By Group Captain D LAZARUS VrC (Retd)
The Gnat represents many firsts in my flying career. It took just three short years with this elite wonder, to initiate an aspiring 23 year old IAF pilot like myself into fighter flying.
Owing to my height I nearly did not make it. After several measuring sessions only was I cleared to fly this dinky toy! Though two of us six footers were posted in together, my shorter trunk and longer legs gave me the necessary clearance between the bone dome and canopy, while the other’s longer trunk disqualified him. It gave me the chance to get my hands on the Gnat, the IAF’s proven ‘Sabre slayer’.
The 1969 bunch of 22 Squadron pilots was professionally razor sharp and socially approachable. Flt Lts Bal, Munna Rai, Adi Ghandhi, Fg Offrs Baldy, Sathaye, Ganapathy and my course mates Su, PKT and MAW, gave me the first taste of a great flying brotherhood.
Back then, there were no Gnat trainer aircraft, so we trained on the fighter itself. As ab initio pilots we developed the ability to experiment by taking calculated risks. I remember Gana encouraging me to roll by using just rudders. This built confidence in handling the aircraft, without fear of getting into a spin.
Being fully ops on three other aircraft, can never match the thrill of experiencing it for the first time on the Gnat. Maiden milestones have great significance for us all!
You name an emergency (barring engine failure) and I experienced it on the Gnat. Out of seven brake failures, the one I remember best relates to the KKD runway’s distinguishing feature; the height difference of 35 feet between dumbbells. After a brake failure landing, as the aircraft slowed on the incline, I jumped out. The ATC officer was dumb-struck to see the aircraft, canopy open, move along the runway with no pilot in the cockpit. He did not spot me running alongside, towing it towards 17 ORP!
Aerial activities heated up by November 1971. Pakistan had not learnt the lesson of 1965 and continued to rattle their Sabres along the borders. On 22nd November a formation of four Gnats of 22 Squadron was scrambled by Bagchi, to intercept enemy aircraft. With a keen spotter like Su, we gained the advantage. This coupled with the vertical agility of the midge silenced the Sabres. After an exciting dogfight, we shot down all three intruders, securing a 100% kill. The Gnat had lived up to its name again, giving first kills to Mouse, Gana and self!
I took full advantage of the acclaim and publicity the aircraft enjoyed, when I ferried one to Sulur in January 1972. Indian Airlines wait-listed me on my return trip from Coimbatore to Madras. As I did a low level high-speed run and a zoom pull-up over Coimbatore airstrip, the ATC confirmed my seat to Madras. The Gnat had won many hearts back then!
With the passage of time, fickle hearts have newer toys to occupy them. For me, the petite Gnat will never become obsolete.