Tarmak007 -- A bold blog on Indian defence: Tejas@10: Are we a Nation who don't care for our heroes?

Monday, January 3, 2011

Tejas@10: Are we a Nation who don't care for our heroes?

The man who flew LCA first Rajiv Kothiyal and the man who shaped the project and led it from the front for 17 years Dr Kota Harinaraya hold a metallic model of Tejas to mark the 10th anniversary of Tejas' first flight that falls on January 4, 2001. The Tejas duo, obliged a request from Tarmak007, for a quiet sit-down-chat to remember India's dream machine -- Tejas.
Today is January 4, 2011. It was exactly on this day, 10 years back, Wg Cdr Rajiv Kothiyal created history when he piloted the technology demonstrator (TD-1) of LCA, now Tejas, for the maiden flight. The blogger was a Chief Copy Editor with The Times of India, Bangalore, when LCA first flew. On that day, there was one man who was chased by the national media along with the pilot (Koti). The man in question -- Dr Kota Harinarayana –- revered as the Father of India’s LCA program. An honest and dedicated soul, who sacrificed his entire life  for LCA. He was (is) a great leader and came from the same school of thought as that of Dr Kalam, but younger to him by 13 years. He inspired a whole generation of plane-makers and led his team against all odds.
Today, 10 years later, sadly India has forgotten Kota (LCA Program Director from December 1985 to June 2002) and Koti, the first man who flew LCA. Kota (67) is now the Pratt & Whitney Chair Professor at University of Hyderabad. He also teaches at IIT Mumbai the art of aircraft design. Kothiyal (52), is a Senior Pilot with the Kingfisher Airlines and also the Examiner for A-320.
Tarmak007 met up with the K-factors of Tejas (Kota & Koti) for a freewheeling chat in Bangalore, to mark 10 years of Tejas’ maiden flight. It was an emotionally-charged meeting for all of us. I quickly realized that my one-time sources, rather one-time heroes, are today forgotten by many. While I handed over a small metallic model of Tejas for the purpose of taking a photograph, I could see a mist in their eyes.
While stepping out of the hotel, I realized how cruel we all are at times. Sometimes as individuals, sometimes as a whole Nation! In any other country, Dr Kota would have been a national hero.
Forgetting our heroes? Shame! Really, Shame!
(Thanks to the Forum of Defense and Aerospace Journalists, Bangalore – FDAJB – some journo friends too are also running stories on Tejas@10, today. Here’s a verbatim of my conversation with Dr Kota and Koti.)
I have achieved nothing in my life, but only Tejas. It was Ratan Tata, who saved the program from closure in '91, says Dr Kota
Antony played a key role in backing 2 projects: All said and done, Mr Antony has to be given the credit for pushing LCA and Arjun programs. He did it in a very subtle way because there was stiff opposition to both these national projects from within. But, he stood his ground and convinced everyone that we shall overcome all the hurdles. And, we did it. Additional orders for Arjun MBT after it outperformed the Russian T-90. And, now IOC for Tejas. It is because of his extremely pro-active role that we got additional orders of 20 for Tejas. Still, I feel 40 is a too low an order. Today, putting together all projections, roughly we can say around 200 LCAs of different Marks and variants will come out. This included the ones for IAF, Navy and the trainers.
Tejas will become more Indian soon: Today, engine, the INS and portions of radar are imported. The rest are all coming out of India – a result of our scientific and technological might. I am sure in near future, barring engine, everything else will be Indian.
Lessons from Kaveri engine: While we deal with critical technologies you should be open and transparent. We should not be afraid of anything. Networking is the key. Unless, you expose the problem, you will not get to know the solution. It should be a culture… a way of life. Even the youngest member of your team should be given a choice to come out and speak.
The role of academics & industries: If the defense industry has to grow, then we must first have a mindset that we will buy only from India. This would give tremendous confidence to our industries. Today, the industry is showing great sparks and it must be fanned into a huge flame. We must wipe out the fears of industry as the investments are huge in defense. But unless we have competition, unless we have more players and unless the monopoly of a single player goes (read as HAL), nothing much can be done. Academic institutions should be part of every new project. They would give us new ideas and they are our strength.
Ratan Tata saved the Tejas program: I give a lot of credit to Mr Ratan Tata for the Tejas program. Not many know this story. To me, he was one among the few who saved this national project from closure. In 1990-91, I attended a LCA program review meeting in Delhi. Prior to this meeting, a high-level committee involving MPs had visited the facilities in Bangalore to see what progress we had made. I knew that the agenda of the meeting was to close the program. While some appreciated our work and commitment, they wanted it to be shut. But, Mr Ratan Tata completely backed us and said: “It will be a shame if the project is closed. I have seen the technology and I am convinced that the project will definitely see the light of the day. I want private industries to come up and play an active role in the Tejas program.” The rest is history.
We were a minority chasing a dream: I must admit that 99/100 believed that LCA was a thrash and the aircraft will never come. Today, I am happy that we are about to enter a historic phase with IOC in sight. In spite of extra-ordinary cynicism, extra-ordinary disbelief, extra-ordinary negative publicity, in spite of Sanctions and in spite of not many showing interest in LCA ‘within’ the country, we held on to the project. I used to feel very hurt at times. All those who opposed it, including the Media, were speaking and writing against LCA purely because of their ignorance.
We made LCA for the pilots: We made the LCA for the Nation. But, we also made LCA for the pilots. For me, pilots are the real heroes. It is their lives we are putting into risk and hence the product has to be world-class. Rajiv Kothiyal is a great pilot. I have seen his commitment. Today, a dozen pilots have come after him and I am not undermining their contribution to the program. But, the first man is always special. In Koti’s case, I can say he literally risked his life. We would have flown LCA in 1999 or 2000, but kept on conducting various tests and high-speed trials again and again. Even, I was asked by many why we are not going for the first flight. Finally, after extensive flight trials, we had the maiden flight on January 4, 2001. George Fernandez was the Defense Minister then, and he told me the moment, Tejas took-off: “Kota, you might be a happy man now?” I replied: “No Sir. Not yet. I will be happy only when Koti lands.”
Navy backed us to the hilt from Day 1: Indian Navy supported the project steadfast from Day-1. We don’t have any doubt about their commitment.
The future of Tejas will be linked to its quality: The aircraft must be produced to high quality standards. The future of Tejas will be directly linked to the high production standards being put in place by the agency involved. Absolute need to bring in product improvement block by block and the tooling plan must be for 20 aircraft per year. My real worry is that unless we produce the aircraft, we cannot make the project a success.
I don’t want them to remember me… Let people remember the good work we did. Let them hail the team. I don’t want anyone to remember me. I created a team, who believed in themselves and actually delivered the result. We created a team that not only made LCA, but also many future programs. Remember, I had to work with a group of people (not from my team), who believed I can’t deliver.
I have achieved nothing in life… but only Tejas: Dear… (as he would call everyone), we are all forgotten now (looking at Koti). May be, we have achieved nothing in life, but only Tejas! But I am happy that Tejas is getting IOC, finally. It is a historic day. Okay dear. When will I see what you write?
I flew without a telemetry link during my maiden flight: Koti
I can’t forget that day. The ground telemetry had failed the moment I took-off. I was in touch with the ground station only via radio. Those at the ground telemetry, especially manning the flight control systems, avionics, and hydraulics had blank terminals in front of them till I landed. “The telemetry link is broken,” I was told via radio. “Great!” I replied. I had to be extra alert while flying now. That made the maiden flight more memorable even today, as I had to fly without a telemetry link. There was some frequency interference from a nearby IT firm, which was sorted out during the subsequent flights. When I received the prestigious Iven C. Kincheloe Award for the Best Test Pilot of the Year 2001, they had also taken this point into consideration. (Incidentally, Kothiyal is the only Test Pilot in India to win this award – often described as the Oscar for Test Pilots. He has in his company, the legendary Neil Armstrong.) January 4 will be always an emotional moment for me. It’s 10 years, now. Tejas is a great aircraft. Well, they say time flies. And for pilots like me, destination too matters, as much as the paths we crossed. I have to reach the airport by 4.30 pm and I am flying the Delhi sector today. Convey my regards to Tejas team. When is the IOC? On Jan. 10th you said, right? Cheers!
And, a page from the history...
An official photo call (on left) after the maiden flight on January 4, 2001. (Right) The TV news crew knew exactly how to get the shots as the Media was not permitted inside the airport during the flight. Media had to shoot from a long distance, outside the HAL boundary wall. (Below) The blogger ran a series in The Times of India for a week, soon after the maiden flight. This one was on Team ADA, dated January 11, 2001. Interestingly, I would often refer to LCA  as Little Cute Angel!
  (From blogger's file. Courtesy: The Times of India)
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