HAL tests indigenous light chopper to 20,000 feet - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 10 December 2018

HAL tests indigenous light chopper to 20,000 feet

Success of HAL's Light Utility Helicopter (pictured here) opens door to civilian, export markets

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th Dec 18

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has displayed its proficiency in the demanding field of helicopter design by successfully testing its indigenously developed Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) to an altitude of 6 kilometres (almost 20,000 feet).

In an organisation where engineers and technicians still smart over Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s recent statement that HAL was not competent to manufacture the Rafale fighter under licence, there is quiet vindication.

HAL stated on Monday that breaking the 6-kilometre barrier was “a critical requirement towards the certification of LUH… With the completion of this milestone, LUH can now undertake high altitude, cold weather trials planned in January 2019.”

This will involve operating the LUH in winter from helipads on the Saltoro Ridge that towers above the Siachen Glacier. Currently, with the decades-old Chetak and Cheetah fleets nearly obsolete, HAL’s twin-engine Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) services the army’s Himalayan posts. Once the LUH is certified for operations, it will take on many of these tasks.

Both the Dhruv and LUH are designed to operate at altitudes up to 6.5 kilometres (21,325 feet), a capability that few helicopters have. While selecting a VVIP chopper, the government brought down the altitude requirement to 4.5 kilometres, because there was just one chopper that could fly up to even six kilometres.

Yet, this altitude requirement is essential for the Dhruv and LUH, which must supply provisions to, and evacuate casualties from Siachen Glacier posts like Sonam, which, at 20,997 feet, is the highest inhabited spot on the planet.

HAL’s Chief Test Pilot, Wing Commander (Retired) Unni Pillai, who made the first Dhruv landing on Sonam, also piloted the LUH during its six-kilometre altitude test along with Wing Commander (Retired) Anil Bhambhani. 

 Unni Pillai circles his Dhruv ALH as he comes in to  land at Sonam Post, the highest in the world

Powering this impressive performance is the Shakti engine, custom-designed by French engine-maker Turbomeca (now Safran) in partnership with HAL. The Shakti, which is now built in India by HAL-Safran, powers a successful family of HAL-built helicopters: the Dhruv ALH, the LUH, an armed Dhruv variant called Rudra, and the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), which is close to being accepted into service.

Unlike the Dhruv, Rudra and LCH – all of them large, five-tonne helicopters powered by twin-Shakti engines – a single Shakti engine powers the three-tonne LUH. Safran markets this engine as the Ardiden 1U, while HAL calls the Shakti 1U.

With the army in dire need of 394 light helicopters, the defence ministry decided to meet that requirement through two procurements. To meet immediate requirements, 197 light helicopters would be procured from the international market. Meanwhile, HAL would develop and manufacture 187 indigenous light choppers.

In making the overseas procurement, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government decided against a global tender, instead signing an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) with Russia for building the Kamov-226T helicopter in India, in a joint venture with HAL. With that contract still to be signed, the rapid pace of the LUH development gives the government the option to dispense with international procurement and build an all-Indian fleet instead.

An ambitious HAL is looking beyond purely military orders at the civil and export markets as well. “The LUH is being indigenously developed by HAL to meet the requirements of both military and civil operators,” announced the company.

Even so, for now, the priority is the military. “HAL has an in-principle order for 187 LUH that includes 126 for Indian Army and 61 for IAF,” stated HAL today.

According to HAL, the LUH “will be capable of flying at 220 kilometres per hour, with a service ceiling of 6.5 kilometres and a range of 350 kilometres with a 400 kilogramme payload… The helicopter, with a glass cockpit, can be deployed for reconnaissance and surveillance roles and as a light transport helicopter. ”

The LUH is currently being tested with two prototypes. The first flight took place on September 6, 2016, while the second prototype flew on May 22, 2017. A third prototype is currently being built.


  1. Why should other nations design a helicopter to fly at 6km altitude? Do they have any necessity for the same? Plus India has the helicopter Courtesy of Safran as you mentioned. So western countries and Russia would have easily designed such a helicopter if they needed it. Why sing laurels to HAL for achieving something with the help of a foreign OEM?

  2. Great news finally.
    We need to give credit to NDA govt that they stopped repeated LUH tenders. Signed KA deal more for strategic reasons, so we do not forget Russia , an old friend.
    Please note Parrikar also stopped second BTA order on Pilatus order & encouraged/forced IAF to accept HTT-40.
    He also forced an agreement between HAL & IAF to come out with Tejas Mk1A . Now govt will order 83 of these. Ms.Seetharaman has continued this policy .
    Let us give credit where it is due without politicking. RM made a statement on a specific context, let us appreciate her feedback.
    Let HAL become a giant based on its designs not screwdrivergiri. That is what all Indians want.

  3. You left a great deal of past history unsaid. Very few helicopter are capable of servicing high altitude points. IAF induced erstwhile Sud Aviation/Aerospatiale to develop a variant Alouette II SA315B Lama, Cheetah in IAF/HAL, that was specific to its needs that remained till quite recently the only helicopter in the world capable of Everest heights but limited to a very small payload. The ALH/Dhruv in its usual configuration never could. As per your reporting, it was only a few years back that with the new engine, a upgraded Dhruv was able to deliver a 200 kg payload to the Siachen outpost. Now you report that the LUH with a single engine can deliver a 400kg payload, not explained where. We know that has not tried out and why do I think its hype. The Dhruv's high altitude capabilities and reliability never found favor with any user, ex Ecuador/Nepal, even the BSF was unhappy.

    Given the very difficult conditions at such high altitudes, only a fool would write in such a requirement for VIP helos meant for transporting President/PM to the nearest airport not land them on the Siachen glacier. This is typical of the IAF<< not that anybody questioned why.


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