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The Folland Gnat and the IAF: Midget Interceptor That Became the Sabre Killer

A senior air warrior, graduate from the Staff College, and a PG in military studies. He is qualified to write on war and allied matters


Introduction to the IAF

Flying began in India as early as 1910. This was just after half a dozen years of the pioneering flights of Orville and Wilbur Wright in America. During the First World War several Indians joined the Royal Flying Corps, one of them being awarded the D.F.C. He was the nephew of one of the pioneer Indian pilots, who was among the first six cadets to join the Indian Air Force.

From 1919 until 1933 the air defence of India was in the hands of a few squadrons of the Royal Air Force which served in aid of the Army in the northwest. Frontier.

The foundations of the Indian Air Force were laid by the recommendations of a famous Government Commission, which included amongst its member's such well-known names in Indian public affairs as Mr. Motilal Nehru and Mr. M. A. Jinnah.

On the 1st of April 1927, the Skeene Committee made recommendations which led to the formation of an Indian Air Force and suggested that, in the early stages, its pilots be trained at Cranwell. It was not, however, until five years later, in 1932, that the Indian Air Force became a separate service under an Act of the Legislative Assembly.

The Indian Air Force was created by an act of the British Parliament in 1932. This was based on the Skeene committee which submitted its report to the then Viceroy. The first batch of 10 pilots and was located at an airfield close to Karachi (Now in Pakistan).

These were known as Hawai sepoys. The first aircraft was seconded from the Royal Air Force and this continued as during the war years. British planes like the Hurricane and spitfire were inducted in the IAF. After independence, this trend continued and in the early fifties, a need was felt for a fighter-interceptor. A committee of the IAF opted for the Folland Gnat a British plane. The team had seen the performance of the plane in England and recommended for its induction in the IAF. The government agreed and the Gnat was incorporated in the IAF. The Folland Gnat was a fighter bomber and was part of the Indian Air Force fleet for more than three decades.


The Gnat

The Gnat was a subsonic fighter plane and had a maximum speed of 0.98 Mach, but in that period there were not many supersonics. It had a single-engine and carried a single pilot. The Gnat was a midget single-seat, single-engine plane that had a terrific turning radius and acceleration. This was its plus point and in combat, with the F86 (Sabre Jet) of the Pakistan Air Force, the Gnat was the winner. In India it was christened the Ajeet.

The Folland Gnat was a small, swept-wing British subsonic jet trainer and light fighter aircraft developed by Folland Aircraft for the Royal Air Force, and flown extensively by the Indian Air Force. The Gnat was designed by W.E.W. Petter as a development of the private venture Folland Midge, and first flew in 1955. It was billed as per specifications given by the royal air force. But the RAF soon lost interest in the plane as they turned to faster planes like the Lightning.

The Indian Air Force pilots who had been to England in the mid-50s and had flown the jet were suitably impressed and they recommended it to the government of India. The government of India negotiated with the British government and the aircraft company and the first Gnat joined the Air Force in 1959.

The Folland Gnat was a light fighter aircraft, suitable as both a trainer and a combat aircraft and could carry out ground-attack and day-fighter roles. The cockpit had advanced features like full pressurization, climate control, and a Martin-Baker ejection seat.

The Gnat took part in the wars of 65 and 71 with Pakistan. It was not used in the 1962 war with China as a decision was taken by the government not to use air power for fear that the conflict would be escalated. In the 62 war, most gnats were grounded and did not take part in any action. The gnat however played a stellar role in the 65 war and is considered a success. It also had an important role in the 1971 war, but then there were other aircraft available at that time.

The gnat could also be used as close support aircraft for ground operations and could carry two 500 lb. bombs. It was basically an interceptor, The RAF did not use the plane but sold it to 1 to 2 countries and India which was the major user of this plane. The plane was also manufactured at Hindustan Aeronautics at Bangalore and Crescent as the 'Ajeet.'


Last word

The Gnats were put to good use by the Indian Air Force. They saw extensive service with the IAF in two wars against Pakistan, and in air-to-air combat, they gained the title of 'Sabre Slayers'. They were also used for ground attack and bombing missions. Their greatest achievement was in air battles where they had a kill to loss ratio of 3.5:1 in the 1965 war.

In the 1971 war, the Gnat was again pressed into service though the IAF was operating the MIG 21. During this war, only one Gnat was lost and it accounted for eight enemy aircraft. At the end of the war with the IAF having many supersonic aircraft, the Gnat was phased out. At about the same time HAL developed the Ajeet Mark II but there was not much use for it.

A Gnat is now preserved in the Air Force Museum at Palam. There are many private parties still operating the Gnat. As per information, at least 16 Gnats are in flying condition in the UK, 15 in the US, at least one in Finland, one in Australia and one in India. Several Gnats are up for sale and change hands quickly. They owe their continuing popularity to their agility, speed, efficiency, and relative affordability. An airframe costs - around $300 000, or £170 000, that is cheap.

The Gnat has never been given its due because it was not used by any of the NATO forces and the only major power to use was India. It however has left its mark in the aviation Hall of Fame.


MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 11, 2020:

He retired as Air Commodore

tom on October 11, 2020:

what was your fathers rank

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 11, 2020:

Tom, Thanks for adding to the information. my dad was posted at Hindon base which Sikand was commanding as an Air Commodore I think in 78.

tom on October 11, 2020:

hakimullahs f104 panicked sikand,gnat was ferried to sargodha ,then to peshawar,this gnat escaped iaf cannbera raid on sept21 night,bombs narrowly missed it,sikand was first iaf pow of 1965,total iaf pows seven

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 10, 2020:

There is another side to the story. SIKAND saw a F-104 operating high up and he chickened out and landed at the airfield. This is an account given by the PAF pilot.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on October 05, 2020:

Tom, interesting info provided by you.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on September 30, 2020:

Tom, thanks for your information.

tom on September 30, 2020:

folland midge modified as gnat ,slower than mig 19,mirage 3 and f104 of paf ,prone to gun stoppage,serviceablity issues,used by raf red arrows,acm pc lal selected this plane,modified version ajeet,no zero gravity ejection seat.body of nirmaljit singh never found,no air to air miisile capacity,sikand became dir of intel iaf,trevor keelor was never promoted beyond wing commander due to jealous superiors,only two gnats lost in 1971 war

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 21, 2020:

Yes, Tom Jose, it is there and there is a history . The plane piloted by Flt Lt BS Sikand mistook a abandoned airfield close to Lahore as an Indian airfield and landed. The pilot was returned but not the plane

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 20, 2020:

Liz, it's a pleasure to have your comment.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 20, 2020:

It is interesting to read about the development of the Indian Air Force and the important role that the gnat played.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 20, 2020:

Thank you, Chitra, for sparing time and commenting

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on August 20, 2020:

Interesting and informative article. You write with your personal experience, and this makes it a wonderful read.

Like many others, it’s fascinating to know about these wonderful aircrafts and their history.

Thanks for sharing.