Naval LCA Tejas’ ‘Ski-Jump’ Take-Off From INS Vikramaditya: Man Who Made It Possible And The Science Behind It
On Sunday (12 January), the naval version of the indigenous aircraft Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) successfully took off from the “ski-jump” deck of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya for the first time.
"The naval version of Tejas achieved another important milestone today by successfully undertaking the maiden ski-jump take-off from INS Vikramaditya," a Navy Spokesperson was quoted as saying by Times of India. Commodore Jaideep Maolankar did the maiden landing and the subsequent takeoff as well.
After Marut, Tejas is the second supersonic fighter developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The Indian Air Force (IAF) has inducted a batch of Tejas aircraft, while the naval variant is in the developmental stage.
In September last year, the naval variant of Tejas LCA made a successful landing on a 90-metre stretch of a shore-based testing facility in Goa.
INS Vikramaditya, serving as a seagoing airbase, will allow the projection of air-power even in areas where local bases for staging aircraft operations are not available.
Challenges for naval variant
Unlike the normal LCA which has a 1-km stretch for landing and take-off, the naval variant has to make do with 200 metre for take-off and 100 metre for landing. This requires ski jump take-off, as well as ‘arrested landing’.
An aircraft is required to reach a certain speed after which it can lift itself up in the air. Since there is space-limitation aboard the ships, the aircraft requires additional support. If the aircraft leaves the ramp without sufficient speed, it risks falling down into the sea.
One mechanism for assisted take-off is catapults. They are used to provide additional thrust to the aircraft. Another is “ski-jump”. It is the upward-curved ramp on the deck of the aircraft-carriers. It is designed in this way so as to provide sufficient take-off lift for fighter jets, given the space constraints.
The curved ramp provides the aircraft additional time in the air when it can accelerate, and reach the desired speed.
Landing on an aircraft-carrier is equally tricky.
In arrested landing, the aircraft is decelerated with the help of wires on the runway. Typically, several steel wire ropes are laid across the aircraft landing area. These are designed to be caught by an aircraft's tailhook, which engages the wire and the aircraft's kinetic energy is transferred to hydraulic damping systems attached below the carrier deck.
Worldwide, the aircraft-carriers typically have three or four such wires, and pilots generally aim for second or the third wire respectively to reduce the risk of landing short.
INS Vikramaditya also has arresting gears. Upon acquisition from Russia, the ship was modified for a "short take-off but arrested recovery" (STOBAR) configuration. Under the STOBAR system, the ship has an upward-curve runway that allows the aircraft to take-off at a shorter distance.
What if aircraft fails to catch an arrestor cable?
When the aircraft touches down on the deck of an aircraft carrier, but fails to attach to an arrestor cable and come to a stop, a ‘bolter’ is said to have occurred.
Before the development of angled flight deck, the landing area ran straight along the axis of the ship. Then, either a “wire barrier" was installed amidships and raised to catch the aircraft's landing gear, or a net "barricade" was employed that would engage the aircraft's wings. Either method not only was time-taking but also resulted in damage to the aircraft.
This problem was solved when the British developed the angled flight deck.
Instead of running straight through the axis, now the landing area was arranged diagonally. Previously, the aircraft didn’t have sufficient space to take-off again if arrested landing failed, now, however, upon boltering, the aircraft could simply accelerate down the landing area and become airborne again.
The aircraft then climbs back to landing patters, and reattempts arrested landing. This is known as being in the ‘bolter pattern’.
A New Aviation Legend Is Born
Soon after the successful takeoff, many defence and aviation experts hailed Commodore Maolankar, who entered the illustrious list of other test pilots to have successfully tested naval aircraft. Commodore Maolankar heads the Naval test flight unit.
Author and columnist Sandeep Unnithan posted how Commodore Maolankar finds himself in the coveted company of Admiral Tahiliani - who was the first to land on INS Vikrant in 1961, Admiral Arun Prakash who landed the first Harrier on INS Viraat and Rear Admiral Surendra Ahuja who landed the first MiG-29K on INS Vikramaditya.
Responding to the tweet, Admiral Arun Prakash himself congratulated Commodore Maolankar and asserted the grit required in flying a prototype jet off an unfamiliar aircraft carrier’s deck. He also urged the Defence Ministry to recognise Commodore Maolankar’s feat.
It goes without saying that the job of test pilots is fraught with risks. India witnessed a tragedy involving test pilots in February of last year when Squadron Leader Negi and Squadron Leader Abrol died while testing HAL’s upgraded Mirage 2000.
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