Dr. Kota Harinarayana has worked with organisations like HAL and DRDO and has been the driving force behind developing India’s light combat aircraft Tejas. It was his discipline, aptitude for systems design and ability to bring together and manage so many different organizations that helped spur the Tejas programme. He has served as Chief Designer at HAL Nashik division, as Director ADE, Bengaluru, and as the LCA Programme Director at ADA in a career spanning several decades until he retired in 2002. He was also awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in the same year. Here we talk to this legend to get a first-hand account of the man who has seen the Tejas take flight from the drawing board into the skies.
Your job at ADA as the Programme Director saw you managing a number of people from different fields. Can you tell us about the challenges you faced in Techno management and how you overcame them?
The problem was that in those days, India didn’t have any developmental experience of fighter for almost two decades. The previous programme had been HF24 which was developed by a team headed by Kurt Tank, who was a German designer. He brought a design team of about 15 with him. The HF24 flew in 1961. By 1985, two and a half decades had been over and there had been no new project. And by then, people who had worked on the project had retired. In a field like aviation, you have to continuously develop, continuously evolve new technologies, new processes and new designs. And our people had not been doing anything for almost two and a half decades. So the challenge was that we didn’t have any technology, we didn’t have enough people who had experience in making an aircraft and unfortunately the infrastructure was also very poor. Whatever infrastructure had been there was built during HF24 days and was in poor shape.
We had DRDO labs, National Aerospace laboratory, Air Force on one side and HAL on the other side. I didn’t see much of a rapport among them. There was no understanding between the people. Each was pulling in his own direction. So the challenge was not only in dealing with people from 40 disciplines but people from different organizations who were not seeing eye to eye, who did not have an understanding about what each other’s responsibility was. Our challenge was how to build infrastructure, how to update the knowledge base of the people, how to bring in technology and how to make an aircraft. That could only happen if we could bring all these people together.
I must tell you that when Dr.Arunachalam told Air Marshal Wollen who was the Chairman of HAL in those days that I should take over the project (and I was still in the rolls of HAL, I was not a DRDO man), Wollen said if you feel he can do the job then I am happy. I told Air Marshal Wollen that sending me alone is of no use, we have to create a team. He said you choose your team from HAL. I chose 230 people from HAL and said these many people will work. I also had about 30-40 people from NAL, some 15-20 people from DRDO. So, there were almost 300 people. I said that I need these people for the next twelve months to do project definition or system design of the aircraft. All credit must go to Air Marshal Wollen. He said yes. And in about one week’s time, he transferred all of them. And he said that all of them will report to me. It was not easy because a lot of people among them who had come from HAL were much older than me. They were ten-fifteen years older. You couldn’t deal with them in a traditional way. The only way you can deal with them is by energizing the team to think big and look for challenges. It took us almost two years to knit them into a single team. I think that was the biggest challenge. It was important to make each person realize the strength and the need of the other person because each had his own strengths.
Slowly everybody started aligning because they realized that the focus was on the aircraft and they were all professional people. There were a lot of new technologies, software, systems to develop. A stage was reached when the distinction between disciplines and organizations disappeared. The greatest contribution of the LCA project is that in a country like India where people say that two people cannot work together, we were 5000 engineers working with 300 industries, about 40 laboratories and 20 academic institutions. And we worked together successfully. And at a time when there were US sanctions and they were not willing to cooperate with us, this team made this aircraft. That was a great experience. Tough but great.
What, in your opinion, is the significance of the Tejas programme? Why do you think it is important for the country?
When we started the Tejas programme, we had already built a first generation fighter, the HF24. Tejas is a fourth plus generation fighter. We bridged the gap between first and fourth in one single project. And more than 80% of the technology of the LCA was developed in the country. In the most difficult time when there were sanctions from USA, we developed the most crucial controllers, hardware, software, tested, validated and made it error proof and we flew the aircraft. The most important thing is that we developed a lot of technologies. And these technologies have been used not just in LCA but in IJT and Saras and many other projects. And the companies that worked for LCA, they started working for many other programs all over the country. Today if you see engineering service industry in India, I think a large number of people manning the industry have worked on the LCA project. Because they worked on LCA, they got good work afterwards.
I think the biggest thing is that we created the ecosystem for aviation in India. Earlier there was no ecosystem for aviation in India. There was HAL and nobody else. Now it is HAL, 500 industries, 40-50 laboratories, 20 academic institutions and it is a big network. It is no longer one or two people working or one DRDO lab working or NAL working. It is a network. I thought this ecosystem that we have created through LCA is a great thing and it has given extra-ordinary confidence to the people who have worked on the project and the people who felt that this cannot be done but now they feel that if they could do LCA, they can do many other things. Today when I talk to anybody in the world, I can see that the respect for the country has increased by leaps and bounds. The point they make is that if you do a project like LCA which has the highest percentage of composites, which is the smallest fighter in the world, and was under such difficult conditions, it means that the country has inherent strength. And that is what gives confidence today not only to the participants but to the customers also. They may crib but at the end of the day they feel that here is a group that can do the job. If I go to the private industry today with some detailed design work, they will do it. All the avionics equipment and the MMR, we developed ourselves and it has been done by small scale industry. Some 40-50 of them worked for us and today they are making components for the rest of the world.
Can you describe in detail what was going through your mind on January 4, 2001 when the Technology Demonstrator of the Tejas was flown for the first time?
Frankly I had zero doubt in my mind about our ability to make this aircraft. The day I took over I didn’t see any reason to believe that it would not be a success. If somebody sitting in France, in UK or in Sweden can do it; then a country of one billion people with so much of talent can also do it. We just needed to put our act together. Of course, we had to do a lot of learning and the infrastructure was not there but I had zero doubt in my mind. I always thought that this is a doable project. It was a tough project but it was doable. When we started this programme, maybe one in hundred people would have believed in us. As we went on and we were ready to fly, maybe fifty out of hundred began believing in us.
Wing Commander Kothiyal was our test pilot. He was a very professionally competent person. I know that he had never flown a prototype in his life. That too an unstable aircraft. So, I thought about how to give confidence to him. We did two or three things. One was to work on the control laws. We tested on a modified F16 aircraft in USA. One of the comments of the test pilot from the Pentagon was that the F16 flies better with LCA control laws. Even the aerodynamics of the aircraft was excellent. It gave a lot of confidence to our pilot. I never wanted to side step any testing. I felt that you must test until you give confidence to the airworthiness team and to the pilots. So the whole testing process went on for a year. The main thing in my mind was that here is an aircraft where the aerodynamics are good and the control laws are good. We must make it reliable. Reliable enough for it to fly very well. Of course when the aircraft flew, it was an extra-ordinary feeling. When the pilot came down, I asked him if there were any snags and he said ‘zero’. That is an extra-ordinary statement. It means we really perfected the aircraft to a level where there were no problems. It is very difficult to explain the kind of feeling that you have. It is like having a child. We were elated and happy that we could do this in spite of US sanctions and in spite of the report from one of the leading professional journals that said that India can never fly this aircraft because of US sanctions and lack of experience in making aircraft. And we were able to overcome such things. But we had a wonderful Defence Minister in George Fernandes. Hes a great Swadeshi man. One day we were working very late at night around 11 ‘o clock, testing the ground run of the aircraft. And suddenly some five-six cars came. It was the Defence Minister. He said, ‘As I was landing, I saw some activity going on. And I knew it must be your group.’ Such a gesture on his part energized the team, the designers, the people who had built the aircraft and the people who were testing it. Dr.Kalam was our boss for a long time. He was also an extra-ordinary person. Fortunately, I have had very good bosses. All of my bosses have supported us fully. We went through extra-ordinary problems. There used to be negative publicity about the project every alternate day. They used to say that we had crossed the time limits and the budget. It was tough but then our focus was not on those reports but on how to make it work. Fortunately, the team believed in themselves. Even if others didn’t believe, it didn’t matter. I think our big achievement was in making the team believe in themselves.