4 January 2001
I woke up at 5:30 a.m. with a feeling which was a strange mixture of anticipation, confidence and a vague fear of the unknown. A lot was at stake for Indian aeronautics that day. It was the day the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Technology Demonstrator-1 (TD-1) was to take to the air for the first time, and I, as the man in charge of the flight test programme, was responsible for the safety of the test flight. The telephone rang at 6:30 a.m. It was Dr Kota Harinarayana, the Programme Director, confirming that the aircraft had completed its pre-flight checks and was being towed to the flight line. Though the planned take-off was at 10 a.m., the flight briefing was to start at 8 a.m. I raced to the National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) located at the HAL airport, Bengaluru.
Shortly after I got there, Dr V.K. Aatre, Scientific Adviser to the Raksha Mantri and Director-General, Aeronautical Development Agency, Dr Kota, and Mr K. Nagraj, Chief Executive of the Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification arrived. I had requested the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Anil Tipnis, to be at NFTC by 7:45 a.m. for the briefing as he was going to pilot one of the two Mirage 2000 chase aircraft. He arrived five minutes early, and after a quick pre-flight medical conducted by Sqn. Ldr. Anjali Alam of the Institute of Aerospace Medicine, for the five pilots involved in the day's flying, we assembled in the briefing room.
42 year-old Wg. Cdr. Rajiv Kothiyal (Kothi), a graduate of the United States Air Force Test Pilots School, was the pilot chosen for the hazardous mission. Hazardous, not because of negligence on any one's part, but because of the many new technologies in the aircraft, especially the quadruplex digital fly-by-wire Flight Control System (FCS) and the 'glass' cockpit, both of which had been developed indigenously for the first time.
The briefing began and Kothi did not show any sign of nervousness. In fact, he exuded an air of quiet confidence as he described the flight profile and told the crew of the two chase aircraft, what exactly he expected of them in the event of an in-flight emergency. We ran through an elaborate list of emergencies that could occur and discussed the action to be taken for each eventuality. Two helicopter crews were also present; one was to be on airborne standby with a doctor on board and one on the ground. The weather was fine with cloudless skies and light winds. Ideal conditions for the first flight of a prototype.
I went with Kothi to the flight line where the aircraft was parked. It was all white as prototype aircraft are usually painted in a high visibility paint scheme for ease of optical tracking. It looked beautiful and had IAF roundels on its wings and the tricolour flash on the tail fin. The tail number was KH 2001 in honour of Dr Kota Harinarayana and the year of the first flight.
Though no official announcement of the first flight had been made, HAL and ADA personnel had thronged vantage points on the roofs of surrounding buildings not wanting to miss watching Indian aviation history being made. Kothi finished his walk around inspection of the aircraft and I said 'Kothi, we have done our homework well. The flight controls and all systems have behaved perfectly during the ground tests and high speed taxi runs. You shouldn't have a problem. Best of luck.' Of course my heart was in my mouth as I spoke but I did not let my feelings show. Dr Kota also came and wished Kothiyal the very best. A number of VIPs who were not present at the briefing had gone straight to the viewing point by the side of the runway.
I rushed back to the telemetry monitoring control room and positioned myself next to Wg. Cdr. Raveendran (Ravi), the test director who was in front of the master monitoring console. Ravi was a Flight Test Engineer who had graduated from the Ecole du Personnel Navigant d'Essais et de Reception (EPNER) France and had spent six years in the LCA programme. He had profound knowledge of every system on the aircraft. The prototype was extensively instrumented with 400 parameters being acquired from critical systems and telemetered in real time to the ground station. A further 800 parameters were being acquired and stored in a tape recorder on board. We had 16 monitoring consoles in the room, each console manned by a systems specialist keeping a watchful eye on the performance of his or her system. The engine, fuel, hydraulics, electrics, environmental control, brakes, flight control system, vibrations and strains at critical locations on the airframe were being monitored for the flight. Video cameras located with the telemetry antenna gave the test director a good view of the aircraft on the flight line as well as the runway in use and the approach funnel. None of the other specialists could see the video screen and all the curtains were drawn to permit them to concentrate on monitoring the performance of their system, and to report immediately any anomaly noticed to the test director on the intercom.