By Group Captain Kapil Bhargava (Retd)
In early 1954, Indian Air Force defined its Operational Requirements (OR) anticipating that its adversaries would most likely be China and Pakistan. Intelligence information with Air HQ identified the probability of Pakistan being supplied with fighter aircraft from the US, China and Russia. India would need not only to procure aircraft to meet any threat, but also ensure that long-term air defence needs would be met by large-scale design and manufacture in India.
An elite team was picked to study, test and recommend new aircraft and weapons systems that would fulfil the operational requirements of the next 10-15 years. The team was headed by Air Cdre PC Lal, with members Gp Capt H Moolgavkar, Squadron Leaders Roshan Lal Suri (test pilot), Suranjan Das (test pilot), Srinivasan (Sigs), UK Nair (Armt), K Sarwate (Elec) and Fit. Lt. Jacob Chakko (Tech Eng).
Following IAF’s purchase of hundreds of Ouragans from France, world markets realised that India was a big buyer. She had the necessary foreign exchange reserves, and would not allow her Independence to be compromised by letting the big powers to dictate to her. European countries by then had a healthy respect for the Indian point of view as put out by PM Nehru. All of a sudden, everyone wanted to sell aircraft, guns, ships, tanks and a whole heap of military hardware to India. After all, such sales would boost their own countries’ economic well-being.
It became clear during early meetings in Air Headquarters that the Selection Team would be looking at aircraft of France, England and Sweden, along with their associated weapons systems. This was clearly annunciated by CAS Air Marshal S Mukherjee and AVM AM Engineer. The team headed West by Air India in the very comfortable and beautiful Super Constellation aircraft. They considered many aircraft and studied several in considerable detail. The test pilots had the opportunity to fly candidate aircraft available for selection. They flew French Mystére and Vautour, British Hunter, Swift, Canberra, Lightning and Swedish SAAB J-32 Lansen. Three of these aircraft were signed for soon enough. While checking out the Swift, Air Cmde Lal spotted the tiny Midge. He was interested in it and intrigued by its unique design. He decided that the team would look at this as well. As a result, the fighter version to be developed from the Midge as Gnat Mk I was chosen for acquisition. The background to this selection was very interesting.
Round about this time in 1954, NATO in Europe was looking around for a new light fighter-interceptor. Their OR for such a fighter was that it should be very light, very fast, have a high rate of climb, and be serviceable on the ground with a minimum of ground equipment and staff. Countries in NATO like Italy, England, France got into what was virtually a competition to design and produce such an aircraft which could be commonly used by all the NATO partners. The acceptance of any such aircraft would have obviously given the country of its origin. a tremendous boost in aircraft production. Italy came up with the G-91, France had the Etendard. But Britain was a bit late in coming up with a design.
It was also at this time that Dr WEW (Teddy) Petter, the Chief Designer of English Electric Company who had designed apart from other aircraft, the highly successful Canberra and Lightning. Petter was retiring from design activity.
He had in mind an extremely small and lightweight aircraft, which apart from meeting all the basic operational requirements would be so small in size as to be invisible to the opposing pilots until it was too late. But he could not design it at English Electric as the company did not agree with his innovative idea. In 1950 he joined Folland Aircraft Limited in Hamble near Southampton as its Managing Director. He came up with an aircraft of less than 4,000 lb. in weight, the Midge, mainly to test the characteristics of the real lightweight fighter he had in mind. Its maiden flight took place on 11 August 1954, providentially just in time for the IAF team to check it out. The real design was to be the Gnat developed out of the Midge. Gnat Mk I made its maiden flight on 18 July 1955.
Though subsonic in level flight, such an aircraft would strike terror in the hearts of enemy pilots who would hardly be able to see them in combat. The Indian team quickly found out that Teddy Petter was very keen to get some sponsorship for his light fighter idea. Meanwhile, the light fighter decision by NATO turned out to finally be only a political ploy to help Italy by selecting their G-91.
Petter met PC Lal at the Folland Aircraft Company and it was decided that Suranjan Das would get a chance to fly the Midge aircraft. He did, and his comments were very encouraging. Gp Capt Moolgavkar also flew the aircraft (on 17 Dec ’54) and supported the acquisition of its fighter version. Following these very favourable reports, PC Lal took it upon himself to promote the Gnat aircraft on the basis of the performance of the Midge, and the well-deserved reputation of Dr. Petter.
Give it to the man. Air Cdre PC Lal was a visionary in the IAF with brilliant foresight, a thorough understanding of likely future events, and a keen desire to develop India into a major world power with aircraft manufacturing capability. With backing from Nehru, Lal decided that he was going to accept the future Gnat on the basis of the Midge, which was powered only by the Viper engine with no armament. This was a very courageous decision.
Air Cmde PC Lal and IAF obviously had great faith in the abilities and integrity of Petter and had the confidence of getting a really good light fighter of exceptional performance. Of course, some clauses were written in to guard against the possibility of its failure to perform. The contract for IAF to acquire the Gnat was signed when no such aircraft existed. India’s High Commissioner Mrs Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit signed the document along with Petter as MD Folland.
It was decided that Sqn Ldr Das, IAF’s crack test pilot, was to be seconded to work with the Folland Aircraft Company. He would test-fly the Midge and later the Gnat while it was being developed for the lAF, the time its sole sponsor and customer. This turned out to be a real shot in the arm for the British, for Folland, for the IAF, and for our whole experience in designing and developing aircraft at HAL Bangalore. Sqn Ldr Das stayed in England flying the Gnat along with the British pilots. Flt LT A Sudhakaran joined him immediately after completing his test pilots course in December 1956. In 1958 he was replaced by Flying Office PK (Babi) Dey. Sqn Ldr Das often claimed that he had more gliding hours on the Gnat than flying with the engine supplying power. He became so proficient at aerobatics in the Gnat that his eight point roll just off the ground was stunning. He became the first Indian pilot to show off an aircraft at the SBAC Farnborough Air Show – of course, it was the Gnat.
Announcements were soon made that the Indian Air Force was purchasing Mystére IV from France, Hunter and Canberra from England, and that the Gnat was to be developed in Britain. When fully developed, the project would be gradually transferred to be manufactured in stages at HAL, Bangalore. A couple of years later the Gnat was introduced into the IAF and arrangements were concurrently made to manufacture the aircraft from scratch at HAL’s aircraft factory in Bangalore. The aircraft later came to be manufactured completely at HAL and developed as the Ajeet. A total of 235 Gnat and 90 Ajeet aircraft were used by IAF. HAL also designed and constructed two Ajeet Trainers. These did not find favour with the services.
Not only was the aircraft (airframe) made in HAL, but it was also decided as a follow-on that Bristol Aero-Engines Ltd (later Bristol Siddeley and finally Rolls Royce) would set up a new Engine Factory in India as a Division of HAL Bangalore. It set up lines to manufacture the 4250 lb (20.1 kn) Bristol Orpheus engine that powered the Gnat Mk I and later Ajeet, Marut (including a version with reheat) and Kiran Mk II in India and five other aircraft types around the world. The engine was also used as the Jet pack to boost the power of the Fairchild C-119 Packet especially for use in the Himalayas. In Bangalore, on the Old Madras Road, the houses built for engineers of Bristol Aero-Engines are still referred to as Bristol Quarters. The area has since been developed as a colony for HAL’s Senior Officers.
The acquisition of the Gnat and associated events were really momentous in the development of indigenous capabilities of design and development at HAL and other establishments. Suppliers in France and England cooperated with Indians to set up overhaul facilities in India, and some of these were later converted to manufacturing plants. The Gnat deal actively supported by a visionary Air Cmde Lal has benefited India in a number of ways and continues to do so today.
Acknowledgement: Many events reproduced in this article are from the MEMOIRS of Group Captain Jacob Chakko, Tech (Eng) member of the Aircraft Selection Team.- KB