Hindustan Aeronautics is likely seek a Western partner for its indigenous light utility helicopter programme, with industry sources saying Eurocopter is the favourite to be invited to come on board in 2009.

State-owned HAL, which has sought the nod for an indigenous light utility helicopter programme for almost a decade, was asked to design, develop and produce 187 helicopters for India's army and air force in June. This is in addition to the 197 LUHs that India will buy directly from a Western manufacturer as part of an ongoing international tender. Its defence ministry hopes to select a supplier by the end of next year, and induct its first helicopters in 2011.

HAL is expected to begin the delivery of the indigenous aircraft around 2015. It had considered going it alone, but senior officials now feel that a Western partner would help to speed up the process and bring in some much-needed technological know-how, says a source close to the company.

"We hope to begin the initial work on the light utility helicopter next year. It would take around five years to completely design and develop a new helicopter, and an experienced Western partner would help in every stage," says a HAL official.

That partner is likely to be Eurocopter, which will offer its AS550 Fennec for the 197-helicopter requirement and came close to winning an earlier tender cancelled last December after Bell Helicopter and several other bidders complained that the EADS subsidiary had been unfairly favoured in the selection process.

"During the earlier tender, HAL was in talks with Eurocopter as it was required to licence-produce 137 of the helicopters. That fell through after the tender was cancelled, but the negotiations with Eurocopter went very well and we liked what they offered us. Hopefully, that can continue if Eurocopter comes on board as a partner for the indigenous LUH programme," says the company official.

Eurocopter has previously worked with HAL on a major helicopter programme. The Indian company licence-produced several hundred Aerospatiale SA315B Lamas and SA316B Alouettes as the Cheetah and Chetak, with these to be replaced by the new aircraft.

A possible model for the partnership is one that Eurocopter has with South Korea's Korea Aerospace Industries. The company is a partner in the Korea Helicopter Programme, which aims to develop an 8t utility helicopter for the country's army. Eurocopter would also help KAI to market the design outside South Korea.

India requires a smaller single-engine helicopter in the 2.5-3t category, with a range of up to 500km (270nm) and a 500kg (1,100lb) payload. HAL, which will also be responsible for the maintenance of the Western-manufactured helicopters, is likely to create a new division to oversee the entire LUH programme. This will be separate from its existing Dhruv advanced light helicopter and light combat helicopter programmes.

Source: Flight International