May 4, 2012: For several years now the Indian Air Force has had a pilot shortage that it cannot seem to cure. Currently, the air force only has 90 percent of the 3,743 pilots it is supposed to have. The main reason for the persistent shortage is the inability of the Indian defense procurement bureaucracy to buy the trainer aircraft needed. Despite over a decade of pressure from the Indian Air Force to buy new trainers, new basic flight training aircraft have still not been obtained. As a result trainee pilots are only getting 25 hours of flight time before going off to train on a specific type of aircraft (fighter, transport, helicopter). These trainees are supposed to get 75 hours before moving up to the advanced trainers and service aircraft. This problem has been building for years and results in more accidents and deaths during training. This makes it more difficult to recruit qualified young men for pilot training.
There have been other problems as well. For example, back in 2009, the Indian Air Force shut down its acrobatics team so that the aircraft they use (which are basically trainers) could be transferred to pilot flight training units, which were desperately short of flyable trainer aircraft. India's fleet of training aircraft is quite old and increasingly prone to breakdowns and crashes.
India has long put off buying new trainers. There are actually three different trainer aircraft types pilots use during their training. The HPT-32 is used for primary flight training. Intermediate training uses the Kiran Mark II and then the Hawk Jet Trainer is used for advanced training for fighter pilots. After that the pilots are sent to combat units where they learn how to operate a specific type of combat aircraft.
Back in 2009, all 116 HPT 32 basic trainers had to be grounded because of age related problems. HPT reliability has gone down even more since then. The HPT 32 entered service three decades ago and there have been over a hundred serious accidents, killing 23 instructor and trainee pilots. Because of the HPT 32 problems the 96 Kiran Mk1 intermediate trainers had to increasingly be used for both basic and intermediate training. These aircraft are being worn out but even then most pilot trainees are only getting a third of the required hours before being moved along in their flight training.
The air force has been trying to get permission to buy 75 Pilatus PC 7 single engine turboprop trainers to replace the HPT 32s. While the HPT-32 was designed and manufactured in India, the Swiss built Pilatus is seen as a better buy. The PC 7 is a two seat, 2.7 ton aircraft. The instructor sits behind the trainee and both have an ejection seat. Nearly 500 PC 7s have been built in the last three decades and they are used by 24 nations. But because the Pilatus is a foreign aircraft buying it has become a political issue and the actual purchase has continually been delayed.
India has also had problems with advanced trainers. For a long time new pilots went straight from propeller driven trainer aircraft to high performance jets like the MiG-21. This was made worse by the fact that the MiG-21 has always been a tricky aircraft to fly. This resulted in a high loss rate from peacetime accidents. The solution to this was a new jet trainer. But it took decades for this proposal to make its way through the defense procurement bureaucracy.
Four years ago India decided to buy another 40 British Hawk jet trainers. Eight years ago, after two decades of effort, BAE Systems finally sold 66 Hawk jet trainers to India, at a cost of some $25 million each. The delays were caused by the Indian unwillingness to spend the money, plus the efforts of French, Russian, Czech, and American aircraft manufacturers to put forward their own candidates. Finally, the growing number of Indian MiG-21 aircraft lost forced the government to close the deal. The Hawk advanced jet trainers are the most successful Western aircraft of this type, at least in terms of sales (over 900 have been sold). The US Navy uses the Hawk and India felt the Hawk was the most suitable for training MiG-21 pilots. The nine ton aircraft are used to train pilots who will eventually fly jet fighters. The Hawk can also be armed and used for ground attack.