An aircraft conspicuous by its absence at Aero India this year was HAL's intermediate jet trainer, the HJT-36 Sitara. Not surprising. With the amount of derision the aircraft's intended customer, the Indian Air Force, has (quite justifiably) poured on the programme recently, HAL considered it prudent to restrict the aircraft's presence at the show to a tiny model (see photo) tucked away in a corner of its otherwise quite expansive pavilion.
A day after HAL chairman R.K. Tyagi's press conference at Aero India, where he described the HJT-36's turnaround (645 total test flights, of which 185 were in 2012, 25 in January 2013 alone -- and a targeted initial operational clearance 10 months from now) and professed confidence in the platform, Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne responded. In response to a question I asked him about the HJT-36, Browne said, "We have been disappointed. It has been in development for 8-9 years, and has now been stalled for so long. There are engine issues too. It has only been cleared for 100 hours of flying before overhaul. It needs to be expanded to 1,200-1,400 hours." (Flight International's Greg Waldron quotes me in his detailed report on the HAL-IAF trainer spat).
The IJT programme, to be fair, has had truly rotten luck: Two take-off/landing accidents and a full-blown prototype crash that grounded the programme nearly indefinitely. There are those who believe the programme is one crash/accident away from being shelved. There have been reports about the very real possibility that the IAF may already be working out a Plan B in case the IJT simply doesn't materialise -- either by reconfiguring its training regimen to dispense with Stage-2 training, or to simply look for suitable jet-powered aircraft from abroad. The situation hasn't been lost on aircraft manufacturers the world over. The Italians, Russians, British and Americans are fully in touch with just where this could go.
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