Indian Navy Sea King. Photo courtesy of the Indian Navy
The Indian Navy’s integral air arm that was formed in 1953 received a significant shot in the arm with the setting up of Naval Flight Test Squadron (NFTS) at the bustling airbase INS Hansa, Goa. The squadron raised July 1, 2017, has been designated INAS 552, which was home to the Sea Harriers before the jump jets were decommissioned in 2016.
By setting up the squadron, the navy asserted its decision to develop organic flight-testing capabilities as they continue their stride toward becoming an over-400-aircraft naval aviation, one of the largest in the region.
Traditionally, flight testing in India has been the forte of the Indian Air Force, while other services utilized the service's exhaustive testing and training resources based at India’s aviation hub in Bengaluru. Much of India’s aviation manufacturing and aerospace R&D goes on at Bengaluru around state-run aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited’s (HAL) own airstrip.
The navy celebrated the squadron's first anniversary with a maiden naval flight test seminar at Goa Sept. 20. The day-long seminar saw much exchange of ideas and brainstorming. Participants from India and abroad, including ITPS Canada, Boeing, Dassault Aviation, HAL and DRDO presented ideas at the navy’s first organized foray into flight test.
Sources indicate that the squadron has not yet been allocated any aircraft and operates under the tutelage of naval aviation’s "class authority," Flag Officer Naval Aviation (FONA), also based out of Goa. The squadron has test pilots (rotary and fixed wing), flight test engineers, production test pilots, airborne tacticians, CFD specialists and aeronautical engineers on its roll.
As the navy prepares to scale-up to the size of a mini air force, busy days lie ahead for the squadron. The bulk of flight testing in the foreseeable future will be centered around ship-air interface projects with big-ticket acquisition programs like the NUH and NMRH gathering steam. An order for 24 MH-60 Romeos through an intergovernmental route from the U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin is on the anvil. Integration of indigenous naval LCA with naval aircraft carriers such as INS Vikramaditya and Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC, under build) will also involve the squadron’s active participation.
The squadron is already engaged in dynamic interface, weapons & systems evaluation, support to indigenous aerospace R&D products and grooming of potential test crew. Flight-test capability for remotely piloted aircraft is expected to be added down the line.
To support these tasks, NFTS plans to induct more test crew and technical resources. Sources indicate that an RFI for flight test instrumentation has been prepared and discussion is ongoing with potential suppliers. More avenues for training naval test crew abroad is also being considered, both to supplement the air force's training pipeline and for navy-specific flight-test work.
The naval flight test seminar is expected to be a biannual event. The next edition may well see wider participation from India and abroad as NFTS grows in scope and responsibility. The motto, "Enable, Enhance, Evolve," has been carefully chosen with the right active verbs and a seaman’s eye on the future.