit longer, connected with the business end of combat aviation. We are a few metres away from a fighter plane at all times.”

Varma explains exactly what a test pilot does. “An operational pilot in a combat squadron does not have the luxury of criticising his aircraft. Whether he dislikes the cockpit layout, whether he finds the controls sluggish… he just does the job with whatever the nation provides him. But when he becomes a test pilot, all those years of frontline experience go into improving the aircraft for the frontline pilots.”

“The test pilot is classically the bridge between designer and field. That is his role. He needs to be able to talk the language of the pilots in the field, and translate their requirements into language that the designers can understand. He must bridge the disconnect between design and operations,” elaborates Thomas.

In western air forces, like the US Air Force, test pilots do nothing but flight testing. But while specialisation allows them to stay in close touch with test programmes, pilots become disconnected from combat flying. The IAF’s philosophy is different. “Our tactics are evolving so quickly that we feel it is better to keep moving pilots between test flying and operational squadrons. That brings the latest operational doctrines into aircraft development,” explains Thomas.

In the telemetry room, Toffeen controls Pranjal’s mission. The atmosphere is charged; hawk-eyed technicians are glued to their monitors to detect the first sign of trouble. Toffeen has done this for 21 years. “It is a really interesting job,” he laughs, relaxed and confident. “Every day is a new day.”

Pranjal’s voice booms over the speakers that broadcast all communication between pilot and flight engineer. The smoke winder has been successfully tested. Toffeen tells him to head back to base. There is no cheering or clapping; this is business as usual.

“Do you guys ever party, get drunk, let your hair down?” I ask Rohit.

“Not this week, definitely. We will be doing Tejas aerobatics twice daily and, as an article of faith, we don’t drink for 48 hours before flying.” But then the professional mask slips just a fraction and there is a gleam in the air commodore’s eyes. “But don’t go away with the impression that these guys are loners. Test pilot school parties are famous in the air force.”


  1. Broadsword, Very good article. Keep them coming!

  2. WOOOOOOOWWWW!!!!!!!

  3. Not relevant to the topic but the following comments is about a recent news report.
    DRDO's Operating System
    It might sound a 'wow' thing for many when Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) of India announced about its new OS, But if you know what actually it means then it should sound the most ridiculous. In an other comic sounding statement they believe a closed source and architecture will make it secure. If they think keeping it far from internet will make it secure, then why need a secure OS? It is really a stupid thing to reinvent the wheel. I don't understand why highly educated scientists in the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) don't understand. Why can't they invest the time and money on the available open source systems to make it more secure so it can benefit all the organizations and the same time save time and money? When the American counterparts like NASA and other Defence establishments around the world use Linux for their use, why dint DRDO they think of it? What do they mean by hacking their systems? Isn't secure enough? Are they going to built another OS and take years to release it just like how LCA became? Is there any valuable, credible, genuine reason for writing their own OS? Are there any computer engineers in DRDO? Don't they how long it will take for an OS to mature and become stable, and secure? Instead of wasting money (that's our money, my money, I pay tax), they can do something better. LCA took 15 years and still under development, just my money wasted. India still buys aircraft from others, no indigenous fighters. This OS will take another expensive 10 years to deploy and before they find security holes, somebody will hack the system, drop a nuclear bomb on ourselves

  4. "Once again he blesses the Indian designers who built the Tejas cockpit: in the Sukhoi-30MKI that he flew before test pilot school, he would have been dripping sweat..."

    Col. what are the improvements in tejas cockpit

  5. very insightful article ajai sir. thanks.

    the poise, grace, calm (and yet professional) - these top gun test pilots exhibit is humbling indeed to read. the tonnes of experience laced with the unknown mysteries they take an aircraft into to refine and take it to the edge of the design envelope only makes their job - the most adventurous, risky business. three cheers to them.

  6. NIce job Ajay! You brought the excitement of their jobs to life for us lay people.

  7. santhosh, your statements are idiotic. almost all OS have purpose built backdoors into them on behalf of national intel agencies. the fact that you dont even know this, shows how many problems drdo has to face, with half educated "experts" like you pontificating on its efforts 24/7. and as an indian taxpayer i am very happy with the lca, which has taken the same time as many aircraft programs, from more advanced economies and broadswords efforts to communicate indias efforts to a wider audience. that you didnt even appreciate his article and efforts, and ended up regurgitating your nonsense, just shows your lack of maturity. please use some other blog to vent your nonsense.

  8. "what are the improvements" - the biggest one is an indian designed and made, environmental and control system, ecs. this has been modified to be used in jaguar and mig-27 upgrade as well. it keeps both pilot and avionics cool, plus provides critical avionics and systems with required airflow
    it has been designed to be much more effective than earlier systems in all our imported fighters, which simply dont provide enough cooling. as such, the lca system is far more effective

  9. Nishant Kumar Jha13 February 2011 at 05:00

    @Col. Shukla,
    great article Sir. keep them coming :)

    @ Santhosh,

    do you even know the difference between closed source and open source? let me tell it's not about keeping it away from the internet. do some research about IBM's as/400 and it's subsequent models of application/db servers, and IBM mainframes z/os. closed source, still under production and the bloody servers have been in service for almost all the major banks in the world for over 2 decades now(longer for mainframes) without a single hack. i dont even think you've heard of these systems.
    and the tripe you post about LCA's delay and wastage of your money is not even worth commenting about. What have you personally done about apparent corruption rocking the country every other month? at least we have a domestic aero-industry developing here if nothing else, and thousands of man hours put into the aircraft, it's subsystems etc. by the best of our scientists over so many years and it is showing some good results. it's hypocrits like you which make this Nation, this Country , this Civilization suffer failures, not the hard working ones at DRDO.
    and one last thing, the available open source has been developed to work on american architecture, using american instruction sets, coded by americans/europeans ... what makes you think there are kill-switches involved there or loopholes not published in teh manual? i'm sure YOU did not personally design those "open source" arch + O/S kernels.

  10. Hello Ajay,
    I want to ask you one question if you can answer or you can get someone answer it.

    Why the air intakes of Tajas MK2 are not bigger and modified ? what about that Angle of Attack in the MK2.

    Or they will be modified as per new GE 414 engine ?

    Please clarify this, if you can

  11. @Santhosh
    It is a nice way to fool people around or boast about their penny-worth achievements.

    If they think that bank will use it, when it is released by DRDO then they are in fools paradise. Banks don't store data in their desktops, they store it in their mainframes (very different architecture than our PCs) and in their huge servers which are in connected to huge SANs. If they start writing their own from scratch, they will take >6 years to complete and by that time, those devices won't be in market. Moreover, banks won't buy unless they are supported and serviced in matter of hours.

    It is good to have custom operating system for defence equipments. If they feel that closed source will increase security, then they live in fools paradise. And if they are planning to write it from the scratch, then they deep in fools paradise. How will they plan to support for new hardwares they release it ?

    It is funny that they plan to support windows software in their proprietary OS. It is reverse engineering Windows software to make run in their OS. Even Linux WINE (Window emulator) took more than 10 years to release version 1 for Linux.

  12. Again a great article.

    Although they would not tell it as to how many mach's and g's they have crossed on Tejas.

    BTW Russians seem to be designing their war machines basically on the arctic conditions.

  13. I like this article of yours, I would like to understand a little about what it means the pilot would be sweating in the MKI but not in LCA.

    Can you write more articles about each of the programs and perhaps in more detail so its easy to figure out where IJT, saras, LCH, dhruv - mk IV, MCH, EW systems from LRDE, AEW and its radar and software etc are coming from and progressing ?

    @santosh - STFU!

  14. Very Good insight into Flight Testing and Systems Evaluation done by diverse fighter pilots who had distinguished careers on Mig21, Su30 and Jaguar.
    But Ajay, I think alongwith handing over the LCA to IAF, atleast 3 aircraft (2single seat + 1 trainer)shall be given now to TACDE. This will surely help to design Combat Profile and Air Combat Tactics for the airforce. The same blend of pilots shall be transferred to TACDE to develop Air-to-Air, and Air-to-Ground and weapons delivery profiles. The developed tactics and adopted and put into practice by operating Squadrons. The feedback and shortfall cam be used to develop the improved versions. Data and experienced gained from Flight Testing can be immediately followed by same personnel to develop primary combat profiles. The squadrons are merely users in operational scenario.

  15. Ajay Sir, Thanks alot for this refreshing article!!! after reading all the crap that media is putting lately about LCA.

    Its shameful how our media puts down efforts of our own countrymen.

    One request Sir. can get some info on the FINSAS program, especially about the gun. Thanks again for the article

  16. Broadsword, great article and I am proud of DRDO.
    People ignore Santosh, he might be another IIT (Ignorant & Idiotic Techie) who cannot accept DRDO has gone leaps and bounds without much help from the so-called premier institutes. Forget about the scam, I will be surprised if he knows the number of states in India and their capitals.
    In addition to OS, DRDO must come up with its own set of Internet OS that can be loaded into 3rd party vendor routers/switches. It will prevent us from future hackers and help to create protocols of our own network. It will not only be helpful to defense but also for oversees civilian establishment.
    I salute our soldiers. During their lifetime every day they contribute in form or the other.
    When are they going to push the LCA above the 1.5 Mach?


  17. I don't know why everyone is pouncing on Santhosh for expressing a point of view. Actually, I don't think he's wrong.

    In my understanding, the OS that is being developed by various Indian R&D establishments is Linux-based. However, there are certain security-related aspects that are being built into the OS that makes it much more secure than Linux.

    I admit that I'm not technically proficient about what exactly they are doing. Would someone like to shed some light on this... IN SIMPLE TERMS PLEASE!

  18. why reinvent the wheel? off the internet and close sourced?

    why can't you stop wasting public money and make iterative improvements rather than blow it all on doing stale work and calling pizza and hookers.

  19. I don't think DRDO is foolish enough to write the whole OS themselves. They are going to take a Linux kernel, strip it down to the scheduler and resource manager.

    They will add a network layer.

    That is what all defense organizations in the world do it.

    Basically they keep only what is required and validated.

    This way the combinations on the possible states of the state machine becomes many orders of magnitude less.

    Nothing is full-proof or fool-proof. They will just it as bare bone as possible to make things tougher and more transparent.


    Indranil Roy

  20. I think Santhosh is right. DARPA funds Red Hat to make SELinux(Please read more about this in Wikipedia) a main security component of Fedora/Red Hat based distributions. Even many university servers and most servers in world run on GNU/Linux. I say they are really secure, but there is human factor i.e, how a person configures a machine is important.

    I think DRDO is also trying to make its own flavor of GNU/Linux distribution thats it. Its not like they are trying to make a new OS and if they are then its most stupid thing to do and they are wasting my cash. Millions of lines of code in GNU/Linux costs billions of dollars and has taken more that a decade of work. Everyday thousands of people are trying to make it more and more secure.

    I have written mails to DRDO people and in no way I find their replies digitally signed or encrypted. They can use GnuPG and all that stuff if they want to be secure. When I was talking to some person in DRDO, he was telling me like its a very big thing about their mails are now encrypted and all.

    To wind up, for few people who have commented here have to read a lot on GNU/Linux before saying something. I say half knowledge is ignorance. I know after saying all this there are few people who will search for "viruses for GNU/Linux" and say its not safe too :P. Please don't do this.

  21. Ajai JI:
    I am not from defense but I have high respect for those protecting me 24/7 in one way or the other. They are doing something which I cannot even dare to do. There is a saying in Tamil, if you can't be helpful at-least don't insult or be a pain.
    For everyone DRDO & our soldiers have become a whipping boy for any delays. Santosh exceeded it by saying "my money". His writings will infuriate any individual who has little self-esteem & pride. During Kargil the ingenuity of DRDO in providing the so-called "laser guided bomb" from scrap is more than worth "his money".
    If he is really angry he can vent it up on the students of IITs from whom the ROI is negative or scam tainted politicians & bureaucrats. Many will be happy to join him. We spend close to Rs.5 Lakhs/IIT student/year. Assuming 7000 students/year for the past 50 years the amount we've spent will be mind boggling and the return according to HRD is abysmal. Baring a small % (max 30%)the real beneficiaries of IIT were the Western world.
    Coming to Linux, yes DRDO will use a small part of the kernel. But as posted by many using the whole of Linux and strengthening the security alone will not be sufficient. Let us not forget the first worm was written only on Unix way back in 1970 and the Stuxnet incident. If you've the patience you can reverse engineer from the byte code.
    Bitten once there is nothing wrong in DRDOs' thinking and I am positive they will take due diligence. As affirmed by DRDO, none of their technology has gone waste including the failed Kaveri engine. In contrary DRDO has created a secured defense complex which has made many soldiers to contribute after their service.
    Since Santosh did not think thoroughly before airing his views, the anger exhibited against him is reasonable and mild.

  22. @Ajai

    Don't know why you are NOT publishing my comments though those comments (Anon 21:08) are consistent with reality. You publish when some one says about american processor and american instruction sets. Also, you publish when some one says "small part of linux kernel". As a system s/w designer, I would say that they are wrong.

    Instruction set is like a language and saying don't want to use american instruction set is like saying don't want to use english (because it may have kill switch).

    "take a Linux kernel, strip it down to the scheduler and resource manager. They will add a network layer."
    Even this is wrong. In fact some kernels have network layer inbuilt into it. Even it has firewalls built into it.

    "If you've the patience you can reverse engineer from the byte code."
    Byte code means the instructions for interpreter. Java compiler transforms a java program to bytecode. We don't call kernel as bytecode, it is called binary. For reverse engineering bytecode, you don't have to have patience, you just need to use decompiler. Such tools are not available to reverse engineer kernel binaries, due compiler optimisation of the generated binary.

  23. Anonymous 23:09:

    If I am NOT publishing the highly technical posts that I see coming up like mushrooms on this thread, it is because this is not WIRED MAGAZINE or some software engineering textbook!

    Frankly, all of you have left me dazed and dizzy with your esoteric discussion.

    This is not to devalue the great work that you do... just to say that all of it is well beyond me.

  24. Lets just say "Santosh" is wrong and this is perhaps not the best place to go off on a tangent about OS and DRDO. No one is making any new OS. Everyone is using Linux. I know of some DOE/DRDO orgs using linux since 93/94 timeframe. So his rant about his tax payer money and this and that is just wrong and PITA.

    Lets just concentrate on the article on hand and forget going off into tangents unless that is the focus of the article.

  25. Hi,

    I will echo what everyone else is saying...a brilliant piece. One small correction though, if you please. Pranjal has not yet commanded a Su-30 Sqn,I am sure he will in future. He has some more slogging to do.

  26. @Santosh bechara already too much bashing of him let me do my part dear go to USA get your mental treatment there as AIIMS would also be a stupid hospital in your view. "Are there any computer engineers in DRDO?" This line of yours proves you need serious medical attention. I think in your view people who works in TCS, HCL, Wipro are computer engineers lol they are just some programmers who rely heavily on Google to write a single function.


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