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High hopes

Until HAL delivered a Dhruv to Israel, the helicopter was only operated in India and Nepal. So why does the manufacturer believe it can sell 600 in the next 15 years?

Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) is trying to become one of the world's top helicopter manufacturers by selling its Dhruv advanced light helicopter (ALH) and other indigenous rotary-wing products to customers other than the Indian government.

The 5.5t multirole Dhruv has been in production since 2002, but is only in service with the Indian and Nepalese armed forces. This month's delivery of the first civil Dhruv to Israel, however, marks a new beginning for the programme as HAL looks to crack the global helicopter market. Bangalore-based HAL acknowledges that civil and military operators overseas, and even civil operators in India, are reluctant to buy helicopters from an unproven, non-Western manufacturer. But it believes the Dhruv will ultimately be used throughout the world in a variety of missions and meet a lofty sales target of 600 aircraft over the next 15 years.

"As the aircraft catches on and proves itself, I'm confident," says chief test pilot C D Upadhyay.

The Dhruv has been certificated for civil operations in India since 2003, but until recently HAL's only civil sale was one aircraft to Israel. The state government of Jharkhand became the second civil customer last month, when it placed a deposit for two aircraft and became the launch customer for the police variant. Several other state governments have expressed interest in the Dhruv and are expected to acquire new helicopters in the next few years.

HAL is confident of winning an order for four aircraft from Arunachal and believes that once the Dhruv enters service in Jharkhand around the middle of this year, several other Indian states will also be willing to commit.

Other government agencies and corporations are also evaluating the Dhruv, including the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), the Border Security Forces (BSF), the Geological Survey of India (GSI) and Indian Railways. ONGC, which operates three HAL Chetaks, may acquire three Dhruvs for on-shore missions. BSF, which operates two Cheetahs and six Mil Mi-17s, is considering up to six patrol aircraft. The GSI and Indian Railways are looking at acquiring their first helicopters, with the GSI interested in using the Dhruv to carry sensing equipment and Indian Railways considering it for disaster relief.

Foreign manufacturers concede that HAL will dominate most of the domestic parapublic market because the Dhruv is being sold in local currency rather than US dollars, and there are significant government pressures to buy the local product. They say the real test for HAL will be convincing non-government operators in India and abroad to buy the Dhruv.

HAL boasts that the Dhruv is 10-15% cheaper to operate and outperforms similarly sized helicopters built by traditional Western manufacturers. Powered by two full-authority digital engine control Turbomeca TM332-2B2s and with what HAL claims is the most powerful rotor in the world, the Dhruv landed at 25,000ft (7,520m) above mean sea level – a density altitude of 27,000ft (8,200m) – last November, breaking the world record for a middleweight-class helicopter. The Dhruv has also been certificated for engine starts down to -30°C (-22°F) at 20,000ft, and for spot turns of 60°/s at altitude. The helicopter has two independent hydraulic and electrical systems and is equipped with an active vibration control system from US firm Lord. A glass cockpit option, with avionics supplied by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI), will be available from next March.

But while the aircraft has already surpassed 8,000h in operation, potential operators still consider the Dhruv and its manufacturer unproven. They also question HAL's ability to provide adequate aftermarket support around the globe, given the government-owned company's limited experience with exports and financing problems. "HAL is only at the initial stages of supplying Dhruvs to the armed forces; they are not there yet in terms of support for private corporations," says one Indian aerospace industry official. "They have a long way to go, that's for sure."

A key test for the Dhruv will be India's booming offshore oil market. Local operators are looking to expand their offshore fleets, but are reluctant to order Dhruvs and prefer to stick with the proven Bell, Eurocopter and Sikorsky models they currently operate.

Offshore evaluation

HAL hopes to prove the Dhruv can perform the demanding offshore mission by loaning offshore operator Pawan Hans one aircraft on a trial basis. Government-owned Pawan Hans is planning to acquire three Dhruvs, Bell 412EPs or Eurocopter 360N3 Dauphins this year to support a possible expansion of flying for ONGC.

"The ALH has to be evaluated first," says Pawan Hans deputy general manager V Ramesh. "It has not done offshore yet. ALH is a new helicopter. We fly 100h a month; in military, it flies 12h. Whether it can withstand the pressure of civil flying remains to be seen."

Several others Indian operators have looked at the Dhruv and one has signed a memorandum of understanding for one aircraft. But Pawan Hans is believed to be the only serious near-term prospect because the government is pressuring the operator to complete the acquisition. If the aircraft is successful in an offshore role at Pawan Hans, HAL believes other operators will become more interested and 20-30 aircraft will be sold in the offshore sector.

Upadhyay believes the Dhruv will eventually make inroads with civilian operators in India because maintenance costs for Western helicopters in India are higher than for the Dhruv. "We can only convince them the support services we will provide will be cheaper than what Bell and Eurocopter can provide," he says.

HAL also thinks the Dhruv will have a role in India and eventually abroad in a range of other civilian missions including emergency evacuation, disaster relief, search and rescue, underslung operations, and VIP and commuter transport. India relies now on the air force for disaster relief and neither the police nor hospitals use helicopters. But all three of these civil markets are expected to open up over the next few years, with the Dhruv positioned as one of the beneficiaries (see sidebar).

HAL is also looking to sell both civilian and military variants of the Dhruv overseas, although it acknowledges these markets may take even longer to develop. So far only three aircraft have been exported, two to the Nepalese army and one to the Israeli government, and only one potential other customer, the Chilean armed forces, is evaluating the aircraft. The Dhruv was test flown in Chile last year along with several other candidates for a requirement of at least 24 multirole aircraft. Selection is expected later this year.

"We hope to start with Chile and then let the orders come in," says HAL test pilot N S Krishna. "We have to prove our work. We concede that but we are confident."

HAL is also hoping for additional sales to the Israeli ministry of defence as it looks to replace its existing VIP fleet of Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks. The aircraft exported to Israel earlier this month, although civil-certificated because it is not equipped with any self-defence systems, will be operated by the ministry of defence as a VIP transport. This aircraft is now undergoing customer acceptance testing and HAL believes, if this is successful, more aircraft will be acquired.

Only 29 Dhruvs are in service, 27 spread across four military services within the Indian armed forces and two at the Nepalese army. The Indian army operates 10, the air force eight, the navy six and the coastguard three. Another three army aircraft are now undergoing customer acceptance testing. HAL expects the Indian armed forces to ultimately acquire 300 aircraft.

All the Dhruvs in service are used only for basic transport or utility missions and, in the case of the coastguard, for search and rescue and maritime surveillance. But several missionised variants are to be rolled out over the next few years.

HAL is developing a weaponised Dhruv for the army with chin-mounted gun, missiles, rocket pods and FLIR. The air force is also considering acquiring an armed variant but, for now, plans to use the Dhruv only for utility missions.

The weaponised Dhruv will be powered by the Turbomeca Ardiden, a new more powerful engine being co-developed by France and India. Upadhyay says the Ardiden-powered Dhruv will be able to lift a 560kg useful load (1,235lb) from India's highest helipad, at 19,500ft, compared with the 210kg the TM333-2B2-powered aircraft can manage. Testing of the new engine will be completed in about a year and deliveries to the army will begin in fiscal year 2006-7.

Military variations

The Indian army is also in line to receive aircraft with the IAI glass cockpit, starting next year. While other military customers in India have also signed for this option, Upadhyay expects most civil operators will order the standard avionics suite.

The navy is set to receive Dhruvs with anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-surface vessel (ASV) mission suites. The aircraft will initially supplement the navy's fleet of Westland Sea Kings, which carry both ASW and ASV equipment. The Dhruvs are too small to carry both suites simultaneously so will be equipped with either one or the other.

HAL is now testing the ASW variant and plans to deliver the first of the type within the next year. It will be a few years before the ASV variant is ready because HAL is now only testing the basic avionics and the navy has not yet chosen a missile system, which will need to be integrated by HAL.

The navy is looking at replacing its ageing Sea King fleet and has received information on the AgustaWestland EH101, Eurocopter AS532 Cougar, NH Industries NH90 and Sikorsky S-70R (see sidebar). But HAL hopes to join this competition and leverage the experience gained from the Dhruv by developing a new 10-12t helicopter. "The ALH is not the beginning or the end of aviation activities in HAL," says Krishna. "We would have to graduate to other classes. The next logical market is a 10-12t machine. There is a market for this type of helicopter."

Rainer Farid, Eurocopter regional sales director for Asia-Pacific, says Eurocopter is interested in partnering HAL on the new helicopter, potentially using the Cougar as a model. "We can do an Indian version of the helicopter," Farid suggests.

The new indigenous helicopter could also be operated by the army if it elects to move into larger helicopters, and is a potential replacement for the air force's Mil Mi-17s and Mi-8s. HAL's helicopter experience dates back to 1962, when it signed a licence agreement with Aerospatiale. Deliveries of the Chetak, a locally built Alouette III, began in 1965 and the first Cheetah, a locally built Lama, was delivered in 1973. Overall, HAL produced 344 Chetaks and 258 Cheetahs, but only a handful were exported. In the late 1990s HAL also developed an armed variant of the Cheetah, known as the Lancer, which has since been sold to the Indian and Nepalese armies.

Earlier this year, Eurocopter and HAL re-established their partnership with a contract for HAL to supply AS350/355 Ecureuil and AS550/555 Fennec components starting in late 2005 or early 2006. HAL is in line to assemble the Fennec should it be selected by the army to replace its fleet of Cheetahs and Chetaks.

HAL also has developed a re-engining option for the Cheetah and Chetak, building on its experience from the Dhruv programme and long-standing partnership with Turbomeca. The re-engined Cheetah and Chetak, called Cheetal and Chetan following the installation of the Turbomeca TM 333-2M2, offer improved fuel economy and range plus more payload at high altitude. The Cheetah and Chetak are powered by the Turbomeca Artouste IIIB.

The Cheetal has been flying since last year and in November, HAL test pilots landed the prototype at 23,220ft above mean sea level, or a density altitude of 27,000ft. Both were world records for lightweight helicopters.

After completing the record landing, HAL handed the Cheetal prototype over to the air force for evaluations. It completed a series of trials at the end of February and has already pledged to acquire 10 of the aircraft in the fiscal year starting 1 April.

Aeromedical option

While the air force has started to use its new fleet of Dhruvs on the utility mission that has historically been served with the Cheetahs, HAL believes there is still a need to keep the Cheetahs as standby aircraft for aeromedical evacuations, freeing the Dhruvs for the transport role. The army also operates Cheetahs and Chetaks, but for now is planning to replace them with Bell 407s or Fennecs. HAL is trying to convince the army it needs to also keep its Cheetahs and Chetaks.

"They can't afford to throw them away," says Upadhyay. "They have to use them. A country like India has to use its helicopters. What the Cheetal and Chetan can do, the Bell 407 or Fennec can't do, especially at altitude."

The Cheetal offers a 640km (345nm) range, endurance of 3.5h and fuel consumption of 0.38kg/kW (0.51kg/shp) per hour plus and can carry 90kg at 19,670ft. The Cheetah, in comparison, can only carry 50kg at 19,670ft plus, offers a range of 560km, endurance of 3.1h and fuel consumption of 0.47kg/kW (0.63kg/shp) per hour.

HAL test flew the Chetan for the first time in January and has just begun marketing the aircraft to potential civil and military operators. The Indian air force is expected to evaluate the aircraft later this year.

HAL also hopes to target aeromedical operators worldwide, especially in Switzerland, because the Chetan can carry a stretcher up to 19,500ft, while a Chetak or Lama is restricted to 10,000ft. The cabin of a Cheetah or Cheetal is too small for this type of mission.

The Chetan can carry 60kg at 19,670ft, while the Chetak cannot carry any payload at this altitude. Endurance improves from 3h to 3.45h and range from 500km to 580km. "With the same fuel, you get additional range to higher altitude because you don't reach the thermal limit," explains Upadhyay.

HAL plans to further improve the performance of the Cheetal and Chetan later this year by reducing the weight of the new powerplant by 15kg. Upadhyay says that this will be achieved by moving the inverser gearbox inside the TM333-2M2 engine. -

BRENDAN SOBIE / BANGALORE

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