Air Marshal J. S. Rai, the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command, IAF walked into the room and sat down next to me. I ordered the door to be closed and looked at my watch. It was 9:15 a.m. The radio crackled to life and Kothi's voice came over the air asking Ravi to start the pre-flight checks. Shortly thereafter he started the GE F 404 engine and all the monitoring consoles came alive with system indications. The two Mirage 2000 chase aircraft, the primary chase aircraft piloted by Wg. Cdr. Raghunathan Nambiar (Nambi), also started up. The after-start checks, radio checks with the chase aircraft and the Air Traffic Control (ATC) tower went through without a hitch, but took 30 minutes. Only the final hurdle remained.
All aircraft fitted with fly-by-wire flight control systems have to perform an automatic Pilot (initiated) Built In Test (PBIT) of the system after engine start. This required a button to be pressed by the pilot after which the flight control computer took over and ran through a pre-programmed sequence of tests at the end of which a green GO lamp flashed in the cockpit. In an aircraft in service it took about a minute. In a prototype it was more elaborate and took 10-12 minutes. When Kothi initiated the test, I kept my fingers crossed as we had had test failures in the past. A first time failure of the PBIT to pass would call for a repeat of the test. A second-time failure would require the test flight to be aborted for the day. The airfield had been closed only for an hour from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. and it was already 9:47 a.m. The minutes went by with agonizing slowness and after what seemed an eternity, to my great elation I saw the green GO lamp shining on the aircraft's main instrument console. Kothi asked for taxi instructions from the ATC tower. It was exactly 10 a.m.
On the video screen I saw the two Mirages move out of the parking area and enter the taxi track. The LCA followed them. The east-facing Runway 09 was in use and Kothi headed for the line up point. It was a glorious sight to behold! Blue skies, bright sunshine and the LCA in gleaming white, majestically rolling down the taxi track with thousands of people watching from the rooftops of every building in sight. As the aircraft neared the runway the brake specialist called out a failure in one of the two control lanes available in the brake by wire system. Ravi looked at me for a decision and I flashed him a thumbs up sign as I was aware of the redundancies available to bring the aircraft to a stop on the landing roll. After a final check of the aircraft by the wheels and tyres check team, Kothiyal took permission and entered the live runway.
The two Mirages were airborne by this time, but Kothi could roll only when Nambi gave him a radio call to do so, indicating that he was correctly positioned to quickly join up with the prototype after it got airborne.
Kothi opened full power on the engine and did a final check of the flight controls. All 16 specialists confirmed to Ravi that all systems were 'GO' and Ravi cleared Kothi to roll. Nambi's call came and Kothi released brakes. I saw the aircraft accelerate rapidly down the runway. Kothi called 'Rotating' and raised the nose wheel. Seconds later the LCA lifted off gracefully. It was 10:18 a.m. The next few seconds would tell us whether the years of toil Team LCA had put in developing the FCS would come to naught or not. Kothi's call 'And climbing' set those fears at rest as we now knew the FCS was working as it should.
I was just about to begin breathing normally when the telemetry auto tracking system failed and all 16 screens started showing erroneous readings. There was no way of knowing what was happening in the innards of the aircraft! Ravi asked, 'Shall I call him back?' Chase aircraft are provided to enable the test team to cope with such eventualities. I said 'Tell Nambi to move into close formation and check the aircraft for fuel and hydraulic leaks or other signs of abnormal behaviour'. Kothi said that his cockpit readings were fine and the aircraft was flying normally. Nambi reported no sign of any abnormality. I decided to continue with the planned flight profile and told Ravi to inform the pilot of my decision. Kothi agreed with me and continued with the flight. I aged a lot in those few seconds!
The flight profile called for a climb to 3 km (10000 ft), a slow down to approach speed, a practice circuit at that height, some gentle turns and a return to base. The wheels were left in the down and locked position throughout as aircraft wheels are the only known objects in the physical world which do not obey Newton's law of gravitation! Sometimes they go up and don't come down and we did not want that kind of excitement on the first flight!!