The Birds come Flocking – Aero India 2011

The eighth edition of the biennial Bangalore air show, Aero India 2011, is upon us. This five day aerospace and aviation business show shall run from 09 to 13 Feb 11 in the aerospace capital of India. Close to 100 aircraft and related systems shall be on display, with 675 exhibitors participating from almost 45 countries (1). The audience shall witness thrilling aerobatic displays by the IAF’s Surya Kiran Aerobatic Team (SKAT) and  Sarang Helicopter display team; along with Czech Republic’s all civilian Flying Bulls Aerobatics team, performing synchronized flying skills with Czech built Zlin 50 LX aircraft (2). In addition, the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contenders shall thrill the audience by showcasing their aerobatic skills. On the sidelines, a large number of aerospace professionals: designers, manufacturers, operators and academia  shall have an opportunity to interact during the seminar on  “Aero and Space Technologies, Success through Global Co- operation” (3). Such interactions are to facilitate collaborative R&D and manufacturing activities in this vital industry.

Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) shall demonstrate its now operational Light Combat Aircraft (LCA aka Tejas) and the Intermediate Jet Trainer (4). Rubbing shoulders with LCA, shall be the competitors for India’s next MMRCA, including Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Strike fighter, Dasault’s Rafale, EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin’s F-16s and SAAB’s Gripen (5). The sixth competitor in the fray, the MiG-35, has chosen to give a skip this time. Lockheed Martin shall also showcase its F-35 joint strike aircraft (6).

With some Indians being counted amongst the wealthiest in the world, and a booming economy, the demand for personal or shared executive jets is bound to rise. This is evident from the array of business jets on display. This includes Gulfstream G550 and G450 large cabin business jets; Embraer’s Phenom 100, Phenom 300, Lineage 1000, and the latest jet in its suite – the Legacy 650, (7); and Dassault’s Falcon 7 X large cabin, long range business jet (8) .

The big birds on display for the tactical requirements are Boeing’s (9) C-17 Globemaster III military transport aircraft, C-130J tactical airlifter; and Airbus – A330 MRTT refueler (10). In the commercial aviation sector, Boeing is offering Boeing 787 Dreamliner, 777, 747-8 passenger and freighter series, and its best-selling Next-Generation 737 (9).

Rotary wing aircraft includes Eurocopter AS 550 C3 Fennec – for reconnaissance and surveillance, AS 565 Naval Panther for maritime roles (a version of Dauphin), and EC135 in Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) configuration (11). Boeing’s AH-64D Apache, CH-47F Chinook shall also be seen (9). Joining them shall be HAL’s latest Light Combat Helicopter (LCH) and Light Utility Helicopter (LUH)  (12).

Besides the ‘birds’ of all kinds, the exhibitors, both Indian and international, shall showcase aircraft engine components, avionics and radar systems. Notable amongst them is Northrop Grumman’s Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities – its airborne early warning and control system for maritime reconnaissance, fire control radars and unmanned aerial vehicles (13). Of interest to aeromedical community is Goodrich Corporation’s F-16 ACES II advanced concept ejection seat with active pitch stabilization for safe performance at 0-600 KEAS and 0-60,000 ft altitude.

Does such a mega event offer opportunities to the practitioners of aerospace medicine? Indeed, considering the Indian defence needs as well as the future expansion in the commercial aviation, the aerospace medicine specialists can play a constructive role, if the industry and the government does include them during the procurement planning and acquisition phase. IAF actively engages the human engineering and human factors expertise available at IAM, but the captains of airlines and aerospace industry may not even be aware of usefulness of such an expertise.

At an individual level for aerospace medicine specialists, both budding and practicing, there is plenty on offer at Aero India 2011. The combat aircraft on display offer them an opportunity to study the differing design philosophy. This in turn should stimulate discussion on the pilot performance – enhancements and limitations by the offered cockpit ergonomics. Still more important shall be to know and understand the diverse life support systems as well as the environmental control systems. This needs to be seen in light of extreme Indian climate and diverse operational topography.  While reviewing the operational concerns, one must not overlook the occupational health aspects of both the operators and the maintenance staff: the likely occupational hazards and health safety issues. And lastly, with increase in utlisation of unmanned aerial platform, for surveillance and reconnaissance in India, the human factors aspects of emerging manned and unmanned environment need to be pondered upon, including the vital aviation safety issues.

So also the tactical and commercial aircraft on display offer an exciting but serious issue of long and ultra long haul flights and its ‘compromising’ effects on crew alertness and performance. There is need for defining preventive and operational strategies, where aerospace medicine specialists can contribute meaningfully both in the military and commercial aviation sectors.

The helicopters offer a different challenge to the aviation medicine practitioners, where operations take place in difficult and harsh terrains, often performing at the edge of the men and machines’ performance envelope. The human factors and ergonomics issues of modern helicopter for military and civil use, including  crew performance and susceptibility to Spatial Disorientation (SD) needs to be addressed. A newer aspect to be studied is HEMS helicopters and contribution of aviation medicine in safe and efficient  casualty evacuation (cas evac), including training and preparedness for optimal utilization of this vital and lifesaving modality of transportation.

There are two jarring notes in conclusion. One, the tragic accident of an ALH (of Sarang Helicopter display team) (14) and an IJT incidence (15) during Aero India 2007 must be fresh in the minds of the organisers. Yet it is a reminder that aviation safety is an ongoing vigilant effort with the sole objective being ‘no errors’. Incidents and accidents in a hazardous profession like aviation and space may occur but certainly  preventable ones, including human error, should always be looked out for. So also civic authorities can contribute to aviation safety by reducing the bird menace, due to a garbage dumping site, on approach path to the airfield (16). The second note of concern is that despite this being an Aerospace show, the available reports do not seem to suggest participation by ISRO, including at the DRDO seminar (17). With an active Human Spaceflight Programme in offing, is the absence of ISRO a deliberate strategic decision? It may be so, and yet this could have been a platform for sharing and learning from the active partners of NASA, the American aerospace industry giants like Boeing etc.!

Acknowledgement: Image courtesy