By Augustine JohnSingh
After the exciting Indo-Pak War of 1971 in which 6 other course mates and I of 103 Pilots Course (7 Flying Officers with 2 years service – Ajit Agtey, RK Poonia, DR Patankar, SS Hothi, late AS Sidhu, RS Khangura, and myself AJ) in No. 2 Squadron under the Command of the legendary then Wing Commander Jonathan William Greene (God is Greene and Greene is God), flying the LITTLE FIGHTER in a mainly Air Defence Role took part from Rajasansi, Amritsar then No. 4 M.E.M.U. and kept the people of Amritsar safe from any damage whatsoever, the Winged Arrows were ready to relieve its sister squadron at Ambala, the Flying Bullets (No.18 Squadron) of its duties temporarily at Srinagar (Late Fg.Offr.Sekhon PVC’s Sqn) and make our presence felt in that area to prevent any misadventure by our neigbour.
The squadron flew out from home base Ambala on May 05, 1972 to Srinagar and settled for ORP duties in the beautiful valley of Kashmir, where spring was in bloom. I brought back Gnat E 326 for servicing back to Ambala on May 12. On May 16, 1972, I took off in E1038 for Srinagar, but noticing a fuel transfer problem over Patankot returned back for Ambala. Later on the same day around noon I taxied out in E1053 for take off from runway 30 necessitating a Northerly turn to the right for Patankot. All was good till rotation and lift off and just about the initial part of the take off. Then all hell broke loose.
I rotated and checked forward to hold the take off attitude, applied brakes for the wheels to stop rotating, and my hand was on the undercarriage lever and was just about to raise the undercarriage, when the nose started to ride up viciously forcing me to move the stick fully forward to no avail. The nose continued to ride up as if doing a loop. I immediately ‘SPLIT TAIL’ with the stick fully forward that REDUCED the rate of ride up, which PROBABLY SAVED MY LIFE.(For those not familiar with the Gnat splitting the Tail allows elevator to be operated manually in conjunction with the tailplane operated hydraulically, or electrically as a trimmer to achieve greater longitudinal control of the aircraft in an emergency). This action though reduced the rate of ride up with the stick fully forward, the nose continued to go up. I noticed the speed meanwhile dropped to 150 KIAS and dropping to Staling Speed. The throttle was fully forward at 10000 RPM, height must be or less or close to the minimum ejection minima (500ft AGL & 130 KIAS). The thought of ejection came, but I could not leave the stick to eject. It was happening too fast. Thinking of it I am not sure if I could have been around the minimum ejection height. The ATC did not see the tamasha going on. SMALL BIRD!!
When I saw the speed dropping to 130 KIAS ( very close to wings level and straight & level stalling speed) in that cock-up-attitude, I kept cool, and remembering the effect of controls taught to me as a flight cadet at Elementry Flying School, I gingerly put on 30 degree bank to the left with the stick fully forward and no backward pressure what-so-ever. The nose stopped to ride up stopped and it dropped slowly like a lazy wing over to the left. This is all with undercarriage down, full throttle and stick fully forward. ( I am getting goose bumps thinking of it). Once my attitude dropped below the horizon, I again gingerly, when the speed was 150 KIAS gently got wings level and selected the main trim CB (circuit breaker) OFF and made sure and confirmed the Emergency Trim CB also ‘OFF’ too. Now I was heading for the trees perhaps in the Diary Farm by the side of the GT Road. When the speed hit 180 KIAS, the nose started to rise again with the stick fully forward. This time I decided, I am getting out if it if this ride up continued and was uncontrollable. To my relief the nose stopped to ride up but still in a steep climbing attitude with the speed settling down at 180 KIAS. Oh boy! I told myself let’s us climb to safety. (Whooch David seeing this take-off from GreenField where Eighteen or Flying Bullets was located later told me what he thought to himself, “Shit-hot take off. But, stupid F—–r has not raised his undercarriage!).
Settled into the climb at 180 KIAS with U/C down, throttle full, and stick fully forward with intention to climb overhead Ambala, I noticed the tailplane stuck at -11 degrees. I checked out the functioning of the tailplane by individually selecting the Main and Emergency trimmer with the other ‘OFF’ to check out the functioning of the Hobson Unit and the slab tail. I confirmed both CB’s OFF after the trials, and confirmed to myself that the Hobson and tailplane was jammed and could not be moved hydraulically or electrically from that -11 degree position. I did not attempt to check if the trim worked with the stick near the neutral position (trim cut out feature). Not a good idea.
I transmitted to the ATC of my ‘Small Emergency’ and told them of my intentions of climbing overhead at 180 KIAS. As my whole squadron was at Srinagar, WingCo Khashikar, Sqn.Ldr. BI Singh and the famous Munchy Captain, all from Eighteen were on their way to the ATC to give me help and guide me a young Flying Officer through the emergency. I was by then at 17,000 feet over Ambala. And again, recollecting the effect of power from Elementary Flying School on the HT-2, I leveled out at 180 KIAS by reducing power around 8700 RPM, but still with stick fully forward and undercarriage down. I was hanging around there and waiting for guidance to arrive from the ground, when ‘stupidly’ I wanted to see what would have happened if ‘THEN” I had raised my undercarriage. I did it keeping my left hand on the U/C lever. Yes, the nose started to go UP. I immediately selected it to down and confirmed ‘Three Greens’. I let WingCo Kashikar who with the others had come to the ATC know my situation, what actions I had done, and my observations. As there was nothing more to do, WingCo asked me to descend to 10,000 feet. Simple, reduce power to maintain a descent at 180 KIAS with stick fully forward. Reported leveling out at 10,000 feet. Simple again, opened to around 8500 RPM, the nose came up with stick fully forward and then maintained level at 180KIAS.
Then, something happened which brought some humour to that situation, WingCo Kashikar instructed me, “AJ, see if you can burn up some fuel at 10,000.” I literally laughed on the R/T and told me, not in jest but in good spirits, “Sir, I will climb if I open power.” He also laughed it out. Then he told me, “AJ, come down and attempt a landing.” I knew that I may have only one good shot at it. I was cool and in control of the situation.
I reduced power to around 7500 RPM with approximately 2000 feet rate of descent and carried out a descending Practice Forced Landing pattern for Runway 30. I kept transmitting my selection and condition of flight all the time especially that my stick was fully forward, in case there was record of things if something happened to me. I carried out my downwind checks, and aligned for long finals, keeping my speed 180 KIAS on top of finals aiming to get 160+ KIAS over the threshold as I had extra fuel on board. I was cleared to land and wished good luck. I had already thought of and went through in my mind of my actions when approaching round off height to pull off a landing (IT WAS ALL MY IDEA). Even on short finals my stick was fully forward in power with tail split (“Can you BELIEVE IT?”). I reported that for the last time. I was aligned with centre line passing through my legs and the LITTLE BIRD under control.
Just short of round off, I LEFT the stick with my right hand from the fully forward position ‘to let go’ of the forward pressure completely, and as the nose started to COME UP just as I expected, I in one action or motion with my left hand selected Power Off and moved the throttle lever further all the way back to HP Cock OFF position. The aircraft settled down gently on its main wheels. A ‘beauty of a landing’ per Munchy Captain, who was by then at the ACP hut. The nose lowered, waited for the speed to come down, maintained directional control with rudders and then deployed the tailchute which DID deploy to my relief but making me juggle with the rudders and brakes to keep the aircraft going straight, raising your BP. Jettisoned chute and stopped the GNAT on the runway. I FELT GOOD. Unlike that day, writing this much 36 years after the incident I could feel the tension built up till the ‘touchdown’ part which has made me relax (I am married for 36 years).
I took off the next day for Srinagar in E1038. The first thing that WingCo Greene asked me was, “AJ, why didn’t you eject?.” I told him, “Sir, I could not leave the stick to eject.” He explained to me that if the Hobson had to decided to work on short finals, I would have been dead meat, and that the best bet was to get controls to manual. Think of it, I should have been doing bunts. I don’t know how it would have been to fly in manual with the Hobson stuck at minus 11 degrees, unless I was somehow able to get the stick to neutral position or override the cross trim cut out.
Air Cmde Kuruvilla and his team of R&SS airframe and electricians with the help of the resident HAL guys found the snag exactly as I reported and the tailplane could not be operated hydraulically or electrically. They took out the Hobson and sent it to HAL for further analysis. And guess what? Kuru showed me the HAL report, “The snag as reported by the pilot could NOT be identified!!” I was hoping that Hobson, after servicing, was not fitted in another aircraft.
Sadly, this very same aircraft E1053, having been reallotted after a Major servicing, killed Flt.Lt. Muthu Kumar at Hashimara soon after take off with the U/C down, but this time it was one aileron going into manual. Muthu thinking that one of the tanks had dropped punched the D/T jettison button to get rid of the other one. But it was not to be. His knee got smashed giving the COI a clue. Parvez Hamilton Khoker in reacting quickly saved his life at Halwara soon after getting airborne by getting rid of his other drop tank.
The following is my analysis of how the emergency took place. Trimmed for take off when the nose wheel is raised on the take off roll, the tailplane assumes minus 11 degrees approximately, and when one unsticks the slabtail takes up momentarily about minus 14 degrees. Then soon after you get airborne when you check the nose up pitch by relaxing on the backward pressure gently to obtain the correct take off attitude, the tailplane takes up back the minus 11 degree nose up position. That is where it got stuck. (Test Pilots please correct me on this). Now with the aircraft accelerating, with the undercarriage down, the pitch up took place.
I was awarded The Chief of Air Staff’s Commendation. My CO had recommended me for a VM. The incident made me a better pilot and I was proud that I pulled it off keeping a cool head. I have no doubts that the Gnat made me the Pilot I developed into giving me the right amount of confidence. It reflected in my ability as a Fighter Pilot, an Instructor Pilot and as a Production Test Pilot.
Air Marshal Raghavendran writing about the Gnat and about their PAI course in England expressed the exact same words that I used to convey to the junior pilots in the squadrons I have been, “You may come to a Gnat squadron as an average pilot, but if you survive the tenure, you have no choice but to leave the squadron as an Above Average Pilot.”
Mrs Cynthia Greene, telling us stories while at TWO about their stay in the UK when then Wg Cdr JW Greene was the Deputy Air Attache there, sums up the quality of the diminutive GNAT, when on a visit to Chilbolton, to a question posed regarding the Hunter Vs Gnat comparison, the gentleman taking them around the Folland factory told them, “Gentlemen fly Hunters, PILOTS FLY GNATS.”