Nine years after the fatal accident that paralysed the project, the Saras got airborne once again and rekindled hope of revival of the indigenous civil aircraft programme
On January 24 this year, a prototype of the Saras, the country’s first indigenously developed civil aircraft in the light transport aircraft (LTA) category, took to the skies at Bengaluru. Developed by National Aeronautics Laboratories (NAL) under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the twin-engine, 14-seater aircraft with test pilots and flight engineer from the Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) of the Indian Air Force (IAF) as the crew on board, got airborne from the airport at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for a test flight that lasted for 40 minutes.
The Saras has had a troubled history of development. The origin of the project to develop this aircraft lay in a feasibility study carried out by NAL in 1989 which indicated that there was a significant demand in the country for a 14-seat, multi-role LTA and estimated a market potential of around 350 aircraft over a decade. And now with the thrust on Regional Aviation and the launch of the Regional Connectivity Scheme, the demand in the Indian airline industry for this category of aircraft is expected to be considerably higher.
Initial efforts to launch the project in 1991 in partnership with a Russian company did not materialise. Later, sanctions imposed by the US following the nuclear test in 1998, proved to be another impediment. The project was finally sanctioned on September 24, 1999 as totally an indigenous programme with the maiden flight scheduled for March 2001. However, the first prototype PT-1 completed its maiden flight on May 29, 2004, three years behind schedule. The PT-1 was powered by two Pratt & Whitney turboprop engines mounted in the pusher configuration.
Unfortunately, the Saras project was struck by a major disaster when on March 6, 2009, the second prototype while on a developmental flight, fell out of the sky and crashed about 30km North West of Bengaluru and caught fire. All the three crew members on board who were from the IAF, perished in the accident. Investigations into the fatal crash revealed that the aircraft went out of control when the crew had shut down one engine and were carrying out engine relight drill. The procedure devised by the designer is to be carried out in the event of engine flame out. The crew were doing precisely that when they lost control of the aircraft. As it was established by the investigation later, the procedure was essentially flawed and eventually contributed to the crash. Investigation carried out separately by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, apart from pointing out design flaws and human error behind the tragedy, also held the organisation responsible for faulty programme management. As a result of this traumatic event, the project came to a grinding halt. Till this point in time, there were only two aircraft built and the third was under construction. However, all the effort put in and the resources expended thus far which was estimated to be around 300 crore, seemed to have gone waste as the aircraft and the infrastructure created for the purpose were rendered useless.
Opinion in the organisation regarding the future of the project was divided. The message from the government was very clear that it was not agreeable to continue to invest in the project given the time it was taking and the uncertainties in the wake of the disaster in 2009. Even in NAL, there was a section that was not very optimistic about the future of the project. The Director NAL however, was hopeful that the project could be revived in the future. The first prototype was upgraded to meet the latest design criteria including the more powerful Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67A engines each delivering 1200hp as also improvements to the flight control and other systems. The upgraded PT-1 was scheduled to make its first flight by the end of 2011 leading to certification and first deliveries in 2013. Unfortunately, the project continued to remain in limbo on account of lack of funding and for this reason, was practically shelved between 2013 and 2016. In fact, in January 2016, it was reported that the Saras project had been cancelled. However, towards the end of 2016, the project was revived. On February 14, 2017, the reconfigured first prototype had been handed over to ASTE for testing and the aim was put the Saras back in the air by September 2017.
Nearly nine years after the fatal accident that led to paralysis in the project, the upgraded prototype of the Saras finally got airborne once again and rekindled hope of revival of the indigenous civil aircraft programme.