“My father is 80 years old and he reads all the newspapers and updates me about the happenings around aviation. I leave home at 6 am every day and return by around 7 pm. Close to over two decades, life has been a great challenge dealing with some complex issues in aeronautics. Finding solutions and getting them accepted is some task in our profession. But, it gives a great sense of satisfaction,” says S K Chandrka, DGM (Electrical and Avionics), Aircraft Research and Design Centre (ARDC), a prominent unit of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). “There have been some sleepless nights. I remember once a wire got inside the aircraft and I was really restless till we found the reason,” says Chandrika, with over 26 years of experience.
City Express caught up with some of the women designers from ARDC, working with India's Light Combat Aircraft Tejas programme, to capture their mood ahead of the initial operational clearance (IOC) event scheduled to be held in the city on December 20. Despite being their first interaction with media in their career, these women showed little hesitation in replying to the queries. K Sharadha, AGM, Flight Test Centre who has close to 30 years of experience at HAL, said that the family support played a crucial role during all these years of hard work and toil, in realising the national dream called Tejas. “I was involved with the programme from 1995 and was part of the team that set up the infrastructure, telemetry ground stations and configuration of flight test instrumentation. My family was aware of the critical nature of my job and they stood rock solid behind me,” says Sharadha a native of Tamil Nadu.
Hailing from Mangalore, Sumana Prakash, is a Chief Manger (Design) with two decades of expertise in aeronautics. She was part of the Tejas programme right from the first day of her joining HAL. The project just completed the drawing stages and the prototype was getting ready. “It is really a matter of pride being associated with Tejas and I am part of the electrical design team. I have gone for outstation trials to Leh and life throws up many challenges. I am also part of some of the future programmes of HAL. Being a woman, I need to make adjustments to my family life. Sometimes my children get upset with me for being on the phone even while at home, clarifying some test points with my colleagues,” says Sumana.
Leaving a lucrative job with ABB, Rashmi Joshi, Manager (Electrical Design), joined HAL in 2001 and has been part of the Tejas project for the last 12 years. She has travelled to France on work and says that the job satisfaction is tremendous. “Nothing can match the thrill of taking challenges head on. Tejas wiring is really extreme with around 12,000 points. Life has become interesting with so many modifications being done to Tejas,” says Rashmi, hailing from Nagpur. Her colleague S Meena, Manager (Electrical Design) had to stay away from family for close to 10 months, while she was sent on a deputation to Russia. “I had to take my son and mother along with me. Life was different in Russia and I learnt Russian as well. The varied experiences have boosted my self confidence,” says Rashmi, hailing from Thirvananthapuram.
When asked about their views on being in a male-dominated domain and the difficulties they are facing in executing, everyone was all praise for their male colleagues. “We have come this far with their support as well. The team I handle have only two women and the rest are all men. I found no problems. Just that, I switch off my family matters completely when I am at work. Aircraft designers need to be emotionless when they deal with intense programmes such as Tejas,” says Veena B, DGM (Prototype Assembly), who hails from Mysore.
Some of the designers came to the Tejas programme with rich experience of HAL's other projects like the Dhruv. Alakananda Suri, Manager (Iron Bird) from Lucknow joined HAL in 2000 and was put to Tejas project in 2011. As a Project Manager with HAL, she worked on a transfer of technology from Sagem (France). “It is a highly satisfying job and we were under tremendous pressure ahead of the IOC-2. The team work has been outstanding,” she sad. The women brigade felt that it is because of the test facilities like the Iron Bird and the rigourous testing philosophy adopted, Tejas had thankfully not seen a single accident so far, unlike almost all the similar programs running worldwide.
Emphasising on absolute team spirit, Kalaivani D, a Deputy Manager (Electrical and Avionics) felt that in the design stream each and everyone work as one, shedding their grades and ranks. “We are so focussed towards achieving one milestone after another. It is a dream come true for all of us to see that Tejas is finally getting into an induction stage,” says Kalaivani, who hails from Namakkal. “We are the real pearls of HAL,” she adds, and the entire group bursts out laughing.
While the women completed their media mission and got back to their world of design, there was another group waiting in the wings for an interaction at the Prototype Flight Hangar - the men.
They were from the shop-floor, the real unsung heroes of Tejas project. No cameras have ever chased them. They come to work at times as early as 3 am to keep Tejas ready for the pilots to undertake the flight trials.
Avinash Kumar (34) is a manager at the flight hangar who is with Tejas for past 11 years. “I am from Delhi and I've always wanted to be a part of the aviation industry. It is a great thrill to prepare Tejas for the flight, handling the snags and finally positioning the aircraft on the tarmac. My team consists of 50 people and we manage three aircraft. Never was there any dull moment for me since I joined the Tejas team,” says Avinash. Echoing his views was S K Tripathi (52), senior master technician, who joined HAL in 2003 with a 20 years of experience working with the Indian Air Force. “My memorable moment was during the first flight of PV-5. It is a wonderful machine. Every time the aircraft takes off, it give immense happiness. I have accompanied Tejas to Goa, Jamnagar, Jaisalmer and Leh. It feels like taking our children for some entrance test,” says Tripathi, who comes from Lucknow.
Being a rescue driver hailing from Tumkur, Balasubramaniam (35), plays a key role in ground support vehicle activities. He says for the last 10 years, he couldn't have asked for more, with the kind of exposure he got in dealing with different situations. “Even my relatives, family and friends are really happy that I am part of India's prestigious project,” says Balasubramaniam. According to K Vijayan (54), hailing from Kerala, the Tejas team overcame many hurdles by coordination with the designers. “We undertook lot of corrective measures and though we are from shop floor, some of our suggestions are also taken into consideration,” says Vijayan, an ex-IAF man, with 15 years of experience in HAL.
Similarly, Mohd Imtiaz (40), a technician, tells that plugging the snags is something he always enjoyed, while Shivkumar B H (42), a Senior Manager (Quality Assurance), says that to update new technology was a Herculan task. “We had to train the people so that they could handle the aircraft at ground level, independently,” he says. Veeraiah (40), a Manager (Quality Assurance), emphasised how his team stuck to the safety features of the aircraft. “If something goes wrong, everyone will point fingers at us as we are the clearing wing. We will have to be available when pilots does the debriefing sessions,” he says.
While these backroom boys were readying themselves to get a Tejas PV-3 ready for the flight, P G Jayan, DGM, Integration & Project Manager (LCA Mk-1), joined the discussion with his final words. “These are the true heroes of Tejas programme. The souls on the shop floor make things happen. There are days when they have worked for 16 hours. Having a great team is the biggest award you can get,” says Jayan, who have logged 28 years in HAL.
As we wound up, the pilot of Tejas PV-3 was throttling up for another sky party.