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Safety scare on Gorshkov

New Delhi, June 4: A new fighter jet of the Indian Navy was partly damaged after a “hard landing” on the deck of the INS Vikramaditya today, less than a month after the aircraft carrier was declared “fully operational”.

The carrier — earlier called Admiral Gorshkov — and the aircraft were bought with a lot of taxpayer money and after years of delay.

The incident calls to question a history of tardiness in procurement of weapons-platforms, combined with challenges thrown to Arun Jaitley, who has succeeded A.K. Antony as defence minister.

Antony was the longest-serving defence minister. There were more recorded mishaps in his tenure than in any other minister’s, barring V.K. Krishna Menon’s in 1962.

Navy sources described today’s incident as a “hard landing” to distinguish it from a crash. The nose wheel of the jet, a MiG29K — also procured from Russia like the Vikramaditya — is said to have been partly damaged. The MiG29K has tandem cockpits. Both pilots are safe, navy sources said.

The incident happened off the coast of Goa late this afternoon. The aircraft had taken off from the INS Hansa naval air station at Dabolim, where it is shore-based, and was to land on the Vikramaditya in manoeuvres that the vessel and its aircraft have been engaged in since May 7. That was when navy chief Admiral Robin Dhowan announced the carrier was fully operational with its combat aircraft integrated.

The navy last week reshuffled its top brass after accidents on its ships and submarines were followed by the resignation of then chief Admiral D.K. Joshi and the supersession of the chief of its western command, Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha.

Since then, the government and the navy itself are taking a harder look at the country’s armada.

Even if the potential for damage to a carrier and its aircraft is great, “hard landings” are not all that infrequent because of the complex techniques involved in landing and take-off from a sailing ship.

The MiG29K is designed to land on the Vikramaditya with a tail-hook that has to be trapped in one of three arrester cables on the deck that will force the jet to come to a stop. (Just imagine a sprinter being forced to stop by a tape that cannot be breached, many times over). But the pilots of the jet cannot cut power so much that the aircraft may not be able to take off if the tail-hook fails to trap the arresters.

Navy sources said that in the waters off Goa this evening, the MiG29K failed to “trap” the first two arrester cables but took the third.

That caused the “hard landing” because the pilots were powering up (increasing throttle) to take-off after having missed the first two cables.

Apparently, the shock of the trap and the landing was so much that the nose of the aircraft pointed skywards before the plane dropped down on its nose wheel. The impact damaged the nose wheel. The arrester cables force the aircraft to stop on landing, bringing the aircraft from a speed of about 300kmph to zero in fractions of a second.

The INS Vikramaditya cost the Indian taxpayer $2.35 billion (around Rs 15,000cr).

The twin-engine MiG29K was originally part of a package deal with Russia along with the Gorshkov. India has contracted 45 MiG29K aircraft for $2.4 billion (Rs 14,232cr). A total of 27 of the aircraft have been delivered.

The Vikramaditya sailed from Russia and reached the Indian waters in January this year, five years behind schedule.

Because of the delay, the MiG29K pilots of the Indian Navy were trained at facilities in the US and at a Goa shore-based platform that simulates take-off and landing requirements at INS Hansa, the station in Dabolim.

But more than the technology, the technicalities and rigorous training methods required to operate aircraft from carriers, the Indian Navy and the Indian defence establishment are concerned with the resonance of mishaps and accidents on its top brass and their political leadership.

In the tenure of Antony, the military was always confused between what was politically correct and what was operationally desirable.

For Jaitley, who has succeeded Antony, this is a period of intense study with sharper focus on taxpayer money as he is also the finance minister.

This weekend, Jaitley is scheduled to travel to Mumbai and visit the only other aircraft carrier, the INS Viraat, which is being recycled several times over to meet the navy’s requirements.