January 9, 2013: Strategy Page
The Indian Air Force is facing yet another round of embarrassment over the mismanagement of its pilot training program. This time it was the news that a quarter of its Hawk jet trainers were out of action because of an avoidable spare parts shortage. This is not the first time the Indian Hawks have embarrassed the air force leadership. The Hawks were, in fact, meant to take care of an earlier leadership failure.
This came from the fact that India has long had problems with advanced trainers or, rather, the lack of them. For a long time new pilots went straight from propeller driven trainer aircraft to high performance jets like the MiG-21. This was fatal for many of those new pilots. The MiG-21 has always been a tricky aircraft to fly. Pilots normally get some time on a jet trainer aircraft before taking on a jet fighter. The Indian approach resulted in a high loss rate from peacetime accidents. The solution to this was obtaining a jet trainer but it took decades for this simple solution to make its way through the defense procurement bureaucracy.
Eight years ago, after two decades of effort, BAE Systems finally sold 66 Hawk jet trainers to India, at a cost of some $25 million each. The delays were caused by the Indian unwillingness to spend the money, plus the efforts of French, Russian, Czech, and American aircraft manufacturers to put forward their own candidates. Finally, the growing number of Indian MiG-21 aircraft lost forced the government to close the deal. The Hawk advanced jet trainers are the most successful Western aircraft of this type, at least in terms of sales (over 900 have been sold). The U.S. Navy uses the Hawk and India felt the Hawk was the most suitable for preparing MiG-21 pilots, as this nine ton aircraft was designed to train pilots who will eventually fly jet fighters. The Hawk can also be armed and used for ground attack. Four years ago India decided to buy another 40 British Hawk jet trainers.
India has also had problems with basic (propeller driven) trainers. This has recently been addressed as well. Last May the Indian government finally agreed to buy 75 Pilatus PC 7 trainer aircraft for the Indian Air Force. The aircraft cost $7.5 million each and begin to arrive this year. It took the air force several years to get approval. In the meantime, pilot training and flight safety suffered because of the shortage of basic trainers.
There are actually three different aircraft trainers Indian pilots use during their flight schooling. All of the current ones are elderly and overworked. The HPT-32 is used for primary (basic) flight training. Intermediate training uses the Kiran Mark II and then the Hawk Jet Trainer is used for advanced training for fighter pilots. After that the pilots are sent to combat units where they learn how to operate a specific type of aircraft.
Back in 2009, all 116 HPT 32 basic trainers had to be grounded because of age related problems. HPT reliability has gone down even more since then. The HPT 32 entered service three decades ago and there have been over a hundred serious accidents, killing 23 instructor and trainee pilots. Because of the HPT 32 problems the 96 Kiran Mk1 intermediate trainers had to increasingly be used for both basic and intermediate training. These aircraft are being worn out but even then most pilot trainees are only getting a third of the required hours before being moved along in their flight training. This leads to more accidents as pilots are pushed into the next phase of their training without adequate flight time.
For over three years the air force has been trying to get permission to buy 75 Pilatus PC 7 single engine turboprop trainers to replace the HPT 32s. While the HPT-32 was designed and manufactured in India, the Swiss built Pilatus was seen, by Indian pilot training experts, as a better choice. The PC 7 is a two seat, 2.7 ton aircraft. The instructor sits behind the trainee and both have an ejection seat. Nearly 500 PC 7s have been built in the last three decades and they are used by 24 nations. But because the Pilatus is a foreign aircraft, buying it has become a political issue and the actual purchase was continually delayed by politicians or Indian aircraft manufacturers. Indian pilots made it clear that they did not want another HPT 32.