Monday, September 7, 2009

Kaveri jet engine finally poised for first flight


BY : Ajai Shukla / Business-standard

After 20 years in the making, the Kaveri jet engine will finally take to the skies. In 1989, Dr Mohana Rao, then a junior technician at the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), Bangalore, immersed himself in the ambitious Kaveri programme, which was designing a jet engine for the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. After pushing the Kaveri through two decades of heartbreak and achievement, Dr Rao is now the Director of GTRE. And his baby, the Kaveri engine, is ready to fly.

This week, a fully built Kaveri engine will be transported to a testing facility outside Moscow called the Gromov Flight Research Institute. Here, a giant IL-76 aircraft will have one of its four engines replaced with a Kaveri. Russian and GTRE experts will then evaluate the Kaveri’s performance while the IL-76 flies.

Before the actual flight tests, Russian experts at Moscow’s Central Institute of Aviation Motors will run ground checks on the Kaveri’s performance, in conditions that simulate altitudes up to 15 kilometers (49,200 feet).

Business Standard visited the Kaveri ground test bed at GTRE, Bangalore, where Russian experts are finishing “pre-acceptance checks” on the Kaveri engine that is headed for their facilities in Russia. The giant turbofan engine, suspended from a ceiling bracket, was being revved up gradually. As it roared to a deafening crescendo, engineers monitored the Kaveri’s power output, watching carefully from behind a bullet-proof glass window.

“The Kaveri’s development is complete”, confirmed Dr Mohana Rao, “In ground testing at GTRE it met the performance parameters laid down in 1998. The next step is to confirm that it performs during flight. A 50-person GTRE team will travel with the engine to Moscow and participate in the flight trials over the next 3-4 months.”

India has no facilities for altitude-testing and flight-testing jet engines. GTRE estimates it will take several hundred crore rupees to create such test facilities in India. Meanwhile, each test campaign in Russia costs Rs 50-60 crores.

For the DRDO (GTRE is a DRDO laboratory) even a successful Kaveri flight will be a bittersweet end to one of India’s most savagely criticised development programmes. A measure of success, on the one hand, in an ambitious technological leapfrog to building a modern jet engine, something only a few countries can do. On the other hand, the Kaveri has failed to provide an engine for the Tejas, even after spending Rs 3000 crores.

“The reason was two-fold”, explains Mohana Rao. “The Kaveri turned out 15% heavier than we planned. From the planned 1100 kg, its final weight has gone up to 1265 kg.”

Meanwhile, the Tejas fighter also turned out heavier than planned, demanding a more powerful engine; the Kaveri’s maximum thrust of 65 Kilo Newtons (KN) is simply not enough. The air force has chosen American GE 404-IN engines, which produce 80 KN at full power, to power the first 20 Tejas fighters. And subsequent Tejas will get about 95 KN of thrust from a new-generation engine: the General Electric GE-414 and the Eurojet EJ200 engines are currently being evaluated.

But GTRE is undeterred, having produced a high-tech turbofan jet engine in a country that has never produced even a motorcycle or car engine. “We need more thrust without increasing the size of the engine”, says Mohana Rao. “That means getting better technologies from a more experienced foreign partner. We have chosen (French aero-engine major) Snecma. The Defence Ministry has approved the tie-up.”

Business Standard has learned that Rolls Royce, and General Electric declined to partner GTRE, apparently unwilling to part with cutting-edge technology. US major, Pratt & Whitney, was willing only to provide consultancy. With only Russia’s NPO Saturn and Snecma in the game, the MoD has opted for Snecma.

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