Karnataka man's big seaplane push to Atmanirbhar Bharat despite Covid hit
Aeromodelling instructor Pushparaj Ameen has designed and flown India's first homemade microlight seaplane but rues the lack of government support
Buzzzzzz.... goes Drithi, cutting through the waters of river Shambhavi, leaving milky white foam in her wake, as scores of coconut trees look on. Aeromodelling instructor Pushparaj Ameen sits at the helm like a man on a mission, guiding Drithi through the water at Karnataka's Hejamadi Kodi. But the aviation enthusiasts on the riverbank seem to be waiting for something else, something more dramatic. And then that defining moment does arrive. After speeding through the water for some distance, Ameen's steed takes to the air, and soars away, spreading its long wings like a majestic bird. Drithi glides through the air for a considerable distance before landing gracefully on the water with a little splash. "Super," says a voice from the group assembled on the bank. They whistle in excitement.
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"I read a book named Vichitra Vimana written by KS Raman of National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), Bangalore. That was the turning point of my life," says Ameen. His 'Vichitra Vimana', or 'unusual aircraft' just completed an impeccable flight. True to its name, Drithi flew boldly, having perhaps inculcated distinctive shades from the character of its maker.
As India's first homemade microlight seaplane, Drithi entered the India Book of Records this year. "This was my first flying experience. I am not a trained pilot," Ameen says jauntily.
Pushparaj Ameen and his Team Viyaddrony with the Drithi seaplane. Image courtesy: Pushparaj Ameen
The bigger picture is that this apparently humble seaplane provides a massive boost to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Atma Nirbhar Bharat (Self-reliant India) dream. The bigger picture is also about the struggles that Ameen has had to go through for bringing Drithi to life. The bigger picture is also about the lack of recognition and support from the government that Ameen has had to put up with.
"I wanted to prove that we can make a plane from scratch in India. I have plans for building four-seater seaplanes," Ameen says.
Pushparaj Ameen sits in his Drithi seaplane. Image courtesy: Pushparaj Ameen
A four-seater seaplane, one imagines, could be used to provide joyrides in water parks and in lakes, rivers and other natural water bodies, giving a fillip to tourism in these areas. In islands rich in biodiversity, these small, microlight seaplanes can solve the problem of accessibility and afford tourists spectacular and detailed aerial views that no boat can offer. So clearly, a seaplane like the one Ameen has in mind does have great commercial potential and can be put to use all across India, and perhaps even beyond. Small seaplanes could also be invaluable for training, reconnaissance, surveillance, surveys and for transporting passengers.
Indeed, as pointed out by Captain Amit Singh, a training and safety expert with over 30 years of experience in the commercial air transport industry, in a column for Plane Vanilla, India needs to rediscover the lost technology of making 'flying machines' called 'Vaimanika Shastra'. India continues to depend on foreign sources for commercial planemaking, and even SpiceJet, which started the first seaplane service in India last year, uses the Twin Otter 300 aircraft, manufactured by Canada's de Havilland.
The India Book of Records certificate. Image courtesy: Pushparaj Ameen
"India did begin the Saras project for the manufacture of an Indian commercial aircraft in the mid-1980s and the prototype flew for the first time in 2004. The aircraft project of the NAL suffered a setback when the aircraft crashed in 2009. The project suffered another blow when funds dried up in 2013 and the engineers got deployed on other projects," Captain Singh writes.
"The dream of an Indian commercial aircraft was put on hold and the reason was primarily the lack of political will and a dedicated institution for the development of the commercial aircraft," he adds.
Ameen has been witness to the same official lack of interest. "I didn’t get any kind of support from the Karnataka government as well as the government of India. I had appealed to the Karnataka government to organise a small workshop, but I got nothing in return. I had also written to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), but I have not heard back till date," he says.
Pushparaj Ameen with his seaplane. Image courtesy: Pushparaj Ameen
"I have invested all my savings into this project, but my efforts have not been recognised. I didn’t get any kind of financial support from the government or anyone else," he laments. Ameen reveals that the seaplane project had cost him Rs 7 lakh.
Ameen's herculean effort becomes even clearer when you consider that he had been laid off in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"Pushparaj Ameen, a part-time NCC aeromodelling instructor got laid off due to Covid. With the spirit of the Wright brothers and limited resources, he designed and flew a single-seater aircraft which floats. India’s 1st seaplane talent like his needs encouragement and support," writes aviation veteran Captain Shakti Lumba on Twitter.
Ameen's path has been strewn with thorns from the very childhood. "I was born in a poor family and was deprived of parental love in my childhood," he says. He was fired with the passion of flying since he was in the sixth standard. "There was an airshow by National Cadet Corps (NCC) airwing at Mangala Stadium in Mangaluru. They were flying control line aircraft. I was fascinated deeply with flying and dreamt that I would build such a model aircraft one day," he tells.
Inspired by the book by Raman (whose name features prominently on Ameen's seaplane), he started building paper planes, and later, static models. He used to send those models to Raman. "After looking into my work, Raman sir was impressed and insisted that I should work at ENR Model Aircraft in Bengaluru after my Secondary School Leaving Certificate (SSLC)," Ameen informs. ENR Model Aircraft offers "a huge range of electric planes, electric cars, accessories etc", according to its website. It has also been focusing on helicopters, motors, accessories and spare parts. Its services include workshops, air shows, flying classes, simulator training, ready-to-fly kits and building and repairs.
After Bengaluru, Ameen moved to work in Rajasthan, Gujarat and also Dubai. In 2010, he got an opportunity to join as a part-time National Cadet Corps aeromodelling instructor at the 6th Karnataka Air Squadron in Mangaluru.
"From then, I dedicated myself to teaching aeromodelling to my students. I also used to guide engineering students for their projects on remote-controlled aircraft. I have over 16 years of experience in building and flying remote-controlled aircraft," Ameen says.
Pushparaj Ameen and his team members with their microlight seaplane. Image courtesy: Pushparaj Ameen
Pursuing his childhood dream of building and flying aircraft, he researched for many years to investigate the behaviour of microlight planes, their glide ratio and weight-lifting capability. "We didn't have enough space to conduct flight tests, so we decided to study and build seaplanes since I stay on a small island in coastal Karnataka," he adds, highlighting his resourcefulness.
A band of avid aviation lovers rallied around him and Team Viyaddrony was born to give shape to the project. Ameen's team comprises mechanical engineer and professional drone pilot Abhishek Kotian; aeronautical engineer Utsav U; yacht captain Vasuraj Ameen; trainee pilot Vinaya U; Shayani Rao, who is an M.Tech in aeronautical engineering; Reshma Bangera, who holds a Master of Commerce degree and Ashwini Rao, who is a Bachelor of Psychology. All of them are Ameen's students from NCC and engineering.
"The aircraft was constructed with a wingspan of 10 m and weighs 120 kg (without the pilot). I have used a 33hp Simonini engine to power my microlight seaplane. The material used are aviation-grade aluminium, extruded foam, fibreglass, epoxy resin, braided Dacron lines and special nylon cloth," Ameen informs. The seaplane has a length of 5 m.
Ameen tells that he had circled at around 25-30 feet for 15 minutes. "I stay near the Mangalore International Airport. Considering that, I didn’t opt to go for height. Also, I didn’t have the equipment to measure the exact height of the flight," he says. However, he sounded confident that if he had the scope, he could take his seaplane higher and also fly for a longer period of time.
"The fabrication work was carried out on my home backyard, as due to financial constraints I couldn’t afford a workshop," Ameen says. "I still managed to produce a microlight seaplane successfully without sophisticated tools," he adds proudly.
"I didn’t have a place to keep my aircraft, and due to Cyclone Tauktae a few days back, the island was badly hit and my aircraft was damaged due to flooding," Ameen says, disappointment palpable in his words.
On October 31, 2020, Prime Minister Modi had launched a seaplane service between the Statue of Unity at Kevadia and Sabarmati riverfront in Ahmedabad. The huge potential of seaplanes in India can be gauged by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) developing water ports. In fact, seaplanes make up a big part of India's Regional Connectivity Scheme-Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (RCS-UDAN).
The Centre had okayed subsidised flights from six water airports that include the Guwahati riverfront, Nagarjuna Sagar, Shatrunjay Dam and Umrangso reservoir under the third round of the UDAN. The routes awarded for the operation of seaplanes include Sabarmati riverfront to Statue of Unity and Shatrunjay Dam; Guwahati riverfront to Umrangso reservoir, Jorhat and Shillong, and Nagarjuna Sagar to Vijaywada and Hyderabad. The government had also eased the process of procuring seaplanes and four-seater planes.
Pushparaj Ameen in his Drithi seaplane. Image courtesy: Youtube/Pushparaj Ameen
The government had initiated a process to launch seaplane services on several nationwide routes, with the Ministry of Ports, Shipping and Waterways issuing an expression of interest (EoI) for the Sagarmala Seaplane Services (SSPS), according to a Deccan Herald report. Minister of Ports, Shipping and Waterways Mansukh Mandaviya said that the start of seaplane operations are in sync with Prime Minister Modi’s vision of improving connectivity across the nation and making India an attractive tourist destination by providing air connectivity to numerous remote places.
A boost to tourism in these new locations would help in creating employment and in turn, would contribute to the country’s GDP in the long run.
Seaplanes can land and take off from water, and can thus reach areas that lack landing strips or runways. Being much smaller than ordinary commercial aircraft, seaplanes can land on water bodies, gravel and grass, providing an excellent opportunity to bring the remotest areas into the mainstream aviation network. Also significantly, operating seaplanes doesn't involve the high cost of building airports and runways.
Ameen underlines the importance of seaplanes in India. "Since India is surrounded by water bodies, I see a lot of opportunities (for seaplanes) in the field of tourism, defence, transport and training," he says.
The India Book of Records certificate awarded to Ameen and his team proclaims that it is a recognition of extraordinary feats by extraordinary people. It is high time that the government does so too and gives the support that is necessary for Ameen and his team to realise their fullest potential for the cause of the nation.
(Cover image: Pushparaj Ameen steers his microlight seaplane Drithi. Image courtesy: Pushparaj Ameen)