As the guardians of the skies to secure the air space during peace and war, the Indian Air Force (IAF) warriors and their flying machines are kept tip-top at its Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment (ASTE) in this aerospace hub.
“Our test crew conducts flight trials of the various aircraft and tests their armaments here (ASTE) before inducting them into our fleet for operations and endurance in peace and war times,” said the Commandant, Air Vice Marshal Sandeep Singh on Saturday, the IAF’s 84th anniversary.
As one of the six of its kind the world over, the 44-year-old ASTE is the IAF’s only test centre in the country for field trials of its fighters, transport aircraft and helicopters that are indigenous or imported from global aerospace majors.
The other five such test centres for military aircraft and weapon systems are in Britain, France, Russia and the US (two) worldwide.
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“In the recent times, Rafale and Typhoon multi-role medium combat aircraft (MMRCA) were short listed after their field evaluations and flight tests on 750 quantitative and quality requirements by our test pilots and engineers in all-weather conditions and situations,” said Group Captain and Chief Test Pilot S. Chaki on the occasion.
The other four fighters in contention were F-16 Falcon of Lockheed Martin, F-18 Hornet of Boeing, Gripen of Swedish Saab and Russian MiG-35.
Though Rafale of Dassault Aviation was selected over Eurofighter Typhoon as the lowest bidder, India and France on September 23 signed a Euro 7.87-billion deal to buy 36 of them (fighter jets) equipped with latest missiles and weapon systems.
As the world’s fourth largest air force, the IAF operates various lean and mean flying machines, including Sukhoi-30, Mirage 2000, Jaguar, MiG-21, MiG-29, Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, Advance Light Helicopter Dhruv, Mi-17, C-130 and C-17 aircraft, keeping pace with time and technological advancements.
“Flight tests and field trials of 16 platforms, including 11 fixed and five rotary wings are conducted here for selection, shortlisting and induction into the fleet and deployment at our air bases across the country and on frontline,” Singh said.
The ASTE is also used by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) for evaluating indigenous aircraft, choppers, weapons, sub-systems and other aerospace equipment used in aerial warfare.
“Our test pilots and engineers also fly prototypes of HAL, DRDO and NAL for their indigenous development and integration of weapons and avionics systems. Aircraft upgrades also go through stringent tests and trials before induction,” Chaki asserted.
“Flight test of a prototype carries risk and a number of test crew sacrificed their life while undertaking hazardous flight test operations,” recalled Singh.
The centre’s test crew also evaluated the Pilatus PC-7 basic trainer, AH-64D Apache attack helicopter and the CH-47 Chinook Heavy lift helicopter for selection.
As the nodal centre for avionics systems upgrades for various fleets of the air force, the ASTE ensures that potent and operationally lethal platforms are provided to the air warriors.
“Core of operational capabilities of these upgraded platforms resides in their weapon systems, targeting accuracies and avionics system functionalities,” Singh added.
The legacy of evaluation of aircrafts and systems dates back to 1957 when the Gnat aircraft was tested for the first time. Thereafter, Vampire, Mystere, Hunter, HF-24 Marut, HPT-32, HJT-16, Avro and Embraer Air Warning and Control System (AWACS) platform and Saras transport aircraft were tested over the years.
Besides flight tests, the centre also trains the air force test crew and engineers at its pilots’ school for 46 weeks with specialist course every year.
“The flight test course is one of the toughest, as the pilots are mentored to imbibe high degree of engineering acumen and the engineers are taught to almost become pilots,” reiterated Chaki.
The school is also recognised by the international Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) and the Society of Flight Test Engineers (SFTE).
The school trained about 500 flight test crew over the years, while the centre conducted over 1,500 trials of various platforms and weapons, including missiles, laser guided bombs and other ammunition.
Incidentally, the first and only Indian cosmonaut Wing Commander Rakesh Sharma was trained and served at the ASTE.