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Dr. Kota Harinarayana has worked with organisations like HAL and DRDO and has been the driving force behind developing India’s light combat aircraft Tejas. It was his discipline, aptitude for systems design and ability to bring together and manage so many different organizations that helped spur the Tejas programme. He has served as Chief Designer at HAL Nashik division, as Director ADE, Bengaluru, and as the LCA Programme Director at ADA in a career spanning several decades until he retired in 2002. He was also awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India in the same year. Here we talk to this legend to get a first-hand account of the man who has seen the Tejas take flight from the drawing board into the skies.

What was your childhood like?

I come from a town in Orissa called Behrampur. It’s a small place where people are close to each other. I come from a generation where children didn’t go to a school too early. I started going to school only at the age of seven. Now days, children start as early as three. When I turned seven, my parents were getting worried that this fellow is not going to school. So there was a teacher who used to come home and take us physically to the school. But once I started attending school, I picked up fast. Maybe if you’re a little older in school, you pick up faster. I joined a school called City High School. The school had a provision for studying both Telugu and Oriya. And we were studying Hindi as an additional subject.

I come from a lower middle class family. I was supposed to be a reasonably good student in school. I usually came first or second in the class. For my parents, as long as I was going to school and not failing, they were happy. I got a seat in both engineering and medicine after school. I somehow felt that engineering was better because I liked mathematics and I wasn’t sure if I could remember all the names in anatomy or physiology. So, I decided to do engineering. I applied to a college in Orissa and to Benares Hindu University (BHU). My father felt that perhaps by going to Benaras, my exposure and outlook would be better and he sent me to BHU. I must admire that because he wasn’t a highly literate man. He must have studied up to sixth or seventh standard. But he was a freedom fighter and he was very passionate about Indian value systems. He thought that BHU which was established by Madan Mohan Malviya was a university with values. He thought by going there, I could pick up some good virtues.

Did you have a fascination for flying in your childhood days? How did you end up in an offbeat and unconventional such as this?

My fascination for aviation began in 1965 when I passed out from BHU and that was the year we had a war. It was the first time that India used aircraft in a war. There was a beautiful aircraft called Gnat. It was a small aircraft. And Gnat did extremely well in dog fights with F-86 ‘Sabre’ aircrafts which were much bigger in size. I found that very fascinating. I always believed that the agility and the maneuverability which is a very important quality for a fighter aircraft could be achieved when you have a small aircraft. And Gnat was very small. I think the Gnat was a wonder! Even today when I think about aircraft design, my first thought goes to Gnat. What the Gnat designers did was to create a single component that could do multiple jobs. The landing gear door also acted like an air brake. When I see how cleverly the whole thing was done, I get inspired.

You could say that the interest in aviation started in fact only after the 1965 war. Until then, we only knew and had read little about aircraft. I felt that it’s an area that I must study. And fortunately for me, there was an advertisement for the Institute of Science talking about a Post Graduation in aeronautics. So I applied and in those days they had a different policy and they selected me without an interview. If they had called for an interview, possibly I would not have gone.

You have studied at prestigious institutes like BHU, IISc and IIT Bombay. Would you like to talk about some experiences that stand out during your education?

As far as BHU is concerned, while I loved the university, the environment and the heritage; frankly I didn’t find the education style very good but IISc was totally different. Here was a total research environment and the studies were tough. I had a job offer from Bhilai Steel plant and I almost left my course to take it up but somehow I told myself that I should not leave IISc because I liked the subjects. Six months after I joined, I got attuned to the place; to the research environment; to understanding what is the latest that is happening anywhere in the world and attuned to a way of teaching which was not routine and mundane. I had a project called ‘Stability and control of an aircraft’. There was a professor called Seetaram Murty. He instilled a lot of interest in the subject and while doing the project, I developed a greater feel for the subject. A lot of my class mates were going to USA but I decided to stay back and join HAL. In fact, I joined HAL through campus recruitment.

Studying in IISc changed my outlook towards life. Let me narrate an instance – After I completed my studies at IISc, I joined the flight test group of HAL. Within two-three days of joining, my boss called me and said, ‘Look, we have a problem in the aircraft. The drag levels are very high. We introduced a modification called reheat system. Can you study and tell us whether the drag levels are high or if there is a thrust problem.’ The training at IISc being what it is, we thought we could solve any problem. Sometimes I think it was just bravado, but that was the kind of feeling. He asked me if I could look into it and I said, ‘No problem sir. I can do this job.’ Then he asked me how much time I needed. Mentally I calculated that I could finish in two days but I thought let me take a factor of safety and said I will take one week. He said, ‘Oh! You can do it in one week. Very good.’ So I came back and sat in my chair and my immediate boss asked me, ‘Kota, What did the big boss tell you.’ I told him about the problem he had indicated and I that I had told him I could do it one week. Then I thought maybe my immediate boss thinks that’s too long so I said, ‘But I can actually finish it in two days.’ He told me with a smile, ‘Very nice. We have been struggling to solve this problem for the last four years.’ What IISc had done was that it had given us a tremendous amount of confidence to solve problems. I thought it was an extraordinary change for a person who was not even sure of how he could attend an interview to a person who could now say that ‘These are not major issues. We can solve it’.

While serving as the Chief Resident Engineer(CRE) at HAL Nashik, your work on the life determination of MiG components helped spearhead improvements in MiG aircraft. How did this experience help you with the Tejas programme?

HAL Nashik had a factory for manufacturing MiG aircraft and I came with a fresh mind. I worked there for a couple of years and then I decided to do a PhD because my interest in aircraft had increased while working on MiG aircraft. I think its one of the finest aircraft designs ever made by Russians. When I first saw the MiG aircraft, I thought that a lot of improvements could be done. It wasn’t my job to do any development because I was the man responsible for the safety and design standards of the aircraft. But I thought we might as well see what we could do in terms of improvement. There are two areas where I started doing work. One was how to increase the indigenous content of the aircraft. A lot of the parts of the aircraft were still being imported from Russia. I felt that we were not taking the benefit of the Indian industry. So we did a major exercise about what could be indigenized and finally the Government gave us about 150 crores. In those days that was big money. We launched and I can tell you almost from about 30-40% of indigenous content was pushed up to 80% over that period of time. Metallic materials, Composite materials, Components, Standard parts and a lot of things we were able to do with the industry and laboratories around Nashik, Pune and some in Banglore. What I found was that the talent and the skill-base that was available in our small-scale industries in India are extra-ordinary.

And the second thing I was trying to look into was how to improve the aircraft – how to improve its performance, how to reduce its weight, how to improve other parameters, etc. We had an outstanding pilot called Wing Commander Ashoka. I think, perhaps, he is the finest test pilot India has ever produced. Not only an extra-ordinary pilot but he also had extra-ordinary analytical thinking skills. A test pilot should not only be good in flying but he should be able to analyze every aspect of the aircraft. When Ashoka used to land, he used to tell us about all the snags and what his appreciation was. And I always found that the way he had analyzed was the right way to look at it. He and I had many discussions together and we suggested some improvements in aerodynamics, structure, general systems and avionics. We approached the Managing Director, Group Captain Chenna Keshu who was a very positive person and he said that it was a pretty good idea and suggested a two day seminar in Nashik. In the history of Nashik, that was the first time they were having a seminar on improving the MiG aircraft. Actually the whole thing was supposed to be presented by the Chief Designer. By sheer chance, the Chief Designer fell ill and the General Manager asked me to present it. It was very well accepted by Air Force and the scientific community.

Meanwhile I was also doing my PhD. I went to IIT Bombay, registered myself and stayed there. At that point, I thought to myself that I had already done some eight to nine years of work and I didn’t want to do it in any obtuse subject. I told myself that my interest is in fighter aircraft and I had always felt that the MiG aircraft was not designed for India. It was designed for Russia’s cold conditions. If you sit inside the cockpit of a MiG 21, it is like a hot furnace. We need cooling whereas they had a heater inside the cockpit because they were operating in Siberia where it is always cold. Russia had two climates cold and colder whereas we have hot and hotter. These were the kinds of things that we wanted to change. We also wanted to change the aerodynamics. We developed a concept called Vortex plate. We didn’t know at that time that we were the first in the world to develop something like this. NASA developed a similar concept only six years later. Even though we were in a remote place like Nashik but because of our closeness to IIT Bombay, we had a healthy way of working.

We didn’t have any flight test facility. So, we did about a dozen flights. Then the aircraft was shifted to ASTE here and they did about 60-70 flights. Air Marshal Rajkumar who worked with LCA, in those days was with ASTE. He did most of the evaluation of the aircraft and he gave a pretty good report about the improvements that we had done – some were good and some were not so good. But overall they felt that some improvements could be incorporated.

While trying to indigenize the production of parts, we came across a problem. We couldn’t get push buttons for the control sticks from the Russians because their supply chain was very poor. I went to an automobile switch manufacturer in Nashik. His name was Bachubhai Patel. We asked him to make the push button for us. He replied that he knew how to make buttons for cars but not for aircrafts. We convinced him to try. We told him that we wanted the push buttons in three months. After about two and half months, he gave me a call. He asked me to come over and have a look at it. He had made a very simple and innovative test facility. He had made the push button and he tested it for ten million cycles. He said, ‘I have tested it. It is working quite well. Now you have a look at it.’ He had made about half a dozen buttons. I gave two buttons to my colleagues to run tests on them in the laboratory and to the design team to study the dimensions. I was amazed at Bachubhai Patel’s choice of materials and design. He got it right in the first time. He had designed it without a single failure. What people had struggled for three years and had been running after the Russians for, this old man who was already sixty five in those days, did it. When we started exploring we were even able to find rubber rings, split pins, metallic materials and a variety of things within Indian industries. We wanted some composite material work done that nobody had done in this country and very few people in the world had done. I talked to a professor in IIT Bombay and said these are the components and asked him to try working on it. He made a very important component called the Air brake. It was then that I realized the amazing strength of an academic institution. Working on MiG development and indigenization immensely helped me when I came to the LCA project. If I hadn’t worked all those years in Nashik, I don’t think I would have had the knowledge or the confidence to tackle a new fighter project.

Your job at ADA as the Programme Director saw you managing a number of people from different fields. Can you tell us about the challenges you faced in Techno management and how you overcame them?

The problem was that in those days, India didn’t have any developmental experience of fighter for almost two decades. The previous programme had been HF24 which was developed by a team headed by Kurt Tank, who was a German designer. He brought a design team of about 15 with him. The HF24 flew in 1961. By 1985, two and a half decades had been over and there had been no new project. And by then, people who had worked on the project had retired. In a field like aviation, you have to continuously develop, continuously evolve new technologies, new processes and new designs. And our people had not been doing anything for almost two and a half decades. So the challenge was that we didn’t have any technology, we didn’t have enough people who had experience in making an aircraft and unfortunately the infrastructure was also very poor. Whatever infrastructure had been there was built during HF24 days and was in poor shape.

We had DRDO labs, National Aerospace laboratory, Air Force on one side and HAL on the other side. I didn’t see much of a rapport among them. There was no understanding between the people. Each was pulling in his own direction. So the challenge was not only in dealing with people from 40 disciplines but people from different organizations who were not seeing eye to eye, who did not have an understanding about what each other’s responsibility was. Our challenge was how to build infrastructure, how to update the knowledge base of the people, how to bring in technology and how to make an aircraft. That could only happen if we could bring all these people together.

I must tell you that when Dr.Arunachalam told Air Marshal Wollen who was the Chairman of HAL in those days that I should take over the project (and I was still in the rolls of HAL, I was not a DRDO man), Wollen said if you feel he can do the job then I am happy. I told Air Marshal Wollen that sending me alone is of no use, we have to create a team. He said you choose your team from HAL. I chose 230 people from HAL and said these many people will work. I also had about 30-40 people from NAL, some 15-20 people from DRDO. So, there were almost 300 people. I said that I need these people for the next twelve months to do project definition or system design of the aircraft. All credit must go to Air Marshal Wollen. He said yes. And in about one week’s time, he transferred all of them. And he said that all of them will report to me. It was not easy because a lot of people among them who had come from HAL were much older than me. They were ten-fifteen years older. You couldn’t deal with them in a traditional way. The only way you can deal with them is by energizing the team to think big and look for challenges. It took us almost two years to knit them into a single team. I think that was the biggest challenge. It was important to make each person realize the strength and the need of the other person because each had his own strengths.

Slowly everybody started aligning because they realized that the focus was on the aircraft and they were all professional people. There were a lot of new technologies, software, systems to develop. A stage was reached when the distinction between disciplines and organizations disappeared. The greatest contribution of the LCA project is that in a country like India where people say that two people cannot work together, we were 5000 engineers working with 300 industries, about 40 laboratories and 20 academic institutions. And we worked together successfully. And at a time when there were US sanctions and they were not willing to cooperate with us, this team made this aircraft. That was a great experience. Tough but great.

What, in your opinion, is the significance of the Tejas programme? Why do you think it is important for the country?

When we started the Tejas programme, we had already built a first generation fighter, the HF24. Tejas is a fourth plus generation fighter. We bridged the gap between first and fourth in one single project. And more than 80% of the technology of the LCA was developed in the country. In the most difficult time when there were sanctions from USA, we developed the most crucial controllers, hardware, software, tested, validated and made it error proof and we flew the aircraft. The most important thing is that we developed a lot of technologies. And these technologies have been used not just in LCA but in IJT and Saras and many other projects. And the companies that worked for LCA, they started working for many other programs all over the country. Today if you see engineering service industry in India, I think a large number of people manning the industry have worked on the LCA project. Because they worked on LCA, they got good work afterwards.

I think the biggest thing is that we created the ecosystem for aviation in India. Earlier there was no ecosystem for aviation in India. There was HAL and nobody else. Now it is HAL, 500 industries, 40-50 laboratories, 20 academic institutions and it is a big network. It is no longer one or two people working or one DRDO lab working or NAL working. It is a network. I thought this ecosystem that we have created through LCA is a great thing and it has given extra-ordinary confidence to the people who have worked on the project and the people who felt that this cannot be done but now they feel that if they could do LCA, they can do many other things. Today when I talk to anybody in the world, I can see that the respect for the country has increased by leaps and bounds. The point they make is that if you do a project like LCA which has the highest percentage of composites, which is the smallest fighter in the world, and was under such difficult conditions, it means that the country has inherent strength. And that is what gives confidence today not only to the participants but to the customers also. They may crib but at the end of the day they feel that here is a group that can do the job. If I go to the private industry today with some detailed design work, they will do it. All the avionics equipment and the MMR, we developed ourselves and it has been done by small scale industry. Some 40-50 of them worked for us and today they are making components for the rest of the world.

Can you describe in detail what was going through your mind on January 4, 2001 when the Technology Demonstrator of the Tejas was flown for the first time?

Frankly I had zero doubt in my mind about our ability to make this aircraft. The day I took over I didn’t see any reason to believe that it would not be a success. If somebody sitting in France, in UK or in Sweden can do it; then a country of one billion people with so much of talent can also do it. We just needed to put our act together. Of course, we had to do a lot of learning and the infrastructure was not there but I had zero doubt in my mind. I always thought that this is a doable project. It was a tough project but it was doable. When we started this programme, maybe one in hundred people would have believed in us. As we went on and we were ready to fly, maybe fifty out of hundred began believing in us.

Wing Commander Kothiyal was our test pilot. He was a very professionally competent person. I know that he had never flown a prototype in his life. That too an unstable aircraft. So, I thought about how to give confidence to him. We did two or three things. One was to work on the control laws. We tested on a modified F16 aircraft in USA. One of the comments of the test pilot from the Pentagon was that the F16 flies better with LCA control laws. Even the aerodynamics of the aircraft was excellent. It gave a lot of confidence to our pilot. I never wanted to side step any testing. I felt that you must test until you give confidence to the airworthiness team and to the pilots. So the whole testing process went on for a year. The main thing in my mind was that here is an aircraft where the aerodynamics are good and the control laws are good. We must make it reliable. Reliable enough for it to fly very well. Of course when the aircraft flew, it was an extra-ordinary feeling. When the pilot came down, I asked him if there were any snags and he said ‘zero’. That is an extra-ordinary statement. It means we really perfected the aircraft to a level where there were no problems. It is very difficult to explain the kind of feeling that you have. It is like having a child. We were elated and happy that we could do this in spite of US sanctions and in spite of the report from one of the leading professional journals that said that India can never fly this aircraft because of US sanctions and lack of experience in making aircraft. And we were able to overcome such things. But we had a wonderful Defence Minister in George Fernandes. Hes a great Swadeshi man. One day we were working very late at night around 11 ‘o clock, testing the ground run of the aircraft. And suddenly some five-six cars came. It was the Defence Minister. He said, ‘As I was landing, I saw some activity going on. And I knew it must be your group.’ Such a gesture on his part energized the team, the designers, the people who had built the aircraft and the people who were testing it. Dr.Kalam was our boss for a long time. He was also an extra-ordinary person. Fortunately, I have had very good bosses. All of my bosses have supported us fully. We went through extra-ordinary problems. There used to be negative publicity about the project every alternate day. They used to say that we had crossed the time limits and the budget. It was tough but then our focus was not on those reports but on how to make it work. Fortunately, the team believed in themselves. Even if others didn’t believe, it didn’t matter. I think our big achievement was in making the team believe in themselves.