Makers of India’s Flying Machines

HAL has been at the forefront of meeting Indian armed forces need for helicopters

Rohan Ramesh

In the ever-evolving sphere of military capability in air, compared to the sleek fighters, helicopters might look like an anachronism, but they continue to be the go-to aircraft for logistic duties. They may be tricky to fly and expensive to boot, and a headache to maintain, but the flying machines resembling giant dragonflies from a prehistoric age continue to be the big boys’ toys that the armed forces want.

HAL's Light Combat Helicopter

The advantage of helicopters is that they can take off from anywhere and land anywhere and need no taxiing strips. And these qualities make them the ideal candidates for injecting troops in difficult terrain and extract them, particularly wounded soldiers. Apart from troop dropping, rescue and recce, helicopters are now deployed in offensive roles.

India recognised the need for helicopters early. The tryst of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), India’s premier aviation company, with manufacturing helicopters goes back a long way. The first helicopters HAL licence produced was Aérospatiale SA 315B Lama and Aérospatiale Alouette III known as HAL Cheetah and HAL Chetak respectively in the Indian armed forces.

According to the HAL website, the firm first signed a contract to commence manufacturing of choppers in 1962. It entered an agreement with M/s SUD-AVIATION (Presently M/s EUROCOPTER, France) for manufacturing Alouette III helicopters (Chetak). The first Chetak (Alouette III) in ‘Fly Away’ condition was delivered in 1965.

HAL and M/s SNIAS (presently M/s, Eurocopter) signed a contract in 1970 for production of Cheetah (LAMA SA 315-B). The first Cheetah manufactured was delivered in 1976-77.

The Cheetah Helicopter (identical to LAMA SA 315B Helicopter of Eurocopter, France) is a high-performance helicopter designed for operation over a wide range of weight, centre of gravity and altitude conditions.

The five-seater Cheetah helicopter is versatile, multi role, multipurpose, highly manoeuvrable and rugged in construction.  It holds the world record in high altitude flying among all categories of helicopters. The Cheetah was further modified into a weaponised variant known as the HAL Lancer and its newest avatar is call the HAL Cheetal. The helicopter is suitable for commuting, observation, surveillance, logistics support, rescue operations and high-altitude missions.

Till date, HAL has produced and sold more than 275 of these helicopters which are in service both in India and abroad. Recently, HAL received orders for Cheetah helicopters from ministry of defence (MoD) Namibia.

Cheetahs and Chetaks were just the beginning for HAL.

In 1984, HAL embarked on an ambitious project that would ultimately become the HAL Dhruv or (Pole Star). Dhruv, which first flew in 1992, finally entered service with the Indian armed forces in 2002. Over 200 Dhruv helicopters have been manufactured till date by HAL. The latest version is powered by Safran Ardiden or ‘Shakti’ engines which replaced Turbomeca TM 333 Turboshaft used on earlier models. In recent times, HAL has taken up the development of three new helicopters – the HAL Rudra, Light Combat Helicopter and the Light Utility Helicopter.

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