My Experiences with The Littlest Fighter in the World

By Air Mshl AR Ghandhi ( Retd )

I remember the day in mid-October 1965 , soon after the Indo-Pak Conflict that, getting ready to fly a Hunter sortie after the ops in 7 Squadron, we received a signal posting some of us young ‘joe pilos’ to the newly formed Gnat Conversion Squadron, No 18 Squadron, for converting onto Gnats. This was a momentous occasion for us young guys because it meant flying the famous ‘Sabre Slayer’ a sobriquet aptly earned by this amazing piece of machinery during the war because of the number of Sabre kills by the pilots flying this formidable little fighter. Post 1965 there was this epithet going around that “ It needs a pilot to fly an aircraft, but it needs a man to fly the Gnat’. The atmosphere was patent with excitement and preparations to move to Ambala, where 18 Squadron was formed were started immediately. Obviously, the air force wanted to build up the Gnat force as fast as it could to provide the capability to deter any future misadventure by Pakistan. The conversion was on a fast track and before we knew it in just a little over 2 months we were declared ‘Ops Day’ and sent off to Gnat squadrons being formed all over the air force. One of the nicest parts of our conversion at 18 was the CO, Wg Cdr Aubrey Michael, a kinder gentler, yet more professional man I have ever worked with. Of course there were other luminaries like Jafa, Khanna and Kamy etc also some of the greatest guys to fly with. Kamy ( AV Kamath ) among them was known for his witticisms. A large number of interesting quotes on Gnats we owe to him. The photograph shows all the youngsters in the front row and a few at the rear.

The Gnat was a small aircraft and much of its renowned advantage arose from its size because it could not easily be seen in the air till quite late, at times too late. There was this famous quote by a Gnat pilot about the psyche of PAF Sabre pilots making the rounds in the PAF, “In 1965 the Pakis used to dream of the Gnat at night, because they could not see it during the day’. Just flying the Gnat was a challenge in itself and it took much briefing and counseling to keep it under control on the take off itself. If you survived that first time then you were well on your way to becoming a Gnat pilot. It shot off the ground in no time at all and once the undercarriage was raised reached for the heavens like no other aircraft could. Since it had no trainer and there was no other aircraft which could match the rate of climb on take off that this little bird would achieve, the first solo briefing was always very critical and comprehensive. Imagine changing over from aircraft with just 6-7deg of nose trim to one with 16 deg ( from -3deg to +13 deg ), the largest trim change on take off itself, if I remember well from -7deg to +1deg. The reason was that the Gnat had flaperons ( flaps and ailerons combined in one control surface). The simultaneous raising of undercarriage and flaps on take-off created a tremendous change of trim requirement. So if you did not sit on that trimmer as soon as you raised the undercarriage, the chances were bright that the aircraft would take you for a loop after take-off. The undercarriage also acted as the airbrakes when necessary by extending partially to provide the necessary drag. Fortunately it was a simple aircraft and checklists were quite easy. After start up all one had to do was lift the right elbow and punch in all the CB’s on the right cockpit combing and then follow it up with a double-whammy on the right and voila you were ready to taxi out. Because of all these quirks in its design there were innumerable expletives and quotations about it, and those who flew it, that were acquired in its lifespan.

Another quote from some famous Gnat guy was very appropriate indeed, it said “You don’t have to be Crazy to fly the Gnat, but it Helps”. Of course it would help if you had some weight on your side to prevent the nose from riding up so far and so fast. We found this out much later when one of our O’s i/c Flying in Bareilly went solo. He was a somewhat rotund individual and well endowed. When he insisted on flying the Gnat all the aircrew ran around trying to find a shoehorn large enough to use so that we could squeeze him into the cockpit. We all thought that with his paunch coming in the way of the stick movement backwards we should be seeing a very steep take off indeed. What we had not catered for was that the weight ahead of the C of G would neutralize to some extent the lack of control input possible. The take off went off quite smoothly to our combined surprise. But what you have to grant the old geezer is very aptly signified by this quote,” your height, leg length and bulk have nothing to do with your being able to get into the Gnat, your wanting to fly her does”. There were also those tall guys who crawled into the cockpit like prawns but still could not resist flying this little fighter. Six-footers like Pondy Jaykumar, Mervin Pinto and even Pete Wilson flew the aircraft despite the risk of leaving their legs behind if ejection was necessary. The radio set was so situated that during a few ejections by smaller pilots too they left their left flying boot behind. The Gnat was a great aircraft for Air defence duties because it had a very fast start time. Unlike other AD aircraft it could get airborne within two minutes most often than not. I remember the time when some foreign dignitary had come to Ambala and ‘Muzz the Fuzz’ Muzzie Sir aka Sqn Ldr Majumdar one of the Gnat worthies on type was asked to do a real fast demo of a scramble and he made it in less than a minute from the ORP, but guess how, he just jumped in and started up and took-off without strapping up, boy was that really necessary? In those days it made him an instant hero with us youngsters. Then of course there was the way one entered the cockpit of the Gnat for a sortie. No ladders for this little bird, you just pumped yourself up on you arms at the side of the combing and then lifted your left leg over and placed it on the seat and you were in. This process did however, lead to some unfortunate incidents on scrambles. During the scramble a pilot runs to the aircraft and as we said earlier pumps himself up and in. This was a bit tricky for the tall guys. Once during the excitement of a scramble Pondy was so swift on his feet that with his height and the momentum he had generated he pumped himself up and right over the other side of the aircraft. OUCH! But thank God no damage. I am sure if the Gnateroos let loose one could gather a bookfull of such incidents, all memorable and in hindsight sometimes funny but only because they rarely led to loss of life or limb.

The move to Halwara and No 9 Squadron by end 1965 itself was at a dizzying pace moving from place to place. We soon found out that not only were we to get used to moves but also changes of CO’s. In just the year of 1966 No 9 Squadron ran through a bevy if three CO’s, Reggie Upot, Johnny Greene and then Dolly Yadav. But the icing on the cake was being in the same squadron with ‘Black Leader’, or ‘ Kala Sandhu’ as he was called. Sqn Ldr AJS Sandhu was legend amongst fighter pilots all over the air force and to be able to learn first hand from a pilot like him was a dream come true for us youngsters. What a man, what a great fighter pilot. Of course we had Denzil Keelor also a flight commander, both VrC’s to boot with claims of kills of Sabres with the Gnat.

Apart from the interesting flying training there are two major activities that used to take place those days which remain as vivid memories. They were known as ‘Plan X’, and ‘Plan Y’ coded so that no one from across the border would realize what was happening. Plan X’ray was the monitoring of the border along the Ichhogil Canal being extended. The Pakistani Sabres were known to come very close to the border in their forays and the intention was to nab them if we could. I can remember quite a few Plan X calls from the Air Defence guys at Barnala activated by 240 SU at Amritsar. We were required to fly low level and approach the border unbeknownst to the Pakistani radars, hopefully. We would then patrol North/ South along the border in the hope of nipping in the bud any adventurous forays by the PAF aircraft. In this process we would have to manoeuvre around the bulge at Ferozepur, about 15 Kms across. Very often when pre-briefed, and on a given hand signal we would just accelerate and nip across the bulge through Pakistani territory after having been reassured of lack of activity from the other side. With the Gnat fuel being what it was we could just manage a couple of such patrols and were fortunate they never led to any major controversies. Having said that it was always exciting and nerve wracking doing this. Quite often we would get a warning from the SU that there was a parallel track the other side of the border. One day one of the flight commanders sitting at the ORP gave me a strange briefing to follow 800 mtrs line astern while crossing over the bulge area, when actually we were at our most vulnerable part of the patrol. Never did understand why it was necessary for me to be the sucker for an attacker, but in them days one did what one was ordered. The other Plan Yankee was more up our street. In those days the Air India aircraft used to be allowed to cross over Pakistan on their way to Russia and back. It was believed that Pakistani F-104’s were using the radar shadow of this aircraft on its way back, get under it a few thousand feet below and enter Indian airspace under its cover. Radar units in those days had none or very primitive height finding capabilities and therefore this was easily done. Since the ATS routes entered at Lahore and flew South-eastwards they did pass over the major long range radar station at Barnala. The Starfighters would apparently enter Indian airspace and do a motherless half roll get down to low levels in the opposite direction headed home and fly over Barnala for taking photographs of the installation. It was the duty of the aircraft scrambled from the airfields in the Punjab to meet with the Air India aircraft within Indian territory and then escort it to prevent such incursions by the PAF. Langar-duty? Well in retrospect it did seem a waste of effort, but it gave us air defence guys who sit around underground bunkers ad-nauseam waiting for something to happen, some reason to stay alert and pump up the adrenalin once in a while. We never did catch anything, but if I remember well it was during one of these scrambles that we had a Gnat pilot experience an automatic ejection. His canopy twisted off the railings and the airflow then pulled out his ejection handle. The next thing he knew he was transferred from the safety of the cockpit and into a parachute.

Many were the exciting times that we young joe pilos enjoyed both while flying and learning the art of fighting the air war, especially air combat. Whether it was against the Hunter, Mystere or the venerable Mig-21 the Gnat had an aura of invincibility that fired up young blood. The greatest advantage being that the Gnat pilot invariably spotted the others earlier having got used to spotting the small Gnat, and conversely the others having great difficulty in spotting this tiny fighter. Stories like these created a legendary reputation for the aircraft that became the basis of air force lore. It repeatedly found mention in all accounts of the war from Pakistan as a fearful protagonist to meet in the air. There was this famous quote by a Gnat pilot about the psyche of Sabre pilots making the rounds in the PAF, “In 1965 the Pakis used to dream of the Gnat at night, because they could not see it during the day’. Because of its performance and reputation as an excellent air defence aircraft, there was a spate of new Gnat squadrons formed. Later during 1967 again there were three new squadrons formed, two of them in Bareilly, 22 and 24 squadrons. Being part of the first lot post war to have been converted we soon found ourselves being spread thin over all the new squadrons being created. From Bareilly alone I remember collecting 17 aircraft for the new squadrons forming, and I myself had ferried as many as six of these. These ferries were great fun because we would get onto a Packet staging aircraft with the turnaround crew and go to HAL Bangalore to collect the Gnats. Apart from the very nice executive lunches that we were enjoyed courtesy HAL, the attraction of a lively place like Bangalore after Halwara, Ambala and Bareilly was much sought after. Many a day, nay even weeks and months at times have we Gnat guys of that period sat on the ground because of the perennial problems with the ‘Hobson Unit’, the famous ‘Sun and Planet Gears’ system that was used for the controls and ‘cycling time’ etc. Ever flown an aircraft with a Hydraulic pressure needle that keeps sweeping across the guage? Well ask a Gnat guy and he will tell you how critical that cycling time was and how much attention was given to monitoring it during a sortie. Fast cycling time meant that you better head home lest you have to lower your undercarriage on manual and have to do a manual landing. On the Gnat the elevators and the tailplane operated as one, except in case of manual flying requirements, in which case one had to ‘Split Tail’, ie retract the small lugs that held the tailplane and the elevators as one surface. I remember seeing the first ever wheels up landing on a Gnat at Bareilly by a Gnat jock called ‘Sloggo’, Shyam Hattangadi. Since this problem arose early in the sortie the ATC had time to spread foam from the crash tender on the runway for some length to absorb the sparks that would be flying off creating a fire hazard. Sluggo did a perfect belly-flop just a few hundred yards short of the foam and the aircraft came to rest within the foam with hardly a scratch and safe from a fire threat, except trhat he was covered in foam when he got out and it took three days and five baths before the stench of the foam could be mellowed to acceptable standards for social activity to recommence.

Had mentioned earlier about the Gnat having this ability to surprise the pilot and leave him outside the aircraft without a choice in the matter. An incident that comes to mind is that of a coursemate who had gone up to do an air test. Now the Gnat had this fancy Folland ejection seat which the pilot could reach behind his neck and move a lever by 90 deg to to set the seat to ‘fire’ or ‘safe’. This guy goes up and at around 30-40,000 ft his canopy pries open a little from one side. Of course he remembers the earlier incident of this guy in Pathankot who found himself outside the aircraft and in his parachute. For some reason he could not reach back to put the seat to safe so that he would not inadvertently leave the aircraft. So what does friend do? He actually unstraps himself so that he can twist around a bit and locks his seat to safe. He brings the aircraft back safe and taxies to the tarmac. Now the first thing that had to be checked was whether he had locked his seat and it was safe or not. After much care the canopy was taken off the rails and the pilot extracted to prevent any inadvertent firing. When we all got back to the crew room of course we had to know what had happened. The moment he told us about the fact that knowing what could have happened he actually unstrapped himself he was set upon by all his course-mates and his cranium received the attention it deserved for such an act of foolishness. Imagine if, as had happened earlier, when he was unstrapped had the canopy flown off and auto ejection taken place he would have been coming down without a parachute. So often, with the Gnat, has sheer providence kept many of us alive. Though there were a spate of accidents and a constant learning curve throughout the lifespan of the Gnat with modifications galore, when it was fully serviceable it was a dream to fly. It was the only aircraft of its generation which came anywhere near a 1:1 thrust weight ratio in a clean configuration. It climbed beautifully and of course it turned on a pin.

Part of the learning curve with the Gnat was the ability to sit around playing scrabble or cards or some such occupation throughout the times that it was grounded for investigations and modifications, which was quite often indeed. It was so much a part of a Gnat pilots life and at times it was quite a bi…h because we saw our contemporaries who had gone off to Mig-21’s flying away to glory while we sat on the ground and pined for flying. All said and done one cannot complain about having done 600 hrs of flying in 5 years on the Gnat. Whatever the grouses we had at the time I for one would never forego the experiences and the lessons learnt flying this indomitable little fighter. Truly a ‘Mighty Midget’. To commemorate this merry gang of Gnat jocks we decided to have a get-together in Pune in September 2006. What started off as an excuse for a drink together actually gathered momentum when ‘Buzz’ Datta put it on the net for the guys in Pune and Mumbai. The news spread like wildfire and before we knew it we had requests to attend from all over India. We even had a guy fly down from the US to attend the function. We had the ex CAS ACM Moolgavkar with us and he in fact was one of those fortunate enough to have test flown the ‘MIDGE’ on 17 December 1954 in the UK. The Midge was the precursor of the Gnat, a creation of aircraft designer WEW Petter, in his attempt to produce a lightweight fighter when the Lightning was on the drawing board. The get-together finally took place on 22 September 2006 with around 75 Gnat guys and their wives from all over the country. The occasion started with a commemorative service at the Gnat aircraft placed in Pune near St Mary’s Church and a two minute silence in memory of those who had laid down their lives flying this man’s aircraft. This was followed by a small narrative by ACM Moolgavkar about his experience with an American General, a test pilot with an air puffing on his Havana, who had also come down to England to see this newest little lightweight fighter. He asked to fly it and was cautioned by Petter on some of the quirks that still needed to be ironed out in the design. Typically of the yanks he appeared cigar in mouth and listened to Petter with a disparaging look in his eye. Well after having got a few surprises on take-off and during the ride he comes down, gets out of the aircraft a little shakily, his SO promptly hands him a lit cigar and with that in his mouth and holding on to it to steady his nerves tells Petter that he needs to iron out the kinks in the control system before the USAF would fly it again. Those in the know and standing bye had smiles on their faces because they thought the aircraft had brought him down a peg or two. That day in 2006 a great number of veterans including aces like ‘Don’ Lazarus, ‘Kadhu’ Kapila et al were present and it was a truly memorable moment for the Gnat Brotherhood as it got to be known. A fresh coat of paint, a new tailplane for a Gnat without one with some help from the CAS, another Gnat pilot, Shashi Tyagi, and the Gnat put up by request of Mrs Gool Engineer, in memory of her husband Air Mshl Minoo Engineer looked as good as new.

For any fighter pilot worth his salt flying the Gnat was a dream and a final test, as it were. If you could master the Gnat you were ahead of the power curve as any good instructor would advise you for safe flying on any aircraft. Like we said earlier one had to be a ‘Man’, ‘Slightly crazy’, and not give a damn about his own safety because of ‘size, height or bulk’ and one could be a part of the fable that is the Gnat and its family of those who operated and serviced this little magical midget. The Gnat Brotherhood survives to tell the tale.

3 thoughts on “My Experiences with The Littlest Fighter in the World”

  1. “Like we said earlier one had to be a ‘Man’, ‘Slightly crazy’, and not give a damn about his own safety….”

    Sounds to me that it was a useless aeroplane which was allowed to fly operationally long before the design was mature enough….

    As someone who flew the Canadair Sabre 6 that had NO vices, was an exceptional air combar fighter, was always serviceable even 40 years into its life, the Gnat seems like one of those UK attempts at fighter aircraft that missed the boat. I never flew the Hawker Hunter but would dearly have loved to. I did however see operationala ction in the Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer – in my opinion the best combat aircraft ever built by the Brits, even though the cockpit layout was a triumph of madness over logic.

  2. Mr.Dries Marais,says :
    “Sounds to me that it was a useless aeroplane which was allowed to fly operationally long before the design was mature enough….”
    Sir , Lots of PAF pilots flying “NO vices” Sabre and every Gnat pilot of the IAF may beg to differ with you . So would a couple of F-104s who prefered to hightail it rather than engage a Gnat .
    Yes we agree the aircraft did have its share of teething troubles .Remember, even the country of its design did not introduce it operationally in its own Air force. IAF was the only air force in the world to operate it !We had got independence in 1947 had no indigenous aircraft industry . We had to get our offensive and defensive weapons from where ever we could get them . In fact it is a tribute to our gifted Engineers and designers who sorted out all the problems and made it as vice less as a Canadair sabre 6 , WITHOUT compromising its lethality ! Regards & best wishes

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