India's National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) is continuing its search for industrial partners in an effort to move the Saras light transport aircraft into production for target customer the Indian air force.

Several domestic companies with the required manufacturing capability have been approached by India's national aerospace research and development agency, and responses will be studied in the coming months before a suitable partner is identified, says a NAL source.

Companies approached are believed to have included state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics, maintenance, repair and overhaul service provider Taneja Aerospace, automobile producer Mahindra & Mahindra, and engineering conglomerate Larsen & Toubro.

"Apart from production, the partner has to provide support and maintenance services, training, and ensure the availability of spares. It must also be a company that the Indian air force has confidence in," says the NAL source, cautioning: "Without a suitable partner, this programme faces a lot of difficulties."

However, other industry sources say that many of the companies that were approached are not keen to get into full-scale production of the aircraft. "There is little incentive to be involved in a programme where the commercial benefits are still not clear," says one.

The 14-seat, twin-turboprop Saras is targeted as a replacement for the air force's 20 Dornier 228 light transports, with the NAL also hoping that it will become India's first civil aircraft to receive US Part 25 certification.

Initiated as an Indo-Russian joint venture, the Rp1.2 billion ($30.1 million) Saras programme has suffered numerous delays since its launch in 1986. Ilyushin pulled out of the project due to a lack of funds, and an 18-month stoppage resulted from a US probe into potential military applications for the aircraft's US-manufactured avionics and propellers.

The first prototype flew in May 2004 and a second in April 2006. Work is under way on the third prototype, which is likely to be ready by mid-2008 and to fly by next October. This is likely to be the final production standard, and the NAL aims to secure certification by December 2009.

The new Saras is projected to have a maximum take-off weight of 6,100kg (13,400lb) and a maximum payload of over 1.2t. The NAL is now trying to remove 500kg from its third prototype by introducing composite tails and wings and reducing the number of bulkheads used in the fuselage.

Designed to have a maximum cruise speed of 280kt (520km/h), a ferry range of almost 2,000km (1,080nm) and an endurance of 6h, the Saras has a 14.7m (48.2ft) wing span, and an overall length of 15m. The aircraft currently uses two 1,200shp (730kW) Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6A-67A turboprops, which replace the original aircraft's 850shp -66s.

Honeywell is working to develop the autopilot systems, while Israel's Astronatika is helping to develop its engine instrument and crew alert system.

Source: Flight International