Science Reporter(October 2004)
SARAS Takes to the Skies!

The successful flight of the first civil aircraft designed and developed within the country has fired the national imagination. SRINIVAS BHOGLE gives an insider acount of the success story of SARAS.

INDIA'S gaze during the monsoon months from June to September is usually skywards. Everyone's hoping to see dark and heavy clouds that will bring in abundant rain. But for some days preceding 22 August 2004, everyone at India's National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) in Bangalore was looking at the skies and fondly hoping that there would be no rain!

22 August 2004 was going to be a very important day in the history of Indian civil aviation. SARAS, India's first civil aircraft designed and developed by NAL, was to take off that day on its 'inaugural' flight. To everyone's great relief, the day dawned sufficiently bright and clear. There were a few annoying low clouds, but they were unlikely to threaten Indian aviation's tryst with destiny.

At exactly 8.15 a.m., the SARAS aircraft, piloted by Sqn Ldr K K Venugopal and Wg Cdr R S Makker, IAF test pilots, started moving from its tarmac and taxied to the eastern end of the HAL runway. Just after 8.20, the SARAS started rolling and, a few seconds later, soared majestically into the skies.

Everyone at the HAL airport burst into a spontaneous applause. Shri Kapil Sibal, India's Minister of State for Science and Technology, who had specially  flown down from New Delhi to witness the SARAS inaugural flight, led the tumultuous ovation. It was an extremely joyful moment for the whole country, also witnessed live by thousands of TV viewers.

The SARAS prototype that flew is named VT-XSD. While 'VT' is a common prefix for civil aircraft flying in the Indian skies, the 'X' indicates that SARAS is still an experimental (not certified) aircraft. 'SD' are the initials of the late Professor Satish Dhawan, the pitamaha of Indian aerospace.

The Inspiration
Indeed, it was Satish Dhawan in the late 1980s who urged NAL to design and build small civil aircraft. Developing small civil aircraft is a very formidable technological challenge and Dhawan recognized that the SARAS project would benefit the country in at least two ways: first, it would 'connect' the hundreds of small towns and cities in India and thereby propel the country to economic prosperity, and second, it would enable Indian aeronautical scientists - at NAL and elsewhere - to master a critical and strategic technology. Such technologies cannot be obtained for either love or money.

Dhawan actually advised NAL to design and develop two small aircrafts. The first, he suggested, could be a 2-seat trainer that could be used by Indian flying clubs. This 2-seat aircraft (to be called HANSA) would - besides itself being very useful - also allow NAL's designers and engineers to get a first-hand experience of the tasks involved in the development of aircraft. The HANSA project could then be followed by the more ambitious SARAS project.

The HANSA project, which required very modest funding, was taken up by NAL around 1990. The first HANSA flew in 1993, and the HANSA has now become a very successful Indian trainer.

HANSA Makes its Mark

HANSA is a small, two-seater aircraft, designed and developed by NAL, which first flew in 1993. The HANSA design was streamlined and significantly improved - during the period 1993-99, leading to its certification by the DGCA, under the JAR-VLA category, in February 2000.

In many ways HANSA was NAL's launching pad for the bigger, and much more complex, SARAS aircraft.

HANSA is a beautiful little plane ideally suited to be a trainer; everyone who wants to become a pilot should probably start off with the HANSA. There are already six HANSA aircraft flying in Indian skies: two HANSA's are with the Trivandrum flying club, the other HANSA's are at IIT, Kanpur and the Hyderabad, Indore and (very soon) Karnal flying clubs.

The most novel feature about HANSA is that it is an all-composite aircraft. Composite materials are lighter than metals but just as strong. The technology to manufacture composite aircraft structures is quite different, but NAL's engineers and scientists have successfully mastered this technology especially during the last decade.

HANSA aircraft have together logged in over 2000 flying hours without any incident. Pilots who have flown the HANSA are delighted with its performance and handling qualities.

A Technological Wonder

SARAS is a 10-14 seater aircraft specially designed to perform in Indian (very hot and very wet) conditions. SARAS also has the capability to take off and land from short and semiprepared runways (India has a large number of such runways; it would cost very little to make them operational).

SARAS will have a pressurized cabin (so that the plane can fly higher and be more comfortable for its passengers), and rear-mounted engines (to reduce cabin noise).

Like all modern aircraft, SARAS was designed on computer workstations using the Catia software. Every part of the aircraft was first 'virtually integrated' on workstations. This approach offers a tremendous advantage: it saves a lot of time and allows the designer to play with many variants. All the part dimensions and drawings determined by the software are then handed over to the agencies involved in the aircraft's manufacture for fabrication.

The SARAS avionics ('aviation electronics') was entirely configured at NAL using individual electronic components ('line replaceable units' or LRU's) imported from the US and European sources (when USA slapped a sanction on NAL following the 1998 atomic tests). It must be emphasized that evolving, integrating and testing a suitable avionics suite, consisting of thousands of individual LRU's, and delivering a consistently safe and high performance avionics system in realtime is a very challenging task.

The development of a new aircraft also involves a very large effort in design and testing. Finite element techniques are extensively used in structural design (to understand, for example, the nature of loads and vibrations that individual locations will experience during flight). Wind tunnel tests are needed to qualify the aerodynamics; static and dynamic tests are needed to verify the structural integrity.

Avionics system

Environmental control system

Landing gear

Even though SARAS uses the Canadian PT6A-66 Pratt & Whitney engine and Hartzell propellers, integrating and testing the engine system to deliver the stipulated performance is a very difficult and complicated process.

The design and development of SARAS was therefore a mammoth task that required teams with expertise in aerodynamics, structures, materials, electronics and propulsion to work together to build a plane that flies - and flies well.

The Maiden Flight

THE SARAS maiden flight was to take place on 29 May 2004 at 8.15 in the morning. The plane was to take off with Sqn Ldr K K Venugopal and Wg Cdr R S Makker, test pilots of IAF's Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE), in command.

When I reached the ASTE tarmac just before 7.00 a.m., there was an icy silence. The sun was weakly peeping through the clouds as Sqn Ldr Venugopal and Wg Cdr Makker did the preliminary checks on the control surfaces. Everyone was pretending to be relaxed but the tension was palpable. It didn't help that a heavy wind was building up on our backs. "These high cross winds are not good," the other watching IAF pilots muttered.

As the pilots boarded the aircraft for the final cockpit checks, I joined my colleagues on the terrace of the telemetry tower. We saw the two 'chase' aircraft taxiing out, and heard the SARAS engines roar alive and soon the SARAS itself began to taxi out.

The airport went out of bounds for civil aircraft at 8.00 a.m. At 8.10 a.m. the first chose aircraft (an IAF Kiran) took off noisily - to also clear the airspace of birds - and the second chase aircraft followed two minutes later.

Far away to the right we began to see the SARAS rolling. "Rolling now," I heard Sqn Ldr Venugopal saying on the radio. A rapidly accelerating SARAS was now sweeping into view. The nose was lifted ... and, seconds later, our beautiful bird was airborne!

I can't describe my most satisfying sense of elation. I started clapping, everyone else was clapping ... as the SARAS climbed higher, our clapping attained a new crescendo. This was the sound of a new, proud and shining India. We built our plane and, look, we're flying it!

As the SARAS disappeared into the clouds, I climbed down back to the tarmac to await its landing. On the way down, I sneaked into the command nerve centre where the flight director was viewing digital displays and advising the pilots on radio. An IAF orderly signalled that I mustn't enter and disturb. I had no intention of doing so. I just wanted to check the body language to be reassured that all was well.

At 8.44 a.m., the two chase aircraft became visible. A single speck of light was visible between these two aircraft. This was SARAS coming in to land. At 8.45 a.m., SARAS landed safely to a tumultuous ovation.

All of us lined up on the runway to cheer the pilots. A Tricolour appeared from nowhere and was lustily waved. ASTE's Commandant, Air Commodore Anil Chopra, was waiting to greet his brave pilots. The chief test pilot saluted his Commandant smartly before receiving a hug.

It was wonderfully euphoric. Everyone was shouting, cheering and hugging. An IAF waiter emerged with two bottles of champagne. As the corks popped out, Sqn Ldr Venugopal told NAL's delighted SARAS managers, Dr T S Prahlad and Dr K Yegna Narayan: "We seem to have a great flying machine. I am not worried about our competition; I think our competition must worry about us now!"

Srinivas Bhogle

The SARAS Vision
Unfortunately it took much longer for Dhawan's bigger SARAS vision to bear fruit.  Although NAL started preliminary design studies on SARAS as early as in 1990, the project still wouldn't take off. The funding (the SARAS programme required about Rs 130 crores, based on 1999 projections) was obviously one major constraint. But the real reason was that India's policy makers, especially during 1990-94, were still not convinced that civil aviation had the potential to create national wealth. Aircraft and aircraft development programmes were still seen as consumers of national wealth. So while it was all right to spend on fighter aircraft (to defend the country), it was quite another matter to spend money to develop civil aircraft.

Dr R. A. Mashelkar, DG-CSIR and Shri Kapil Sibal, Minister of State for Science & Technology and Ocean Development, seem visibly happy and in high spirits after SARAS successfully soared into the sky (above); Dr Mashelkar coming out of SARAS (right) and below, SARAS waits moments before its flight to glory

The SARAS programme therefore faced many trials and tribulations almost right through the 1990s. There was even a phase when SARAS became SARAS-DUET following a decision to collaborate with a Russian design agency that found the SARAS design uncannily similar to a design on their own drawing board. But the disintegration of the Soviet Union eventually finished off this stillborn collaboration.

For NAL's SARAS designers, therefore, the 1990s were difficult and traumatic. At one particularly low point, the chief SARAS designer, Dr K Yegna Narayan even wondered aloud if the aircraft project had taken away his ten most productive years.

Fortunately the tide turned. Dr T S Prahlad, who took over as NAL's Director in 1996, brought in tremendous hope, enthusiasm and energy for the programme. He received marvellous support and encouragement from Dr R A Mashelkar, CSIR's Director-General. The Centre for Civil Aircraft Design and Development (C-CADD), Bangalore, was specially created by CSIR as the nodal agency to monitor and manage this national programme. The Mashelkar-Prahlad axis strongly revived SARAS and in 1999, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs formally approved the SARAS programme.

The SARAS adventure, for all practical purposes, therefore began only late in 1999. A successful first flight, just five years after the project funding - from DST's Technology Development Board, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Ministry of Civil Aviation and CSIR - came in, is therefore a very creditable achievement.

SARAS Takes to Wings
In reality, the 'inaugural' SARAS flight on 22 August 2004 was actually SARAS's seventh flight. The plane first flew on 29 May 2004  and there were subsequent test flights on 7 June, 19 July and 18, 19 and 20 August 2004. But these 'test flights' were not publicized. Flying an aircraft is dangerous business and most maiden flights take place discreetly.

SARAS could well go on to become a technological marvel. The aircraft will be pressurised for passenger comfort and fly up to a maximum speed of 550 km/h at a cruise altitude of 7.5 km. It is designed to take off and land on short semiprepared runways, which exist in a large number in India (many of them first built as part of British Second World War preparations). SARAS has modern avionics, carbon fibre composite control surfaces (that are light, but just as strong as metal) and low cabin noise (because of rearmounted engines). Depending on its payload, SARAS could fly distances ranging from 400 to 2000 km.

What does the SARAS triumph mean to the country? It could mean a very great deal, especially if the programme continues its successful run. The SARAS designers have visualized multiple roles for this aircraft. It can be a commuter aircraft, performing a feeder role (for example, bringing passengers from Coimbatore to Chennai, from Hubli to Bangalore or from Jamshedpur to Kolkata; it would not be economical to take big aircraft like the Airbus A320 to such destinations, even assuming that they could land there). SARAS can also become an executive aircraft, a cargo carrier (rushing oranges out of Nagpur or flowers out of Ooty), an air ambulance, a reconnaissance border aircraft or even an aircraft performing a combination of these roles.

The SARAS triumph also means that India now has the technological expertise and wherewithal to design modern civil aircraft. President Kalam is fond of saying: "strength respects strength". SARAS is a stirring assertion of India's growing technological strength in aerospace. SARAS, in fact, is very much a 'Team India' project with teams from HAL, IAF, CSIR and DRDO establishments and about 30 private industries making up a 700-strong team. Together, we're telling the world: "India can do it!"

To be honest, SARAS still has a very long way to go. India's Directorate-General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) must first certify it, based on the Federal Aviation Regulation (FAR) 25 guidelines. DGCA won't even think of certifying SARAS till the aircraft logs in at least 500 safe flying hours. A second SARAS aircraft (VTXRM; named after the late Raj Mahindra, who first passionately conjured the SARAS concept) will be ready in 2005, and will contribute to augment SARAS's flying hours tally. The SARAS weight has to be reduced; and it is likely that the present engine from Pratt & Whitney, Canada, will be replaced by a more powerful substitute.

The SARAS success is therefore another monumental step forward in Indian aeronautics. Actually, the mood in Indian aeronautics has never been more buoyant. The light combat aircraft (LCA), now named Tejas, is shaping up very well after its first flight in 2001, HAL's Dhruv helicopter is receiving rave international reviews (and good export orders), HAL's intermediate jet trainer, HJT-36, was designed, developed and test flown in 2003 - just over two years after it got off from the drawing board! The HANSA has been a phenomenal success, and now there's SARAS.

So, while Indians will continue to gaze skywards in the years to come looking for rain-bearing clouds, their gaze could also fall on dozens of SARAS aircraft carrying rich and poor passengers, medical relief, fresh fruits and flowers ... and fresh hope for India and Indians. There can be no greater joy than seeing an Indian aircraft flying in Indian skies.

Dr Srinivas Bhogle, a scientist at National Aerospace Laboratories, has watched the SARAS programme closely right from its inception. Address: Information Management Division, National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Post Bag No. 1779, Kodihalli, Bangalore-560 017 (Karnataka); E-mail:

Interview with Dr K Yegna Narayan, SARAS Programme Director, NAL

How does it feel now that SARAS is airborne?
It's wonderfully euphoric. I can't find words to describe our joy when we saw SARAS in the skies.
But this is only the beginning?
Yes, of course. We still have a very long way to go. We've barely flown three hours so far. We need to fly at least 500 hours before the aircraft can be considered
for certification.

Is the SARAS performance so far meeting your expectation?
These are early days. But we think we've made a very encouraging beginning. The pilots are happy with the performance.

There are concerns expressed about the SARAS weight?
Yes the aircraft is currently heavier than what it should be. But you must realize that this is only the first prototype. We have to play very safe to start with.

How's the second prototype, VT-XRM, coming up?
It's about 60% ready. VT-XRM will fly in 2005. Once we have two aircraft flying, we can double our flying hours and reach our target of 500 hours sooner.

What does this SARAS experience mean to you?
It means a lot, really a lot! Some of us have spent 15 years working on SARAS, and waiting for the programme to take off, so this success is very special and
sweet. SARAS also taught all of us to work together, both within NAL and outside NAL. My colleagues have worked hard, and made big personal and
professional sacrifices.

Will the SARAS be commercially successful?
We've commissioned three market surveys by independent agencies and they all indicate a market for at least 150-200 aircraft. The Indian skies are opening up.
There's a lot of excitement with low fare airlines. India is such a large country. It has so many people. Certain parts (especially the North-East) are still so poorly
connected. Our economy is burgeoning. SARAS is designed to perform a variety of flying roles. I really see no reason why SARAS can't be commercially

Interviewed by Srinivas Bhogle and R Guruprasad