By Air Marshal PK (Babi) Dey
I was introduced to the Folland Gnat in early March, 1958. I had graduated from the Empire Test Pilots’ School, then in Farnborough, a few months earlier. This was followed by a few weeks of production testing of Hunters being produced for the IAF at Hawker aircraft at Dunsfold. I was then posted to Folland Aircraft with whom the Government of India had signed a contract for purchase and production of the Gnat MkI at Hindustan Aircraft Ltd in Bangalore. The Gnat was still in the prototype testing phase, and so it was encouraging for me to become involved in this work so soon after graduating from ETPS.
I had seen the Gnat for the first time during the Farnborough Air Show in 1957 where the late Gp Capt Suranjan Das thrilled spectators from all over the world with his brilliant low level aerobatic display. While the company offices and factory were at Hamble in Southampton, the World War II airfield at Chilbolton in Hampshire was leased to Follands for their Gnat programme. At Chilbolton I was met and warmly welcomed by the Gnat testing and development team – EA (Ted) Tennant – the Chief Test Pilot, Suranjan Das, Mike Oliver and Dick Whittington. The late Sudhakaran had left recently and I was his replacement. John and Robbie manned the ATC, and Derby the emergency services. We also had with us two IAF technical officers – Peter Albuquerque and ‘Frenchie’ Puranik. It was a close knit family who merged together as only a small group can – the wives of the married ones joining in with an almost natural bonding. Dasu, and I and our tech officers felt ourselves very personally involved with the Gnat and its development and this was, I like to believe, a reflection of the quality and character of the aircraft itself!! All aircraft( like ships) belong to the feminine gender and the Gnat was one hell of a special and unique lady! It may sound strange giving an aircraft a human face – but the very fact that now, fifty years later, there is so much enthusiasm within India for remembering this the world’s first lightweight fighter, proves it’s very human side!
The Gnat was the brainchild of W E W Petter, also known as the ‘thin man genius’, whose design career went far back into World War II when he designed the Lysander which was used a lot by Allied agents to be dropped behind enemy lines in short unprepared airstrips. Petter was to be later largely responsible for the design of the Canberra and the first of the ‘V’ bombers and the Lightning. He visualised that newer combat aircraft were getting bigger and more expensive by leaps and bounds and needing ever longer runways and elaborate support infrastructure. And so he founded Folland Aircraft. And the Gnat was his response to this trend – designed to be the world’s first lightweight fighter, able to operate from short fields, and have the performance to rapidly climb and intercept and destroy invading bombers before they could even cross the Channel. Sadly, the UK Government had already committed themselves to the Hunter, the Harrier and the Lightning, and they grudgingly granted a mere thousand hours of development flying for the Gnat. And this was where the Indian Government, ever on the lookout for less expensive answers for their needs, stepped in and contracted to take the aircraft for construction in India under licence. The forerunner to the Gnat was the prototype Midge, and the ultimate aim was to produce a supersonic Gnat Mk II powered by the Bristol Orpheus 12 in place of the Orpheus 700 series that powered the Gnat Mk I. But the Orpheus 12 also became a victim of the UK Government’s restructuring of the aircraft industry for greater economy and efficiency, and never saw the light of day.
That is now history. The summers of 1958 and 1959 were halcyon days and my affair with the Gnat bloomed and blossomed – but all was never smooth sailing. Prototype testing carries with it many sudden and unexpected pitfalls. And the Gnat was high spirited and moody and could never be taken for granted. I was eagerly looking forward to participating in the 1958 Farnborough Air Show but fate had its own agenda. On 15 July the Gnat and I had our first and only major tiff. Having exhilarated in a high speed dive to explore control characteristics at supersonic speeds, the lady decided to ‘sulk’ and retired into a total electrical failure and the subsequent loss of trim control made her extremely difficult to handle while landing. The flight ended disastrously with me spending a month in hospital with a compressed fracture of the spine – and the aircraft too suffered major damage. By the time I had recovered enough to tentatively resume my relationship with the Gnat, the air show had come and gone. The ‘lady’ continued with us on her development path, seemingly unaffected but also suitably apologetic – and I learned that if I had ‘split her tail’ after the electrical failure, my return to earth after that flight would have her responding in a very docile manner. But nobody had foreseen that my particular problem would happen.
I returned to India to join HAL on deputation in late 1959. The Gnat was well on its way to production for the IAF and this was the major activity of the factory. However, the limited funds provided by the UK Government for development of the Gnat carried its own unpleasant consequences. Longitudinal and lateral control problems reared their ugly heads and consumed precious lives, including three very fine and valuable test pilots. But the fondness of the squadron pilots for this mighty midget never dissipated. War with neighbours came in quick succession – in 1962 and 1965. While the 1962 conflict with China ended before and without any air force involvement, the 1965 war with Pakistan was much more widespread. Early days saw the disaster of launching outdated Vampires against the Pakistani Sabres – and then, suddenly, the Gnat was blooded and showed her class and potential. She earned the name “ Sabre Killer” and the appearance of such a tiny but highly manoeuvrable and lethal opponent seemed to take the enemy by surprise. The whole nation applauded the Gnat for her contribution to that war and today many Gnat monuments in different areas ensure that she will not be easily forgotten.
The Gnat is no longer in the service of the IAF – but there is an overwhelming fondness for her in the hearts and minds of the many who have been privileged to fly her. No other aircraft has evoked this kind of emotion in our pilots and the 50th anniversary of her induction into our service has been an event for many reminiscences and exchanges of stories and encounters.
When my old friend Pushpinder rang up to say he was writing a book about that grand old lady – the Gnat – he said that the Gnat could not be spoken of without associating it with Babi Dey! And I could not deny my close involvement, and agreed to share some of the thoughts that flood my mind as I think back over the good times we had together. The Gnat and I had a glorious affair that began 50 years and 6 months ago to the day before Pushpinder and I now sit and share a drink and talk about that lovely exciting lady. It was on 4th March, 1958 that I went out on my first ‘date’ with the Gnat – and it was a case of ‘love at first sight’! I was not yet 24. Now, when hundreds of her other lovers join me in a tribute, I can only say, “ Thank you , sweet lady, it was a privilege to have been one of your admirers. You served us and the Indian Air Force extremely well. We shall never forget you.”