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Gnat – The IAF’s Small “Sabre Slayer”

The Gnat’s hour of glory came during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War. The IAF’s Gnat pilots quickly learned to engage the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Canadair F-86 Sabre jet, considered the best dogfighter of the period. In all, seven Sabres were shot down.

Issue: 09-2022By Joseph Noronha

The Gnat was an affordable light fighter aircraft, developed and produced by Folland Aircraft of Britain. The strength of this swept-wing subsonic jet lay in its small size, low weight, high manoeuvrability and low cost. It was an attempted fightback against the rising cost and size of combat aircraft from the 1950s onwards. The Gnat’s wing could be manufactured at a quarter of the cost, with less than one-fifth the labour required for the wings of other contemporary fighter aircraft. Yet the plane did not lack important features of a fighter like full pressurisation and an ejection seat. It was purchased as a trainer aircraft for the Royal Air Force (RAF) but as a fighter by export customers, including the Indian Air Force (IAF). In all, 449 Gnats were built in six main variants, including the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Gnat and Ajeet, built under licence in India.

The credit for the Gnat’s unique design goes to the British designer W.E.W. “Teddy” Petter. Soon after joining Folland Aircraft, Petter conducted a study and found that many fighter aircraft entailed far too great a cost to be readily produced during a conflict. On the other hand, a simple, compact, yet potent fighter could be manufactured both cheaply and easily and would have low purchase and operational costs. The light fighter concept became even more credible with the parallel emergence of new lightweight turbojet engines. The proposed design also made it possible for construction and maintenance to be carried out without specialised tools.

The Gnat’s low weight and tricycle landing gear let it operate from austere grass airstrips. Powered by a single Bristol Siddeley Orpheus 701-01 turbojet, it had a maximum speed of 605 knots and a range of 435 nm. It was armed with two 30mm Aden revolver-type cannon, firing from the outer edge of the air intakes. With a length of 9.07 m, wingspan of 6.76 m and height of 2.69 m, the Gnat was amazingly small for a fighter jet. Its gross weight as an interceptor was just 2,982 kg. In contrast, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21, which first flew in June 1955 and was also considered a lightweight fighter had a gross weight of 8,725 kg.

The Folland Gnat prototype first flew on July 18, 1955, and six aircraft were ordered by the British government. Strangely enough, it was never used as a fighter by the RAF but became world famous as the display aircraft of the RAF’s spectacular Red Arrows aerobatic team. The Gnat F.1 was exported to Finland, Yugoslavia and India. And whatever reputation it acquired for derring-do came from the IAF as its largest operator by far.

In September 1956 the Indian government placed a big order for Gnats. The initial batch were produced and first flown in the UK. The IAF’s first Gnat squadron was 23 Squadron, which converted from the Vampire FB.52 in March 1960. The IAF immediately took to the small fighter and shortly thereafter HAL signed a licensing agreement under which it built 175 aircraft. The first Gnat produced with India-built parts first flew in May 1962.

The Gnat has a unique place in Indian and perhaps world aviation history in that for nearly 30 years of its service in India it operated without a type trainer. IAF pilots after dual checks on the Hawker Hunter, went straight on to the first solo on the Gnat. And it was certainly not an easy aircraft to handle in the initial stages of training. Also some aircraft systems, especially the hydraulic and control systems and the Aden cannon, had low levels of reliability. There were many incidents and even some unfortunate fatal accidents.

The Gnat’s hour of glory came during the 1965 Indo-Pakistani War. The IAF’s Gnat pilots quickly learned to engage the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) Canadair F-86 Sabre jet, considered the best dogfighter of the period, in a vertical fight where the Sabre was at a disadvantage. The small Gnat was hard to spot, especially at the low levels where most engagements took place. In all, seven Sabres were shot down. Once again in the 1971 conflict, IAF Gnats shot down two PAF Sabres and badly damaged one over the then East Pakistan. The Gnat also earned the IAF its sole Param Vir Chakra (PVC), India’s highest gallantry award. Gnat pilot Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon single-handedly held out valiantly against six Sabres attacking Srinagar airfield, shooting two Sabres in the process, before being shot down himself. According to the official citation, “He succeeded in damaging two of the enemy aircraft. In the fight that followed, at tree-top height, he all but held his own, but was eventually overcome by sheer weight of numbers.” Sekhon was posthumously honoured with the PVC. The Gnat/Ajeet fighter was finally retired from IAF service in 1991.