India regional aircraft could be a jet

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India's first indigenous regional aircraft RTA-70 could be powered by turbofan engines, with the government viewing the aircraft as a stepping stone to larger planes.

Though the RTA-70 (regional transport aircraft - 70) was originally envisaged as a 70-90 seat turboprop aircraft, the Indian government asked the National Aerospace Laboratories to examine the possible use of turbofans. NAL is studying the two options, and will furnish a report to the government in April 2011, after which a decision will be made.

"The government asked us to look at the turbofan option, and after we conduct a feasibility study we will decide," says NAL director A.R. Upadhya. "Previously we were focusing only on a high wing turboprop design. If all goes well, by the end of 2011 we will have full go ahead to create the aircraft."

NAL has been in discussions with a number of jet engine producers, including Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce, Snecma, and General Electric. It says all have shown interest in the project.

"Initially, we were only looking at the turboprop option owing to the high price of fuel," says Upadhya. "Lifecycle costs were our key concern. The government then asked us to look at the turbofan option, as they see it as a stepping stone to the high end."

NAL foresees demand for regional aircraft in India reaching 250 by 2025. This is driven by an increasingly wealthy Indian middle class, and its demand for flights on low cost carriers. What's more, industries are moving into India's small cities, increasing the viability of regional flights to smaller destinations.

NAL also sees possible demand for 150 military variants to replace the Indian Air Force's Antonov An-32 fleet.

Irrespective of the RTA-70's powerplant it is likely to come in two variants, a shorter one with 70-90 seats and a longer one with 80-100 seats. The range will be 2,500 kilometers, suitable for most long sectors in India. Avionics would likely be produced locally, and featured an indigenous fly-by-wire control system to save weight.

Upadhya estimates the aircraft could be in service as soon as 2017, and that NAL is open to international partners and local partners. The aircraft would be produced by government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

If India were to produce a the RTA-70 as a jet, it would find itself in the increasingly crowded field of 50-100 seat regional jets. Competitors would included Embraer's E-jets, the Bombardier C-series, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China's (Comac) ARJ21, and the Sukhoi Superjet.