Aero India – A different perspective

The 11th edition of Asia’s biggest air show ‘Aero India’, will draw to a close tomorrow 18 Feb 17. As per reports in the media, this edition witnessed participation of 30 countries and over 72 state-of-the-art aircraft. Over 270 companies from India and 279 from abroad would have participated in the air show, which is expected to see a footfall of more than two lakh business visitors.

Having spent over a decade in Bengaluru, first at the Aircraft & Systems Establishment, IAF and then at Naval ALH Project Office at HAL, Bangalore, I have seen the air show grow from strength to strength. In the 2003 edition, I was fortunate to fly in the Composite Formation – an arrowhead formation comprising two each HJT16 (Kiran), Mirage 2000 and Su 30 MKI, led by a lone Advanced Light Helicopter (Dhruv).

Air shows are always a big draw, particularly in India’s aviation capital of Bengaluru. I for one always try to make it for the show. Come February in Aero India year, everybody and their brother is out hunting for ‘free passes’. In fact in 2013, I had to present a paper at the Aero India International Seminar to secure a wild card entry to the air show in the face of mounting bureaucracy and unwillingness of people to part with ‘free passes’!

Although the show stretches for 4-5 days, meaningful business, if any, is only possible only on the second & third day. The first day is largely optics with high profile visitors and ministers making a beeline. The last two days, usually weekends, turns the show into a mini circus with aviation afficionadoes, families and curious Bengalureans beating down the gates of Air Force Station, Yelahanka. Lapel pins, pens, caps, aircraft models and other attractive memorabilia are quickly lapped up by ‘freebie hunters’ within the first two days leaving only colourful brochures for latecomers.

There have been many memorable moments (the breathtaking first public display of indigenous LCH), some spectacular events (Late HAL Chief Test Pilot Sqn Ldr Baldev Singh’s high speed aborted takeoff on the IJT) and few disasters (Fatal Sarang formation helibatics team ALH crash) in the past. The show has had its share of highs and lows. The highs have been applauded while the lows have been given quiet burials in the aftermath of the show. Breathtaking performances by birds of steel have an almost intoxicating and amnestic influence on people’s mind, I guess.

I recall a much lower profile incident in 2007 when I visited the show as part of a Headquarter Naval Aviation (HQNA) delegation. It was closing day and half of Bengaluru had descended on the show. Stalls and chalets were full to capacity. Freebie hunters were out in large numbers. One of the leading aerospace majors (no names) had set up a modern fighter simulator. Remember, this was pre-MMRCA finalisation days (I suppose status is pretty much the same even today) and all the big names were falling over each other to woo India. Against this background, I observed a DSC jawan Naik Subedar Karan Singh sitting in the fighter simulator, trying to figure out the state-of-the-art machine with his calloused hands. Now, DSC jawans are retired soldiers from the army & paramilitary who are vested with perimeter security of defence assets. They lead an extremely lonely life, separated from their families, guarding the same operational areas from where fighter pilots take to the skies. They may never come within an arm’s length of a fourth generation fighter, let alone sit inside one. But here he was, trying his hands at the joystick and throttles, goaded energetically by his children ‘papa udao ise’ (Dad, fly it!) while his demure wife watched, rolling her eyes in glee. As a test pilot and purist of sorts, I found this ridiculous at first sight and wondered aloud what kind of idiot allowed minions unconnected with the high-tech business of aviation to fiddle with such expensive toys. My colleague, a pilot with a more generous world view, had a different take on the issue.

“KPS” he said, “we are a country of modest means. Everybody may not be as lucky as you and me to have the gift of wings. This may be strictly business for us. But for a vast majority, it is an occasion to have a fling with aviation. Everybody down to the last soldier has a stake in what we buy; it is taxpayers money. These guys are doing us no favour by letting us into their chalets or simulators. If not for the promise of big ticket deals, these companies wouldn’t have given us the time of the day, let alone allow a DSC Jawan to fly their simulator. Let him have his time under the lights. If not his generation, maybe his son may get inspired to take up aviation and – who knows – one day sign off on the dotted line for the MMRCA”

I know this sounds bad for business and all that. But if we dial down on the hype a bit, it may be easier to understand and accept that we as a nation do not have an aviation culture. For all the brouhaha over LCA, MMRCA, Make in India etc, how many of us encourage hobbies like aeromodelling or aerosports amongst our children. Which department in the aviation ministry is providing grassroots impetus to aviation and aviation entrepreneurs in a nation of 1.3 billion? Some of us who are loath to open our car’s bonnet for basic troubleshooting are vetting specifications for the next generation aircraft. I say it because I have seen it in my time. We don’t like grease on our overalls and wrinkle our noses at the smell of ATF. Add to this, a litany of rules and regulations that hangs like a millstone around the necks of anyone trying to make forays into the exclusive aerospace club.

Tomorrow as the curtains fall on Aero India 2017, I am hoping (against my instincts) that a lot of good business has been transacted and plenty of deals signed. I am also hoping many more Naik Subedar Karan Singhs and their children get to touch & feel aeroplanes. For a nation without an aviation culture, that is as important as anything else on the agenda. Please indulge them.

And while on the subject, good luck with the MMRCA 🙂

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