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Most hi performance military aircraft usually only take to the skies after a long and arduous journey from funding, design and development, one-off manufacture and extensive testing before they get anywhere near an airborne prototype.
It’s a process involving hundreds of staff including designers, developers, avionic specialists, aerodynamic engineers, airframe specialists, jet engine developers over many months or even years.
Many new designs are the direct result of Government procurement requests designed to meet future needs of a country’s defence capabilities or fill gaps in an airforce’s fleet due to the phasing out of ageing aircraft that have fallen behind advances in technology and are no longer able to meet the challenges ahead.
It's extremely rare then to encounter a successful aircraft design that owes its very existence almost solely to the drive, enthusiasm and perseverance of just one man who, instead of waiting to respond to a Government tender, foresaw a gap in the military aviation market and decided to forge ahead on his own without Government backing to fill it.
Such a man was Ted Petter, a British aircraft designer formerly of Westland Aircraft and English Electric who had joined the Folland Aircraft Group as managing director and chief engineer.
In his long and distinguished career, Petter had already been instrumental in the design and production of the RAF’s WWII Westland Lysander, Whirlwind and the post war English Electric Lightning and Canberra Bomber.
Concerned with the seemingly never ending costs of modern aircraft development and upkeep, Petter conducted an economics study of modern fighter design and manufacture and concluded that the manufacture of combat aircraft in terms on man-hours and materials to be readily mass produced during a major conflict was simply unfeasible.
While the British Ministry of Defence had always emphasised quality over quantity, the economics involved in any anticipated vast wartime production of many of the RAF’s aircraft of the time, such as the Hawker Hunter and the Gloster Javelin interceptors, were already raising doubts amongst the militaries strategists.
Petter was convinced that producing a more affordable but competitive ‘light-fighter’ incorporating a suitable power-plant already in service as the answer and rather than waiting to be asked, he committed the Folland Group to pursue the idea relying on existing company funds. It was a significant gamble for both himself and his company.
Folland began design and development of a compact and simplified fighter which would have low purchase and operational costs and slowly their concept too shape.
After experimenting with a range of lightweight turbo jet engines and buoyed on by rumours that they might receive a sympathetic ear from the Ministry of Defence, they forged ahead and developed a proof-of-concept demonstrator they designated the Gnat.
However trials and demonstration flights before British government officials unfortunately failed to convince them of the merits of investing in Folland’s low-cost fighter although the RAF were impressed enough to hint that they might just have gap in their high-speed jet trainer program that could be filled by a two seater version of the Gnat.
Folland took the hint and immediately changed directions to finalise a two seater version of the Gnat but were delighted to receive firm enquires from the Yugoslavian and Finish airforces for orders of their original single seater fighter with India later placing a large order for both the single seater fighter and the two seater trainer still under development.
As it turned out, the single seater fighter version was to prove an outstanding success for the Indian airforce during the Indo/Pakistan Wars of 1965 and 1971 when the lightly armed Gnat used it superior climb rate and manoeuvrability to shoot down two Canadiar Sabres and damage another.
Another notable dogfight involving a Gnat was over Srinagar airfield where a lone Indian pilot held out against six Sabres, lightly damaging two of the Sabres in the process, before being shot down. Gnat pilot Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon was posthumously honoured with the Param Vir Chakra (India’s highest gallantry award), becoming the only member of the IAF to be given the award.
By the end of 1971, the Gnat had proven to be a frustrating opponent for the larger, heavier and older Sabre.
Known as the “Sabre Slayer” by the IAF since most of its combat “kills” during the two wars were against Sabres despite the Canadair Sabre Mk 6 being widely regarded as the best dogfighter of its era, the Gnat used its impressive vertical climb ability to overrun the much heavier Sabre and was incredibly hard to see at low levels where most dogfights took place.
A high-speed trainer...
Meanwhile, Folland had proceeded at great pace on the larger Gnat two-seater trainer swapping over the original engine for the more powerful-variant of the Orpheus engine as well as enlarging the wings to increase fuel capacity and creating more internal space within the fuselage for additional equipment.
On 7 January 1958, an initial contract for 14 pre-production Gnat trainers was issue from the British government but were concerned about Folland's capability to deliver additional aircraft. These doubts were resolved when the larger aviation group Hawker Sideley took over the Folland company resulting in further orders for 30, 20 and 41 trainers being placed.
The first production Gnat T.1s for the RAF were delivered in February 1962 to the Central Flying School at RAF Little Rissington.
Once pilots graduated from basic training on the BAC Jet Provost and gained their wings, they were selected for one of three streams: fast jet, multi-engined, or helicopter. Those selected for fast jets were posted to RAF Valley for advanced training on the Gnat T.1, typically 70 hours of flying. Students would then move on to operational training using the Hawker Hunter, followed by a posting to an operational conversion unit for the type of aircraft to be flown.
Impressed with their incredible climbing ability and tight turning the RAF formed the Yellowjacks aerobatic team with all-yellow painted Gnats in 1964. Reformed in 1965 as part of the Central Flying School the livery was changed again and RAF Red Arrows acrobatic team took to the skies.
With the last Gnat built for the RAF in 1956, many were retired to the role of ground trainer but many more were sold on the private market and still fly in many parts of the world today at airshows and fly-ins.
All Folland Gnat Instruments listed below come complete with detailed Scale Model, Mango Wood Stand & Plaque plus Printed Fact Sheet featuring photo of instrument in aircraft cockpit.
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FOLLAND GNAT (RED ARROW) KELVIN HUGHES Mk. 3(P) VERTICAL SPEED INDICATOR
Original Folland Gnat Red Arrow) Kelvin Hughes Mk. 3(P) Vertical...