India’s 4th generation fighter, the pocket-sized Tejas, is an intriguing design. Resembling a mini Mirage 2000 with the wing of a Viggen — and an empty weight smaller than that of the tiny Gripen — it is an unusual lightweight fighter that is largely misunderstood outside of India. We spoke to test pilot Group Captain Rajeev Joshi to find out more.
What were your first impressions of Tejas?
“As you walk up to it, you tell yourself – that’s a small one! The notion of aerodynamic shapes come to your mind next; you walk around the nose and find yourself short of words to explain the wing shape… then you recall – ‘Ah! This is what the reverse compound delta they spoke of looks like’. The ‘Light Aircraft’ part also hits you — literally on the head —when you try to peek into the undercarriage well without bending close enough to the ground. Yet, despite its compactness, the aircraft has a feeling of solidity. Contrary to what you would expect from an aircraft which looks so small, stepping into the seat and looking around for left to right checks is reassuring, and you think ‘Hey, this is not such a tiny cockpit after all’. Once you strap yourself up, it feels just as comfortable as any mid-size fighter, but don’t include the ‘Flanker’ in that comparison! Neatly laid-out switches, logical control grouping and the glass cockpit seems neat. Reach seems optimal, though higher percentile fellows do report some knocked elbows! Jokes aside, it’s a good cockpit. View over the nose and off your shoulder is good, if not the best in the business. Checks and procedures are minimal, and one could get off the blocks in as less as couple of minutes.
“The full authority Auto Low Speed Recovery makes the aircraft truly carefree, more so than any other fighter in the world…Throw it around as much as you can — when she says ‘no’, she will take over and recover the situation for you. “
It taxies well enough at idle power, and the crisp feel of the nose wheel steer takes you by mild surprise at first, especially if one is used to the steady and comparatively slower feel of the Russian types, but it is easy to get used to it. The checks for take-off, are essentially minimal, and you soon find yourself pushing the GE 404 to the gate. In a clean fighter, take-off acceleration is impressive and likeable. Controls are crisp on the take-off roll, with nose held at the correct angle neatly. The growling of the ‘404 does not show up much in terms of cockpit noise. With a reassuring ‘all-clear’ on the undercarriage panel, you are up and away!”
What is the best thing about it?
“The small size and the good sensor package. The ability of the avionics design to absorb changes and upgrades seamlessly is a positive advantage. The biggest strength of the programme comes from the fact that the design and integration is indigenous. This gives the aircraft the ability to match the best in terms of features, utilities and modes. Small size and low (radar) signature, coupled with a good sensor package, puts the Tejas in a good advantageous spot with respect to bigger birds. The typical ‘first look, first kill’ works very well for the Tejas in a fight, both in the beyond visual and the visual realms. The Helmet Mounted Display System works well in a snap engagement and the coupled missile ‘line of sight’ (LOS) modes allow the first shot to be good. The HMDS is a very versatile piece of equipment for a number of tasks. The handling of the flight control system is fabulous and is being refined continuously. Based on the operational feedback from the fleet, the build up of rates is being refined to make it crisper and yet more responsive. In this area too, the 100% indigenous flight control system is a winner. It’s ours, and can be tweaked continuously. The process is very robust and the feedback about handling and what would ‘feel’ better is addressed very quickly. The full authority Auto Low Speed Recovery makes the aircraft truly carefree, more so than any other fighter in the world. This may be contested, but I’m willing to defend this position in a debate! The ALSR and other higher control law modes put this a notch higher. Throw it around as much as you can — when she says ‘no’, she will take over and recover the situation for you. The control and handling in high gain tasks like aerial refuelling is superb. It will beat contemporaries or older birds in this area. It really makes you feel like a great pilot!”
…and the worst?
“Ironically, the size! It invariably tends to get compared to its bigger cousins in the business. The size essentially limits internal fuel and hence the shorter legs as compared to others. However, if the focus is kept on the fact that it was intended as a light fighter, the fuel fraction is reasonable. The ‘404 and aircraft combo is frugal, and with external tanks and a high flow-rate aerial refuelling system, it’s ok…..”
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How would your rate Tejas in the following categories:
A. Instantaneous turn
“Snaps into it! However, the traditional drag of the delta platform does start showing after a while.”
B. Sustained turn
“Mid mach numbers and mid altitudes, good. Like an aircraft of its size, affected by stores carried.”
“Climbs well, and the acceleration is good. The continuing refinement in the drag department is an ongoing process which aims to make this better still. With every drag count being ‘counted’ with a fine tooth comb, it will only get better”
D. Climb rate
“Reasonable and meets the specs laid out.”
E. High alpha performance
“Fabulous! Difficult to enter a difficult situation with respect to this… a very robust control law makes the Tejas a winner here. Do remember though, that comparisons with itsthrust-vector control- equipped Russian cousins would be unfair here. The nose holds up well in low speed fight, and the ALSR makes you trust the aircraft. High angles of attack manoeuvres and reversals are comfortable, albeit with a little ‘barrellish tendency’. Though like any flight control system controlled fighter, the rate of roll and pitch rate does go down with high AoA and/or high pitch angles.”
What is the cockpit like?
“You would not call it a mansion, it’s better described as ‘neat’. Like I said earlier, the space inside is surprisingly un-congested, despite what its external size might suggest. I am a lower percentile fellow, but the some of the jocks flying the Tejas operationally would certainly tip the percentile scales at the top end, and they do not complain!
The existing switchery is minimal and simple. As Tejas is a platform which is operationally evolving, there is space for new hardware panels to come in… it’s been catered for, and that is a good thing. What also helps is that being an open architecture based platform with full glass cockpit, most of what needs to be added is done so in the system. It is handled via existing software and programmable multi-functional (MFDs) and other displays, so the available real estate (though frugal) seems adequate.
The air-conditioning is extremely efficient, perhaps a little too much! You do feel the need to crank up the temp at times. Having operated it across the length and breadth of our country (and we are BIG and touch all extremes!), I have never found it wanting. The initial rush of air feels a lot and is very loud, but the auto management quickly kicks in to make it a comfortable cockpit. The Martin-Baker seat is a good fit, angled so that you take the G’s well. To sum it, long hauls with air-to-air would be welcome. The three MFDs allow you to see anything on any surface, with an efficiently utilised Up Front Control Panel that lets you handle everything that you are carrying with ease. It is HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) rich! That part is further sweetened by a ‘near HOTAS’. At Hand Control Panel next to your throttle. Almost all controls for all systems are duplicated across these surfaces, so losing some to a malfunction, does not raise a sweat at all. These retain a good capacity to absorb further systems and their associated controls without maxing out.”
How mature is it? “It is in an operational unit. So that speaks for itself. Open source news source would tell you that the jets in final operational configuration would be delivered soon, and the upgrade to the Tejas Mk 1 is already on! For us, it is a heady new experience, an operational fighter that is evolving. Sound self-contradictory? No, it is mature enough to fight, and yet youthful enough to continuously evolve.”
How does it compare with other fast jets you have flown? Which aircraft has most similar flight characteristics?
“A lot of inspiration for the Tejas came from the Mirage 2000. Of course, the Mirage was a worthy template to look up to, and hence it is quite like it. Flight characteristics-wise? Closest to the Mirage 2000. Lovely similarities in feel and handling.
What is the biggest myth about Tejas?
“Before we can tackle the biggest myth, we must first acknowledge the biggest truth. It has taken long years to come, it’s true – you can see this in open sources, it’s no secret. And that leads us to answer the biggest myth about it: that it is not only too late but also less than what was asked for. Now that is a myth. The aircraft is exactly what was asked for. It is nimble, swift, light and frugal. It is also very capable of absorbing new systems for (and I stake my reputation on this) a decade and half to come. It fits right into the slot of a well-made light fighter, which can carry all sorts of heavy and heady new tech for years to come. (tech mind you <Ed: not a super heavy weapon load> as it’s still a light fighter and will always be).
Want some specifics? We’re talking about a superior new radar (either indigenous or imported), superior new missiles (both indigenous and imported), new guided munitions from both our own ODL and new radio; new and more powerful indigenous mission computers and architecture, more powerful displays. AND- the amazing leap-frogging from an air force bird to getting its wet wings! Yes, I am proud of our achievements and I refer to the Tejas Navy having very successfully demonstrated its carrier landings and take-off!
How combat effective is it in its current state?
“It will hold its own with honour in a BVR (beyond visual range) to close-in fight. It can deliver precision guided munitions and iron bombs where they are needed. It’s got aerial refuelling with fat tanks. With this, it is in an operational unit with more coming up. It’s upgrade is rolling: watch out for the Mk 1A in a few years. Teething troubles? Yes of course, they are there, but that is an absolutely normal part of the settling down a fleet from design and development to operational units. So for combat effectiveness, do the maths.”
What was your most memorable flight in Tejas?
“Without a doubt the flight in which I carried out the first aerial refuelling contact of the Tejas.”
Which Tejas variants have you flown?
“The Prototype vehicles, limited series vehicles and of course the in-service series production variant.”
What equipment or kit would you like to see added to Tejas?
“Smaller smart precision munitions for air-to-surface work, to be carried in greater numbers.”
What have been the biggest problems facing the programme?
“Very simply – the time taken in development of multi sectoral multi-dimensional critical core indigenous technology. And very simply again – blessings come along with sanctions: the problems have been overcome and are now simply our strengths.”
What should I have asked you?
“The Tejas story, nay saga…. but honestly, better answered some other time and place. Because now you see, we are busy with the future.”
What do you see as the future of the aircraft?
“A robust and well-rounded upgrade which will be the reason of a successful in service fighter fleet in the short to mid-term, with increasing indigenous systems. The mid to long term future belongs to the next generation birds that will be born out of the success of this one. They are different creatures born out of family. The Medium Weight Fighter and the AMCA are well along in design and may be game changers. Heady days to come.”
How would you change the programme?
“I wouldn’t. It’s reached this point, and despite its own trials and tribulations, it has done so with an enviable safety record. We, have to just sustain this record with a faster pace (and that is a very tough challenge to rise up to), until one day Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles will ask a test pilot on the MWF and AMCA to answer a few questions on those birds — for a bottle of decent Malbec maybe?”
Special thanks to Harsh Vardhan Thakur