Fresh approach

Since many of the Indian airfields are of dual civil-military facilities it would be natural to assume that if anything interferes with the operation of civil aircraft the same would apply to military aircraft as well. Though the latter are by and large “all weather” flying platforms they may be able to take off from a smog-bound airfield but getting back could become a problem without adequate instrument landing systems below.

India has been in the process of modernizing its airfield infrastructure, be it its runways or its instrument landing systems for quite some time now to avoid any such complications.

Early this year the Directorate General of Civil Aviation certified the Indian Space Research Organisation developed GPS-aided, geo-augmented navigation (GAGAN) system to enable Indian aviation to be integrated with the existing European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS) and Multi-functional Satellite Augmented System (MSAS) of Japan and offer a seamless and continuous navigation facility to the Indian and international civil aviation sector. India became the fourth country to offer safety of life, space-based satellite navigation services to the aerospace industry.

The DGCS certification for the GAGAN system opens the door for the activation of the Gagan signal in space. Developed by the space agency and the state-run Airports Authority of India (AAI), GAGAN is part of the global navigation satellite system to offer precision approach services over the Indian land mass. The GAGAN signal is being broadcast through two geostationary earth orbit satellites- GSAT-8 and GSAT-10-covering the entire Indian flight information region and beyond. The arrangement creates what is described as a seamless overlap between EGNOS in the west and the Japanese MSAS in the east.

A standby in orbit GAGAN transponder will be taken aloft in the GSAT-15. The American company Raytheon is setting up the ground facilities. The Rs 700-crore Project GAGAN by ISRO will provide satellite-based navigation and digital communication for aircraft arriving at Indian destinations or overflying the Indian subcontinent.

Some years ago the Indian Air Force floated a tender for the modernization of 30 airfields in the country. The nearly Rs 1100 crore project was won by a Tata subsidiary the Strategic Electronics Division through a global tender. It will install electronic gadgetry, modernize the hangars and, where required extend the runways in a project that has been split into two phases covering a total of 58 Indian airfields. The first phase is to be completed within 42 month according to the contract.

Advanced equipments

The first airfield to be modernized will be Bhatinda in south Punjab. Highly advanced Air Traffic Management systems are to be installed besides Category-2 airfield lighting systems and hi-tech navigational aids that will enable flying operations at night and in adverse weather. The modernization is to include the  supply, testing, integration and post installation sustenance of Instrument Landing System (ILS); Distance Measuring Equipments (DME); Digital VHF Omni Range (DVOR); Tactical Air Navigation System (TACAN); Air Traffic Management System (ATM) on a turnkey  basis.

The Ministry of Defence which named the project the Modernisation of Air Field Infrastructure (MAFI) split the contract into two phases. MAFI Phase II contract is for refurbishing another 28 airbases. The current contract has an option clause, which allows the ministry to invite Tata Power SED to execute the Phase II of MAFI at a pre-determined rate. The Ministry appears to have decided that it will assess the quality of work done in the first phase before handing over the whole project to the Tata company.

Among the airfields to be refurbished in the first phase include eight key airfields along the Sino-Indian border such as Chabua, Tezpur and Hashimara in the eastern sector and Gwalior in the central sector. Not long ago the Indian Air Force had reactivated the Nyoma airfield in Jammu and Kashmir and made the Tezpur airfield operational for India’s frontline fighter aircraft, the Sukhoi-30MKI which has been retrofitted with the indigenously supersonic air-to-surface Brahmos missile.

While many of the airfields that are to be modernized are purely military airbases but the majority of them are dual-use civil/military facilities, Pune being one of them. Studies conducted there indicated that there could be several collateral advantages that could accrue to the civil operations because of the modernization.

Statistics show that in  2010-11 the city witnessed 25 per cent growth in passengers over 2009-10. While cargo grew by 17 per cent, weight of cargo increased by 50 per cent. 62 operations take place every day at 9 domestic destinations besides two international.

However, one of the major reasons as to why the city has not been able to attract international carriers is the length of the runway and commercial interests in the hinterland are hoping that the MAFI project would help increase the length of the runway from the existing 8,350 feet to 9,500-10,000 feet. It is believed that international flights of bigger sizes need longer runways and a small runway is one reason why foreign carriers are not looking at Pune, though two international flights from the airport are getting a good response. Expectations are that increasing the length of the runway is one of the items in the project.

Dual use airfields

What is applicable to Pune applies equally to other dual-use airfields in the country. Given the congestion in road transportation and rail transportation passenger traffic is bursting at the seams and those who can afford it are taking to the air.  But there are times of the year when air traffic is disrupted by smog and adverse weather conditions. In this context it needs to be clarified what kind of technical means are to be deployed to ensure full operability in ‘adverse weather conditions’.

Published materials suggest that the project envisages a Category II lighting of the airfield. To overcome the disabilities induced by bad weather especially smog this will not be sufficient to ensure uninterrupted operations by civil and military aircraft.

What Indian airports, especially those that are increasingly becoming afflicted by smog in winter need is a Category III instrument landing system which enables an aircraft to autoland in extremely low visibility. While a Category II Instrument Landing System will autoland a plane by sensing the distance to the ground and following the glide path laid down for the ILS system.

Nonetheless the pilot has to be able to see the runway. A Category III ILS system on the other hand does not require the pilot to see the runway. The entire landing process is done on autopilot with the pilot monitoring the flight closely to be able to deal with any likely glitches and, if necessary, abort the landing and execute a circle of the airfield and try again. Usually in a Category III system this is not necessary. A major requirement is that all pilots will have to be trained in the operation of the Category III system. That is a costly outlay which airlines in dire straits are not likely to agree to spend.