By Air Marshal PK (Babi) Dey
I was introduced to the Folland Gnat in early March, 1958. I had graduated from the Empire Test Pilots’ School, then in Farnborough, a few months earlier. This was followed by a few weeks of production testing of Hunters being produced for the IAF at Hawker aircraft at Dunsfold. I was then posted to Folland Aircraft with whom the Government of India had signed a contract for purchase and production of the Gnat MkI at Hindustan Aircraft Ltd in Bangalore. The Gnat was still in the prototype testing phase, and so it was encouraging for me to become involved in this work so soon after graduating from ETPS.
I had seen the Gnat for the first time during the Farnborough Air Show in 1957 where the late Gp Capt Suranjan Das thrilled spectators from all over the world with his brilliant low level aerobatic display. While the company offices and factory were at Hamble in Southampton, the World War II airfield at Chilbolton in Hampshire was leased to Follands for their Gnat programme. At Chilbolton I was met and warmly welcomed by the Gnat testing and development team – EA (Ted) Tennant – the Chief Test Pilot, Suranjan Das, Mike Oliver and Dick Whittington. The late Sudhakaran had left recently and I was his replacement. John and Robbie manned the ATC, and Derby the emergency services. We also had with us two IAF technical officers – Peter Albuquerque and ‘Frenchie’ Puranik. It was a close knit family who merged together as only a small group can – the wives of the married ones joining in with an almost natural bonding. Dasu, and I and our tech officers felt ourselves very personally involved with the Gnat and its development and this was, I like to believe, a reflection of the quality and character of the aircraft itself!! All aircraft( like ships) belong to the feminine gender and the Gnat was one hell of a special and unique lady! It may sound strange giving an aircraft a human face – but the very fact that now, fifty years later, there is so much enthusiasm within India for remembering this the world’s first lightweight fighter, proves it’s very human side!