Four-and-half years ago, the Narendra Modi government took a step that will go down as a turning point in the history of India’s civil aviation. The approval granted by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) for use of the indigenously-manufactured Dornier 228 for commercial purposes has started revolutionising air travel in the country.
In December 2017, the DGCA issued a ‘type certificate’ (airworthiness certificate which is an approval to fly an aircraft for civilian commercial purposes) for the Dornier 228 to the public-sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which makes the aircraft at its Kanpur plant.
The Union Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) also granted the necessary approvals for the public sector Alliance Air to induct the Dornier 228 into its fleet to boost the Modi government’s progressive Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagarik (UDAN) project that aims at enabling common people living in tier two and three cities and towns to fly.
In February this year, Alliance Air (AA) entered into an agreement with HAL to lease two 19-seater Dornier 228 aircraft. The first of these two aircraft was received by AA on 7 April. Five days later — on April 12— this aircraft took off from Assam’s Dibrugarh airport to land at Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh.
On board the historic flight — the first commercial civilian flight in India with an indigenous aircraft — were Union Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia and Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju. Alliance Air has, since then, been flying the Dornier 228 on this route regularly.
Last Thursday, AA launched a tri-weekly Dibrugarh to Tezu (Arunachal Pradesh) flight with the Dornier 228. The airline will, in the next phase, launch services between Dibrugarh and three other towns in Arunachal Pradesh — Ziro, Tooting and Menchuka. The Dibrugarh to Pasighat flight will be made into a Guwahati-Lilabari (Lakhimpur in Assam)-Dibrugarh-Pasighat hopping flight to increase its commercial viability.
“The Dornier 228, being a small 19-seater aircraft, is best suited to take off and land not only in small airstrips in Arunachal Pradesh (called Advanced Landing Grounds or ALGs operated by the Indian Air Force in the northeastern state), but also many small cities and towns across the country,” a Joint Secretary-level officer in the Union Civil Aviation Ministry told Swarajya from New Delhi.
Until recently, the Dornier 228 was being used only by the country’s armed forces for movement of troops and for maritime surveillance. The aircraft has a maximum cruise speed of 428 kilometres per hour and a maximum range of 700 kms.
“The indigenous Dornier 228 made by HAL will boost air travel between small towns and cities and connect them to bigger airports. We expect AA and other airlines to procure more of these aircraft soon,” the senior officer added.
The officer said that many small towns and cities across the country have small landing strips that are mostly non-functional now. "An airline company operating this small aircraft (Dornier 228) will definitely find it commercially viable to operate commercial passenger flights to these small towns and cities, and more so since the operations will be subsidised under the UDAN scheme,” he added. The aircraft is also capable of flying at night.
HAL describes the Dornier 228 as “highly-versatile multi-purpose light transport aircraft that has been developed specifically to meet the manifold requirements of utility and commuter transport, third-level services, air-taxi operations, coast guard duties and maritime surveillance”.
Till two years ago, HAL used to make the Dornier 228 under licence from RUAG, a Swiss company. HAL used to supply the fuselage, tail and wing units and the aircraft used to be assembled at the RUAG’s German facility. These aircraft were being supplied to the Indian armed forces as well as buyers in Europe.
The completely indigenous Dornier 228 — made in India from the raw material stage itself — made its debut at the Dubai Air Show in 2020. HAL had modified the aircraft for commercial operations.
From the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, regional airlines Vayudoot, a joint venture between the then Indian Airlines and Air India, operated Dornier 228 aircraft. But at that time, it was a German aircraft. A Vayudoot-operated Dornier 228 on the scheduled flight from Pune to Hyderabad crashed due to bad weather on 23 September 1989, killing all eleven (including eight passengers) on board.
The new-generation Dornier 228 made by HAL has advanced avionics and top-class safety features as well as advanced capabilities to negotiate rough weather and other adverse conditions.
HAL chairman and managing director R Madhavan told media recently that the lease of two Dornier 228 aircraft to Alliance Air was a modest start. There are as many as 150 airports and airstrips in the country where only small aircraft (up to 20-seaters) can land or take off. The Dornier 228, he said, is ideal to operate out of such airstrips.
The senior officer in the Union Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) told Swarajya that Prime Minister Modi realised the potential of the Dornier 228 aircraft and how it could revolutionise air travel between small towns and cities in the country.
“That’s why HAL was pushed to start manufacturing the aircraft indigenously. Alliance Air was asked to get ready to induct the aircraft by training its pilots and crew as well as ground handlers, engineers etc. The Prime Minister realised the potential of this aircraft to usher in a new era in civil aviation in India at least five years ago,” the MoCA officer said.
“The Prime Minister and senior officers at the PMO have been repeatedly stating that tier two and three cities and towns are the new growth centres in the country and need air connectivity. That’s why it is important to operate small, indigenously-built aircraft to and from these cities and towns. The DGCA’s capabilities to regulate air traffic to small airstrips are also being enhanced,” he added.
MoCA, Alliance Air and HAL are optimistic that in a couple of years, civil aviation in India will enter a new era with the Dornier 228.
Jaideep Mazumdar is an associate editor at Swarajya.
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