Boeing is preparing to test fly the first of the 10 C-17 heavy-lift aircraft it is building for the Indian air force (IAF) by January 2013.

The major join ceremony — which integrates the forward, center and aft fuselages and the wing assembly — was held on July 31 at Boeing’s factory in Long Beach, Calif.

“The first aircraft will be delivered to India in May/June 2013, and by mid-2014 all 10 aircraft are likely to be with the IAF,” says Patrick Druez, who is responsible for supporting business development activities in Northern Europe and India for Boeing Military Aircraft’s mobility division.

Boeing has delivered 245 C-17s worldwide, including 217 units to the U.S. Air Force. The aircraft made for the IAF will have only minor changes compared with the Air Force models, Druez says. The second aircraft for the IAF is also expected to reach the assembly line soon and will be delivered shortly after the first aircraft lands in India, he says.

India signed a $4.1 billion contract with the U.S. government on June 15, 2011, to acquire 10 C-17 airlifters, making the country the largest C-17 export customer. The Indian defense ministry may well order another six C-17s after the first 10 units are delivered.

“There is no deadline set for India to make a follow-on order,” Druez says. “We are not expecting the [defense ministry] to make an order anywhere before the second half of next year. [But] the C-17 line will shut down by the third quarter of 2014.”

The IAF is closely following the C-17 induction process. “We expect the first and second aircraft of the C-17 [order] to join the air force next year. All the processes for the induction of the aircraft are progressing,” Air Commodore Sanjay Nimesh says.

During rigorous field evaluation trials in India in June 2010, the C-17 met all of the IAF’s airlift requirements. “The aircraft’s ability to transport large payloads across vast ranges, land on short, austere runways, and operate in extremely hot and cold climates makes it ideal for the region,” Nimesh adds.

The IAF currently has about 20 Russian-origin IL-76 aircraft, with its medium-lift fleet comprising 104 Russian AN-32s. The IL-76 can ferry around 45 tons, while the four-engine C-17 has a rear-loading ramp and can handle a payload of up to 164,900 lb. The aircraft also can take off from a 7,000-ft. airstrip and land on a small, unprepared airfield of 3,000 ft. or less, Boeing officials say.

C-17 photo: Boeing