The Department of Aerospace Engineering is in the process of restoring its plane exhibits
In 2004, the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy, published a book titled One Hundred Reasons to be a Scientist. One of the contributors to the book was Roddam Narasimha, whose article, How I Became a Scientist, recounts an unforgettable experience he had when he was a young student in the early 1950s. At that time, he was studying mechanical engineering at the University of Visvesvaraya College of Engineering, then the Government Engineering College, in Bangalore. His moment of inspiration, described in the article, came when he visited IISc on its Open Day.
“In the quadrangle of the Department of Aeronautical Engineering (which had just recently been started) stood a lovely World War II Spitfire, loaned for the occasion by the Indian Air Force. That was my first close encounter with an aircraft, and it opened another world for me. What struck me at that time was how smooth and graceful the exterior of the Spitfire looked (in particular its beautiful elliptic wings), but how complicated it was if I looked at the insides – which seemed like a jungle of cables, pipes, ducts, valves and so on. It seemed astonishing to me that beneath those graceful curves and surfaces (which I took to come from mathematics) lay hidden a bewilderingly complex technology – and I marvelled at those extraordinary people who had apparently mastered both,” he writes.
The sight of the Spitfire, the legendary British World War II aircraft, led Narasimha to pursue his true calling – he did a Diploma (equivalent to a Master’s degree) in IISc’s Department of Aeronautical Engineering, now called now Aerospace Engineering, and eventually became one of the most well-known aerospace scientists and fluid dynamicists in the world.
The impact of seeing an aircraft like the Spitfire at close quarters on visitors is not lost on the Department. “It can be inspiring to see it up close. If I were five or even 10 years old, it would seem more accessible to me [as compared to a large civilian plane]. And I would think, ‘I could fly this one.’ One may never see the flight deck of a big plane. Whereas in this, you could see the cockpit,” says Joseph Mathew, Chair of the Department of Aerospace Engineering at IISc. He feels that being able to see and touch an aircraft can also fuel a passion for them in young minds, much like it did for Narasimha.
The sight of the Spitfire, the legendary British World War II aircraft, led Roddam Narasimha to pursue his true calling
Aircraft on display
The Department currently has three aircraft displayed on its lawns: an HAL HT-2, an HUL-26 Pushpak, and a Hawker Hunter. They are popular attractions, particularly on Open Day, when thousands of people throng the campus of IISc.
The HAL HT-2, a military trainer first produced in 1953 by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), was the earliest acquisition. “The HT-2 is very interesting. Its history is closely tied to the history of this Department,” says Duvvuri Subrahmanyam, Assistant Professor at the Department. “It was designed by VM Ghatage, who helped establish the Department in 1942,” elaborates BN Raghunandan, former Chair of the Department. Ghatage had been working at HAL before he came to IISc. After his tenure at the Institute ended in 1948, he returned to the public sector aerospace organisation as its chief designer. Moreover, the HT-2 was the first aircraft to be designed and built in India. “In that sense, it was India’s first indigenous aircraft.”
The aircraft, Raghunandan says, was acquired by the Institute in the 1960s. “It was already there when I came to IISc in 1971 for my PhD. Unfortunately, back then, I was not aware of its history.”
Like the HT-2, the HUL-26 Pushpak is another 1950s lightweight aircraft from HAL. Based on the design of the American Aeronca Chief, the Pushpak too has a special place in the Department’s history but for a different reason – it was an integral part of the Department’s teaching curriculum.
The Pushpak was also acquired by the Institute in the 1960s. “During the year, the flight course [part of the Department’s ME programme] has received further impetus by the acquisition of a Pushpak airplane,” states IISc’s Annual Report from 1966-67. “The airplane is instrumented to facilitate instruction in some aspects of flight mechanics. The inter-institutional course on flight testing and instrumentation has been continued by the IAF officers and others from the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., Bangalore. Greater emphasis was laid on the practical aspects of this course this year.”
The plane continued to be a part of the Department for over four decades. “You may be surprised to know that the Aerospace Department used to have a licensed pilot on its staff to fly this aircraft,” says Raghunandan, who has flown in it several times both as a student and as a faculty member. “It used to be kept either in the hangar at HAL or sometimes at IISc. The pilot would go to the HAL airport [if it was parked there], take off from there and land it at IISc’s airstrip.”
“The Aerospace Department used to have a licensed pilot to fly the aircraft [Pushpak]”
A few years ago, however, the Department decommissioned the Pushpak. Mathew, who has also taken to the skies in it, explains why: “Many years ago, some of our students may not even have seen an aircraft up close. Most may not have ever flown in one. So, it was important to give them that experience. [But] that kind of flight experience is no longer relevant.” Once the Pushpak was retired, the Department retained the aircraft as an exhibit outside its new building.
The third aircraft on display is a Hawker Hunter. Unlike the HT-2 and the Pushpak which are propeller aircraft, the Hunter is powered by a jet engine. Developed by Hawker Aircraft Limited, the British aircraft was popular around the world, says Subrahmanyam. The Indian Air Force (IAF) first acquired the Hunter in 1958. It was in service for more than 40 years and played a crucial role in the 1971 war against Pakistan. “The Hunter won its pilots a large number of gallantry awards and is among the longest-serving aircraft of the IAF,” reads the plaque next to IISc’s Hunter.
The aircraft at IISc was purchased in 1965 from the Dutch Air Force as part of a tripartite agreement between India, the Netherlands and the manufacturer, Hawker, which refurbished it before it was sent to India. “It was on standby during the 1971 war at Pathankot and ready to go,” discloses Subrahmanyam. The aircraft continued to serve the IAF even after it was withdrawn from active military service. “This particular aircraft, along with the other Hunters in the squadron, was stationed in Kalaikunda Air Force Station in West Bengal. Towards the end, they were mostly used for training and target practice.”
Raghunandan, who was the Chair of the Department when the Hunter came to IISc in 2008, reveals the story behind its acquisition. “We wanted a bigger military aircraft which could be of instructional value. Therefore, I wrote to the IAF asking for one and they responded after a long time saying that we can pick up a Hunter aircraft from Kalaikunda.” But there was a rider. “They told us that it would cost us Rs 5 lakh. I wrote to the Director [P Balaram] saying that we need this money for the aircraft, which he readily sanctioned.”
Raghunandan sent a team of three members from the Department to Kalaikunda to bring the Hunter to IISc. But when the team reached the Air Force Station, they found that the aircraft was in pieces, with the parts strewn all over the place. “They were disappointed. But since we had paid for it, I told them to collect all the parts and transport them by road. They then loaded the parts, except for the engine, and it came to IISc two weeks later.”
The plane’s parts arrived on campus late in the night. “I was happy that it arrived when nobody could see the state it was in. The team moved the parts to the hangar where it was assembled with the help of experts from Hyderabad who had the experience of maintaining the Hunter.” Raghunandan also had it painted.
“I then took Prof Balaram to the hangar. I showed him the aircraft and told him that this is what we got for Rs 5 lakh.”
Braving the elements
The Department’s aircraft, however, have been sitting outdoors without any protection for many years now. And it has taken a toll on them.
“The Pushpak is a fabric-covered aircraft. The fabric becomes brittle over time and begins to tear,” says Mathew. The condition was so bad that the Department considered covering it up when the last Open Day was held before the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, they made a teachable moment out of it. “One of my colleagues, who was helping with Open Day, decided to strip the fabric off one wing completely so that you could explain to people what it looked like under the fabric.”
And even though the Hunter was the most recent acquisition, it was also showing signs of ageing. “The Hunter had been sitting [around] for over 11 or 12 years when I joined. It has been at the mercy of the rain and sun for all these years,” says Subrahmanyam, who joined the Institute in late 2018.
The oldest of the aircraft, the HT-2, was fortunate enough to have undergone a bout of renovation a few years ago. “When I became the Chair, I found that one of the wings and the wheels were in bad shape. So, we decided to repair it. This was sometime in 2004-05,” says Raghunandan. But now, this plane too is ready for some TLC.
A couple of years ago, the Department decided to give all the three aircraft – the Pushpak, Hunter, and HT-2, in that order – a facelift. But it is not easy to find the expertise required. “For these kinds of jobs, it is important to find the right kind of people. And not treat it as a commercial job,” says Subrahmanyam.
Fortunately for the Department, they knew two people who had the right chops for it: Sukumaran S and Baby Murali, dye and tool makers by profession. “We have a place near Ramaiah Hospital [near IISc’s campus in Bangalore] called Suraj Engineering,” says Sukumaran, who is passionate about working on old aircraft.
“They [Sukumaran and Murali] were the people who helped set right the HT-2 earlier,” says Mathew. The duo was also familiar with the Hunter aircraft because they had assisted the Department when it was put together and painted back in 2008.
Sukumaran and Murali along with Murali’s son, M Manjunath, worked on the Pushpak in 2020. “We first had to remove the fabric and also the wooden pieces,” says Sukumaran. The wooden pieces Sukumaran is referring to are the wooden ribs used in the fuselage of old aircraft.
The next step was to fit the aircraft with aluminium sheeting (the Department decided not to use fabric again). “The sheeting is only about 6 mm thick,” says Mathew. This was followed by painting the aircraft. “The Department also used the opportunity to redo the cockpit.”
It took Sukumaran and his colleagues four months to finish the project. Their hard work paid off. “Their passion for airplanes is clearly seen in the quality of their work,” says Subrahmayam.
In 2021, the Department once again called upon Sukumaran and Murali to work on the Hunter. The challenge to restore this more modern aircraft was slightly different. “They had to peel off the old paint. And then do an anti-corrosion treatment for the metal,” says Subrahmanyam. “After that, we had to put putty and make it level,” adds Sukumaran.
Once this was done, it was time for the paint job for which a special kind of car paint was used, says Sukumaran. “It is quite costly. We need to make sure that it is dust and rainproof.” The Department decided to retain the original design which included the logo of IAF. “[So] we used photographs of the old plane to make sure that the colours and design are the same,” he points out.
Work on the Hunter, however, was impeded by incessant rains towards the tail end of the monsoon. “It had to be done outside. Just like this year, it rained a lot last year, especially late in the calendar year. So, there were constant interruptions. You start in the morning and if it rains later, then the day’s work is lost,” says Subrahmanyam. But despite the rains, the restoration of the Hunter was completed on schedule.
Now that both the Pushpak and the Hunter have been refurbished, the Department is ready to turn its attention to the HT-2. “We now have funds for the HT-2. We will get going on that soon,” promises Mathew. This means that come IISc’s next Open Day, all the three planes will have been restored. The many young visitors to the campus who encounter these aircraft will have an opportunity to make a connection with the flying machines, just like Narasimha made with the Spitfire more than 70 years ago.