Why IAF went for the Gnat?

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

© Copyright Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava (Retd). All rights reserved.

14 thoughts on “Why IAF went for the Gnat?”

  1. A good article of the early days of the selection process of the Gnat.
    Some details of the flight characteristics of the Midge could have been included as a point on interest and comparision.

  2. Thanks Buzz, glad you liked the article. I agree that it would be nice to record flying characteristics of the Midge but I do not know how to get them. Perhaps you could interview ACM Moolgavkar and see if he remembers them.

  3. Hurrah for the Sabre Slayer.Thanks sir, for the research and the article. Made me nostalgic of my 22, 15 and 18 Sqn days. If it had a few patrons like ACM PC Lal, its derivative the Ajeet, would have lived on longer, especially as the HAL had already launched the production version of the trainer, after a lengthy flight test programme.

    I would love to be part of any celebration that is planned.

  4. Fascinating details indeed.I am loving every minute of this. Am in the process of getting a Gnat I have access to in Kerala in to flying condition if that be possible.My museum is decicated to the IAF Gnat Heroes.



  5. What nostalgia just reading about the Gnat. Quite a bird! The cosy, ‘tucked in’ cockpit made one feel an integral part of it….just the way my Maruti 800 does! Shall never forget guffawing with sqn mates on the tarmac each time we watched a first solo jockey struggle to control the steep nose-up change after unstick. Did formation aerobatics with (then) W/C MM Singh-OC 22 sqn, & she did wabble at loop top. Regards & happy times. Alban(Rozy)

  6. Dear Gr.Capt Kapil Sir:
    I am involved in the creation of a Gnat museum in Thrissur,Kerala. Hopefully I can get an invite to the Gant 50 years celebration in B’Lore in Nov.Would love to make a 2 minute presentation on the Gnat restoration for I really need to connect with the pilots/technicians who knew the aircraft. My late father was Dir.of Naval Stores and hence my love for the Indian Armed Forces.Hopefully you can help me achieve this simple dream.
    I will be in India in October-November.
    Thank you & Best Regards,

    Richard Menon
    New York

  7. Great!!
    Good to know that people still remember their Gnat days.
    I have very fond memories of my first 7 years including 71 Ops.
    Would love to meet the other ‘Gnaties”.

  8. Sir,

    It was sheer nostalgia.Who can ever forget the gnat.May like to know that in 1977,18 Sqn started reequiping with
    retro mod brake systems designed for the forth comming Ajeet.These aircraft came to be known fondly as Ajeet Phase One.Arvind ‘Shorts’ Kumar

  9. A great article on how the saga began!May I contribute a word or two on how it ended?
    Both Ajeet trainers did carry on flying with 2 Sqn at Kalaikunda till March 91. They were used to convert the last entrants into the Gnat/Ajeet fleet. I even got my A2 instructional category endorsed on the Ajeet Trainer by AEB. The sqn ribbed me to no little extent as THE ONLY A2 IN THE WORLD ON THE AJEET! They were both serviceable on 31 Mar 91 when flying was stopped.
    The trainers lacked the range to fly (with then current restrictions) to Sulur, to where the squadron ferried 12 serviceable single-seat Ajeets. One Ajeet was flown to the AF Museum at Palam. The last three aircraft were also serviceable awaiting airtests after servicing on 31 Mar 91. One of them was placed at the centre at the parade held to bid farewell to the Gnat/Ajeet. Another was towed on a decorated platform from one (OCU) hangar to the other ( 2 Sqn) while the parade presented arms in salutation to a mighty, midget, warrior platform. When the hangar doors closed behind the last Gnat/Ajeet to the tune of Auld Lang Syne, dare I say, there was a lump in many a throat. It was the end of a glorious era!

  10. What a comprehensive write up on the Gnat. Thank you kapil Sir. Have tried to get ACM Moolgavkar to open up a little on his sortie in the Midge but it has not fructified. As you all know he just lost Tara his wife on 30 sep 2008, and is quite out of sorts since. Will make an ayyempt again to find out some stuff from him. Have put up some memories of my own on the Gnat and hope that reading them will bring back memories of others who were together in those days.

  11. The Gnat is a great aircraft about which i’ve heard since I was young.Happy 50th B’day the Gnat.

  12. Anandeep Pannu from USA has sent me a few scanned pages from August 1972 issue of Air Illustrate Magazine. This magazine has 5 pages on the Midge, The last page at the bottom has a record of all flying done on it by other than Folland’s pilots. For the IAF, the part that interests us shows: –

    15.12.54 Sqn Ldr Suri 19
    15.12.54 Sqn Ldr Suri 32
    15.12.54 Sqn Ldr Suri 39
    17.12.54 Air Cdre Lal 19
    17.12.54 Grp Capt Mulgarkar 20
    20.09.55 Air Cdre La! 37

    I have not corrected the spelling of ACM Moolgavkar’s rank and name. These are retained as printed in the magazine. The last two digit figures are the minutes of each flight duration. The interesting point to note is that Air Cdr Lal did two flights in it nine months apart. Also Sqn Ldr RL Suri did three flights on it while Sqn Ldr Suranjan Das did not fly it at all. The only Midge aircraft ever built crashed on 26.09.55 killing a Swiss test pilot. This was just six days after Air Cdre Lal’s second flight which also became its last evaluation flight by a customer or non-Folland pilot.

    We have to change some of our hastily arrived beliefs if the magazine is correct in its data. The way it is presented does make it very credible. Our historical records need to be amended accordingly. However, this will be important only if this site has to continue for a long time or if its contents are taken over by HAL or Bharat-Rakshak some time after our November celebrations are over.

  13. Dear Kapil Sir,

    Wonderful write up and a lot of painstaking research.Gnatties like me would like to know of any ‘Worm Gear Reversals’and how the emergency was tackled.

  14. I know Alban D’Rozario from our days as school boys in Golden Rock.
    He and my brother Tony joined the IAF
    together at Jalahalli, Bangalore straight from school.

    I would dearly like to get in touch with him if it is possible!

    Ed Haliburn, London, England

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