Kothi flew the planned profile and said the aircraft was behaving more or less in the same way as it did in the simulator on which he had practiced the profile over and over again for the past few weeks. Soon it was time to land and Kothi positioned himself on a 10 km long straight-in approach to Runway 09. When he was about three minutes away on approach, the telemetry antenna locked on to the aircraft and data reappeared on the screens. Ravi asked the systems specialists to confirm that all was normal, and to my great relief and everyone else's they reported all systems were GO.
We saw the LCA with the two Mirages escorting it appear on the video screen. It was a sight which will remain etched in my memory for the rest of my life. Everyone tensed up as the crucial first landing was about to take place. Kothi's voice remained calm when he asked ATC for landing instructions. He flew a steady approach, flared the aircraft over the runway and executed a flawless touch down on the main wheels. He lowered the nose wheel on to the runway and deployed the tail chute. The Mirages came down low and did a go around. As the aircraft slowed down to taxiing speed, he jettisoned the chute and turned off the live runway. The time was 10:36 a.m. The first flight had lasted only 18 minutes but heralded a renaissance of Indian aeronautics that will enable this country to assume its rightful place amongst the aeronautical powers of the world in the years to come.
As Kothi parked the aircraft and switched off the engine, there were wild scenes of jubilation amongst the HAL and ADA personnel. Someone even held the Tricolour aloft symbolizing a moment of national pride. When Kothi came down the ladder he was mobbed by the workers and carried on their shoulders for some distance. A huge gathering of VIPs thrust their way forward, each one intent on marking his presence in the photographs which were being shot by the hundreds. After considerable effort I was able to go up to Kothi and shake his hand!
At the debriefing session the room was crowded with the who's who of Indian aeronautics. Kothi was congratulated by the Raksha Mantri George Fernandes and the CAS. We looked at the video camera footage shot from the chase aircraft and the data captured on the telemetry screens during the all important take-off and landing phases of flight. Every system on board the aircraft had worked perfectly. It is a mandatory requirement in test flying to list out all anomalies noticed, from engine start to shut down to enable the designers and technicians to take remedial action and clear the aircraft for the next test flight. When Kothi filled in the snag sheet he wrote 'Nil snags'. There could have been no more fitting tribute to the professionalism, industry and dedication of Team LCA and it was my privilege to have been part of that team.
After the debriefing was over, Dr Kota told me that ADA personnel were waiting for Kothi and me to go to ADA. When we drove to the ADA entrance gate, a huge crowd of ADA personnel, both men and women were waiting for us with garlands. As we got out of the car, crackers went off and both Kothi and I were carried on the shoulders of excited men all the way from the gate to the porch which was a distance of about 75 yards. It was an unforgettable experience!
Later that day I ordered an investigation into the telemetry problem. It turned out that a software technology park in Bengaluru had been using the precise frequency on which the LCA telemetry signal was being transmitted. The telemetry auto track antenna had locked on to the signal, as it was stronger than that of the LCA. We were blissfully unaware of this misuse of our frequency!
After Kothi had flown the first six flights, I sent in his nomination for the prestigious Iven C. Kincheloe Award to the Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) in the USA. The SETP gives this award every year for the most significant achievement in experimental test flying during the year under consideration. Very few in India seemed to have realized the significance of the achievement of safely flying a prototype with so many new technologies on board. However, the SETP awards committee which consisted of a group of very experienced test pilots who had seen many programmes worldwide thought differently and had no hesitation in giving the Iven Kinchloe Award for the year 2001 to Rajiv Kothiyal. I was very happy that Team LCA's monumental effort had. been recognized by a bunch of hard-nosed professionals.
No Indian test pilot has ever received this award in the past. Without exaggeration, the Iven Kinchloe Award can be called the 'Oscar' for experimental test flying. In the finest traditions of the IAF, Wg. Cdr. Rajiv Kothiyal had truly touched the skies with glory.
*The above is an extract from Air Marshal Rajkumar's book 'The Tejas Story'