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Tuesday, November 12, 2013


ASTE is an elite unit of the Indian Air Force which turns a
select few men into daredevil air warriors. Anantha Krishnan M
meets the Test Pilots’ crew to capture their lives.

The sun was striking hard on one side of the runway inside old HAL airport. An upgraded Jaguar landed after a test sortie and was towed to the hangar. Inside the Aircraft System and Testing Establishment (ASTE), Wg Cdr Vivart Singh, Wg Cdr Aurobinda Jena and Wg Cdr Sumit Garg – all Test Pilots (TPs) -- were ready for the 'approved interaction' with City Express. Calm and composed, these daredevil TPs had over 4800 flying hours in their kitty. Salt 'n' sugar nimboo pani, mouth-watering hot samosas and crisp bread toast kept the mood in good spirits. The warm-up session lasted for 20 minutes, before we got on to business hours. Excerpts. 

Wg Cdr Vivart Singh

Plane Passion: Flying was my sheer childhood passion. When I was in Class 6 (1984), I wrote an article about Mirage-2000 and it was just a coincidence that I was part of the Mirage Squadron, years later. Being a Test Pilot, I am aware of the inside out of the aircraft now and delighted to see the technology from very close quarters, be it weapons, sensors, systems and the like. While at ASTE, as a TP, you can bring your operational experience to the optimum utilisation of a brand new technology and suggest its employability. This is my second tenure in ASTE and I am an instructor here.
On TPs: It’s a voluntary call and you need to be an above average pilot with minimum of 1000 hours of flying. Selected pilots and crew will have to undergo a 48-week training at ASTE. As an individual, you need to have a technological bent of mind; hunger to know more and eagerness to explore.
On IAF: It has an emotional connect in my life.
First Day in IAF: It was a proud moment for me. Flying a supersonic fighter (Mig 21 at Tezpur) at the age of 23 was another memorable day.
Unforgettable day: When I flew five different types of aircraft in a single day (April 22 this year), which included one fighter, two fighter trainers, one transport (all as a captain) and a helicopter.
On ASTE: This is the alma mater for TPs; the only place in IAF that undertakes flight testing of all new technologies incorporated in IAF. It’s the hub of gen-next tools and technology.
On Bangalore: Great weather as compared to any part of the country. I also love this place as the aviation history is very vibrant here. The traffic is definitely better than many other cities.
Favourite pastime: Playing golf.

Wg Cdr Aurobinda Jena 

Plane Passion: I joined IAF purely out of fascination and attraction for the uniform. I wanted to either join IAF or the police. The discipline in the armed forces was to my liking. As a Flight Test Engineer (FTE), I will have to plan the entire process of tests. FTEs are a bridge between designers and TPs. As FTEs, we will have to absorb new technologies, then flight test it and put it for field units. We also make SOPs and give them to Ops units.
First day in IAF: Really an unforgettable day, considering I was longing for it. The thrill of the first day stayed with me for a long time.
Unforgettable day: Before coming to ASTE, I was with a helicopter unit and during one of the missions, my timely input did come handy during an emergency situation.
On IAF: Over the next few years, IAF will have the ultimate machines and technologies that can be compared to the best in the world. As an Indian, I want to see Tejas getting on to the squadron at the earliest.
On ASTE: This is a very highly specialised profession. As FTE, I have to be fit like a pilot. It is one great task to live up to the ASTE name.
On Bangalore: I get all kinds of food here. The roads are bad, but I still love this city.
Hobbies: Basketball

Wg Cdr Sumit Garg 
Plane passion: I joined IAF for the sheer love of flying. My father was an engineer and he did not want me to just become the usual engineer. As a TP you must have curiosity, clarity of thought and ability to manage time. You will have to read so much to embrace these new technologies.
First day in IAF: The day I got commissioned in IAF, the Chief of Naval Staff, who was the chief guest said that ‘your job is to serve.’ That really touched me. He had said 'It’s not a career, but it is a service'.
On IAF: I have seen IAF becoming a tech-savvy organisation. It gives us the confidence to do our job efficiently.
Unforgettable moment: When I first touched down on foreign soil in 2008, flying my own fighter aircraft, for the Red Flag exercise. It was a very precious moment.
On ASTE: This place makes you grow as an individual. Being with professionals all the time inspires you.
Hobbies: Reading fiction
On Bangalore: Everything this city has to offer. The pub culture, aviation interest and the greens. 

Cool Commandant
Air Vice Marshal Raghunathan Nambiar, Commandant, ASTE, chose to be the backroom boy and refused to be part of the series, despite many attempts to persuade him. “Let my boys talk. It is their story that will inspire the youngsters. They are the backbone of ASTE,” Nambiar told City Express during the course of the visit. Nambi, as he known among his close friends, took charge on December 28, 2011, as the 25th Commandant of ASTE. He was among the first TPs attached to the Tejas project. He was in the limelight during the first flight of Tejas on January 4, 2001, when he flew the lead chase Mirage aircraft, keeping a close watch on Tejas. Father of India's Tejas programme Dr Kota Harinarayana terms Nambi as one of the finest TPs he has seen. 

ASTE: Best in South Asia
ASTE is among the the seven Test Pilot schools in the world and is considered as the best in South Asia. It was awarded the Presidential Standard on 21 November 2005. ASTE is a unique organisation of the Indian Air Force (IAF). It symbolizes the synergy of technical knowledge and training in producing eminent Test Pilots and engineers for the armed forces of the country. It assists premier defence organizations like DRDO, CISR, ISRO, HAL on evaluating the aircraft through various and rigorous field trials. Various aircraft like Gnat, Vampire, Mystere, Hunter, Krishak, Saunders Roe P-53C Scout Helicopter, HJT 16, Kiran, Indian variants of Aloutte Helicopter, Chetak, Cheetah, HS748 (AVRO), HF 24 Marut, AN 32, Jaguar and Mirage have been tried and tested here. ASTE has a regular interaction with similar organizations in UK, France and USA in a bid to bring in the latest technology available to make India a pioneer in aircraft testing capabilities. ASTE stands at the vanguard of India’s indigenization efforts in aircraft manufacturing and will be a beacon for generations of Test Pilots and Engineers to come. India's famous astronauts Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra were part of ASTE. (Source: Defence PRO, Bangalore)


Dr Kalam ON ASTE

I was associated with ASTE as was tasked to do the performance estimation and reduction analysis of Gnat aircraft. I still remember those days fondly. I know about the work of this premier unit. I was associated with it while planning, executing and testing of the Tejas. ASTE is a unique unit. -- Former President Dr A P J Abdul Kalam, during the Presidential Standard ceremony.

Truly the unsung heroes: Lamba

By Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Ajit Lamba

Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) is a unique organisation of the Indian Air force. As the name signifies, it is responsible for evaluation of all new aircraft and airborne systems before their induction in the Service. ASTE also has a Test Pilots School, which trains all flying test crews for IAF, Indian Navy and the Army. It also supplies test pilots and engineers  to HAL, NAL and DRDO.
A Test Pilot undergoes a stringent selection process, followed by a gruelling one year of training at ASTE, before becoming a full fledged ‘TP’. In the formative years of aviation, a Test Pilot worked alone - as a scientist,  aerodynamicist and an engineer, a classic example being the Wright Brothers themselves. However, with complexity of the flying machines, the Test Pilot has become one of a large team of engineers and designers. The other test crews, flight test engineers, instrumentation, avionics and armament engineers are similarly trained at ASTE.
What is the test crew’s task? The test crew’s job in flight development remains essentially what it always has been, i.e., to observe and report on the ability of the aircraft or the system to meet specifications and to search and eradicate unsafe features. At ASTE, reports are generated after each flight test, and with the recommendation of its Commandant, forwarded to Air Headquarters. There has never been any instance, where any aircraft or system has been inducted against the recommendations of ASTE.
Test flying can, without doubt, be the most satisfying professional experience for a flyer. The test crews at ASTE are a very elite group, almost never in limelight and are truly the unsung heroes of the IAF. Due to the tremendous responsibility they shoulder, they mature faster, grow grey, bald and definitely, more handsome!
(The writer was the Commandant of ASTE between 1986 and 1991. He is currently 77 years old and files light sports aircraft as a hobby.)

Copyright@The New Indian Express

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