Chennai: At a time when cars are available in the Rs 13 lakh-Rs 42 lakh price band, an aircraft for Rs 19 lakh certainly seems to be a good buy. It is more so for industrialists living in small cities and districts, who have to drive down a couple of hundred kilometres daily to visit their plants.
With the government not interested in reducing the travel time by improving the country's roads, a drive between two nearby cities or towns takes a much longer time than travelling by air between two Indian metros. With the attendant risks, a busy industrialist would love to cut the time that he has to spend on the roads.
In addition, the prestige of an aircraft-owning small town industrialist or exporter goes up several notches vis-à-vis those who do not possess it. Technically, he will be on par with the likes of the Tatas, Birlas, Ambanis and the Mallyas as an aircraft-owner.
Making this happen in India is the Bangalore-based Agni Aviation, assembling the short takeoff and landing (STOL CH 701) micro-light aircraft. Promoted by Arvind Sharma, the company imports the aircraft kits from Zenith Aircraft Company, Mexico.
A dream come true
The three-year-old company has sold around 40 aircraft to National Cadet Corps (NCC), the paramilitary arm of the Indian Air Force, for training its cadets. Now the micro-light aircraft is getting the attention of several industrialists and businessmen living in non-metropolitan cities.
Magnum Resources general manager Anand Kumar is reluctant to give the names and numbers of the 15 private sector companies that he claims to have bought the aircraft. He, however, says: ''Apart from industrialists and air-taxi operators, our clients include executives of FMCG [fast-moving consumer goods] companies who travel to different districts almost every day.''
Focusing only on assembling the STOL 701, Agni Aviation has hired Magnum Resources, New Delhi, to market its aircraft. Magnum Resources is part of Magnum Solutions, which markets CAD/CAM solutions for the textile industry.
''We are a marketing company having good contacts in the textile industry. We find a great potential for the aircraft among the garment exporters living in towns like Tirupur, Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai,'' says Kumar. ''But that doesn't mean textile industrialists are our only target. The market is wide open; anyone who can afford a premium car is our target.''
Easy to take off
According to Kumar, the single-engine STOL CH 701 needs just 500 feet strip to land and take off. ''Even a kutcha strip would do.'' Thanks to the British and World War II, there are around 800 airstrips in India where micro-light planes can safely land and take off.
The aircraft does not need the special aviation fuel as it can fly on unleaded petrol. ''It needs 15 litres of petrol for one hour of flying. And the fuel tank capacity is 45 litres,'' he adds. Non-stop, the 250-kg aircraft can fly for three hours, carrying a weight of 200 kg or two persons.
Kumar says the only hurdle in selling the aircraft is the mental block of potential clients. Similar to registering an automobile with the regional transport office (RTO) by paying a one-time fee of Rs 35,000, one can register with the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA). ''We can train the buyers to get the flying licence to fly the aircraft. Alternatively, they can hire a pilot for a monthly salary of Rs 12,000.''
For Rs 2.5 lakh per year, Agni Aviation offers an annual maintenance contract. ''All one needs to do is to buy a compressor to maintain proper air pressure in the three tyres and unleaded petrol to fuel the aircraft,'' says Kumar.
And for increased safety, Agni Aviation also offers a parachute for the aircraft (not for the passengers) for an additional cost of Rs 1.75 lakh. The maximum altitude the plane can go is 14,000 ft. A four-seater variant is also available for Rs 45 lakh.
So if you happen to see a two-seater aircraft taking off from or landing in the backyard of a small-town industrialist's house, do not get surprised - you are in India, not in the US. For, you can be sure that the droning aircraft will be a STOL-701.