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Gnat Boys

Rick Peacock-Edwards & Tom Eeles

Grub Street, July 2022


In 1/72 scale I remember the Gnat represented poor value for money as an Airfix kit – it was tiny. In 72/72 scale its diminutive size represented agility and relative cheapness.  From the drawing board of Teddy Petter at Folland Aircraft, the Midge and the very similar Gnat were conceived as low-cost fighters. But in the mid-Fifties the Air Ministry realised it need a more advanced trainer to replace the Meteor and Vampire, and to prepare student pilots for the mighty Lightning. The 2 seat Gnat T1 trainer entered RAF service in 1962.

So, given the type’s antiquity, the volume’s editors - Rick Peacock Edwards and Tom Eeles (who both have Gnat time) have done a great and timely job in assembling tales from those who flew the pocket rocket .

After a good foreword by the distinguished ACM Sir Richard Johns (himself the author of a good Grub Street memoir Bolts from the Blue), Tom launches into an excellent overview of the type’s gestation and development (helped no doubt by his knowledge of Westland & Petter through studying his father’s work on the Whirlwind fighter).

Stretching the Gnat to create the trainer version introduced a longitudinal stability problem. The Folland fix was to introduce a datum shift link, which automatically adjusted the incidence of the tailplane when the undercarriage lowered or retracted. But if hydraulic power was lost, the tailplane had to be shifted into the correct position before it disappeared entirely, and then fore & aft control was by the standby trim tabs. Folland under Petter was akin to Lotus Cars under Colin Chapman, whose mantra was “Simplify, and add lightness”. Another of Petter’s tricks was to dispense with airbrakes for this slippery machine, and use the undercarriage doors instead.  Its diminutive size meant that larger/taller pilots could not exercise full aileron control!

Derek Bryant’s first tale of undercarriage accidents is well told. A recurring theme of the book is unserviceability issues – particularly in the early days as it was introduced into RAF service, and then again towards the end of its service life when spares availability was an issue. RAF Valley was clearly the scene of too many accidents and ejections.

Every (pilot) contributor comments on the excitement of flying such a small and agile machine. Tom likened it to “riding a witch’s broomstick” (because of the long pitot tube extending from the nose). With barely positive stability in most axes, the Gnat was unsurprisingly not a great platform for instrument flying, and several contributors, including Boz Robinson, comment on the satisfaction from doing recoveries in IMC from high level, often in formation, and also the great skills of the air traffickers at Valley. In doing so they were frequently busting Air Staff rules on flying minima in order to guarantee requested student throughput. The story of a pilotless Gnat making a perfect forced landing at Llanbedr is arresting.

The Gnat’s low aspect ratio, highly swept, wings provided a sparkling roll rate, so much so that this had to be artificially restricted by a fuse in the aileron circuit limiting it to 360 deg/second! Otherwise the fin would part company. When later in use with the Reds, there was some judicious fiddling with this fuse.

Al Pollock, he of Hunter-through-Tower-Bridge fame, explains how formation aeros in the Gnat started, with a terrific photo as proof, before Boscombe had officially cleared the type for such activity. The Yellowjacks were formed, and this team in turn morphed into the Red Arrows. John Dickson was the only RN officer at 4 Sqn, Kemble, and relates a very funny story about a dining-in night there and some ‘crimson crabs’. Geoff Brindle’s tale of the unconscious fireman will appeal to anyone with a sense of humour as childish as mine!

The creation of the Reds, as told by Ray Somerville, makes for great reading, and a description of a display from the back seat is well written by Tom Thomas. Brian Hoskins captained the team for the last Gnat season, and remarked that it had much better throttle response than the Hawk (though it is not clear whether this refers to before or after BAe made a special tweak to the response of the Adours in the Reds’ machines).

It adds greatly to the book to hear from the Finns and Indians – the two countries who used the Gant as a fighter. The Finnish contributions are translated a little too literally perhaps, and lack the colour that one would expect from a RAF pilot. They are Finnish, in other words.  Their training had hitherto been on Fouga Magisters – quite a transition. One shortcoming became evident at a weapons range – a Finnish pilot was fragged by his own cannon! The gun mountings in such a small aircraft were located next to his thighs – not ideal in case of a malfunction. The Indians, on the other hand, convey well the sense of excitement in taking the Gnat to war – as they were in aerial combat with Pakistani Sabres. These dogfight tales are a valuable addition to the canon of cannon era air combat. Both GM David and Gandhi score well here.

Stan Hodgkins (ex-RAF, and ex jockey of the trusty Meteors that Martin Baker used for practice ejections for many years) gives a good exposition of the Gnat’s foibles and its utilisation in the civilian world. Mark Fitzgerald follows with a good insight into displaying the Gnat in the modern age. Arguably Stan’s contribution would have been better at the beginning – his exposition of the STUPRECC drills for hydraulic emergencies is better than most. One of this book’s flaws is that there is too much repetition – STUPRECC drills and longitudinal stability issues being the most obvious cases. There are several contributions (particularly in the middle section of the 244 pages) that add little, and are very repetitive. Gnat Boys could have done with some heavier editing; indeed the editors should have spared a moment to think of the narrative through the eyes of the reader. It is all very well contacting one’s chums for their recollections, but their responses should not guarantee an automatic place in the volume.  As well as duplication, there are several typos to keep the reader alert.

In conclusion, as Brian Grant says “It is a wonderful aircraft…It was too good for students”! The editors have created a volume which does some justice to the Gnat’s place in aviation history.

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