One of the lesser talked about products from HAL’s stable, the Light Utility helicopter (LUH) has lost our sight in the brightness of the likes of LCA Tejas. But the LUH has made it into the headlines again as Ministry of Defence has issued a Letter of Acceptance (LoA) to HAL for 12 units of LUH. Of these 12 units, 6 will be flown by the Indian Air Force & the rest 6 will be owned by the Indian Army Aviation Corps. This is a big news & a significant movement as the Indian Armed Forces are finally showing enough confidence towards indigenously designed & developed products against buying foreign originated equipment. Following the footsteps of the larger Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv & its variants, the LUH is the second type of homemade helicopter that is being ordered by the Defence Forces.
Let’s get to know the aircraft better.
The Light Utility Helicopter is design and developed by Rotary Wing Research and Design Center (RWR&DC), one of the R&D sections of HAL. The intent behind the LUH project is to make a homemade helicopter that could replace the aging & ubiquitous Cheetah & Chetak Helicopters, some of which are serving the forces since the past 50 years. The Cheetah & Chetak are licensed HAL built versions of the French Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama and Aérospatiale Alouette III respectively. These are reliable & unfailing workhorses of the armed forces but with time, has aged well & deserve a replacement in favour of a modern & more capable flying machine.
The need to replace the Cheetah & Chetak was felt quite early in the early 2000s & the Ministry of Defence floated a couple of tenders to foreign OEMs like AgustaWestland, Bell Helicopter, Eurocopter, Kamov and Sikorsky, for a fleet of 197 light helicopters to be purchased. Few of these firms withdrew for various reasons & from the remaining manufacturers, Kamov turned out to be the frontrunner with its Ka-226T light helicopter. Shortly after the selection of the Ka-226T to meet the requirement, during December 2015, an agreement was signed for the creation of a joint venture between Rostec, Russian Helicopters and HAL to manufacture the Ka-226T at a new factory to be built at Tumakuru, India.
But HAL was not going to give up yet. It had already started the LUH project back in 2009 with Defence Ministry’s approval & was working with an incredible speed on the project thanks to the experience gained from the ALH Dhruv project. By 2011, HAL unveiled a full-sized mockup of its LUH design at the Aero India in Bangalore. Though after that the project had hit a rough patch & the first flight which was scheduled to occur by 2013, finally happened in 2016.
The first prototype, named LUH PT-1 conducted its maiden flight outside HAL’s manufacturing facility at Bangalore 7 years from the program commencement. A refined second prototype was developed shortly & performed its first flight by May 2017. In 2018 December, the LUH proof-flew at 6 km altitude Envelope Expansion Test at Bengaluru, as a critical certification requirement as it is destined to replace the Cheetah which is the lifeline at the Siachen. A third & final prototype had its maiden flight the same month.
Since then, all three prototypes have been under rigorous flight tests which happened in Nagpur (hot weather trials), Chennai (sea-level altitude tests) & Ladakh (Hot & high conditions tests).
The helicopter in itself represents a new generation of rotorcraft. It is a 3 ton category chopper against the 2.2 ton gross weight of the Cheetah & Chetak it’ll replace. Also, the seating capacity is higher at 6 passengers against 4 in the Cheetah & 5 in the Chetak. The LUH’s cruise speed is 235 kmph whereas the choppers it replaces flew below 200 kmph. The LUH can fly up to 350 km with a 500 kg payload on board & up to 500 km with no payload. Also, it is surprising to note that this tiny helicopter can carry an external underslung load of 1 ton.
But where the LUH really shines is the service ceiling. The LUH is certified to fly at 21,325 feet (6500 m) ASL. For reference, the highest helipad in Siachen Glacier, Sonam post is at 21,000 feet. When the aircraft operates at such high altitudes, there is a very less margin of error & hence safety has been kept at paramount importance in LUH. The seats are crashworthy & the engine supports dual channel Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) system along with backup fuel control system. The engine itself is the same one that is being used in the ALH Dhruv, albeit derated to 798 kW (1,070 shp). The same engine produces 1,400 shaft horse power in Dhruv & on top of it there are two of them on the ALH to support the 5.8 ton helicopter.
As expected from modern helicopters, the LUH is equipped with a glass cockpit featuring a Smart Cockpit Display System (SCDS) which makes it very easy to fly & provides the vital information which is required by the crew.
All the three prototypes were finally put to test in live battlefield in Eastern Ladakh during the Indo-China stand-off across Pangong lake in August 2020. The choppers flew sorties from forward airfields like Daulat Beg Oldie (DBO) & Siachen on Army’s request. This was the final proving ground for the LUH & Indian Army was impressed with how comfortably the new helicopter cleared all the tests. Eventually the MoD ordered the initial batch of 12 helicopters however, the requirement is huge. The Army & Air Force needs at least 400-450 light helicopters in near future. 200-250 of these will be fulfilled by the Russian Ka-226T. For the Light Utility Helicopter, the projected requirement is of 187 units of which 126 are planned for the Indian Army with the remaining 61 for the Indian Air Force.
From the current order, the deliveries will commence early 2022. A new production line has been set up at Tumakuru, Near Bangalore which can chur up to 30 helicopters per year. This order along with the upcoming bigger orders is a boost not only to Indian OEMs & suppliers but will also assist in job creation & skill development. The future holds orders of various other products from Indian OEMs like the Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), Naval Dhruv, Rustom-2 etc.
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