Make way for the Swadeshi chopper, the Light Utility Helicopter will gradually replace the fleet of Cheetah and Chetak helicopters
by Anthony Rozario
New Delhi: It can fly at a speed of 235 kilometres per hour, carry a payload of 3,150 kg, and do all this with ease, whether it’s in the sub-zero climes of Siachen or the hot dust bowls of Rajasthan. Such is the versatile nature of the Light Utility Helicopter – an indigenously built 3-Ton class helicopter, designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics limited (HAL).
If the mere description of this helicopter sounds enticing, imagine the level of excitement one would be brimming with at the very thought of visiting the plant that makes it, for the first time. Such the state of my mind, when I visited HAL’s Bangalore facility for the first time in August this year.
For the uninitiated, it may seem like Bangalore is a part of HAL, and not the other way around. After all, the entire HAL airport area is spread across 700 acres, housing units that manufacture everything from tanks for satellites to full-fledged fighter jets. While the LUH is being built at HAL’s recently-inaugurated Tumkur manufacturing facility, I had the opportunity to chance upon two semi-built helicopters that were brought to the Bangalore facility.
Now a semi-built helicopter is nothing like the finished product. With hundreds of wires dangling out of the machine, one wonders at the number and complexity of components involved in making a helicopter fly.
It all started in 2009, when HAL embarked on an ambitious program of finding a replacement for the ageing Chetak and Cheetah helicopters, which had been the mainstay of the Indian defence establishment for hot and high operations since the 60s and 70s respectively.
These were primarily used for Passenger Transport, Logistics Support, Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC), Search & Rescue (SAR) operations, Off – shore operations and Underslung Operations. The two had also given India an edge in the wars that followed, specifically during the 1999 Kargil war.
But building a clean-sheet helicopter from scratch wasn’t an easy affair. In fact, as Dr DK Sunil, Director, Engineering and R&D, HAL, puts it, designing helicopters is complex as “they do not like to fly and have to be kept flying by a system of controls.”
While the LUH is powered by the ARDIDEN-1U, which has been co-developed by HAL in partnership with French defence manufacturer Safran, the transmission rotor used in the aircraft is the handiwork of HAL.
“The Transmission rotor, which is one of the biggest challenges in any helicopter design and development, has been completely designed by HAL” says CB Anantkrishnan, Chairman & MD, HAL. Learnings from the design and development of the Advanced Light Helicopter, a twin engine, multi-role, multi-mission new generation helicopter in the 5.5 ton weight class, ensured that HAL hit the ground running with the LUH, adds Anantkrishnan.
Proof of The Pudding
But what is it like to fly the LUH? If you ask Group Capt. MR Anand, Chief Test Pilot, Helicopters, HAL, he would say that it is nothing short of a “world-class helicopter.” Having flown a range of helicopters for 37 years, Group Captain Anand says that unlike other fixed-wing aircrafts used in India, the LUH comes with auto-pilot which makes the complex task of keeping a helicopter flying a lot easier.
“These helicopters, which are going to come with autopilot, will make it that much easier for the pilot to control. It will give them time for other mission activities that are required,” he says.
Today, the LUH is one of the fastest Indian defence platforms to have gone from the drawing board to the Siachen base camp in a matter of seven years. While the Union Defence Ministry had in 2021 authorised the procurement of 12 LUH for nearly Rs 1,500 crore, the 3-ton class helicopter is gradually expected to replace the 400-odd Cheetah and Chetak helicopters serving the Indian armed forces today.
Together with the ALH, the light combat helicopter and now the LUH, HAL seems well-poised to make India a global hub of defence manufacturing, says HAL Chairman CB Anantkrishnan.