Folland's little revolutionary - the Gnat

The Gnat was Folland's brave attempt at turning the tide against bigger, more powerful and more expensive fighters, and for a long time was the world's smallest ever jet fighter. Despite its tiny size, the Folland Gnat performed surprisingly well - in training pilots, in aerobatics, and in aerial combat. And it was the Gnat, with its outstanding manoeuvrability, that became the first mount for the original Red Arrows, later to become the world's most famous aerobatic team.

Two Gnats in formation (RAF)

History
The Gnat
Customers
The Gnat T Mk.1
The Ajeet
Gnats in Indian service

History

In the mid 1950s military aircraft were becoming bigger, more complex, more expensive and taking longer to design and build. Smaller aircraft, like the North American F-86 Sabre, MiG-15/17/19, Dassault Ouragon, Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star and Gloster Meteor which weighed around five tons (11 000 lb) or less, were overtaken by much larger and more complex aircraft like the Avro Canada CF-105, Gloster Javelin, McDonnel F-101 Voodoo and Northrop F-89 Scorpion, which weighed twice as much - usually more than 12 tons (26 000 lbs). It looked like the 'bigger is better' trend would continue as designers and military officials kept pushing for more complex aircraft.

In the early 1950s William Edward Willoughby 'Teddy' Petter, was working at the English Electric Company in England. He had just designed the famed Canberra bomber and was working on the P.1 supersonic research aircraft, which led to the legendary Lightning interceptor. Although things were going well for English Electric, Teddy was not happy - he was disappointed at the way fighter design was going - bigger, more complex and more expensive. He believed that a small, simple, light, affordable, maintainable fighter was just as good as the bigger aircraft that were coming out at the time and would be much cheaper to buy and operate.

Petter was unable to gain much support for his ideas on small fighters. He did manage to raise limited interest in a lightweight fighter similar to the German rocket-powered Me-163 Komet of WW II. An operational requirement was released, but led nowhere as engine manufacturers pulled out and the British Air Ministry failed to provide any material support. Eventually Petter gave up on the idea. He left English Electric in the early 1950s and became managing director of Folland Aircraft where he could pursue his ideas.

In 1951, with company funds, Petter began working on his lightweight fighter design and was encouraged by the development of lightweight turbojet engines. His new aircraft was designated the Fo-145 Gnat. It was initially planned to be powered by a Bristol-Siddeley BE-22 Saturn turbojet delivering 1 724 kg (3 800 lb) of thrust, but when this was cancelled the Bristol-Siddeley Orpheus 701 single spool turbojet, developing 2 050 kg (4 520 lb) of thrust, was substituted.

In order to prove the aerodynamics and systems of the Gnat, Petter produced the Fo-139 Midge proof-of-concept demonstrator. It was basically a scaled-down Gnat powered by an Armstrong Siddeley Viper 101 turbojet developing 744 kg (1 640 lb) of thrust. The Midge had a number of unusual features, such as hydraulically powered 'flaperons', main landing gear that could be used as airbrakes, and a one-piece canopy that hinged over an inner armoured windscreen. The aircraft had a wingspan of just 6.3 m (20 feet 8 in), was only 8.76 m (28 feet 9 in) long and was just 2.82 m (8 feet 1 in) tall. At maximum takeoff weight it weighed in a mere 2 041 kg (4 500 lb). By contrast, the Lockheed Martin (formerly General Dynamics) F-16 is seven times heavier at maximum takeoff weight and the Boeing F-15E is 18 times heavier at its maximum takeoff weight!

The Midge was rolled out on 31 July 1954 and made engine runs at Hamble, where it was built. It was then transported to Boscombe Down for three initial test flights. On 11 August 1954 it took off for the first time, piloted by Teddy Tennant. To everyone's surprise, it exceeded all expectations and proved to be a highly agile aircraft. It had a service ceiling of 11 580 meters (38 000 ft) and a maximum speed of 986 km/h (600 mph), although it could break Mach 1 in a dive. After testing with the Midge, the prospect of adding the more powerful Orpheus engine to the production Gnat looked very promising.

By 21 August the Midge was based at Supermarine's airfield at Chilbolton where it underwent testing. Indian Air Force observers at Chilbolton to evaluate the Supermarine Swift noticed the Midge and showed a keen interest. They recommended their superiors to buy the Gnat - which they eventually did. Fortunately India didn't buy the Swift as it was a disastrous aircraft - firing its guns caused it to pitch up onto its back, its afterburner couldn't be lighted at high altitudes, it was difficult to control and caused many fatal accidents.

The Midge was evaluated by pilots from India and from many other countries - Canada, Jordan, New Zealand and Switzerland - and was commended by virtually all of them. It flew a total of 220 flights until it was destroyed in a fatal crash on 26 September 1955 with a Swiss pilot at the controls. But Petter was encouraged by the enthusiastic response to the Midge and went on to develop the Gnat, with Folland company funds.

The Midge/Gnat entered the 1954 NATO fighter competition that intended to produce a light strike fighter that would be used by all NATO air forces. To be capable of high subsonic speed and be operable from unpaved forward airstrips, the new fighter was to be powered by the Bristol Siddeley Orpheus. Out of the eight designs submitted, which included the Aon, Dassault Etendard and Aeritalia G 91, the Gnat came last, probably because it had high-pressure tyres unsuitable for rough field operations. Petter refused to introduce bulges on the fuselage to cater for the larger tires. Even though it lost out, the Gnat was the only entrant to meet the competition's weight rules. In the end the Fiat G 91 was selected and went on to serve with Italy and Germany, but the British and French completely ignored the NATO aircraft - as they would also do to later NATO sanctioned aircraft. The British pursued the higher-performance Hawker Hunter while the French re-engined the Etendard and put that into production.

One of the many Gnats offered for sale
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The Gnat

The Fo-145 Gnat fighter emerged as a scaled up and more powerful variant of the Midge. It was larger, at 9.04 metres (29 feet 8 in) long, 2.46 metres (8 feet 1 in) high and with a wingspan of 6.73 metres (22 feet 1 in). Although only slightly heavier than the Midge, at 2 177 kg (4 800 lb), the Gnat's maximum loaded weight was more than doubled to 4 101 kg (9 040 lb).

Of conventional all-metal construction, the Gnat had a shoulder-mounted wing with a 40 ° leading edge sweep. The pilot's Folland ejection seat was steeply raked to reduce frontal area, and not, as in the F-16 or Saab J35 Draken, to increase g-force resistance. The canopy was a single-piece design that was hinged in front like that of the MiG-21. Like the MiG-21, the cockpit was also faired into a dorsal spine, which held control linkages. And like the MiG-21, the cockpit had poor rearward view and was cramped, especially for tall pilots.

Just behind the cockpit were rectangular side engine air intakes which also housed Aden cannons. On the first Gnat, the engine was a pre-production Bristol Siddeley Orpheus non-afterburning turbojet developing 1 490 kg (3 285 lb) of thrust. On the production Fo-145 Gnat the more powerful Orpheus 701 developing 2 050 kg (4 520 lb) of thrust was installed. This engine was also reportedly installed on the prototype so it could put on flight displays at the Farnborough air show later in 1955. Fuel capacity was just 1 091 litres (240 gallons) internally and 136 litres (30 gallons) in each of two underwing drop tanks. Flying at 13 700 metres (45 000 ft) altitude and at a cruising speed of around 850 km/h (530 mph), the Gnat achieved a fuel consumption of only 614 litres per hour (135 gph).

Primary armament on the Gnat consisted of two 30-mm Aden Mk 4 revolver-type cannon mounted in the outer portions of the air intakes with 115 rounds per gun. On most other aircraft this would have caused the engines to flameout from gas ingestion, but this never happened to the Gnat as the muzzles were carefully designed to deflect gases out to the sides of the intakes. A row of four circular holes on the outside of each barrel and triangular extensions of the intake in front of each muzzle kept gas from being sucked into the engine. In addition to the cannon, the Gnat had two stores pylons that could carry two 227 kg (500 lb) bombs, 12 76 mm (3 in) unguided rockets or 136 litre (30 gallon) drop tanks.

The prototype fighter Gnat (designated Fo-145 or Gnat F Mk.1) made its first flight on 18 July 1955 with Teddy Tennant at the controls. Handling was superb - it was highly manoeuvrable, having a roll rate of more than 360° per second! This was largely due to its small size and low wing loading of 238 kg per square metre (49 lb/sq ft).

Although the Gnat handled well, a number of problems emerged during testing. The greatest setback was longitudinal instability, which would plague the Gnat for years. After many attempts at solving the glitch, a complex gearing system was installed between the joystick and the tailplane. Another problem was aileron deflection at high speeds and rates of roll - having limiters introduced cured this. But even with limits imposed, the Gnat still handled superbly.

Front view of the Gnat (RAF)
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Customers

Although the Royal Air Force (RAF) had no requirement for the Gnat, and were supported in this regard by the Air Ministry, the British government wanted to encourage Folland with their light fighter work. So in August 1955 the Ministry of Supply ordered six full-development aircraft for evaluation, to be designated F Mk.1. The RAF still continued to show little interest in the F Mk.1, but they later warmed to the idea of an F Mk.2 variant with missile armament, thinner wings and afterburning engine, which would make it a truly supersonic machine. But in February 1956 the Air Ministry dropped the project, saying that F Mk.2 development should be halted because the aircraft would have no use in British air defence.

The first of six F Mk.1s first flew on 16 May 1956 from Chilbolton, powered by the production standard Bristol Siddeley Orpheus 701 single-spool non-afterburning turbojet developing 2 050 kg (4 520 lb) of thrust. Flight testing of these Gnats was done mostly in the UK, although ground-attack trials were performed in Aden (Yemen today), in a fly-off against the Hawker Hunter. The subsequent RAF evaluation report generally praised the Gnat's performance, but the RAF still did not express a need for the aircraft.

Even though the more capable F Mk.2 was cancelled, a number of countries showed an interest in buying the Gnat F Mk.1, especially after all the reports praising its excellent handling. India was the first, and largest, export customer. In 1956 Folland and Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL - Hindustan Aeronautics Limited today) signed an agreement for the purchase of 43 Gnat F Mk.1s. 20 were delivered in kit form and assembled by HAL, the first of them flying in Bangalore on 18 November 1959. The other 23 Gnats were built by Folland at Hamble. Two of the six RAF evaluation aircraft were also given to India, bringing the total to 45. Gnats bought by India had uprated Bristol Siddeley Orpheus 701-01 engines delivering 2 134 kg (4 705 lb) of thrust.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) Gnats entered squadron service in March 1960. HAL soon obtained a license to locally produce Gnats and built a total of 193. The first wholly HAL-built Gnat flew on 21 May 1962 and production continued until the last one was delivered in January 1974. The Gnats served with the IAF until they began to be phased out of service in 1976. By 1978, all Gnats were replaced by the Mach 2 capable MiG-21Bis.

The Indians also considered a naval variant of the Gnat for their INS Vikrant aircraft carrier. But ironically the Gnat was too light for the ship - the aircraft launching catapult needed a minimum weight of 4 536 kg (10 000 lb)! To increase weight the Gnat could have been navalised with a radar, strengthened landing gear, arrester hook and other avionics, but with no support from Britain, the variant was dropped. In the end the Indian Navy ordered 24 Hawker Sea Hawks in 1959 and later bought a number of former German Sea Hawks which served with the Vikrant until being replaced by the Sea Harrier in 1983. As the advanced naval Gnat was dropped, possible sales to the Canadian and Australian navies vanished with it.

13 Gnats were sold to Finland with the first two being delivered on 30 July 1958 and the rest following from then until 1959. Of these, two were reconnaissance machines with three 70 mm cameras in their revised noses, designated FR Mk.1. These two reconnaissance machines were so successful that in 1965 an improved FR Mk.1 with more fuel and different cameras was studied. However, this led nowhere.

The Finns also bought a licence to locally produce another 20 Gnats, but the deal fell through after the second aircraft delivered crashed due to a technical fault on 26 August 1958. The Gnats were grounded and only began flying in January 1959 following intensive investigations and modifications. Many problems were encountered during the investigations and continuous modification work was necessary to ensure the aircraft flew safely. Despite the problems, the Gnats served well. Only one squadron, 21 Fighter Squadron (later re-named 11 Fighter Squadron in 1961) was equipped with the Gnats, which served from 1958 to 1973.

Soon after the first two Gnats were delivered, Major Lauri Pekuri of the Finnish air force exceeded the speed of sound and became the first Finn to do so. Only one squadron, 21 Fighter Squadron (HävLv 21 - later re-named 11 Fighter Squadron [HävLv 11] in 1961) was equipped with the Gnats, which served from July 1958 to 1973. They were semi-replaced by MiG-21Fs in 1967, although they were still fully operational and were used as trainers until 1973.

Yugoslavia ordered just two Gnats as evaluation models for the Yugoslavian Air Force, which were delivered in June and July 1958. Unfortunately, one was written off in a belly landing after a hydraulics failure and the Yugoslavs bought second-hand F-86 Sabres instead of Gnats.

Two Finnish Gnats on the ground
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The Gnat T Mk.1

Although the RAF was not interested in the fighter variant of the Gnat, they were interested in the possibility of adding an extra seat to the aircraft and turning it into a jet trainer. In response Folland produced a brochure outlining a trainer variant, which was accepted by the RAF, even before F Mk.1 trials had been completed.

The advanced jet trainer variant was designated Fo-144 by Folland and Gnat T Mk.1 by the RAF. Initially ordered in 1957, the prototype first flew in August 1959. It was a slightly enlarged version of the fighter, having a wingspan .59 m greater, was .94 m longer and .47 m taller. As the takeoff and landing distance requirements specified by the Air Ministry could not be met by the basic Gnat design, a larger wing was required. Area was increased by 3.57 sq m (40 %) from 12.69 sq m (136.6 sq ft) to 16.26 sq m (175 sq ft). In addition, separate ailerons and flaps were used instead of the large 'flaperons', the wing had integral fuel tanks and the tail was made larger.

Numerous other changes were made to the basic F Mk.1 design, including deletion of the cannons, strengthening of the airframe, installation of the Bristol Siddeley Orpheus 4-100 engine developing 1 919 kg (4 230 lb) of thrust, and the addition of underwing slipper fuel tanks attached directly to the underside of the wing. Conventional pylon-mounted drop tanks were tried, but they negatively affected performance and stability, so they were dropped. But the greatest change was the revised cockpit. It had two larger ejection seats (based on those of the Saab J 29 Tunnan) mounted in tandem under a large clear-view canopy. The original fighter-style canopy and armoured windscreen were removed.

A contract for 14 pre-production/development trainers was placed in 1958, with the first making its maiden flight on 31 August 1959. As the RAF was impressed with the trainer, a follow-up order for production examples was expected by Folland but never came - Folland suspected that the government held back the order to force them to accept a takeover by Hawker Siddeley as part of the government's aggressive plan to consolidate Britain's aviation industry and eliminate the small companies. Hawker Siddeley did take Folland over and soon afterwards received a RAF order for production trainers with 30 being ordered in February 1960. Another 61 were ordered, bringing the total to 105. By June 1962 the first production aircraft had flown and between 1962 and 1965 the rest were built by Hawker Siddeley.

The Gnat T Mk.1 entered service with the Central Flying School at Little Rissington in February 1962 and later in the year joined No 4 Flying Training School (FTS) at Valley where it replaced the RAF's de Havilland Vampire T Mk.11s.

In the training role the Gnat served very well as it gave fighter-like performance and agility, yet still handled well at low speeds. However, the Gnat did have a number of problems - it was expensive to operate, many of its systems were unreliable and was difficult to maintain as the airframe was cramped. (This was quite ironic as the Gnat was designed to be cheap to operate and be easily maintainable.) In addition, its small cockpit caused injury to a number of tall pilots when they ejected. To avoid knee and leg injuries during ejections they were obliged to train on other, less exciting trainers like Jet Provosts. And the instructor in the rear cockpit had poor headspace and forward and rearward view as the seats were not staggered.

The Gnat T Mk.1 performed its most famous and successful role as the aircraft of the RAF's premier aerobatic team and laid the foundations for the even more prestigious Red Arrows. In 1964 No 4 FTS formed an aerobatic team of five yellow-painted Gnats (excluding two spare aircraft) modified to generate smoke. Called the Yellowjacks, the team gave brilliant performances to the public at various air shows. Their success (which was largely due to the agility of the Gnat) led to the formation of the famous Red Arrows for the 1965 air show season and became the RAF's official aerobatic team. These red Gnats were flown by instructors from the Central Flying School and were based at Fairford, Gloucestershire, then a satellite of the Central Flying School. However, the team later moved from Fairford to RAF Kemble.

At the end of their first season, the Red Arrows had flown 65 displays in Britain, Belgium, France, Germany, Holland and Italy and in recognition of their outstanding contribution to the field of aviation were awarded the Britannia Trophy by the Royal Aero Club in 1966.

Ten aircraft were permanently assigned to the Red Arrows team, starting with just seven Gnats, excluding three spares. When it was decided to continue the team in 1966, the spares were reduced to two. Training spare pilots proved to be unsatisfactory as the displays were specialised and needed particular practice to make perfect. Spare pilots who had to be trained to fly multiple positions required more training and became more skilled, but felt disappointed and dissatisfied because they usually never got to fly. Consequently, the team was increased in size to nine aircraft plus one spare in 1968. Also during this year, the team adopted the classic Diamond Nine formation that has come to represent the peak of precision flying and is now the team's famous trademark.

The Gnat T. Mk 1s served with the RAF in the training role from 1962 until 1978 when they were replaced with the Hawker Siddeley (now BAE Systems) Hawk T Mk.1. The last group of pilots trained on the Gnat graduated from No 4 FTS on 24 November 1978 and were replaced by the Hawks in November of that year. Even though the Gnats were being retired, the Red Arrows still flew with the Gnat in 1979, only converting to the Hawk in 1980.

Learning from the problems of the Gnat, which included unreliability of critical systems, high operating costs, extensive maintenance requirements and poor forward view for the instructor, the Hawk was designed to improve on these faults. The Hawk has the rear instructor's Martin-Baker Mk 10LH ejection seat raised so that the instructor can clearly see over the pupil's head. The Hawk is also much less expensive to operate, easy to maintain and is very reliable.

A Gnat making an interesting comparison next to a Hawker Hunter
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The Ajeet

Unlike the British, the Indians realised how effective the Gnat was as a fighter and proved it in two wars. But although they were happy with the aircraft, they were a little concerned about some of its problems, which included hydraulics and other systems failures. In 1972 the IAF issued a requirement for an improved machine - the Gnat II. This upgraded aircraft was to be an interceptor, but the requirement was later expanded to include a ground attack and close support role.

HAL responded to the request and modified two HAL-built Gnats to test subsystems for the new design. Outwardly similar to the Gnat, the resultant Ajeet (Indian for Invincible or Unconquerable) was quite different under the skin. It incorporated wet wings that each housed the 250 litres (55 gallons) of fuel that was previously carried in a drop tank, thus freeing up the wings for other stores. Two extra hardpoints were added, allowing the Ajeet to carry just over 1 000 kg (2 200 lb) of stores on four pylons, which included rockets, 250 kg (550 lb) bombs and 136.5 litre (30 gallon) drop tanks.

Other major changes were improved hydraulics and controls systems, new avionics including a Ferranti gunsight, a slab tailplane, improved landing gear with an anti-skid braking system, and a new Martin-Baker Mk GF4 ejection seat in place of the Folland seat. The Ajeet was also powered by the uprated Orpheus 701E, developing 2 118 kg (4 670 lb) of thrust.

The first Ajeet prototype flew on 5 March 1975 with the initial production example following on 30 September of the next year and deliveries to the IAF beginning in 1977. Seventy-nine Ajeets were built (some sources suggest the total was 80) between 1975 and February 1982. Another 10 Gnats were upgraded to Ajeet standard.

The Ajeets served with two IAF squadrons, being first delivered to No 22 Squadron in March 1982 and then to No 2 Squadron in November 1983. By 1990 the Ajeets were obsolete and the IAF began phasing them out. The first to go were those from No 22 Squadron, in April 1990 and then No 2 Squadron on 31 March 1991, when the last example was flow to the IAF museum in Palam. HAL-built MiG-27MLs replaced the Ajeets.

HAL attempted building a trainer version of the Ajeet, which in the end never went into production. It had a lengthened fuselage with two seats mounted in tandem and two internal fuel tanks deleted to accommodate the extra seat. The 30 mm cannon and four stores pylons were retained, although the cannon could be removed and replaced with additional fuel tanks. The engine remained the same Orpheus 701.

A single prototype Ajeet trainer was built in 1982, but crashed that same year. One more was built and flew in 1983 (a third was reportedly built, but this is difficult to confirm), but the programme fizzled out and was terminated. The IAF badly needed a new jet trainer and suffered extremely high attrition rates because they took such a long time in buying one. After years of deliberation the IAF finally ordered 66 Hawk Mk 115 Lead In Fighter Trainers in March 2004, of which the first 24 are being built by BAE Systems and the remaining 42 will be licence-built by HAL.

The Gnat's cockpit
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Gnats in Indian service

Gnats saw extensive service with the IAF in two wars against Pakistan, and in air-to-air combat against Pakistani Air Force (PAF) F-86 Sabres they gained the title of 'Sabre Slayers'. They also undertook ground attack and bombing missions, but their greatest achievement was in the air, where they achieved the kill to loss ratio of 3.5:1 in the 1965. Unfortunately the vastly superior Ajeet was too late to serve in these wars.

In 1965 Pakistan's president Mohammad Ayub Khan, who had led a military coup in 1958, felt he was ready to test India's frontier outposts, especially in the highly disputed region of Kashmir. The first skirmish war was fought in April 1965 and soon ended in a UN brokered ceasefire. Khan thought that he had 'won' an easy victory, as there was little opposition from India, and so in mid-August 1965 Pakistan launched Operation Grandslam, aimed at capturing the whole of Kashmir. The conflict lasted until 23 September 1965 when a UN ceasefire was agreed on. During the brief conflict, the PAF fought mainly with North American F-86F Sabres, and occasionally Lockheed F-104 Starfighters, while the IAF fought with Hawker Hunters, the Gnats and occasionally Dassault Mysteres.

The Gnat was so successful because of its agility and small size, which made it difficult to see against a background of haze at low level where most air combat took place. On 3 September 1965 the first IAF Gnat combat took place, when a 23 Squadron Gnat shot down an F-86F. It is also reported that on this same day a PAF F-104 forced down a Gnat from No 2 Squadron whose pilot, Brij Pal Singh Sikand, was taken prisoner. However, other sources suggest the Gnat was from No 23 Squadron and strayed into Pakistan and landed at Pasrur airbase. Whatever the case may be, the perfectly preserved Gnat was extensively tested by the PAF and now resides at the PAF Museum in Karachi.

 

The Gnat's second air-to-air victory took place on 4 September 1965 when a 23 Squadron Gnat flown by V S Pathania downed an 18 Squadron PAF F-86F, forcing the pilot (N M Butt) to eject. Ten days later Bharat Singh in a 2 Squadron Gnat was pursuing a Sabre at low level when the Sabre manoeuvred into the ground and was destroyed. Another victim was claimed just four days later on 18 September, when AS Sahdhu from 23 Squadron shot down a PAF Sabre.

Two victories were claimed by Gnats on 19 September 1965, both victims being F-86F Sabres. Vinay Kapila of No 9 Squadron shot down a Sabre over Sargodha in the middle of Pakistan. The Pakistani Air Force pilot, M Ahmed of No 17 Squadron, managed to eject from his stricken aircraft. Another Gnat, flown by Denzil Keelor from No 9 Squadron, also claimed a Sabre shot down. The IAF Gnat's last victory of the 1965 war was on 20 September when A K Mazumdar from No 2 Squadron shot down an F-86F Sabre. The pilot, L A H Malik from No 5 Squadron, managed to eject over Lahore, just over the Indian border into Pakistan.

In total, the cost of these seven victories was just two Gnats lost in aerial combat (excluding the one captured intact), the first of which was shot down on 13 September by a PAF Sabre over Sialkot, 10 km (6 miles) inside the north-eastern border of Pakistan (some sources suggest it was over Ferozepur, 120 km [75 miles] inside north-east Pakistan). The Gnat from No 2 Squadron piloted by A N Kale (who ejected after being hit) was downed by an AIM-9B from an 11 Squadron Sabre, piloted by Yusaf Ali Khan. On the 19th another Gnat was shot down by a Sabre from No 17 Squadron, piloted by Saif ul-Azam. The Gnat was downed over Chawinda, 30 km (19 miles) inside the north eastern border of Pakistan. The pilot, V M Mayadev from No 9 Squadron, was taken prisoner.

 

The Gnats performed well during the conflict, but they were not finished fighting - just six years later they were again battling it out with PAF Sabres, although they did less fighting than in 1965. The 1971 Indo-Pakistani war was sparked by a civil war in what was then the Pakistani province of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Pakistani elections were held in December 1970, and although the East Pakistan leader Sheikh Mujib won, West Pakistan's leader Agha Khan refused to honour the results. Negotiations to solve the impasse failed and after Mujib demanded independence, Khan ordered a crackdown in Dhaka in East Pakistan at the end of March 1971. In the ensuing civil war around 10 million refugees fled across the border into India.

India was worried about the influx of refugees and the political instability that resulted from the civil war, and so the Indian government decided that it would be more expedient to fight another war with Pakistan than absorb all the East Pakistan refugees. Initially India provided support to forces against East Pakistan, but when Pakistan declared war on India on 3 December, India invaded and captured East Pakistan, although with material and political support from the Soviet Union. On 17 December both countries declared ceasefires and soon after, the nation of Bangladesh was created, with many refugees subsequently returning home.

IAF Gnats fought in both East and West Pakistan, especially on the western border where the PAF had based many of its aircraft. IAF Gnats first entered combat on the afternoon of 22 November 1971 and scored their most highly publicised air combat victories. Four Gnats were scrambled to attack four Sabres strafing the Indian salient over East Pakistan. Three Sabres were downed in the fighting, with two crashing on Indian territory and their pilots (Khalil Ahmed and Pervez M Qureshi, both from 14 Squadron) being taken prisoner. The other Sabre crashed on the East Pakistan side of the border - it is not certain what happened to its pilot. The victorious pilots of the Gnats, Roy Andrew Massey, M A Ganapahthy and Donald Lazarus, all from 22 Squadron, were treated like heroes after the press publicised the event. A number of PAF aircraft were withdrawn from East Pakistan after the incident.

Also on 22 November, it was claimed that an F-86F flown by M A Chaudhry from 14 Squadron downed a Gnat over Chaugacha in East Pakistan, five kilometres (3 miles) from the Indian border. The Gnat was supposedly one of eight Gnats pitted against three PAF Sabres. It is not certain if the Gnat was actually shot down or not.

On 4 December 1971 it was reported that a Gnat engaged a PAF Sabre, but again it's not clear whether the aircraft was shot down - some sources suggest the Sabre was only damaged. On this same day it is also claimed that a PAF F-104 piloted by 9 Squadron leader Amanullah downed a Gnat over Indian territory - however, this claim is widely disputed and cannot be confirmed. Likewise, the claim that a 9 Squadron F-104 (piloted by A Bhatti) downed a Gnat with an AIM-9B on 4 December, cannot be confirmed either.

The only IAF Gnat confirmed to be lost was on 14 December 1971 when T Mirza piloting a Sabre F Mk 6 from No 26 Squadron shot down N S Sekhon's 18 Squadron Gnat. Sekhon had engaged six PAF Sabres over Srinagar in the middle of Kashmir and damaged two Sabres before being killed in action. Some sources suggest the two damaged Sabres crashed, but it is unlikely that this ever happened. Seven days before this the first Gnat was destroyed in combat, but it was wrecked on the ground.

The Red Arrow's Gnats pay tribute to the Lancaster in 1975
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As the world's smallest fighter the Gnat performed very well. Fortunately it was pitted against aircraft that had similar performance, and not more advanced aircraft like the Dassault Mirage IIIEP operated by Pakistan in 1971. It is ironic that more IAF gnats were lost to technical malfunctions than in actual combat. But in spite of its problems, the gnat performed well, as all the evidence shows.

Today many Gnats are in private hands or operated by commercial groups and can regularly be seen at air shows in the United Kingdom and elsewhere around the world. There are at least 38 airworthy Gnats still flying, and of these many are operated by a number of companies in the UK, including Delta Jets, Kennet Aviation and the Yellowjack Group. There are at least 16 Gnats in flying condition in the UK, 15 in the US, at least one in Finland, one in Australia and one in India. A number of Gnats are up for sale and change hands quickly. They owe their continuing popularity to their agility, speed, efficiency and relative affordability - around $300 000, or £170 000, per airframe.

 

The Gnat was Teddy Petter's contribution to the design of smaller fighter aircraft. However, he was unable to stop the trend towards larger jets. Only a few other agile and affordable lightweights were designed, notably the highly successful Northrop F-5 and F-16. But the closest other lightweight was the Douglas A-4 Skyhawk which weighed half the amount specified by the US Navy and flew faster and further than required. It was also very agile and enjoyed a very successful career with the US and many other nations. Nevertheless, even though his dream was never realised, Petter can be credited with having produced a highly capable aircraft. And today the Gnat is still being flown by enthusiastic pilots across the globe.

Red Arrows Gnats in Diamond Nine formation
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