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This could just be a story, but it is worth recounting. In 1984 NAL was looking for a new director to succeed S R Valluri. There was no doubt that Roddam Narasimha, then professor of aerospace engineering at Indian Institute of Science, was the best man to succeed Valluri.

But there was a problem. Narasimha didn’t seem terribly keen to join. He thought he liked being a teacher and a researcher more, and so decided not to show up for the director’s interview. When the chairman of the interview committee, Satish Dhawan, found Narasimha missing he sent his own car to fetch Narasimha with a brief message: “I want you here!”

RNDhawanNarasimha could hardly refuse Dhawan, who was both his teacher and mentor. He joined as NAL’s third director in July 1984, just as he turned 51. He would continue to be at the helm till he retired in July 1993.

Narasimha was the perfect choice to replace Valluri. During his 19 years as NAL’s second director Valluri had created a formidable launching pad: very good facilities and buildings, a few hundred scientists and engineers including many dozens who were truly talented and capable, and a work ethic that was among the best in national labs of that generation. Narasimha’s task was to ensure that NAL now had the best lift-off.

How would Narasimha do it? He faced formidable challenges: money was in short supply, foreign exchange was meagre, computing power was dismal, the crippling self-reliance slogan still ruled, the aeronautical community was divided (even within NAL, R&D divisions did pretty much their own stuff with hardly any inter-divisional programmes), and there was this worrying disconnect between academic institutions, R&D establishments, the aeronautical industry (read ‘HAL’), and the users of aerospace technologies (read ‘IAF’).

Narasimha’s prescription was a heady mix of what we would today call ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills. The hard skills included innovative R&D, magical experiments, clever design and development, looking for winning technology connections (e.g., surface technologies for aerospace applications) and intelligent mathematical modeling. The soft skills included building bridges via stronger networking, charismatic leadership, displaying unbridled optimism, and invoking his intense personal charm (is there anyone who doesn’t enjoy his company, or hasn’t reaped the benefit of his splendid intellect and generous advice).

Narasimha also brought in his other traits: of being a visionary (his crystal ball sees things that most of us fail to see), of being a science and technology fanatic (“what would I have done in a world without science?”, he once mused), of indomitable courage and confidence (“if there’s a way to do something, we’ll find that way”), and of being an intrepid and inveterate dreamer (was he the first to dream of building India’s own fighter aircraft?).

How would history judge the Narasimha years at NAL? How would Narasimha judge them himself? He would probably give his performance an A or at best a high A. But a historian wouldn’t hesitate to give him a strong A+. Look around NAL: 20 years after he stepped down as NAL’s director, you see strong evidence (and not small vestiges!) of his legacy everywhere.

 The magic of Flosolver

RNFlosolverThis narrative of Narasimha’s NAL years must begin with the truly fascinating and romantic fairy tale of Flosolver. It was the year 1985 and scientists in NAL’s Fluid Mechanics Division were, to put it mildly, livid at the poor number-crunching power of NAL’s Univac computer. U N Sinha was one of the more stormy petrels of the flock which met Narasimha to ask for more computing power. In a neat move (as elegant as any inversion problem he may have solved in mathematics), Narasimha bounced the problem back to Sinha and his colleagues: “if you are unhappy with Univac, why don’t you build your own fast parallel computer? They’ve built one at Caltech and I am sure we could put together one within a year ourselves”.

The fairy tale begins at this point. Sinha and his colleagues actually built India’s first parallel computer within twelve months of Narasimha’s directive!

The Flosolver success pleased Narasimha immensely. Every evening, after signing those tiresome official files, Narasimha would put on his famous navy blue jacket and stride purposefully to see Flosolver. Sinha and the others would be around and, over black tea with a sliver of lime, they would talk about domain decomposition, megaflops (yes, megaflops were big those days!) and panel codes.

Like all fairy tales, Flosolver too has a happy ending; some two decades later it became the test bed for some of the finest computational work in monsoon modelling and prediction.

 Do it SOFFTSly

Being himself an ardent fluid dynamicist, Narasimha was quick to review how NAL scientists did CFD. The picture he saw was slightly worrying. NAL had close to 50 scientists doing CFD but each seemed to be working in splendid isolation. Every scientist had access to (or had written) his own CFD code in Fortran, but there was practically no code integration. While groups of scientists did often choose to work together, there was no platform, or an enabling environment, for real collaboration.

SOFFTS“We need to create a library of all our CFD codes”, Narasimha declared, and, given his penchant for coining names, came up with the name SOFFTS – for SOFtware in Fluid and Thermal Sciences. To achieve this integration, Narasimha called upon S S Desai.

It must seem surprising now, but SOFFTS was an idea ahead of its time and created quite an upheaval when it was launched. By including codes in thermal sciences in the SOFFTS set-up (those days under the purview of Propulsion Division), Narasimha also sent out a strong message that inter-divisional projects would be the wave of the future.

 Giving life to the LCA dream

eIndiraGandhiThis is a true story. In a chance meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Narasimha asked: “Madam, why don’t you support national aeronautical programmes the way you support the atomic energy and space programmes?”

“The aeronautical community does not speak in one voice. The day you all come together I will be happy to support this initiative”, the Prime Minister replied.

The first real coming together of India’s aeronautical community happened when the Indian government approved the programme to develop a light combat aircraft (LCA) under S R Valluri’s leadership. NAL WithPVNplayed a stellar role in giving life to India’s LCA dream during the Narasimha years: wind tunnels were upgraded for the massive testing exercises that would follow, a new facility was created to design and develop airworthy composite structures, new teams were created to manage LCA’s flight mechanics and control, and a hugely successful project management exercise, headed by M Shivakumara Swamy, led to the development of ¼ scale LCA air intake model for wind tunnel testing at ONERA.

Narasimha himself was a member or chairman of practically every key committee that advised on LCA design and development. It would be impossible to evaluate the magnitude and the depth of his staggering contributions to the LCA programme.

The flight of the light canard

In his early years at NAL Narasimha often used to ask: “How can we be a ‘National Aeronautical Laboratory’ if we don’t have a plane of our own?”

RNKRN Fortunately, Valluri had already invited the adventurous (and often impatient) Rustom Damania to start a project to build an all-composite aircraft. Narasimha therefore made sure that he supported the project in every possible way, and when the plane (called the Light Canard Research Aircraft, or LCRA) flew on 26 February 1987 Narasimha was overjoyed.

LCRA, based on a Rutan design, became the precursor to NAL’s own project to design and build a 2-seat trainer called HANSA. HANSA itself first flew on 17 November 1993 – soon after Narasimha finished his term as NAL director – and continues to be popular with Indian flying clubs. As for the LCRA, it has metamorphosed into a pilotless combat vehicle named Rustom.

 Unlimited optimism for civil aviation   

The 1980s were very different times and many things that Narasimha said then often appeared strange or hard to believe. He talked, for example, of the limitless options offered by civil aviation in India (“we have to realize that civil aviation can be a net creator of wealth; not a consumer of wealth”) and never tired of showing graphs that showed how India’s air traffic would soar (at a time when Bangalore had less than a dozen daily departures!).  He also often said: “If Brazil and Indonesia can do it, so can we!”

RNtalksA lot of this enthusiasm got translated into vigorous R&D programmes at NAL, notably the programme to design and develop a multi-role light transport aircraft (to be later called SARAS). There were feasibility studies, detailed design projects, many wind tunnel tests and unlimited excitement.

Sadly, there were also challenges. It wasn’t easy to find the money and get approvals. Others events also made things harder: the collapse of the Soviet Union, difficulty in finding an industrial partner, concerns about certification etc.

But Narasimha’s optimism has never wavered. He was delighted when the SARAS first flew on 29 May 2004 and even today, when the SARAS programme is recovering from a setback, Narasimha retains his confidence and cheer. “We are not technology-limited, we are only policy-limited”, he will tell you.

Innovative surface technologies             

Surface engineering is not Narasimha’s cup of tea. That’s why it is remarkable that some of NAL’s finest achievements in surface engineering took place under his tutelage. It was fortuitous that he took over at a time when S R Rajagopalan and his team at Materials Science Division were in cracking good form. Narasimha’s task was therefore relatively simple: he had to transform this good form into a long and successful winning streak. And he did this by kindling the spirit and stoking the fire of the Rajagopalan team. The resulting conflagration was pure magic.

NALSUNHow else can one describe that unbelievable 1989 adventure of developing in a mere six weeks a successful plating process for seal discs of nuclear reactors? Or the project to make metallic mirrors for the INSAT II class of satellites, or, indeed, the hugely successful black chromium plating process, NALSUN?

In each instance the team used the electroplating route to achieve astounding engineering success (and ‘extend’ material performance). The team was just as successful with the electrochemical machining route (nozzle ring development for diesel loco engines of Southern Railway; nimonic twisted blade machining for HAL ). In fact a Danish visitor to NAL exclaimed: “You play with all the ‘instruments’ of electrochemistry!”.

Narasimha thus had little to worry about the engineering acumen of his colleagues. But he did worry a little about the returns accruing from such expertise, and tried his best to correct the situation – for example by encouraging quick patenting of technologies. “I believe NAL should earn at least ten times more from its abilities in surface technologies”, he often used to say.

 Think composites

VSAThe first Indian initiatives to develop airworthy composite structures were initiated at NAL by Valluri in the late 1970s. Narasimha moved the ball to a new high. After successful projects to develop composite rudders for the MiG-21 and Dornier aircraft, Narasimha launched a series of initiatives to gain experience and expertise in composite structures, including the commissioning of a series of autoclaves and the creation of a new composite structures laboratory in 1990. This outstanding facility, created and developed by B R Somashekar and M Subba Rao, has played a pivotal role in the development of composite structures for the LCA.

 The NAL big bang

The Narasimha years cemented a growing and fruitful partnership between NAL and ISRO: design and wind tunnel testing of aero elastic models of launch vehicles, polishing metallic mirrors for INSAT satellites, and the development of the acoustic test facility (ATF). The facility – a veritable engineering marvel – became operational in 1986 and completed its 1000th blowdown in March 1992, in the process paying for its development cost many times over.

 New avenues for cooperation

CMMACSIt must seem unthinkable today, but back in the 1970s and 1980s NAL scientists had practically no international interaction or visibility. There was no Internet, research journals took months to reach the NAL library, there was practically no money for conference travel, and any worthwhile research cooperation was impossible.

Narasimha managed to improve matters considerably because he was himself an active and respected researcher with wide international contacts, and, as a member of the Science Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, he was rather influential in Delhi. In particular, he created a process that funded a conference visit for every young NAL scientist who got his paper accepted.

International cooperation blossomed, with vibrant collaborations between NAL and R&D agencies in Germany, UK, Soviet Union, France and China … and these were serious projects; for example, NAL worked with DLR in Germany to design a composite rudder for the Do-228 aircraft; and with the Civil Aviation Authority, UK, to model aircraft wake vortices around Heathrow airport.

To promote cooperation between Indian (and especially CSIR) mathematical modellers, Narasimha proposed the creation of the CSIR Centre for Mathematical Modelling and Computer Simulation (C-MMACS).

A new documentation culture … and a new name

One of the first things Narasimha did after taking over as NAL director was to streamline NAL’s system of technical publications. Till Narasimha came along, NAL scientists were not particularly inclined, or encouraged, to consign their technical outpourings to print. Prof Narasimha changed all this by declaring that he would consider a R&D project unfinished unless its documentation was complete in every way. He also introduced a new, and un-refereed, NAL publication category to encourage the junior scientist to write without inhibition. The move paid off. By the end of 1985, NAL publications were up from about 50 to 250, with details stored in searchable databases. Narasimha also made a serious effort to read every report sent to him. Every report submitted to him, especially in his early years, was sent back with detailed comments and suggestions which were usually longer than the original manuscript itself.

The NAL annual report engaged Narasimha’s attention next. Now most annual reports are dreadful publications that no one reads. Narasimha insisted that the NAL annual report must become an attractive compilation that must be released in June every year. He suggested new chapter headings and numbering schemes, profuse illustrations with detailed captions, new layout schemes, coloured cover pages and a hundred other small details … and the best writing in the NAL annual report appeared in the opening chapter that he wrote himself.

logoOn 1 April 1993, Narasimha also gave NAL a new name: ‘National Aeronautical Laboratory’ became ‘National Aerospace Laboratories. “I wanted a name that recognizes NAL’s growing involvement in the national space programme, and the fact that the campus now houses a conglomerate of individual laboratories”, he explained.

Always the good professor

When ‘Professor Narasimha’ was asked to be ‘Director, NAL’, the debut was marked by a degree of circumspection. Some of Narasimha’s early initiatives, such as the one-day scientific review meetings of 1985-86, seemed to betray the professor in disguise. But Narasimha soon discovered that it was quite easy to be both the director and the professor – if only he worked that much harder. In fact, he discovered that the two roles often complemented each other very well; so while it was the professor who was convinced that parallel computing was infallible, it was the director who created Flosolver.

RNNALUNIAs ‘professor-director’ Narasimha also asked Gangan Prathap to initiate the NAL-UNI Lecture Series for R&D scientists to interact with academics, and Narasimha Swamy to introduce student internship programmes at NAL.

Both these initiatives were successful and earned NAL immense goodwill; they also brought in fresh faces and fresh ideas on the NAL campus. Narasimha himself loved to steal a few minutes from his office to interact with these visitors. He would lead them to a blackboard, fill up the board with some daunting equations, ask thoughtful questions, and then retreat to his office suitably invigorated. It might appear to be a curious way to refresh oneself, but for someone who has endeavoured to be the good professor for half a century there cannot be a better way.

3 thoughts on “The evergreen professor

  1. A very nice read! I had heard most of these stories in bits and pieces previously, but this is well chronicled.

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