In February 2020, 78-year-old Air Marshal (Retd) Philip Rajkumar became the oldest officer to fly the indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Over the years, the 1965 war veteran, who resides in Bengaluru has been closely associated with the development of the indigenous fourth generation fighter aircraft which is now being procured by the Indian Air Force to create LCA squadrons.
In 1994, he was the Additional Assistant Chief of Air Staff or ACAS (Ops) at Air HQ when former president Dr APJ Abdul Kalam sent him to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) to oversee flight testing of the LCA. He served at the ADA from 1994-2003 during which he set up the National Flight Test Centre. Recently, he authored ‘Radiance in Indian Skies – The Tejas Saga’ with journalist BR Srikanth. Air Marshal (Retd) Rajkumar speaks to The Indian Express on the LCA fighter programme and his book:
How did the idea of writing the book ‘Radiance in Indian Skies – The Tejas Saga’ come about?
Dr G Satish Reddy, Chairman of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), wanted us to write ‘feel good’ stories listing its achievements. I was the Additional Assistant Chief of Air Staff or ACAS (Ops) at Air HQ when I was sent to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), an autonomous agency under DRDO which was created in 1984.
So I mentioned the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas project to Reddy. The book was authorised by the DRDO in March 2018. We spent three years writing it. Quite a lot of time was lost due to the pandemic. Along with co-author and journalist BR Srikanth, I interviewed a good number of people. The main problem we faced was that the book should have a coherent chronological narrative. The ADA gave us administrative support. I had to make sure that the technical details were appropriate. The whole idea was to release the book at Aero India 2021.
At the age of 78 you were the oldest IAF officer to have flown the LCA Tejas. How was the experience?
I flew the Tejas on February 28, 2020. It was always there in my mind that before I wrote the book, I must at least have one sortie and see how flight control systems are behaving. I had worked on the initial development of flight controls from 1994-1996, but I had never flown it. When the two-seater version of the Tejas was ready, a lot of people were having joyrides, including PV Sindhu and Ratan Tata. I requested Satish Reddy that I be permitted to fly even though I was 78 years old. So he agreed.
It was a great delight. The flight controls were working perfectly. When I left in 2003 the aircraft was in its early stages of development. Initially we had problems with brakes. Everything has been sorted out. During the sortie we had a look at the radar which was very impressive. We tried out some of the attack modes. The engine response was very good. We also checked out the autopilot. I am sure operationally it will improve itself in the coming years.
There is criticism that the LCA project took so many years.
The main reason why it took so much time was the way we conceived the project. In western countries, they first develop the technologies and only when the technologies and industrial infrastructure are in place, will they launch the project. The Eurofighter, developed by a consortium of British, Spanish, Italian and German companies, was created this way. In the mid-1970s, British Aerospace converted a Jaguar aircraft into a fly-by-wire (electrically signalled control system) aircraft. Then in between 1984-1988 they built an aircraft very similar to the Eurofighter called the experimental aircraft programme and then flew it. In 1990, they finally launched the Eurofighter project. By 2005 the fighter went into service.
Now, in India we had absolutely no idea on how to develop fly-by-wire. We had never done it before. Our industrial infrastructure was weak. We were attempting to put new technologies together into the air frame – fly-by-wire, glass cockpit, composite materials in the air frame. The switch was pressed on the day ADA was formed in 1984. We finished the technology demonstration in 2004. We gave final operational clearance in 2019 which was 15 years later, same as the Eurofighter. It appears like we took a long time because we started the clock at the beginning of the formation of ADA and not at a time when the technologies were available. But we have taken as much time as anybody else.
Critics also point out the allotment of thousands of crores for the project.
From the very first allotment of Rs 560 crore in 1986 to the time when the first carrier landing took place in January 2020, the total amount spent on the project was Rs 14,293 crore. If that is divided by 34 years you get a figure of Rs 420 crore. By investing Rs 420 crore a year, this country has built 17 prototypes including two naval prototypes. We flew 5,000 development sorties without a single accident which is a record. Half that money was invested in India itself in building infrastructure at HAL, private industries and DRDO laboratories. We set up an aeronautical industrial ecosystem in the country for future projects. LCA MK II, the twin engine deck-based fighter, and 10 years later the advanced medium combat aircraft would not have been possible without the foundation laid by the Tejas programme. So the criticism is unfounded.
You have witnessed the LCA programme since its inception. Was there any attempt by the political class during all these years to derail the project?
Aerospace scientist Professor Roddam Narasimha met Mrs Gandhi (former prime minister Indira Gandhi) and told her that she has supported the space programme, atomic energy programme but not aeronautics. She said, “You all do not speak with one voice. You say something, IAF and HAL say something. The day you will speak in one voice, the next day I will authorise the programme.”
So ADA was formed. I would categorically say that financial and political support irrespective of political view was always there from the Union government. In the early 1990s, when Sharad Pawar was the defence minister he formed a committee which had industrialists like Ratan Tata and a few MPs to see if we can go ahead with the project. This was after the project definition phase between 1987 and 1988. Dassault France came down to India and stayed for one year. Their engineers developed a project definition report. The report was read out at the Air HQ and it was said that at the time frame being indicated and the cost being indicated they didn’t think it could be done. It will take more time and more money. Some MPs had expressed doubts but the Union government always backed us which is why we kept sailing.