By Air Marshal CS Naik (Retd)
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is celebrating 50th year of the GNAT’s arrival in India. My tales herein cover some aspects of the GNAT prior to the HAL-era.
Until the mid-1950s, we purchased combat aircraft from the U.K and France. The aircraft were fully developed abroad, for example, the Vampire, Ouragan (Hurricane in French, hence Toofani in IAF), Mystére (Mystery), Hunter and Canberra. The Gnat, on the other hand, was still under development, when our decision-makers boldly decided to go in for it. My story covers some anecdotes, both triumphant and tragic, mainly during the pre-HAL phase of the GNAT.
The Indian participation in the Gnat prototype flight development was done principally at Chilbolton, a pretty little place in Hampshire, UK. Concurrently, the tropical trials were to be undertaken by us, in conjunction with Follands, at Kanpur in the summer of 1958. Entirely new facilities were created at A&ATU, Kanpur, (now ASTE, Bangalore), for the purpose.
Whose name comes first to my mind? You guessed it. None other than Suranjan Das, whose memory we cherish to this day. He soon equalled the talents of the British Test Pilots, viz. Tennant, Whitaker and Oliver. Dasu’s transmissions over the Wire-Recorder (WireK) were always awe-inspiring and amusing. His ‘Ure-Dada’ during flame-outs and other emergencies came through calmly and clearly. The first to hear and interpret the WireK. was a lovely lady called Twinx, who probably inspired Dasu’s eloquence and humour.
Dasu was soon joined by the young and dashing test pilot, Babi (called Bobby by the British) Dey. His talents were well appreciated by the Follands test pilots. in the air, and the female population on the ground!
The test aircraft was fully ‘instrumented’ to continuously record the various parameters involved in flight test analysis. Besides the WireK, by activating the relevant switches in the cockpit, the pilot would set in motion the auto-observers, Hussenot trace recorders, which presented detailed pictures of the various parameters depicting the behaviour of the aircraft, controls, systems and the engine. Hence, for the first time, Indian engineers were exposed to the techniques of Flight Test instrumentation and analysis when developing aircraft.
On 31st July 1956, Ted Tennant had an elevator flutter and successfully ejected at 600 feet, with the Folland Ejection Seat. Wg. Cdr EJ Dhatigara (now a retired Air Marshal) had an accident inthe first Gnat earmarked for delivery to India (IE1059) on the airfield at Chilbolton, after a failure of the engine, perhaps due to Air Fuel Ratio Proportioner. Since he was not likely to make the airfield with undercarriage down, he did a good belly landing. But he was injured and admitted in hospital. He was visited regularly by the hospital staff and a Catholic Priest. One day the Priest asked, “Now, Son, are you ready for confession?” Dhati’s admission card had RC instead of Parsi under religion!
Bobby Dey had an injury due to a hard landing. This may be described elsewhere on this site.
On our side, the main architect of the instrumentation aspects was Peter A1buquerque (Now a retired AVM). As regards flight test analysis and development, yours truly was fully involved, along with Peter. Both of us along with Puranik were at Chilbolton from July-August 1957 to March 1958.
In Kanpur & HAL
Before I revert to the bravery of our test pilots, let me mention our corresponding technical set-up at Kanpur. The Gnat, as every other aircraft was to be tried, tested and evaluated under tropical conditions. Hence, Kanpur, with its truly tropical summers, was chosen as the facilities site to conduct the trials, and to build up the A&ATU and other technical facilities.
Incidentally, during the tropical tria1~, the DRDO sent two engineers for fami1iarisation with what we were doing. One of them was none other than Avu1 Pakir Jainu1abdeen Abdul Ka1am, who, as we all know, later became His Excellency The President of India.
At this point, I revert to our outstanding test pilots, who sweated it out under tropical conditions. Dasu, once again, was the leading light. Bhupinder Singh was the C.O. of the unit. Sudhakaran, another outstanding test pilot, was a vital member of .the team. Every low level sortie, at 400 to 450 Knots, cost him about l kg loss of weight (an aspect which he did not mind). On many occasions, he did two or even three such sorties in a day. What an achievement that was. Sudha also had the distinction of being the first pilot to fly the Gnat on Republic Day in 1958. His f1ypast was spectacular. Unfortunately, he was some what low, and was given a ‘Severe Reprimand’ from the present Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh.
Gnat IE 1061, the first instrumented aircraft, went-off the runway at Kanpur while landing on its second test flight. It was perhaps due to brake, or parachute and brake, failure. Thus, a second instrumented aircraft had to be prepared for the tropical trials. This was done in record time by Peter Albuquerque and his team, duly assisted by a couple ot Folland experts
Ace Test Pilot Sudhakaran had an engine failure during cabin conditioning test at low level out of Chakeri, Kanpur in the hot summer on 4th June 1960. He tried his best. to save the fully instrumented aircraft (IE 1063), and perhaps ejected too late. The other test pilots, good friends of mine, who lost their lives in the Gnat were Anil Munim and at HAL Jagat Lowe.
In conclusion, the Gnat in its pre-HAL flight development phase went on to attain top glory in the 1965 and 1971 Wars. It had many memorable moments, but also the loss of precious lives, which unfortunately included some of our brave test pilots. The type was developed by HAL as Ajeet, a stop-gap ground attack aircraft. Gnat’s performance was traded off for carriage of additional weapons. This prevented the depletion of IAF’s total strength of fighter squadrons at a time when the country had a serious resources crunch. Indigenous design capabilities gained a boost from this project. It is obvious that the decision to acquire Gnats, even before the aircraft was developed in the UK, proved of great benefit to the nation.