The flight trials for the 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) currently underway, are not only a test for the selection of aircraft into the Indian Air Force (IAF), but also an opportunity for the six contenders to set records for a take-off from the highest altitude in the world, from the runway at Leh.
While Boeing’s F/A-18 was the first to be tried, the company finds itself unable to comment on any ‘milestones’ that might have been achieved.
But just to get a measure of the challenge, StratPost also spoke to Lockheed Martin. The company’s single-engined F-16 is currently undergoing flight trials for the MMRCA and is next in line to take-off from Leh.
Leh is considered one of the more challenging tests for the aircraft being tried, with them required to touch down, switch off and take off again from there. While Leh is by no means the coldest runway in the world, it is certainly the highest.
The idea is to gauge how well the aircraft perform at high altitudes (in this case, the highest), in cold temperatures and in conditions of thin air. While Lockheed Martin was not able to give details of the ongoing performance testing, it has provided StratPost with records of the experience the F-16 has had in these conditions.
The highest location from where the F-16 has taken off so far is Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado at an elevation of 6,035 feet. Colorado Springs is also the location of the United States Air Force Academy. Peterson Air Force Base, according to John Giese of Lockheed Martin, could also be safely considered the location with the thinnest density of air from where an F-16 has taken off. Leh is at an altitude of around 10,500 feet.
With restrictions being placed on information about the trials that could be given out by the participating companies, Giese had this to say. “Let me put it this way. We have been aware of this. We have great faith in the aircraft.” Is it going to be a big deal for Lockheed Martin? The vendor seems well aware of the bragging rights that come with a take-off from Leh. “Let’s just say that after this trial, Colorado Springs will no longer be the highest place from where an F-16 would have taken off,” he says, with an excited grin that can be sensed even over the phone.
The coldest location the F-16 has operated from is the Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska, where temperatures routinely drop to -30 degrees Celsius. The northernmost latitude from where the F-16 operates is Main Air Station at Bodo in Norway, above the Arctic Circle at 66.5 degrees North, where the average winter temperature is 0 degrees Celsius. Leh sees temperatures that fall well below – 20 in winter.
Lockheed Martin also submits in the context of density of air that, “The F-16 being offered to India is fully certified for flight operations up to 15.24 km (50,000 ft). At 15.24 kilometers high, the atmospheric pressure is only 110 millibars, (1.6 pounds per square inch), which is 1/9th of the atmospheric pressure at sea level.”
Interestingly, sources from the IAF point that the aircraft being tried out from Leh during the colder months will be the ones which will undergo the ultimate test. This situation is being considered less than ideal by some, as the test conditions can then fail to be equally stringent on all the contestants. But the extensive, year-long scheduling required for the trials leaves little option but to space out the testing and schedule each aircraft to land and take-off from Leh at different times of the year.