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Hawk soars over Bidar

 

 
 
  Published: November 2011
 
 
 
   

The Magazine visited the Indian Air Force base at Bidar, where India’s next generation of fighter pilots are being put through their paces in a programme that is becoming a benchmark for modern combat training.

 

The Hawk brings a huge step-up in capability as a training aircraft, bridging the gap between the basic piston-engined trainer and the high performance flying of an advanced fighter aircraft.

Situated around 160km from Hyderabad, the small town of Bidar is host to one of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) five Flying Training Establishments. Here, trainee pilots fresh from the Air Force Academy are taught the skills and techniques required of a modern fighter pilot before being assigned to one of the combat units of the world’s fourth-largest air force.

Bidar has been an IAF training base since the early 1960s but has been remodelled and refurbished for the arrival of the BAE Systems Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer. The runway has been extended to 9,000 feet to make it more in tune for training requirements, new facilities for aircraft and engine maintenance and testing have been built and a new computer-based learning syllabus introduced.

The responsibility for this new era of training for the IAF has recently been inherited by a new Commanding Officer at the base, Air Commodore Dharkar, who shares the reasons behind the Hawk’s selection.

‘The Hawk is an exceptional training platform with good hands-on training capability. It provides a good introduction to new pilots of the electronic cockpit so that when trainees go on to fly other platforms they have prior knowledge of how to use them effectively. The Hawk is a good bridge from a low capability to a very high capability platform.’

The IAF operates the Mk132 variant of the hugely successful Hawk trainer, powered by the Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour Mk871 engine. An earlier variant of the Adour, the Mk811 has been powering India’s fleet of Jaguar aircraft since the early 1980s.

Optimum

The choice of Bidar as the central hub for fast jet training is no accident. Like all other air forces globally, the IAF needs to maximise the availability of its assets and an intensive flight training programme requires optimum flying conditions to function well.

‘Bidar is located in central India, away from the bigger hubs and is excellent for airspace and weather,’ Air Commodore Dharkar explains. ‘Our location on the Deccan Plateau protects us from the tropical conditions that are experienced on the coast. Flying conditions are invariably good all year round and the climate is relatively mild – except from mid-March to mid-May – so we don’t lose many sorties to bad weather which is important as our trainees aren’t instrument rated so they cannot fly in poor conditions.

‘We fly between 60-90 sorties per day from the base and around two-thirds of these would be Hawk sorties – in fact, we generate the highest amount of single-engine flying hours in the country from this base.’

Introduction of the Hawk has been relatively rapid, with over 15,000 flying hours being logged since the first aircraft arrived in 2007. Under the terms of the acquisition contract the first 24 aircraft and engines were assembled and tested in the UK by BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce respectively, with the subsequent 48 being built under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in Bangalore. For Rolls-Royce, this marked the latest chapter in a longstanding partnership with HAL which began licensed production of the Orpheus engine in 1956. The Hawks are now operating alongside Orpheus-powered Kiran aircraft at Bidar.

While some initial training of Indian pilots onto the Hawk was conducted at RAF Valley in the UK, operations at Bidar are now in full swing with nearly 40 aircraft operating from the base when The Magazine visited in February.

One key element of the new training programme is that the Hawk is new to everyone, as Air Commodore Dharkar explains:

‘At the moment we are training the trainers as they will not have flown the Hawk before – this is therefore part of a very steep learning curve. They must learn to fly it and fly it well, then learn to instruct on it. It takes between six and eight weeks to learn to train the basic syllabus and another six weeks to learn to teach the advanced stage.’

Squadron Leader Naithani of Bidar’s Hawk Operational Training Squadron B, the Bravehearts, is one of the new instructors:

‘Previously all IAF pilots had flown the Kiran and so could instruct on this platform. But at the moment none of the instructors has learned on Hawks so we have had to learn how to fly the aircraft first. The new pilots that are going through now will be able to do this and will be the instructors of tomorrow.

Performance

‘The Hawk brings a huge step-up in capability as a training aircraft, bridging the gap between the basic piston-engined trainer and the high performance flying of an advanced fighter aircraft. It is aerodynamically much more forgiving and is a great introduction for trainee pilots to familiarise on before they go into fighters.’

Another of the instructors, Squadron Leader Kohli, outlined the requirements that the IAF is looking for in its new fighter pilots:

‘Two things are important – flying skill and the ability to fly a particular aircraft. It’s about learning how to use the systems and handle the technology and develop advanced techniques. To this, each instructor can add their own personal experiences from operational flying into the training mix.’

That training mix also includes a large amount of classroom-based tuition – of a typical 4.5 hour flying sortie only 50 minutes is actually spent flying the Hawk – and Bidar now boasts a fully computer-aided learning system for the instruction of pilots, engineers and technicians. The classroom is backed by a staff of 35 instructors which has a suite of screen-based training modules available to teach students in the areas of mechanics, avionics and weapons. In keeping with the need to accelerate the training syllabus, the new system marks a step-change in capability for the IAF – a tremendous benefit given the required high throughput of pilots from the base.

To the outsider, the glamorous side of training India’s fighter pilots of the future is about flying the jets, but to enable the intensive flying rate to be sustained requires an engineering support team that is equally dedicated and innovative.

Bidar’s Chief Engineering Officer, Group Captain Mohan probably knows the Hawk better than anyone else in the IAF. He was based at the BAE Systems plant in Brough, UK for 3.5 years, overseeing the technical acceptance of the airframe and engine.

Despite the IAF’s long experience with the Adour engine through the Jaguar programme, Group Captain Mohan has been surprised with the smooth induction of the Mk 871 variant.

‘The engine is very tolerant to some of the foreign object debris incidents that we see. We were quite surprised to see how much damage it can sustain and still operate normally. That was a big learning point for us and the Rolls-Royce engineers helped to us to gain a greater understanding of the engine’s capabilities and tolerances.’

To deliver the high availability requirement for the Hawks fleet, Group Captain Mohan relies on a team of 29 engineering officers. The engine side of the operations is supported by a Rolls-Royce deployed service representative, and operates from a dedicated propulsion engineering centre which includes an uninstalled engine test bed.

Bidar’s two Hawk Operational Training Squadrons currently have the capability to train 60 students per year but, with an eventual fleet of at least 112 aircraft courtesy of a second batch of 40 Hawks ordered in mid 2010 (with an additional 17 aircraft destined for the Indian Navy), the ability to ramp this up to twice that level seems to be a well-laid plan.

Servicing the IAF’s voracious appetite for new fighter pilots requires a combination of state-of-the-art training assets, a dedicated support team and an ideal training environment. It is not a responsibility that Air Commodore Dharkar takes lightly but he is confident that he has the assets in place to deliver India’s next generation of frontline fliers.

‘We will require a tremendous amount of well-trained pilots and the Hawk is crucial to achieving this. I’m honoured to be responsible for the training of India’s future pilots.

‘I am still learning in my new role but thankfully I have not had to think about whether the Hawks are performing as required as the feedback is invariably that they are exceptional, so the change to the aircraft has been a real boon for the IAF and its future expanding capabilities.’

The author is Communications Manager for the Rolls-Royce defence aerospace business.

Courtesy ©: Rolls-Royce

 
     
     
   
 
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