Rotors of the same chopper
The ALH Dhruv helicopter was conceived way back in 1984 and took to the air in 2002. Through its journey and even now during production at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, a dedicated test crew is putting it through its paces
PHOTO: BHAGYA PRAKASH K.
INTO THE LIGHTTest flying is described as a big team effort by the HAL rotary flight test crew
"Learn to test test to learn," is the motto of The Empire Test Pilots' School, the first of its kind in the world, set up in 1943. Wing Commander (retired) C.D. Upadhyay, Chief Test Pilot (Rotary Wing), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), stresses on that statement as I sit down to trace the story of him and his team test flying the Advanced Light Helicopter, Dhruv, which is now in commercial and military service.
Wg Cdr Upadhyay's team is in charge of testing each and every Dhruv that is manufactured, repaired or overhauled at HAL, and test all new versions of the chopper. His team consists of retired service pilots Wg Cdr N.S. Krishna, Cdr Anil Gulati, and Wg Cdr Unni Pillai, pilots on deputation Gp Capt Hari Nair and Wg Cdr Bhambhani, and retired flight engineers Wg Cdr M.U. Khan, Wg Cdr R. Selvaraj, Wg Cdr Ajay Raj and Karnic (from HAL).
"It is a totally different kind of job. There are uncertainties and we fly totally into the unknown. You need caution, passion, planning and toil," says Wg Cdr Khan, with Wg Cdr Krishna adding: "It is not about being brave - as being brave is foolish. We define the extremes of an aircraft, so we spend 90 per cent of our time defining the corners."
All the pilots have been to test pilot schools, either in India or abroad. They proudly claim that they can fly anywhere over land or sea and describe themselves "as jack of all arts, always trying to master all." Their work does not stop just with flying. They need to learn avionics systems and read a lot to understand the background of an aircraft. They say they have all the experience of a squadron pilot/engineer and then draw the limits for them by interacting with aircraft designers. The pilots also have real operational experience but it seems it is "more battles and bashing from all sides because it is important for the product to be liked."
The Dhruv started out as a single engine concept in 1984 and soon developed into a twin-engine helicopter due to the demands of the military and safety margins given by two engines. MBB from Germany were the consultants for the design. Wg Cdr Upadhyay, who is called "CTP" by the team, joined the program in 1989. By 1990 the ground test vehicle tests began to test the engines and rotors and Wg Cdr Upadhyay was part of the crew that flew the first prototype on August 30, 1992. He recalls the first flight: "I can't describe the feeling. There was no time for fear. Nothing was left unplanned. It was not a circus, 390 real time parameters were monitored with the designers, it was a team effort."
The chopper now flies with all the three armed services, the Coast Guard, is used for VIP transport, air ambulance service and is being exported to buyers abroad. The team has tested the aircraft till -25C and + 48C temperatures, flown over sea, deserts, jungles and high altitude up to seven kilometres.
Wg Cdr Upadhyay says there were many surprises along the way but experience can make you "smell trouble". "You develop an instinct for trouble. There are always simple and often unique solutions, you just need to think out of the box."
Perhaps the most hairy moment endured by the team was when Wg Cdr Krishna had an emergency near Hyderabad when the tail rotor of his helicopter failed. Recalling the incident he says that he "now treasures his instinct for spotting trouble." He managed to put down the helicopter safely with minimal damage.
"I had no time to think or feel scared. You cannot simulate an engine or tail rotor failure, it is only written in a textbook. Now I can say that probably we have proven the textbook right," he laughs.
All of them make an effort to stress that their job cannot be accomplished without a team working in synergy. They say all views are respected and no one is ever "brushed aside". "There is no hierarchy, it is all totally professional." They pick up unique tips and tricks from each other. Cdr Gulati, who is a naval pilot, taught the others the knack of reading the rolling of a ship while landing at sea.
The team says the best experience they had was demonstrating the Dhruv in Chile for their military. They took four helicopters there and did 107 hours of flying in 20 days. "We flew from one end of the country to the other in 20 days and it went like clockwork." They have also gone to the world famous Paris and Farnborough air shows and Singapore.
Wg Cdr Upadhyay's project right now is to get a full-fledged simulator for the Dhruv running at HAL. He says that it will make a transition to flying the real thing much easier. He knows his service time is running out with retirement near, but with a glint in his eye he says he wants to be the first to fly the Light Combat Helicopter (the attack chopper variant of the Dhruv) before he leaves.
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