US aerospace major Lockheed Martin on Monday began flying its three fighter F-16s here for trials of the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRC) that the Indian Air Force (IAF) wants to buy, to replace its ageing MiG-21 fleet.
“The field trials will be conducted in Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh till Sep 18 in different conditions. We had the training phase from Sep 3-5 in preparation for the trials,” Lockheed’s international communications manager John Giese said.
The trials near Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and Leh in Jammu and Kashmir next week will be to test the fighters in hot weather conditions and in high-altitude mountain ranges.
The three F-16s, which are in service with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Air Force and stationed at Dubai air base, flew into Bangalore on Sep 2, with Lockheed test pilots, US Air Force pilots and a team of engineers and technicians, for the 12-day trials.
“The fighters landed two days behind schedule due to inclement weather and operational reasons. The training phase included familiarising the IAF’s evaluation teams with the aircraft’s capabilities and technologies, especially its latest electronic warfare and navigational aids,” Giese said.
During the training phase, the fighters were stationed at the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) airport on the outskirts of the city. Demonstration of the aircraft, ability of its various systems and the glass cockpit were held at the IAF’s Aircraft Systems & Training Establishment (ASTE) complex, which is adjacent to the HAL airstrip.
“As part of the trial preparation, all the three F-16s took to skies twice a day on hour-long sorties despite cloudy weather and intermittent rains Sep 3-5. They flew mostly in south-westerly direction towards Mysore,” a senior air traffic control (ATC) official said on Sunday.
IAF’s test pilots flew with Lockheed’s test pilots in the tandem twin-seater for a firsthand ‘feel’ of the aircraft and its ability to manoeuvre for combat operations.
Though the advanced fourth generation F-16s participating in the trials are not ‘Super Viper’, they are closest to the new version the company will offer to the IAF if it wins the estimated $10-billion order for the 126 planes.
“The F-16IN Super Viper will be tailor-made to meet the requirements of the IAF and will be the ultimate fourth generation fighter,” Giese claimed.
According to Michael R. Griswold, Lockheed director, the F-16s, with fifth generation capabilities, will demonstrate to the IAF their striking power, speed, accuracy and its awesome 360-degree manoeuvres, with its sophisticated active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
The other five aircraft in the fray for the order are Boeing’s F/A-181N Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale, the Saab Gripen, the Russian MiG-35 and the European consortium EADS Eurofighter Typhoon.
As per the global tender floated last year, the winning bidder will have to deliver 18 aircrafts in fly-away condition, while the remaining 108 will be manufactured by HAL under a technology transfer deal.
The F-16 trials are taking place three weeks after Boeing flew in its two Super Hornets Aug 14 and conducted trials for about 10 days from Aug 17 in Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh.
“Initially, the IAF pilots will co-pilot the aircraft, taking controls mid-air after familiarizing themselves with the systems and the advanced navigation aids. In the subsequent trials, the IAF pilots will take command of the aircraft for evaluating its various parameters, including the use of weapons,” a Lockheed official said.
The IAF has formed twin teams of two test pilots each for the trials, which will be conducted in three stages: pilot familiarzsation, field trials and weapons systems trials. The third stage will be conducted in the country of manufacture.
The technical evaluation was completed early this year after the six manufacturers responded to the IAF’s Request for Proposal (RFP) in August 2007.