The Ajeet Trainer - Short lived and scantily used
- Category: Retired Aircraft Histories
- Last Updated: Monday, 12 June 2017 13:23
- Written by Wg Cdr A K Gupta (Retd)
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The HAL built Ajeet Trainer is one of the odd-ball aircraft in the IAF's history. Only two examples were inducted and they were introduced at the fag end of the career of a legendary fighter. Wg Cdr A K (Lui) Gupta goes over their short career in the IAF - which lasted less than four years!
Two Ajeet Trainers were the last aircraft in the 33-year successful legacy of the Gnat fighter and its variants that served the IAF until the early 90s. The Ajeet Trainers served the IAF for only three and a half years across two squadrons and flew little, remaining a footnote in the annals of Indian aviation history. But that wouldn't have been the case had the Ajeet trainer come a decade earlier, ideally mid-70s.
An early induction of the trainer could have helped improve the safety record of the Gnat fighters. As in the words of Late Air Cmde Jasjit Singh, "The Gnat was a very unforgiving aircraft and had the poorest safety track record in the IAF, despite having only Average plus pilots posted to it." In his book, Indian Air Force: The Case for Indigenisation, Air Cmde Singh said, "It is not surprising the RAF never used it.”
The HAL-manufactured Ajeet trainer did achieve some success though. The Ajeet trainer (and HAL) would have won more accolades for the insights it provided on design and manufacturing to HAL, had India manufactured the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT).
In a small way, it was also successful in helping pilots familiarize better with the fighter version. As my one time pupil then Lt (now Capt, Indian Navy) Uday Sondhi, SC, had the following to say on the Ajeet Trainer – “It was an exhilarating experience to be on the Trainer. It allowed us to have a real sense of the acceleration capabilities of the Ajeet single seater, attempt landings at higher speeds, all with the comfort of an instructor with us. However, it was not the same as flying a single seater”.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) operated the Folland Gnat jet fighter from 1958, with over 200 aircraft being license built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The aircraft proved successful in combat in both the 1965 and the 1971 War with Pakistan, both in the low-level air superiority role and for short range ground attack missions, while being inexpensive to build and operate, came to be called the Gnat Mk 2. The Indian Air Force issued a requirement for an improved Gnat in 1972 as an interceptor and also have a secondary ground-attack role. The aircraft was given the name "Ajeet", Sanskrit for "Invincible" or "Unconquered" and was to be manufactured by HAL. It was to have more hardpoints, wet wings and a Martin-Baker ejection seat. A total of 79 aircraft were built and operated between 1977 and 1991.
Although it wasn't a favourite of the RAF, the Gnat served the IAF well. Its strength lay in the small size, low weight and high manoeuvrability. As Air Cmde TK “Tiku” Sen appropriately summarises – “The Gnat was an epitome of optimisation. All attempts to tinker with the Petter Original detracted from its performance.”
Unlike probably any other aircraft type in aviation history, for nearly 30 years of its operational service in India the Gnat/ Ajeet did not have a type trainer. Pilots in India faced an additional hurdle, unlike RAF which had acquired the Trainer version of the aircraft. Our pilots after dual checks in the Hawker Hunter, were required to do the first solo on the Gnat directly. The need for a type trainer was, therefore, felt from the very beginning. Historically in the IAF, the pilots sent to convert on Gnats were already introduced in power control flying as they had a stint on Mk 56 Hunter aircraft.
However, conversion on to Gnats was not very easy due to non-availability of a type trainer. The dual checks were given on a Hunter trainer by simulating a Gnat approach (much shallower) by lowering flaps to only 15 degrees and not full flaps down. Once cleared after the mandatory dual checks, the pilots were shown the various attitudes of nose up and take off, strapped in the cockpit and two airmen sitting on the tail plane under the flight commander’s supervision. The cockpit was very cosy and seated at 20 degrees incline of the ejection seat. A taxi run with a full throttle roll on the runway got the pilot ready for his first solo in the Gnat.
The Gnat aircraft had a peculiar design with the ailerons also doubling as flaps, drooping 15 degrees from a normal aileron position with undercarriage in down position. The raising and lowering of the undercarriage made the ailerons (flaps) go up and down from their normal position. This involved excessive change in attitude and required proper handling by the pilot. All the pilots were briefed repeatedly on this aspect to control the excessive pitch-up after raising of the undercarriage after take-off. Not surprisingly, there were a few incidents because of this peculiar nature of the aircraft.
HAL Ajeet trainer
Even though, I had moved on to convert to the Mig-21s in 1979 (after 7 years on the Hunters and Gnats), I noticed with much interest, the news of IAF developing an Ajeet Trainer, the development apparently having started in the late 70s. As per a CAG report, “A proposal for the development of a trainer version of aircraft ‘A’ (HAL Ajeet) within a time frame of 54 months at an estimated cost of Rs.4.16 crores, put up by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in June 1975, was approved by the Government in February 1976. Government sanctioned in April 1980, procurement of 12 trainer aircraft from the HAL at a cost of Rs. 1 crore each. The aircraft were to be delivered at the rate of six each during 1982-83 and 1983-84.”
The next news on this count came of the shocking fatal crash of my course mate, Late Sqn Ldr DK Powar (106 PC) in December 1982, posted then with ASTE. He was flying the first prototype of the Ajeet Trainer (E2426), the 14th sortie the aircraft had undertaken. The unfortunate accident was probably due to differences in pre-flight inspection procedures of HAL and IAF ground crew, leading to the oxygen not being switched on. At higher altitudes, hypoxia set in, leading to disorientation and complete loss of consciousness.
The program was put in abeyance, but over the next two years, the IAF had a re-think and it was revived in late 1984. However, in 1986, when IAF agreed on the withdrawal of the Ajeet Aircraft, the order for the trainer was in limbo again.
For the next few years, I heard little of the Ajeet, though we all knew it was being phased out, till I was posted to 2 Sqn as the flight commander in 1988 at Air Force Station Kalaikunda. This was my second posting at this station. My first tenure was as a young Pilot Officer in an operational squadron, flying the Hunter aircraft, where I got my operational (day) status. We were the last squadron to have the Ajeets, with 22 sqn earlier and 18 sqn having moved on and we were also only going to be on the Ajeets for a couple of years at best.
The order for full production of Ajeet Trainers having been withdrawn, two prototypes with HAL were inducted into the IAF finally in late 1987 (and early 1988) and were handed over to 18 sqn then based at Bagdogra. Incidentally, the station commander Sulur at that time was Gp Capt B A K Shetty, an old Gnat hand and earlier CO of 2 sqn. Two aircraft bearing serial numbers E2427 and E2414 were handed over to the squadron. The first aircraft delivered was a production aircraft while the other a prototype modified to production standard. These two were the only aircraft built (other than the one that crashed).
In December 1988, right after 18 sqn had wound up, the two trainers were ferried from Bagdogra to Kalaikunda. My CO at that time, Wg Cdr R P Singh (96 PC), had not converted to the Ajeet Trainer and the duty to take over the Ajeet trainers fell on me. The CO of 18 Sqn, Wg Cdr RS Tathgur (101 PC), and I did a few sorties for the RSCC (Rear seat captaincy Check) with me sitting on the rear seat. Thereafter for some time, I was the only Ajeet Captain in the IAF. I was posted out of the squadron later in 1989 with W/C K Rajaram (107 PC) as the CO then.
The Ajeet trainer, had a lengthened fuselage (1.4 meters longer than the Ajeet fighter) with two seats mounted in tandem and two internal fuel tanks on the spine removed 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 (increase capacity by 273 Litres). The engine remained the same Orpheus 701. However, the trainer had an inferior Power/ weight ratio as compared to the fighter version and handled sluggishly.
The Ajeet aircraft was comparable to the Gnat in handling, albeit on the heavier side. A clean Gnat (without drop tanks) was significantly more agile and manoeuvrable than a clean Ajeet. The trainer on the other hand was even heavier. In the few 1vs1 sorties against the fighter, it was noticed that the trainer lost out while manoeuvring in the vertical plane. Another issue that one had to be careful of was while opening throttle and seeking full power as the engine took a long time to achieve 100%. This was a fact to be remembered during low overshoots.
The aircraft was good in its role of familiarization of new pilots to a different aircraft and gave them more confidence while flying the single seater. This is in comparison to the Hunter trainer being used for this purpose earlier. I had the pleasure of flying most of my Ajeet trainer sorties with young pilots sent for Ajeet conversion especially two young Naval pilots who were posted to the squadron to get a feel of fighter flying before embarking on the aircraft carrier and flying the Harriers.
We had adequate spares and there being only two trainers, one was always available. It was like a personal plane as I was the only trainer captain on type for some time. However thier usage fell far short of the initial projected hours. As per the CAG Report – “The utilisation rate achieved by these trainer aircraft was poor as it ranged from 0.15 to 5.30 hours per month during January 1988 to May 1990.”
One cause of the low utilization could have been the limited utility of the aircraft as laid out in the syllabus. The aircraft was supposed to provide three dual check sorties with each having a laid down profile. It did not have the required instrumentation and lights for night flying as the Ajeet itself was day operational only. Further, with the Ajeet in winding down mode, the squadron pilot and aircraft strength was depleted.
When the Ajeets were finally phased out in March 1991, apparently the Ajeet Trainers were still serviceable and were flown to the BRD in Sulur; probably still resting in peace. In all, the two Ajeet Trainers served the IAF for only three and a half years across two squadrons. The IAF never went in for the Gnat trainer in the 70’s, though they were available (being flown by the Red Arrows). I am not aware of the problems in acquisition, availability or finances at that time. The Hunter trainers were used instead and they proved to be a very good substitute in converting many pilots to fly the Gnats. The Ajeet trainer came a little too late in the day. A decade earlier, its regard in history of combat aviation would have been different.
Anil Kumar Gupta (Lui), served the IAF for 25 years flying nearly 3,000 hours across many aircraft types including Vampire, Hunter, Gnat, Mig-21 FL/ Bison, Kiran MK-II and Ajeet. Nearly 860 hours were logged on the Gnat/ Ajeet variants.
All photographs are from the author's collection unless mentioned otherwise.