Lessons from the Gnat


I was looking through net-space in search of interesting factoids from unusual ventures in aviation when I chanced upon this Web Page (http://www.airvectors.net/avgnat.html).

The page deals with the Folland Gnat. Since the Gnat and I have had a long lasting love affair, I went through this page carefully. Many little lines jumped out to catch my attention.

I am penning this little note to share the interesting tidbits with my readers even though this little note cannot really be called a ‘Tale’.

Point 1

The Gnat prototype was refitted with an uprated preproduction Orpheus engine to put on flight displays at the Farnborough air show that year. While the RAF had no requirement for such a machine, the government wanted to encourage Folland in their work, and so the British Ministry of Supply (MoS) ordered six prototypes of the full-development aircraft for evaluation.

The evaluation Gnats were powered by the production-spec Bristol Orpheus 701 turbojet with 20.1 kN (2,042 kgp / 4,502 lbf) thrust. Most of the test flights were conducted in the UK, though ground-attack trials were performed in Aden (now Yemen). The report from the RAF evaluation generally praised the Gnat’s performance, but there were criticisms of its flight-control systems, and there was no consensus that the Gnat was what the RAF needed. The Gnat fighter never served operationally in Britain, though the MoS did order two more Gnats on top of the original order for six.

This forward-looking interaction between the Government and the Industry is what we miss in India. By this singular decision to support Folland in their Gnat project, the British Government created an export market for military aviation that lasted for three decades.

Point 2

The Gnat went into IAF service in the spring of 1958, with the first Gnat assembled by HAL from a kit flying in Bangalore on 18 November 1959. HAL then went on to build 195 Gnats themselves up to early 1974. The first completely HAL-built Gnat flew on 21 May 1962. IAF pilots were delighted with the nimble Gnat, which they felt was more than a match for Pakistani F-86s and MiG-19s, and nicknamed it the “Saber Slayer”.

HAL took 13 years to produce 195 aircraft. Just over 15 aircraft per year. The Gnat was, by the way, a rather simple aircraft to manufacture (albeit it was a terrible toy to maintain!)

Point 3

The RAF had shown no real interest in the Gnat fighter, but Teddy Petter was persistent, proposing the tandem-seat “Fo-144” trainer version of the Gnat. The RAF liked the idea, and a contract for 14 preproduction “Gnat T.1” trainers was placed in 1958. The first performed its initial flight on 31 August 1959.

Just one year and five months to move from an order for 14 pre-production aircraft to the first flight of the first aircraft? How I wish this could happen in India!

Point 4

The Gnat T.1 had no gun armament, but retained the twin stores pylons. It was powered by a Bristol Orpheus 4-100 engine with 18.8 kN (1,920 kgp / 4,230 lbf) thrust. It featured a larger tail, plus a bigger wing with integral fuel tanks, 40% greater wing area, and conventional ailerons and flaps instead of flaperons.

The Gnat T1 was quite different from the Gnat F1. Different and larger wing, different and more numerous control surfaces, different (lower powered) engine, deletion of internal gun armament and related gunsight/radar ranging equipment. The metamorphosis was still achieved in real quick time.

Point 5

The RAF was pleased with the Gnat T.1 and ordered 91 more, for a total of 105. These were built between 1962 and 1965 by Hawker-Siddeley, which had bought out Folland since the government was strongly encouraging consolidation of Britain’s aviation industry.

91 aircraft were built over 4 years. A rate of production of 22 or 23 aircraft per year. Also noteworthy is the fact that 14 preproduction aircraft were used intensively for over three years before a larger production order was placed. Folland did not shy away from setting up an intensive production line even though the production order was only for 91 aircraft. A strong contrast to what we are seeing in the LCA project! Alas.


18 responses »

  1. Lessons from the Gnat indeed. How about the most important one that you managed to leave out , while shedding tears over how from order to pre production shipping it took 1 year and X months only for the Gnat T1 trainer. So, let me highlight that point from the same article you posted.

    * HAL also designed a two-seat trainer version of the Ajeet, with a lengthened fuselage and a tandem dual-cockpit design. Two internal fuel tanks were deleted to accommodate the second cockpit. The two 30 millimeter cannon and the four stores pylons were retained, though the cannon could be removed and replaced with additional fuel tanks. The trainer used the same Orpheus 701 engine as the Gnat and Ajeet fighters.

    The Ajeet trainer never reached production. One prototype was built in 1982 and crashed in that year, a second prototype flew in 1983, and then the program went into limbo, to eventually fade out. Some sources claim that 30 Ajeet trainers were built, but this is hard to believe. The IAF’s requirement for an advanced trainer became something of an infamous saga, remaining unfilled through the 1980s and 1990s, until the service settled on the BAE Hawk.

    So HAL actually produced a fully combat capable trainer, which could have been used as an AJT if you wanted to actually do so,but preferred to wait for 30 years before going out and buying the Hawk!

    Go on, let us all blame HAL on how incompetent they are, couldn’t think proactively on what will be needed (remember the poor sods proposed and built he HTT-34 trainer as well to rectify the HPT-32 faults back then) ! And now, just as their AJT was killed and they were kicked in the teeth for actually putting up their own money and coming up with a trainer, so too were they kicked in the teeth on the basic trainer and a watered down , “good enough” trainer is imported from Sweden.

    Good show eh what ? Time for HAL to give the birdie to the IAF and tell them to take a walk and actually build the HTT 40 and sell it to the Army and BSF and Navy and help the Army and BSF raise fixed wing groups and stiff the IAF.

  2. Does the GoI or for that matter even IAF support HAL to the extent that the British government did for Folland? Therein lies your answer!


    • DK,
      I think that was somewhat unkind. While I admit that in my opinion the HAL is not very efficient, still, it is not totally incompetent. After all, more than 50% of all flying in my lifetime have been on aircraft produced by the HAL!


  3. The Gnat was a brilliant solution to many problems. Had Petter not been such a deeply religious man it could have been a greater commercial success. He was also somewhat blunt and outspoken and stubborn. Apparently the Air Staff did not get along too well with him.

    Once Hawkers took over Folland in the enforced merger of the British Aero Industry Hawkers “politely but firmly” discouraged any interest by customers of the Gnat because it would affect Hunter sales. This was a great pity for everyone concerned because further development of the Gnat along the lines of Heinmann’s “hot rod” the A4 Skyhawk would have given a second iron in the fire. The A4 also had single hydraulics to begin with but they corrected it pretty soon! And look at the way they kept upgrading the equipment and the power.The Hunter sales dried up after sources of second hand Hunter air frames ( Belgium, Sweden) dried up. Hawker’s never gave the Gnat a chance because it was not invented “here”. Sic transit Gloria!”

  4. Castigating HAL ” A white elephant” is unfair assessment. A white elephant is an idiom for a valuable but burdensome possession of which its owner cannot dispose and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep ) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.
    Financial result of HAL for the year 2010-11 is as follow:
    Revenue generation—13061 crore(2.2 billion us dollar)
    Net income—- 2718 crore
    Employee generation (direct)—33,990.
    Beside creating huge vendor base which also create millions of jobs. I am not debating how much it is saving our import expense.
    HAL is one of the Nava ratna.

  5. Sir,
    Your write up is an interesting case study on ” How to sell a sub standard product in Indian market”.

    Gnat’s order booking pattern
    Finland— !3 numbers. No repeat order as it did not fit into their long term vision. They found it to be very problematic aircraft.
    Yogoslavia— 2 numbers. One crashed and the other is preserved and on display.
    RAF — Used as trainer and became Red Arrows aerobatic team.
    India — Large quantity & used as a mainstream fighter.
    Some interesting points emerge from this data. Gnat had no takers in world aviation market. Finlaand and Yogoslavia found it to be substandard. What intrigues me : (a) With such poor market survey why Folland invested so heavily on product development and opening new assembly line. (b) Why IAF choose a product which had no takers in the world aviation market?

    • Dear Mridula

      The lessons I intended to draw from my little note was to highlight the differences that exist in our aircraft industry as compared to the aircraft industry in the West. You seem to have drawn a different lesson. Unfortunately your lessons are apparently based on an incomplete data set. You may consider the additional points that I append below.

      a. Folland did not try to sell the Gnat to India. The transaction took place because an Indian Team headed by Air Marshal PC Lal happened to see a demonstration by the Midge (which was a precursor to the Gnat) and was impressed by it. The Lal committee recommended a second look at the proposed Gnat and our purchase of the aircraft flowed from that recommendation.

      b. RAF had no requirement for the Gnat Fighter as the concept of the Gnat was contrary to the then prevalent philosophy of aircraft design which was oriented towards supersonic aircraft. Mr Petter, who had just designed the English Electric Lightning just before he joined Folland to begin his work on the Gnat, was disenchanted with the then existing philosophy. He was convinced that in designing a fighter small will be wonderful; The Gnat was his assertion of conviction.

      c. The French, the Americans, the Swedes, the Russians, the Italians, all had their own pet trans-sonic product coming into Service with their air forces at that point of time. No one needed the Gnat. Indians were in need of an air defence aircraft; the Marut was turning out to be too under-powered in the air defence role. We there fore purchased the Hunter and the Mystere along with the Canberra in the strike role, and joined Folland for co-development of the Gnat. We posted numerous test pilots to Hamble and undertook a major share in the development of the aircraft. It was a good enriching experience for us.

      d. The small quantity of the Gnats sales outside India has nd bearing on the merit of our decision to buy the Gnat.

      The IAF loved the Gnat. In its limited short range low-level point defense role in the WVR / Guns mode, it was a world beater. I have not met a pilot who has flown the Gnat and has not loved it. In the two wars of 1965 and 1971 it proved its worth. The Gnat however was designed in the mid fifties. It was difficult to maintain. Its Hydraulic/Electrical Hybrid screw-jack based powered control system (called the Hobson Unit) was technically challenging to maintain. It also had a severe handicap in the form of its tendency for jamming of its guns which had robbed many a pilot of their legitimate kills in the two wars that it was engaged in. HAL was unable to rectify this problem even in the Ajeet. By 1991 the Gnat/Ajeet had to retire.

      In summary then, the Gnat was not thrust down the IAF’s throat. The IAF agreed with the philosophy espoused by Mr Petter and worked hard with him to prove his concept. The IAF ordered a large fleet of the aircraft and was happy with its choice. It served for three decades with distinction in two wars and retired gracefully.

      • Sir,
        Thanks for giving lot of clarity on Gnat’s purchase process. I am not an aviation expert. My impression is based on conventional wisdom and industry experience. When I shop for high capital intensive product , I take the following parameters into consideration.
        • It should be need based, price competitive, better quality in respect to customer product and sustainable for long term development. Let us examine how does Gnat fit into these parameters.
        Was it need based? : No. What was IAF’ need at that period of time? I quote from an article, “If India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had a pet project it was non-alignment. Yet on November 19, 1962, as waves of Chinese soldiers rolled across the Himalayas, Nehru, going against every grain of his non-aligned soul, sent out this SOS to US President John F. Kennedy: “The situation that has developed is….desperate. We have to have more comprehensive assistance if the Chinese are to be prevented from taking over the whole of Eastern India. Any delay in this assistance reaching us will result in nothing short of a catastrophe for our country.”

        Nehru, in a state of panic, listed out what he needed – at least “12 squadrons of supersonic all-weather fighters” and “modern radar cover that we don’t have”. “US Air Force personnel will have to man these… while our personnel are being trained. US fighters and transport planes manned by US personnel will be used for the present to protect our cities and installations from Chinese air attacks….”
        So Sir, the need was supersonic all – weather fighters definitely not Gnat.
        Was it price competitive? Don’t know. However I was reading TTK’s budget speech of 57 in which defense budget allocation was 252.71 crores. And we had an opposition who were opposed to defense spending. Here’s what noted Gandhian Acharya Kriplani said on the defense budget in Parliament in 1957: “The mounting expenses on the army must be cut down. The followers of Gandhi and adherents of universal peace should not increase military expenditure.” Five years later when the Chinese attack caught India napping, the same Kriplani was calling for heads to roll. It never occurred to him that he was one of the playmakers of the debacle.
        With so low budgetary allocation Air Marshal P.C Lal had no other alternative, than to shop for a low cost , low technology fighter. British new it. Air Marshall Higgins was in the Hal’s board of directors in let forties.
        Was it superior to competitor’s product?: No. On technical specifications Saber jet and Star fighter were superior to Gnat. The men behind Sabre were inefficient. On the contrary the men behind Gnat were brilliant, skilled, motivated and patriotic. It was our pilots who have brought glory to an inferior product than the competitor.

      • Dear Mridula

        We are really drifting away from our original note. However, you have made some strong comments on the purchase of the Gnat which need to be responded to.

        You have put up a set of criteria for your comments:

        It should be need based, price competitive, better quality in respect to customer product and sustainable for long term development. Let us examine how does Gnat fit into these parameters.

        Then you go on say that It was not need based because in 1962 JLN had asked/begged for ‘supersonic’ fighters from the USA. Once again, your comment/assertion seems to be based on incomplete data.

        JLN’s appeal to USA was made without a reference to the Air HQ. An urban legend attributes the letter to the US Government to an advice by the US Ambassador to JLN! The Air Force did not see the need to be 12 squadrons of supersonic fighters.

        In the 50s,60s,70s, and 80s, the period for which the Gnat was procured, there was NO supersonic low level threat to India. The Gnat was a superb platform for low level combat over the plains of punjab. It was also very capable at low level over the Tibetan plateau. For a high level high speed threat, MiG 21s were procured in 1962 and other more modern aircraft followed in due course of time.

        Then you say that you do not know whether it was cost-effective, Yet you pull out J B Kripalni’s antics in the lok sabha as if it has any bearing on the Gnat being cost effective.

        Let me assure you that the Gnat was the most economical trans-sonnic fighter in the whole world.

        Finally you say that the Sabre and the F104 were technically superior to the Gnat. I really wonder where you got that impression from.

        The Sabre was a good design for its vintage, but it goes back to a late forties early fifties concept. At low level, in the air to air role, it just could not stand up to the Gnat F1.

        The star fighter was a celebrated widow maker. It was produced in a hurry and it was withdrawn from service the world over in a hurry. Its service life was just over ten years. (you may like to compare that to the life span of the MiG21.)

        I suggest that as far as the Gnat is concerned you might be barking up a wrong tree. You may also like to look up the rejoinder by Prodyut.

    • Then how do you explain the IAF successes against F86 aircraft belonging to Pakistan?
      The huge balls of IAF pilots (there is a reason IAF has such a very high training accident rate)
      Plus an excellent aircraft in the Gnat for a real “killer” combination.
      Victory = high number of training hours, excellent aircraft, good pilots!

  6. Mridula
    This nonsense about Supersonic capability is one of those things the West has always propounded because it suited their needs of Marketing.It created an entry barrier for countries like us and China who would have otherwise entered the market.Nowhere in the world has any supersonic combat taken place and aircraft were actually at amaximum of 450kts when they engaged in combat whereas you would need to be doing close to 690kts to be supersonic near the ground.

  7. Sir and Prodyutji,
    I agree that with incomplete data it is difficult to win arguments with the Masters. Neither do I agree that arguments put forward by the Masters are sacrosanct. Our defense purchase machinery is filled with corrupt officials, crony capitalists and a stifling bureaucracy. Your gnat story gives a glimpse of that . When a company gets in to licensing agreement with another company for product manufacturing and development , the maximum weightage given to the quality of the company they are going to engage with .
    Let us have a background check on Falland:
    • British Marine Aircraft Limited (erstwhile name of Falland ) was formed in February 1936 to produce flying boats under license in the UK.
    • The company suffered great deal of financial loss within few years of operation .The liquidators considered mergers with other British aircraft companies including one with Westland Aircraft which was not concluded. Following failure of the Westland deal the liquidators appointed a new management board in May 1937 to stem the losses and re-organise the company which was renamed later in 1937 to Folland Aircraft Company after Henry P. Folland the company’s managing director and aircraft designer.
    • The new company began aircraft assembly and sub-contract work for making parts Spitfire,Mosquitos and Vickers.
    • The first aircraft of its own design to fly was the Folland Fo.108 in 1940 and Folland F.115. Both were commercial failures.
    • In 1950 W.E.W Petter who had designed the Westland Lysander, English Electric Canberra and English Electric Lightning, joined the company as managing director in 1950 . He designed Folland Midge and Folland Gnat. Folland Gnat had no takers except India.
    • Even this India deal could not save the company to be financially viable. In 1959 Folland was acquired by Hawker Siddeley who dropped the Folland name in 1963. Ultimately, Folland became part of British Aerospace (BAe).
    • One advantage of licensed production is the constant support of R&D and constant flow of new design. Gnat deal did not get any such advantages with a liquidated company.
    • On vendor quality rating it will not score even 2/10. It will remain a mystery on what ground this deal was made. Was it a distress purchase? What a company to be associated with?
    How great this aircraft was?
    • All Air Force pilots love this aircraft for sure. It has attained folklore status. A book has also been written. This fighter has given India many heroes ( I have list of their names). Each kill of Gnat has a graphic description. It has thrown a villain too (the pilot who landed a gnat in Pakistan).
    • All these scores are against one aircraft.
    • Initial days it was a problematic aircraft. Wg.cdr Suranjan Das and HAL did lot of development work. No support from the parent company. Probably for these reasons Mr.Petter was offered chief designer post.
    • Hal could not develop it to a trainer.
    • It could not be redesigned for aircraft carrier use.
    Pradyoutji gave some 450/650 knot example. It is too technical for me. What I understand is that higher the speed , higher the productivity.
    This has been a fascinating week for me. I learned a lot. Thanks to you and your blog.

  8. As a South African Mask that you consider historical facts. The fact is that in every war the Gnat participated in it came out on top this is either because:
    1.The Gnat was a superior aircraft to anything the Pakistani’s were flying at the time.
    2.The iaf pilots were superior to the Pakistani pilots of the time.
    3.Or my answer, that it was a combination of the two along with superior logistical and engineering support on the part of the iaf.

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