The photographs might not be of top quality as it is taken with the blogger's amateur camera. I did not make an attempt to give captions, fearing that it will be bigger than the report!Apologies! I am writing this piece on the historic roll-out of LCA Navy in Bangalore on July 6, 2010, 24 hours after the event. It’s 24 hours after my fellow-bloggers broke those exclusive visuals; 24 hours after my friends in the electronic media did the PTC from the vantage angles; 24 hours after my print pals wrote their stories and snippets; 24 hours after the shooting spree by shutterbugs. The show is over. All the showmen have left. Now, what’s the big deal? Read on…It’s NOT exclusive!
My birthday gift?: This blogger turned 37 on July 6. Friends on Facebook joked on the Wall that the ‘nation gifted an LCA to you’. SMSes and calls wishing good health and happiness started coming in from morning. Amidst all these feel-good moments, I reached the Aircraft Research and Development Centre (ARDC) to cover the event for Aviation Week. The stage was set for the big show. Like, relatives anxiously waiting for the bride and groom to tie the knot, journalists waited at their designated spot. The Navy Band played some stunning numbers, keeping the crowd enthralled. The who’s who of ADA, HAL, DRDO and NAL were all in attendance, sporting their designer ties. The back-room boys were running helter-skelter, ensuring everything was in place.
Antony checks-in: The smart MC signaled the arrival of India’s defence minister AK Antony at HAL airport. “Any moment he will be here,” he announced. Soon, Antony checked-in along with his parivar from Dilli. The convoy… the mad rush to open the door of his Ambassador… salutes… flashes… Amidst all this madness, usual with a VIP arrival, the small-built-big-man of Indian defence occupied the dais. Honestly, the minister was hardly visible from a distance. His low chair was the villain. Then the bouquet and the mineral water bottle in front of him blocked whatever was visible of his head. In fact the lone man standing behind him — a security official — kept pointing out to the organizers that the chair was too low.
A world record for praises: The show began. Speeches, one after the other. ADA Chief, PD LCA Navy, HAL Chairman, DRDO Chief, Secretary DP, Chief of Naval Staff, HAL’s Director Design and Antony all had their share of time to get a huge applause from the audience. Probably PD LCA walked away with the best and informative speech, capturing the essence of LCA Navy. Close to him was Navy Chief, who wanted to learn from the past and put the aircraft to the skies at the earliest. Others used the occasion to praise, praise and praise one another. HAL Chairman Ashok Nayak started with his now-famous opening remark in Kannada: Namaskara. It packs a punch, and is loaded with tons of energy. It can knock you out of your chair if you are not seated properly. His ‘Namaskara’ often gets him the first round of applause.
As the non-stop praising session continued, the many self-styled defence journalists and experts seated in the press box, including this blogger, began to get more and more frustrated. Soon, Antony’s turn came and he started with an apology for arriving late. “An unusual scene at Delhi airport caused the delay. I am sorry for it,” he took off. Applause. Then, the minister started his speech, playing to the gallery. “You promised me that the LCA Navy will fly by October. You must keep that word, I say,” he told the stars on the dais. They all nodded their heads, probably knowing the ground realities! Antony won the hearts of all those present, with his inimitable style of speech. It was like the wife telling the husband: “You promised me to take me out for dinner…” We will wait and see if ADA-HAL will keep up the word given to Antony.
Unsung hero remembered: The most striking point of the day was when the father of the LCA programme, Dr Kota Harinarayana, was remembered by the elite guests on dais. Dr Kota, the unassuming and charming hero was seated in the audience. It would have been a fitting tribute to the legend of Indian aviation, had the organisers at least given him a bouquet, out of the large number available. Even today, most of the scientists, designers and engineers associated with the LCA programme never fail to thrill to the very name of Dr Kota.
A class act: Events organized by HAL are definitely getting better by the day. Most insiders give the credit to Ashok Nayak, whose skills as an organizer need no introduction. He is known for doing things in style. The Aero India HAL stalls in 2005, ‘07 and ‘09, the first HAL-built Hawk handing-over event, the HAL Kasargode facility stone-laying ceremony, the first ever HAL Day event, the LCH first flight and now the LCA Navy have all graduated from one level to another. There’s definitely class to HAL events, though there are some insiders who question the money spent on all these events. While some in the media were still wondering whether a roll-out needs so much hype and celebration, there’s not much one can do, as it has become an acceptable norm for Indian defence and aerospace establishments to tell the world about their achievements in style. A roll-out is like the engagement, and the first flight may be like the wedding! So, LCA Navy will now undergo end-to-end system checks, ground run, low/high speed taxi trials and eventually make its first flight. We will be there again!
The roll out: Oops! I am missing the moment. So, LCA Navy amid man-made smoke, lights and applause was rolled out of the ARDC hangar, with a man seated inside. The MC screamed -- THE LIGHT COMBAT AIRCRAFT LCA NAVY (read each word with a 2-second pause to get the impact.) The man inside the cockpit waved the Tri-Colour, and that was the most defining moment of the day. A.R. Rahman’s Vande Mataram played in the background — the perfect song to fit the mood. Within no time, Antony & Co was shepherded to the cockpit. It was a great sight to watch Antony in the cockpit in his trademark white mundu and white khadi shirt. He obliged photographers and waved. It was like a pilot waving after a landmark maiden flight. Truly, it was a great moment for Indian aviation.
The LCH flight: Antony got an opportunity to witness the flight of Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) after the LCA navy roll out. (He had missed its maiden LCH flight on May 23, owing to the Boeing crash in Mangalore a day before.) The LCH, definitely a mean and sturdy machine, performed some limited maneuvers. Team LCH won the hearts of the media again, with most of them getting yet another opportunity for an up-close with the machine.
The press meet: Probably this was the most disastrous event of the day. Seated next to Antony were the DRDO Chief, Navy Chief, Secretary - Defence Production, and HAL Chairman. It’s very, very rare that the Bangalore Media get to see all the five at one go. But, barely four questions, and the press meet was over in 15 minutes. A question on Kashmir, coastal surveillance, Navy satellite and one more. Just can’t figure out the logic behind enacting this farce. Disappointment was writ large on the face of many who wanted to ask questions, but never got a chance, because the minister was in a hurry. “He wanted just 10 minutes for the press meet,” was the official version given. The questions barely went beyond the first row. The only surprise at the press meet was the HAL chief making the members of the media hand over the LCH models to Antony and his team.
Media woes: A couple of senior journalists met Antony soon after the press meet and requested him to facilitate exposure to Bangalore journalists, as 95 per cent of those covering or writing on defence and aviation in Bangalore seldom visited a facility outside Bangalore. And, 90 per cent of them would not have seen even the facilities in Bangalore! Antony agreed to the demands and asked his Media Head Sitanshu Kar to look into the matter. With the rumbles in the Bangalore journo fraternity growing and a strong forum of defence writers all set to take wing, the days ahead will tell us if Antony has got the message right. “In a year, we get to see the Defence Minister once or twice, and our interactions are limited to just 10 to 15 minutes. The best period for Bangalore journalists covering defence was during the tenure of George Fernandes as he was very pro-active to our needs,” a senior journalist with a national TV channel said.
The missing man: DRDO’s Media Head from Delhi Ravi Gupta was barely seen during the entire exercise. Though DRDO was carpet-bombing the media with press releases, the man supposed to be taking care of the media was missing in action. Most of the Bangalore journalists did not see the new media head of DRDO. With this blogger chasing him for the last two months to organize a visit to Bangalore’s DRDO labs (just a 2-minute walk from my house), he probably had strong reasons to play the ‘hiding game’! It’s time Dr Saraswat and team put some pro-active media managers in Delhi during the ongoing DRDO revamp. It's a shame that DRDO, despite all the non-stop negative publicity it receives, don't want to put in place an effective branding mechanism.
Finally, tarmak007 salutes the efforts of many unsung heroes who contributed to the success of LCA Navy at ADA and HAL. Best wishes for the maiden LCA Navy flight. Cheers!