Hindustan Aeronautics' sprawling Bangalore production facility must be among the world's most exotic aircraft factories. Palm trees shroud colonial-style buildings dating from before the Second World War, when the company that ultimately became HAL was born, in 1940, to produce military aircraft for the former Royal Indian Air Force.
The place has an old-world, relaxed feel that, to a casual observer, would seem at variance with the company's ambitious aircraft and helicopter programmes.
Although private-sector firms are making inroads into India's aviation sector, government-owned HAL is still by far the dominant player, particularly in military aviation. Across seven locations in India, the company has 19 production units and nine research and design centres. It produces 14 aircraft under licence and 12 types that are developed indigenously. HAL also plays a key role in India's space programme.
Hindustan Aeronautics' rotorcraft export efforts include the Dhruv advanced light helicopter
"We have plans and strategies to put ourselves in the big league of global companies in the aerospace vertical," says chairman Ashok Nayak. "Initiatives like research and development, export promotion, technology upgrading, lean manufacturing, and a focus on the customer have been identified as thrust areas."
HAL introduced various new types of aircraft in 2010, most notably its light combat helicopter technology demonstrator.
In what is likely to result in HAL's most ambitious programme to date, India and Russia in December signed a preliminary design contract for India's fifth-generation fighter aircraft, a variant of the Sukhoi PAK FA demonstrator, which first flew in January 2010. Nayak values this initial contract at $295 million. During its 18-month term, Indian designers will work with Sukhoi designers in Russia, building in Indian requirements for the variant.
MAJOR DESIGN ROLE
HAL will play a major part in the evolution of the PAK FA into the fifth-generation fighter and will eventually manufacture the aircraft in India. The project is a new step for HAL because although it has built types such as the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, Sepecat Jaguar, BAE Systems Hawk and Mikoyan MiG-21 under licence, this is its first opportunity to play a major design role at such an early stage of a high-profile international fighter programme.
STATSHOT: HAL'S 2010 Odyssey
In its 2009-10 fiscal year, HAL generated record revenues of Rs114 trillion ($2.5 billion), up 10.5% from the previous year, and a net profit of Rs379 billion, up 13%.
Sukhoi says design elements of the aircraft include the use of composite materials, advanced aerodynamic techniques and measures to reduce the engine signature, which it claims results in an "unprecedented small radar cross-section in radar, optical and infrared range". The PAK FA also has an advanced phased-array antenna radar, says Sukhoi. Russia's Tikhomirov NIIP displayed an active electronically scanned array design for the fighter at the 2009 Moscow MAKS air show.
Asked whether India is coming to the project relatively late - the PAK FA prototype has so far logged about 40 test missions - Nayak says the fifth-generation fighter could be "far different from what is flying today". The next PAK FA will also have a more advanced engine, he points out. The current PAK FA is powered by two NPO Saturn "item 117" engines.
The PAK FA agreement came just months after another major deal with Russia's United Aircraft (UAC) and Rosoboronexport to co-develop and co-produce a new multi-role transport aircraft (MTA). At the time of the launch, HAL said the MTA would have a payload capacity of 15-20t, which meets the requirements of both the Indian and Russian air forces.
About $600 million will be spent on developing the aircraft, with India and Russia investing equally and HAL and UAC splitting workshare 50:50. The firms plan to make 205 of the aircraft, which will have a cruise speed of 430kt (800km/h), a range of up to 1,460nm (2,700km) and a service ceiling of 39,400ft (12,000m). The twin-engine MTA will have "state-of-the-art features such as fly-by-wire, full-authority digital engine control, modern avionics and glass cockpit", says HAL.
HAL is also producing 180 Su-30MKIs. About 100 have been built, and HAL expects an order for 42 more, taking the total production run to more than 220 aircraft.
Under an arrangement with BAE, HAL is producing 42 Hawk 132 advanced jet trainers. These are part of a 66-aircraft order placed by the Indian government in 2004 after a two-decade procurement process. The first 24 aircraft were bought as flyaways. Of the HAL-produced Hawks, "a good number" are in Indian air force service, says Nayak.
© Hindustan Aeronautics
Under a deal with BAE Systems, HAL is producing 42 Hawk 132 advanced jet trainers
More Hawks are in the pipeline. Last July, India signed a deal worth more than £700 million ($1 billion) to acquire a further batch of 57 Hawk 132s, to be produced under licence at HAL's Bangalore factory. BAE said that under the deal, it would provide "specialist engineering services, the raw materials and equipment for airframe production and the support package for the air force and Indian navy end-users", and its involvement will be worth over £500 million. The air force will receive 40 of the Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour 871-powered aircraft, and the navy will get 17.
HAL is also gearing up to produce India's Tejas light combat aircraft. After a year of milestones in 2010, by when the fighter had completed 1,450 test flights, the Tejas Mk I received initial operational clearance in January. "Any export opportunity will be looked at after induction by the Indian defence forces," says Nayak. "Tejas has the potential for exports."
Apart from the company's various fixed-wing projects, Nayak also sees growth in helicopters. Rotorcraft comprise just 5-6% of HAL's total business, but Nayak expects this to grow to 20-25% over the next decade.
HAL's Helicopter Complex division brings together its rotorcraft design, development and manufacturing activities. Its offerings include a light observation helicopter that the company is developing, the Dhruv advanced light helicopter, and the ambitious new Light Combat Helicopter (LCH).
An LCH prototype first flew in March last year after years of delays. A mock-up first appeared at the 2007 Aero India show, and HAL says the prototype will fly at this year's event.
The 5.5t LCH is a derivative of the Dhruv, with France's Turbomeca involved in developing its Shakti engines. HAL foresees a number of missions for the two-seater helicopter, including air defence against slow-moving aerial targets, suppression of enemy air defences, scouting, and anti-tank missions. The LCH has stealth features, a glass cockpit and armour protection. Its 20mm cannon and sensors are slaved to the gunner's helmet.
Nayak says development testing of the LCH is proceeding well, and two more prototypes are being built to speed up the flight evaluation process. He expects certification of the LCH in 2012, with production to start in 2013.
Helicopters also seem particularly important as HAL looks beyond India for sales. Its export efforts are focused mainly on the Dhruv, Cheetah (HAL's version of the Lama SA315), and Chetak seven-seat multirole helicopter.
Despite HAL's long history as India's premier aviation company, it faces many challenges. Developing countries such as China, Turkey and South Korea are eager to advance their own aviation sectors, and are determined to build their export orderbooks. HAL will also face greater competition from Indian private-sector firms such as Tata Aerospace, Mahindra Aerospace and Taneja Aerospace.
But Nayak says: "The history of HAL is synonymous with the growth of India's aeronautical industry. Our mission is to become a global player and to achieve self-reliance in aerospace design and manufacturing."