A real Mighty Mite

by Dr. Marshall Michel
86th Airlift Wing historian

As mentioned in previous articles, the quest for a simple, cheap light weight fighter has a long and generally undistinguished history.

One exception to this is the Folland Gnat, designed by the notated British aircraft designer Wing Commander W.E.W. “Teddy” Petter, who also designed the English Electric Canberra bomber and Lightning interceptor.

As usual for the development of lightweight fighters, Petter was disturbed by the trend toward more expensive fighters and felt that a small, cheap simple fighter powered by one of the new, lightweight turbojet engines would reverse the trend.
To develop this idea, Petter left English Electric and become managing director of Folland Aircraft where, in 1951, he developed a light weight fighter technology demonstrator called, appropriately, the Midge.

The Midge first flew on Aug. 11, 1954, and proved to have excellent performance, especially maneuverability, and was able to exceed the speed of sound in a dive.
The Midge was followed by a full up fighter, the Gnat, powered by a single Bristol Siddeley Orpheus turbojet with 4,520 pounds of thrust. The fighter was certainly tiny – 28 feet long, a wing span of 22 feet and a total weight (engine and aircraft) of 6,250 pounds.

The Gnat had a top speed of Mach 0.98 at 40,000 feet, a rate-of-climb of 20,000 feet per minute, a service ceiling of 48,000 feet and a takeoff run of 300 yards. Standard armament was two very hard hitting 30 millimeter Aden cannons – one on each intake lip, which was to make it a superior air-to-air fighter.

The Midge was evaluated by pilots from the UK, Canada, India, Jordan, New Zealand and the U.S. Air Force, and its flying characteristics were universally praised. The Royal Air Force ordered six Gnats for trials, but eventually opted for the larger, multi-role Hawker Hunter.

There were down sides to the Gnat. Its compact size made its systems closely packed and maintenance, which required reaching in to repair various internal components, was difficult.

Additionally, many of its systems were not reliable and the aircraft had high operating costs. Operationally, the Gnat carried very little fuel to reduce overall weight, giving it very short range, and it had virtually no air-to-ground capability.
Despite the shortcomings, the Gnat’s low cost, its compact dimensions and ease of production led the Indian Air Force to order a number, as well as a signing a contract to build Gnats under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) of India, which produced at least 175 Gnats locally.

The purchase proved fortuitous. Gnats played a major combat role in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars serving with the Indian Air Force. The Gnats’ small size, agility and rapid climb rate allowed it to dominate the U.S.-made Pakistani F-86 Sabres, and the heavy cannon provided quick kills. Indian Air Force Gnat pilots claimed seven Pakistani air-to-air kills by Gnats in the 1965 conflict alone and gave the Gnat the nickname of “Sabre Slayer.”

The success of the indigenously produced Gnats against the more sophisticated Pakistani-flown aircraft was viewed as a significant achievement so India had HAL develop a Gnat II – the “Ajeet,” Sanskrit for “invincible,” a modified and improved Gnat.

The internal changes from the original Gnat were considerable. They included improvements to the hydraulics and control systems, updated avionics and an upgraded engine, additional internal wing fuel tanks, or “wet wing,” and two more under wing hard points – they being the only obvious distinguishing features from the original Gnat.

Eighty HAL Ajeets were built from 1975 to 1981 and were used until 1991.
The RAF was not interested in the original Gnat, but former Wing Commander Petter was persistent and proposed 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 Gnat trainer made its initial flight on Aug. 31, 1959.
Thus, the diminutive fighter became the base design for one of the RAF’s main trainers. The RAF also selected the Gnat for the Red Arrows acrobatic team, the RAF equivalent of the Thunderbirds, and they served with that unit from 1964 through 1979.

The United Kingdom retired its Gnats in 1979 and replaced them on Flying School and on the Red Arrows with a new trainer – the British Aerospace Hawk T.1A.
Interestingly, the docile flying characteristics combined with outstanding performance led a number of private collectors to buy surplus Gnats, and they can often be seen performing flying displays at European air shows.

(Dr. Michel is currently deployed downrange)