The India Space Research Organization (ISRO) has successfully completed the second freefall flight and autonomous landing of a scaled prototype of a proposed reusable space plane. The vehicle, named Pushpak, was dropped from a tether on a Chinook helicopter at an altitude of almost 15,000 feet and glided to a landing at India’s Aeronautical Test Range in Karnataka. “Pushpak autonomously approached the runway along with cross-range corrections. It landed precisely on the runway and came to a halt using its brake parachute, landing gear brakes and nose wheel steering system,” ISRO said in a statement.

India first landed the Pushpak in April of 2023 and it’s part of an aggressive space program that has landed a probe on the moon, sent a capsule to the sun and hopes to launch four astronauts into orbit in the next year. The space plane is envisioned as an economical way to get people and cargo into orbit. But while India is trumpeting its space plane development, both the U.S. and China are being much more secretive about the vehicles they are testing. Both countries recently launched their space planes on missions that are strictly classified.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.


  1. Two mailboxes welded end-to-end, with a pointy bit on one end, and tailfeathers on the other.
    As elegant as my Mahindra tractor!
    I wish them all the luck in the world.

    • It look similar to the Boeing X-37B, except it’s maybe ~60% of the size. Vehicles designed to do the same job usually look similar.

      The only oddity I see is the landing gear. The X-37B has a short, stout set of gear, but the Pushpak has rather long, spindly ones. In fact, the top of both fuselages seem to be the same distance above the ground (despite the overall size differences).

      It’s an odd choice in a vehicle designed to land only a few dozen times in its life. May have been adapted from something else.

      • “The space plane is envisioned as an economical way to get people and cargo into orbit. ”

        This is obviously military (like U.S. and China).
        There is nothing economical in recoverable winged reentry vehicles.

  2. This surely is a joke?
    Dropping a drone and having it fly a GPS approach is primitive. The parachute extends with “weight on wheels” — easy to set up.
    This could be done with a Cessna 172 with a current version autopilot.

      • Then, put another way. You could fly a Beechcraft Baron that cruises at over 200 knots and couple it to a WAAS GPS that you set up with an RNAV or LNAV approach and sit back with your arms folded and the aircraft will recognize where it is, fly you inbound and take you to the runway threshold. If the aircraft has the autoland feature it will flare for you as well. The Space Shuttle did this thirty years ago. It’s existing common technology so why is the country of India spending money doing this? What do they think that they can achieve that will promote aviation or space technology when the technology can be purchased from Garmin or similar vendors??

        • India investing in its own aviation and space technology, even though they could simply purchase it, is a wise strategy for several good reasons. First, they aim to be self-reliant and not dependent on other countries for technology. Additionally, they are attempting to innovate and create new advancements that could revolutionize their in-house fields of aviation and space exploration. Such efforts are beneficial for their economy, creating jobs, and showcasing India’s capabilities to the world. It’s not merely about acquiring the latest gadgets; it’s about pioneering and making a significant impact in the aviation and space sectors.
          In a reflection on my own experience as a product designer, the initial step was always to examine past and current designs and then to improve upon them. One could come up with an original design. Japan, Taiwan, and China have been quite successful in adopting this approach. “Building upon existing designs.”

    • Just taking baby steps. Easy enough to have a drone fly a GPS, but don’t know how often it’s been done with drones without propulsion. If it’s doing the energy management for a no-power approach from any distance, that’s a pretty good bit of functionality.

      • In my reply above I did not mention the powerless approach is insignificant — this is a programming requirement on an autopilot.
        They dropped an aircraft from a helicopter. 200 knots is easy to achieve, and the autopilot is programmed to maintain 200 knots (if that is the requirement) and meet stepdowns. Commercial aircraft fly approaches at 200 knots every day. In order to maintain the required airspeed all it takes is sufficient altitude to start and the rest is straightforward.

    • When NASA conducts drop tests of reentry capsules from a crane, do you say “Well I could do that!”? This sort of testing, while primitive, is an example of the many necessary incremental steps needed to achieve such a complex goal.

  3. Just wondering why it took them nearly an entire year to prepare for this second free fall/landing test? The first test (on April 2nd, 2023) was pretty much identical to this one. It seems like there was virtually zero progress during that year.

    • John, I fly jets. A Honeywell system uses a speed preselect feature that maintains airspeed on approach with powered aircraft. Maintaining adequate airspeed is a function of altitude and glide and is straightforward to calculate. My Garmin mention is that an aircraft owner can buy a system from Garmin for data and autopilot for $16,000 plus installation that will fly a GPS approach. The technology for India is already out there so why are they doing this?

      • Pride in country.

        The same reason that the US does not want to depend on other countries for their technology.

  4. It seems to chap the US’ buttocks when other countries develop their own technology that can equate to, if not exceed, US technology.

  5. It’s part of a learning curve as has been previously mentioned and will be interesting to watch when the selection of heat dissipation technology is introduced if it truly is to be a “space plane”.

  6. Good achievement for a projectile (not enough wing for me to call it an aircraft).
    Re India, societal issues are so deep that I doubt their abilities to progress.

    • “(not enough wing for me to call it an aircraft).”

      That would make it a better orbital vehicle.

      One of the biggest faults of the U.S. space shuttle was the 1000-mile cross range requirement. This necessitated huge wings that had a knock-on effect of bigger structure, greater weight, higher thermal loads, much more complex heat-shielding, etc.

      The U.S. shuttle was a technological tour-de-force, but the cross-range requirement resulted in a vehicle far heavier and far more expensive (and ultimately dangerous) than needed.

      Small wings and/or lifting bodies (the original NASA designs for the shuttle) would’ve been much better.