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Folland Gnat

Gnat by name but a giant in the world of aerobatic display aircraft

THE Red Arrows are an essential element in most summer airshows, with their programme for 2023 seeing the aerobatic team perform at a numerous events at home and abroad through to the end of September.

The traditional nine-aircraft fast-jet formation displays have acted as the public face of the RAF for almost 60 years, their success as much to do with the dedicated work of the support personnel, as well the pilots and jets that epitomise the world’s premier aerobatic display team. 

This year is the 44th the Red Arrows have operated Hawks, the BAE System jets replacing the Folland Gnat that served the team for 15 years.  

The predecessor of the Hawk appears still to be a sought-after aircraft, this year seeing several Folland Gnats come up for auction, stimulating much interest in a jet that dates back to the 1950s. It was seen by the RAF as a trainer and by other air forces in both ground-attack and day-fighter roles; despite being built at Folland’s Hamble factory near Southampton, it was overseas that its primary fighter duties were utilised in countries like Finland and India.

The third prototype of the Gnat T.1, XM693 in 1961

(The third prototype of the Gnat T.1, XM693 in 1961)

Designed by Teddy Petter, famous for his early work on the English Electric Lightning, Folland was able to market the Gnat to the RAF as an advanced trainer, entering service in 1962 at RAF Valley in Anglesey.

Petter himself moved to Folland in 1950 after becoming disillusioned with the direction fighter design was going, believing lightweight and low-cost designs were the future. He first designed the Folland Midge, an unarmed proof-of-concept demonstrator that first flew in August 1954, chief test pilot Edward Tennant at the controls of G-39-1.

The lightness of the aircraft is clear to see during testing, and despite being fitted with the less powerful Armstrong Siddeley Viper 101 turbojet engine – the Bristol Orpheus that would later be installed in the Gnat was unavailable – the Midge was able break Mach 1 when Tennant put the aircraft into a dive, and impressed with its agility. However, a month later, the prototype was destroyed in a crash at Chilbolton, Swiss test pilot Max Mathez killed when it clipped trees after failing to gain altitude on take-off. 

 

A coroner verdict of “misadventure” with confusion over which switches were selected during take-off didn’t help with RAF support for the project, its fighter credentials seemingly lost on the Air Ministry (the success of the Hawker Hunter appeared to end home interest in the Gnat as a fighter).

The first Folland Gnat took off on July 18, 1955, at Boscombe Down, the jet capitalising on the range of new, modern engines, and Folland still eager to sell it as a capable fighter that was affordable and easy to manufacture. While it would be overseas that it would be seen as a fighter, there was still interest in it at home, an order placed for six by the British Ministry of Supply.

Initial enthusiasm for the jet from the likes of India, Finland and the former Yugoslavia were followed up by orders, the fact that it was regarded as easy to manufacture seeing a licence later agreed with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, 175 of the aircraft built in India. Delays to confirmed orders at home was seen in some quarters as deliberate government policy, a bargaining chip in the desire for Folland to agree to a takeover from Hawker Siddeley.

Eventually there was confirmed interest in the two-seat Folland Fo.142 Gnat trainer, its maiden flight taking place on August 31, 1959, and once Folland had been incorporated into the Hawker Siddeley company, 30 of the Gnat trainers were ordered, with a further 20 the following year for an aircraft that trainee pilots could fly at speeds approaching 700mph.

There were some initial problems, with a particular concern relating to the height of the trainee pilot: taller pilots struggled to access instruments which were hidden, and some suffered leg and knee injuries.

Gnats of 4 Flying Training School at RAF Valley

(Gnats of 4 Flying Training School at RAF Valley)

The Gnat trainer, however, was soon cemented into pilots’ training programmes, with graduates from basic training placed on one of three streams – fast jet, multi-engine, or helicopters. Those selected for fast jets found themselves posted to RAF Valley where they were placed in control of the Folland Gnat and, after around 70 hours successfully handling the trainer, they would move on to the Hawker Hunter.    

But it would be less than two years after the first Gnat Trainer arrived on Anglesey that the jet would earn real fame, 1963 seeing No. 4 Flying Training School forming the Yellowjacks aerobatic team, perhaps unsurprisingly flying Gnats painted yellow. It was the jet itself that lended itself to the aerobatics, its small size and sensitive handling allowing high manoeuvrability.

While the name Yellowjacks – derived from the Team Leader’s call sign – didn’t meet approval amongst many in authority, the idea proved popular, and it was decided to bring the team into the mainstream, morphing into the Red Arrows in 1965.

Gnat T.1s at RAF Kemble in 1973

(Gnat T.1s at RAF Kemble in 1973)

The Red Arrows spent more than a decade flying their Folland Gnats to their limits, becoming the mainstay of air displays in the UK, delighting crowds throughout the 1960s and 1970s with their famous Diamond Nine formation.

It wasn’t until the 1980 season that the Gnats were replaced by the Hawk, four years after the RAF had started switching initial fast-jet training to Hawks, the last Folland Gnat retired from RAF Valley in November 1978, 16 years after the first arrived.

After their retirement, many Gnats were used as ground instructional airframes, with the aircraft quickly proving a popular purchase for civilian owners. TV and film work also followed, with a Gnat used in both Charlie Sheen comedy movies, Hot Shots and Hot Shots Part Deux.   

They still regularly come up for sale and this year a Folland Gnat that was the former gate guardian at RAF Brampton in Cambridgeshire was put up for auction, finding a new home, guarding the Tangmere Military Aviation Museum’s car park in Sussex.

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