Gnat Scramble: A Lucky Escape Once – A Disaster Decades Later

By Air Commodore Tapas Sen (Retd)

I had joined the Panthers in November 1963 as a Flight Commander and had needed just twenty eight days to be declared operational on Gnats. Therefore, my story today must have been set on a cold Sunday morning early in December 1963. I do not have my logbook handy at this moment so I cannot quote the exact date. Tradition demanded that I get rostered for a holiday stint at the ORP (Operational Readiness Platform) as soon I get declared operational on type. I claimed no exception for myself; I found myself on the ORP on that Sunday. By chance, the other pilot on duty was the other new flight commander, Reggie Upot. We were no strangers to each other. He was my instructor when I was a pupil in the Flying Instructors’ school, and he was my CO when he was commanding the FIS and I was his Chief Ground Instructor. He was now my senior colleague.

December 1963 was an exciting and busy time for Ambala. Exercise Shiksha was in full swing. The USAF had deployed a squadron of F-100 Super Sabres at Palam that also operated off Ambala for the exercise. Both the Hunter squadrons (7 and 27) were taking part in the exercise while the two Gnat units (2 and 23) were sitting it out. We got to do twice our share of ORP duties but were hard pressed to find any time to carry out routine training with the local radar unit. A new ADDC (Air Defence Direction Center) had just been set up at Ambala, and all the radar units under the ADDC were wrapped up with the exercise. To compensate for this neglect, the controlling radar unit generally indulged the pair of aircraft on ORP duty with one practice scramble during the day if a live track (an unidentified aircraft being detected within the radar cover) did not chance by.

It was a misty lazy Sunday. The usual ORP routine of restful alertness punctured by cups of tea and shop talk kept us occupied until a scramble was ordered just before noon. For those unfortunate folks who have not witnessed a Gnat scramble, the wonderful drama would bear a recount.

From the place of rest for the waiting pilots to the cockpit of a Gnat on readiness was seldom beyond fifty or sixty strides. Covering that distance normally took less than ten seconds. The entry into the cockpit was athletic: a jump, a push up on the cockpit side, legs over the side and on to the seat, half a twist left and on the seat, both arms up to the shoulders to receive the shoulder-straps handed over by ground crew, click the straps tight, strap the helmet on, lock the canopy as the ground crew slams it down. It took perhaps twenty seconds to perform it all. Then hands on throttle and stick, click click click on the relight button as the starter air bottle churns the engine and all you have to do is to bring the throttle to the idle gate allowing the fuel to flow. The engine start-cycle was amazingly fast, and it permitted the pilot to pour on power as soon as the light up was stable. By about one minute and twenty seconds after a scramble the wheels could roll. It took just another twenty seconds or so to get the wheels off the ground. I do not think there has been another fighter ever designed to have a faster scramble response. We rolled on to runway 27R and slammed our throttles. I was on the left lane and Reggie ahead of me on the right.

Perhaps I was a bit tardy in gunning my engine or perhaps it had a little lesser thrust compared to the other aircraft. I started falling behind. I kept my eyes locked on my leader. It was easy to lose sight of a Gnat even in a slight haze and I had no intention of doing so. Reggie’s nose wheel left the ground and mine followed suit. We got off the ground almost at the same time. Just as I got airborne and my left hand moved from the throttle to the undercarriage lever, the nose of my aircraft cocked up and the left wing dropped.

It took me perhaps a couple of microseconds to realize what had happened. I had allowed the aircraft to stall on take off through excessive early rotation. Instinct took over. The stick went forward to unstall the aircraft. I took my eyes off the leader and looked at my left wingtip perilously close to the ground. Ahead of me stood a structure which used to be the old flying control building and the aircraft was turning directly towards it. It took every ounce of my self control not to use the ailerons for another fraction of a second until the aircraft was fully within the flying envelope. I then levelled the wings and let the aircraft roar over the blast pens of Sahara Dispersal as I gained height to safety. Rajpura become visible on the horizon near my right wingtip.

By now my heart had stopped the jungle dance it was going through for the last few seconds. Slowly my breathing became normal and I was able inform my leader that I was separated from him and that I would return to base on my own. In the local flying area I roamed until the fuel drop tanks were empty and then I came back to land. Back at the ORP I went mentally through all that had happened to find out the reasons why. One reason of course was a gross flying mistake committed by me. I had allowed my aircraft to match my leader’s attitude while I was still behind him in the acceleration curve. This was an error. However, with the kind of power and acceleration that the Gnat had, this would have been soon overcome. I had been surprised by the way the aircraft had bucked up. This was my first take off in the Gnat with the drop tanks full and the difference in feel was perceptible. This change coupled with the mistake I had made had caused the problem. It became clear to me that a special point needs to be made for a new pilot taking off for the first time with drop tanks full about the rearward shift of the c of g with in that state that caused this trouble. Why wasn’t I warned about it? Perhaps my large footprint as an experienced QFI had made Trevor Keelor, who was the nominated supervisor for my conversion and ops training, complacent? How about Reggie Upot? Perhaps he did not even know that this would be my first take off with the drop tanks full. Be whatever it may, I was lucky. Gods grace allowed me to live to tell the tale. I should be happy about it, should I not? But every time I recollect the incident I am covered with a sense of guilt. I will tell you why.

The incident had shown me that a special briefing point for change of trim on take off with drop tanks full was necessary. Panthers were the mother of the Gnat fleet and I was its flight commander with all necessary background of training. I should have ensured that no other pilot ever faces the problem that I had faced. I did what I thought was necessary. Briefing notes were prepared and through out my stay in the squadron I made sure that the necessary briefing point was included and used. I did not give the subject a second thought as I left the Gnat fleet and moved on. Years passed. I never heard of any one facing such a problem. I thought all was well. I was wrong. Twenty two years later, in 1986, I faced a moment of truth. I had just retired from KKD as the Air Officer Commanding. I had gone back there as a retired officer to tie up a few points of personal administration that I had left undone. I was sitting in my old office facing my successor Kamli Khanna with a cup of coffee when the siren wailed. There was an accident on the runway. A pilot officer performing a stream take off behind his leader in an Ajeet had suddenly flipped over and crashed. I reached the spot along with Kamli and heard the accounts pouring out from eye witnesses. A shiver ran down my spine. The pilot was taking off in stream behind his leader. He seemed to lag a little initially. He seemed to have unstuck along with his leader. He had very definitely unstuck prematurely going by the place where he had crashed. The aircraft bucked up dropped a wing rolled over and went into the ground. And yes, his drop tanks were full. Is it possible that poor pilot officer Venkat had missed out on this vital small point of briefing for take off? Is it possible that over a period of more than twenty years, knowledge earned through experience had not been passed on from seniors to juniors? Could it be that the steps I had taken to introduce the point of briefing were inadequate? The briefing was not entrenched enough to survive the passage of time?

Venkat was perhaps not even born in December 1963 when I had faced a problem similar to what took his life. On my own station at KKD Venkat used to be a part of a group of happy young adults that included my own children. Why is it that we failed to prevent his untimely demise? Must I carry a portion of the guilt for the loss of Venkat for ever?

12 thoughts on “Gnat Scramble: A Lucky Escape Once – A Disaster Decades Later”

  1. Sir,
    We did develop the Ajeet trainer. Was the trainer in use at that time ?
    Can anybody throw any light on why Ajeet trainers were not produced in larger numbers ?

  2. Dear Sir,

    During scramble in Gnats,as far as i can recollect,regardless of the mission leaders position,the No 2 has to check his parameters during the roll,i.e. RPM,JPT,FW OFF,and ASI registering,Following from this ,the Number 2 will unstick at the correct speed and then join up with lead who will always give ‘200 RPM’.

  3. Dear Sir,
    I agree with Arvind Kumar..We were required to do an individual T/O.
    F/O Billing also perished in a similar accident at Hindan in 1974..

    Having been the project pilot from ASTE for the Ajeet Tr, I wistfully add that after all the floght tests and delivery of one to 2 Sqn ( I remember having ‘converted’ W/C Tatgur in two sorties before the ferry),the AF cancelled its order for eight, as MiG 23s were replcing Ajeets. The Navy which had also ordered the same No followed suit. THERE JUST WAS NO PATRON FOR THE AJEET OR GNAT.It was the era of supersonics and one’s subsonic background was best forgotten. MiG jocks who were forced to return cussed their luck and P staff. Sorry if I sound wistful but thats how it was….

  4. Hi Ruby,

    Thanks;I did catch up with Tats’and Woody in 88-89(Dssc Tour BAGDOGRA),who were both commanding Ajeets.The trainer was on display.Superb.

  5. If i recollect correctly one of the Ajeet 2 seat trainers was lost in an accident,any info on that

  6. As an airline pilot i just have to focus on flying my A/C,and that in itself can take up all of ones cocentration sometimes.So i can appreciate the challenges of formation flying(and formation take/offs and landings}

  7. Air Cmde Merani wrote :
    “Having been the project pilot from ASTE for the Ajeet Tr, I wistfully add that after all the flight tests and delivery of one to 2 Sqn ,the AF cancelled its order for eight, as MiG 23s were replcing Ajeets. The Navy which had also ordered the same No followed suit. THERE JUST WAS NO PATRON FOR THE AJEET OR GNAT.”

    Granted, but can anybody explain why the Ajeet trainer was not chosen as the AJT ?

  8. Answer to question by Wg Cdr Thomas (previous Comment): Admiral RH Tahliani has mentioned n a comment on this site that Baba Katre was all for it and the Admiral had promised all support for it from the Navy. The Admiral beleives that the death of ACM Katre left IAF with inadequate motivation to go for it. Besides, the IAF perhaps thought it could get the imported AJT, all 106 copies of it very fast by importing them. In the event it took more than two decades for the Hawks to arrive.

  9. Hi All,

    This refers to Air Cmde Sen’s article.

    Iknow of two more cases of premature rotation on the G-bird. I was part of a 4 aircraft formation and eye witnesss to one. Fortunately it ended safely with a very shaken up pilot. The second tragically ended as a fatal accident.

    Right now I am ensconsed in Austin Texas, on vacation, and my log book is not available with me, so the dates would be approximate. It was Sep/Oct 1971, we were in 2 Squadron in Ambala and war was imminent. We had to fly into Amritsar to activate the airfield do a couple of PIs and return to Ambala by the evening. The aircraft were all configured with 2*66 gal droptanks. Amritsar at that time was a C&MU and later on upgraded to a FBSU.

    The formation callsign was GREEN. It goes without saying the leader ws BOSS (Wg Cdr JW Greene), with SS Hothi as No2, with either Maddu Khanna DP Singh or Alan Templeton as No3 and self as tailend charlie. We were doing a section, 10secs, section take off. As the leader rotated No2 startd a wing over and headed straight for the old ATC. A couple of econds later he changed his mind and recovered and rejoined the formation. Not a word was spoken as we all had our hearts in our mouths and would have popped out had we opened them. So we headed out to Amritsar at 200 ft. We landed in at Amritsar and Boss debriefed us all and it it was business as usual after that. All’s well that ends well and Saravjeet Singh Hothi retired as an Air Vice Marshal and is now pushing throttles on a Boeing 737 with Air india Express.

    The other was a tragic case of suspected premature rotation. The pilot was HS Billing from 9 Squadron. This happened at Hindan soon after the squadron moved from Halwara to Hindan.

    I am not too sure if there were any more cases of premature rotation. I sincerely hope not.

    The G-Bird was a beautiful aircraft to fly and I do not know of a single pilot who flew the Gnat and did not start an endearing and everlasting love affair with the aircraft.

    Ajit Agtey

  10. Hi Ajeet Sir,

    Great narration.Rest when we meet in OM WR’s office.

  11. There is a hint as to the reason for premature rotation contained in this letter to Flight International by AVM GC Cairns in 1981 (the URL is )
    He says
    “One less-than-perfect feature of
    the Gnat 1 was its longitudinal control
    characteristics after take-off. Owing
    to its high rate of acceleration
    there was a rapid nose-up change of
    trim aggravated considerably by the
    rearward shift in e.g. as all three
    wheels, which were also used as airbrakes,
    retracted backwards.
    This rapid trim change called for
    a forward movement of the stick
    which could not be trimmed out instantaneously.
    As a consequence of
    this forward stick movement a
    steep part of the cam was engaged,
    which resulted in a high stick/tailplane
    gearing and very sensitive
    longitudinal control. Several hairraising
    first solos led to a recommendation
    for an undercarriage-operated
    shift of the longitudinal control
    datum, which eventually materialised
    in the Gnat trainer.”

  12. A comment on Anandeep’s reproduction of AVM GC Cairns’ description of an adverse feature of the Gnat. Geoff Cairns was my course mate at ETPS in 1956. He eventually became the top man in charge of A&AEE, Boscombe Down. We met a few times in England, the last being in 1989. He was the one to ask me why we had accepted the aircraft into service despite its this and some other faults. Folland had to not only automate the trimming but also desensitise the longitudinal control by a factor of 2.5 after complaints about inability to do proper formation flying by A&ATU.

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