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SARAS is a 14-seater civilian aircraft that my lab, NAL, has been working on for a long time now.

SARAS is for a ‘feeder’ role; i.e. ‘feed’ traffic for the bigger planes that take off from bigger cities. Take SARAS from Aurangabad to Mumbai, or from Coimbatore to Chennai.

SARAS can also assume other roles: air ambulance, border surveillance, cargo carrier etc.

What’s hot about SARAS? We don’t know yet, except that it is Indian. Well, sort of. It’s got Canadian P&W engines, it’s got a lot of avionics components from the US.

Many people run down such Indian efforts by saying rather cruel things like: “it’s assembled”, or “the Russians built such a plane 25 years ago, the Brazilians did it 10 years ago ..”.

These are dumb statements. They don’t understand how technology evolves. They don’t understand that technology assimilation happens incrementally. Start with US LRU’s today. Convert to India LRU’s tomorrow (LRU = line replaceable unit).

They also don’t understand that future wars will not be for fair maidens or a piece of land. They will be fought for technology, for technological strength.

The SARAS programme taught all of us at NAL to work together. Far too many R&D labs in India are lonely islands. Even though everyone realises that tomorrow’s breakthroughs will not be inside domains … but at the bridge where two domains meet.

SARAS has been very cheap to design and produce. In India we develop technologies at a fraction of the West’s costs. It’s our legacy to innovate with meagre resources and still cook up something very useful. For example, electronic voting machines. For example, cheap telephone exchanges.

 I’ve watched the SARAS programme evolve over 15 years. Till 1998,successive governments simply wouldn’t buy this idea (till very recently, civil aviation was considered a consumer of national wealth; it only now that we recognise that it will actually create wealth).

Then Dr Murli Manohar Joshi (India’s S&T Minister in Vajpayee’s 1999-2004 Cabinet) came along with his swadeshi bias. We finally managed to sell SARAS as a swadeshi plane. We finally got Rs 135 crores in September 1999 to really start work.

Sadly the money came at the wrong time. After the nuclear tests, the US decided that NAL should come under the sanctions list (really because we support the country’s missile programme). All our foreign purchases were blocked. And rather well … we couldn’t even smuggle stuff in by subterfuge.

But NAL worked and struggled resolutely. The SARAS programme became that wonderful binding force between aerodynamics, structures, materials, flight mechanics, propulsion, composites, control .. A third of NAL’s employees worked voluntarily every Saturday with a compensation package of only rava idlis or bisi bele baath. This has gone on for five years now.

We involved the local private manufacturing industry, we borrowed expertise from retired aircraft designers, we roped in the Indian Air Force for flight testing, we endured barbs and snide remarks from the media. Our chief designer’s tablet intake crossed 20 a day. But we didn’t give up.

When the SARAS ‘rolled out’ last year we exulted (rolling out merely involves towing the fully-assembled aircraft out of its hangar for the first time — no big deal actually). When the SARAS low speed taxi trials started in March 2004, the excitement grew. April-May 2004 involved high speed taxi trials (attaining speeds up to 90 knots; SARAS can take off at 105 knots — 1 knot is approx 2.2 km) terminating with the exciting ‘nose up’ manoeuvre.

Suddenly on 26 May, the Chief of Air Staff announced at a press conference that the SARAS would fly on 28 May at 8.10 in the morning. This was jumping the gun in a big way and we weren’t amused. No one makes public announcements of what should be hush-hush first flights! But there wasn’t much we could do. Especially because the Chief also promised to buy six SARAS aircraft for the IAF! (that was great of him, who promises to buy a plane that still hasn’t flown?)

Bad weather — remember the monsoon has set in early this year? — meant that 28 May was no go. But 29 May seemed on.

First flight briefing by test pilots

On 28 May, I walked into an IAF committee room for the pilot’s final briefing. I was enthralled by Sqn Ldr K K Venugopal’s  presentation. For one hour he laid out bare the first flight plan. Every contingency was discussed (including “a/c becomes u/s” which means the aircraft goes unserviceable, the mission fails — and Venugopal probably dies!). My admiration for the young dashing pilot grew phenomenally. I also felt personally very small. This kid was probably born when I was in college. How — and why — was my life going on without any comparable achievement?

Finally it was 29 May. Today could be the big day! During my morning walk I decided that the clouds looked rather menacing. All this only added to the anxiety. “No breakfast till the SARAS flies”, I told my wife as I drove off at 6.35 a.m. to witness the first flight (she seemed quite happy to hear this!).

At the tarmac, there was an icy silence. The sun was weakly peeping through the clouds as Sqn Ldr Venugopal and his co-pilot Wg Cdr R S Makker did the preliminary checks on the control surfaces. All of us were pretending to be relaxed but the tension was palpable.

It didn’t help that a heavy wind was building up on our backs. “High cross winds not good”, the other watching IAF pilots muttered.

As the pilots boarded the aircraft for the final cockpit checks, I joined my colleagues on the terrace of the telemetry tower. We saw the two ‘chase’ aircraft taxiing out, we saw and heard the SARAS engines roar alive and soon the SARAS itself began to taxi out.

The airport went out of bounds for civil aircraft at 8.00. At 8.10 the first chase aircraft took off noisily (to also clear the airspace of birds) and the second chase aircraft followed two minutes later.

Far away to the right we began to see the SARAS rolling. “Rolling now”, I heard Venugopal saying on the radio. A rapidly accelerating SARAS was now sweeping into view. The nose was lifted . .. and seconds later, our beautiful bird was airborne!

I can’t describe my most satisfying sense of elation. I started clapping, everyone else was clapping .. as the SARAS climbed higher, our clapping attained a new crescendo. This was the sound of a new, proud and shining India. We built our plane and, look, we’re bloody well flying it!

As the SARAS disappeared into the clouds, I climbed down back to the tarmac to await its landing. On the way down, I sneaked into the command nerve centre where the flight director was viewing digital displays and advising the pilots on radio. An IAF orderly signaled that I mustn’t enter and disturb. I had no intention of doing so. I just wanted to check the body language to be re-assured that all was well.

At 8.44, the two chase aircraft became visible. A single speck of light was visible between these two aircraft. This was SARAS coming in to land. At 8.45, SARAS landed safely to a tumultuous ovation.

All of us lined up on the runway to cheer the pilots. A Tricolour appeared from nowhere and was lustily waved. Sqn Ldr Venugopal’s Commandant Air Commodore Chopra was waiting to greet his brave pilot. Venu saluted his Commandant smartly before receiving a hug.

It was wonderfully euphoric. Everyone was shouting, cheering and hugging. An IAF waiter emerged with two bottles of champagne. As the corks popped out, Venu said: “we seem to have a great flying machine. I am not worried about our competition; I think our competition must worry about us now!”.

I kept marvelling at Venu. Is this chap human, I wondered … till I saw a tall and pretty young lady walk up to him and hand over a brat of a kid. This was Venugopal’s two-year old in tears — probably crying because he had been denied his appa. But then I saw the appa‘s eyes, and they were moist too. The SARAS wasn’t going to separate the father from his dear son after all!

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