Life lessons from the Light Combat Aircraft design

I have no connection with the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) but I know someone who could have been a part of the LCA design team. His refusal to be considered for the LCA cockpit design taught me one of the most important life lessons.

The LCA programme of HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) began in 1980s with an objective to replace the MiG-21 fighter planes. LCA was officially named ‘Tejas’ in 2003. The design and development of the fighter plane started in 1993, the year I joined Industrial Design Centre, IIT Bombay for my post-graduation in visual design.

We were just 10 of us in our batch. The overall environment at the centre was very informal and the teacher student relations were pretty friendly. But we all were slightly sacred of Professor Kirti Trivedi. We had heard a lot about his no-nonsense approach. He had a unique ability to speak his mind – unsparing plain-speak!

We had heard a rumour that Professor Kirti was considered to be a part of the LCA cockpit design team but he refused the project. To confirm the rumour, one of my friends abruptly asked him one day if he was designing the cockpit of the LCA. I don’t remember him saying anything specific about the proposition but what I do remember him saying is – I will never help design a fighter plane!

Life lessons from the Light Combat Aircraft design

Even as first semester design students we knew that getting to design something like a fighter plane cockpit was a really big deal and a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity. How huge the proposition was can be understood by the fact that many designers would be willing to trade off their limbs to bag this rare opportunity.

And here stood a man saying it aloud that he will not be part of a fighter plane design activity. He probably saw the confusion on our faces hence elaborated further – The reason that I would not be part of a fighter plane project is that in order to design a fighter plane cockpit I will have to think how to kill. And I do not want to think how to kill someone!

Most of us were stunned. We were almost hit by a reality missile which we never thought existed. I was perplexed that a man standing in front of us, looking so ordinary, had just made one of the most profound statements about design that I would ever come across. Even after two and a half decades, that was my biggest face time with reality. I was amazed not just by the thought but also by the man who carried such a thought – which shook many of us to the core! For me, it was an unforgettable moment and one of the most important life lessons.

I still wonder if there can be a simpler way to explain the power of intentions and what it can do to us. I also retain the statement as a benchmark of sorts with regards to clarity of thought, power of reasoning, simplicity of communication and honesty of opinions.

Think about it – to design a powerful gun, the designer will have to empathise with someone who intends to take a life. Unlike a soldier at war, the designer would have to visualise the bullet escaping the barrel, the shoulder feeling the recoil, the bullet piercing through the skin of the ‘target’ crushing everything that comes in its way to ensure death. While a soldier is overwhelmed with emotions, the designer has to be as dispassionate as possible while analysing and discussing death. The thought may come easily, but it is not an easy thought to live with – provided one realises the burden of this thought.

This statement of Professor Kirti also put a spanner in my dreams that had brought me to this design school. Prior to joining the IDC I had worked for a year in an advertising agency as a junior copywriter. I enjoyed my work so much that apart from writing the copy I wanted to design the communication as well. I was keen to go back to advertising with more ammunition in my arsenal. But the LCA interaction forced me to take a harder and deeper look at the differences between persuasive and non-persuasive communication that Professor Kirti had previously talked about. The LCA incident provided an ethical standpoint to an argument, which I had conveniently ignored in the past. It was then that I realised that creating a USP when there is none, creating an artificial need for consumption, amplifying stereotypes or playing with aspirations of the audience or reader is akin to ascertaining that moment of weakness when the trigger can be pulled. It is about going for the kill!

Most of the time we may not realise that controlling a trigger provides immense sense of power. And power is one of the biggest human addictions. The only way to keep off this addiction is to be aware of its ability to overpower our sensibilities.

To some this correlation may seem awkward but I often end up connecting the LCA conversation to the Stanford Prison Experiment. Irrespective of what some folks may say about the authenticity of the Stanford Prison Experiment, I feel that the proposition of the research carries immense value. Position of power is indeed a real demon. One would need a lot of introspection and courage to acknowledge the demon and walk out of its shadows. To understand position of power one can see the movie (also named Stanford Prison Experiment) or simply look around to witness elected representatives, leaders of various political parties /unions /associations, bureaucrats, cops, judges, lawyers, journalists, celebrities, etc. wielding their ‘power’ with utter callousness. The same power display is visible in various class and caste hierarchies. We often do not realise that the class, caste, religious, professional or economic identities that we end up exerting, even occasionally, are nothing more than the desire to be in the position of power. Unlike Professor Kirti, we end up ‘thinking’ about how-to-kill!

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For more details –

  1. Wiki page of Tejas – the LCA
  2. Wiki page of Stanford Prison Experiment
  3. Stanford Prison Experiment – the movie

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