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Folland / Hawker Siddeley Gnat

The Gnat is a two seat (tandem) aircraft, powered by a single Bristol Siddeley Orpheus jet engine, and is equipped with a tri-cycle retractable landing gear. It was originally designed by the Folland company, but built by a division of Hawker Siddeley Aviation for the RAF. Production of the type in the UK ceased before 1970 and all examples had been withdrawn from military service in the UK by 1984.

The Folland Gnat was a small, swept-wing British subsonic jet trainer and light fighter aircraft developed for the Royal Air Force, and flown extensively by the Indian Air Force. It was designed by W.E.W. Petter, who had designed the Westland Lysander, English Electric Canberra and English Electric Lightning, joined Folland as managing director in 1950. He designed the Folland Midge, which first flew 11 August 1954, and the Folland Gnat training jet (18 July 1955). Both were built at Hamble until the 1960s. In 1959 Folland was acquired by Hawker Siddeley who dropped the Folland name in 1963. Ultimately, Folland became part of British Aerospace (BAe).

The Gnat first flew in 1955. Although the Gnat was evaluated by the RAF in 1958 as a possible DH Venom replacement, the Hawker Hunter was the eventual winner of the fly-off competition. Against the Hunter and Venom at altitudes of 40,000 feet, the Gnat out-climbed both aircraft with ease and could also out-turn the Hunter. One of the major requirements the Gnat could not meet, however, was that of range. Apart from the capability of the Gnat to out perform the Hunter in an air combat role, it was the Hunter that triumphed in every aspect when it came to ground attack and it was the aircraft selected to replace the Venom.

Although RAF interest waned in its possible use as a fighter, the Gnat was modified to meet the 1957 Trainer Specification T.185D that called for an advanced two-seat trainer that could transition pilots between the current DH Vampire T 11 and operational fighters such as the English Electric Lightning. After review of Folland's proposals, an initial contract for 14 modified Gnat trainers was issued in 7 January 1958. The Folland Fo.144 Gnat Trainer served in the RAF with the designation Gnat T Mk 1.

The Red Arrows aerobatic display team were officially formed at RAF Fairford on 1 March 1965, led by Flight Lieutenant Lee Jones, flying seven Folland Gnat aircraft. The Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team (RAFAT), the formal name of the Red Arrows, began life at RAF Fairford in Glouces­tershire, then a satellite of CFS. Initially there were seven display pilots and ten Gnat jet trainers. The name 'Red Arrows' was chosen to combine the appeal and expertise of two earlier teams, the famous Black Arrows and the Red Pelicans. When the Royal Air Force decided to retain the Team for 1966, two spare pilots were established but the Team continued to fly just seven aircraft in most displays. The Red Arrows flew nine aircraft in displays from time to time from mid-1966 onwards, but it was not until 1968 that the Team was officially increased in size to nine. The Gnat was notable as the demonstration aircraft of the Red Arrows between 1964, when the team was formed, and 1979, when it was replaced by the Hawk, the last Arrows Gnat display being on 15 September 1979.

Finally, in 1989, the RAF decided the Gnats were now surplus to requirement, so many Gnats were sold at a Sotheby's auction in March 1990. When the RAF sold off its Gnats, many were bought by private collectors and some subsequently appeared in the 1991 comedy film Hot Shots!.

The Gnat also achieved export success, particularly with India, the largest foreign operator who manufactured the aircraft under license. The year 1957 brought further challenges to the Aircraft and Armament Testing Unit (A&ATU) in the form of Gnat evaluation. Gnat aircraft had not yet been fully evaluated in UK when the task of evaluating this compact fighter for tropical conditions was assigned to A&ATU. Many test-handling sorties were flown and a detailed report - the first of many full fledged reports generated by the unit was submitted to the Government. The early sixties were accompanied by the IAF's induction of yet more new aircraft types, the most interesting of these arguably being the Folland Gnat lightweight fighter. With its startling agility, the Gnat proffered outstanding cost effectiveness and during the mid-fifties a licence agreement was concluded for its manufacture by HAL following delivery of 23 complete aircraft and 20 sets of components by the parent company. India then developed the HAL Ajeet, a modified and improved variant.

The original agreement of sale for the engines incorporated a contract for the engine manufacturer to provide technical support whilst the type remained in service with the original operators. All UK manufactured examples of the engine were withdrawn from service in the 1980s, once the Gnat and the Fiat G91, the other type to use this engine, ceased to be operated by the British and Italian air forces respectively.

The Orpheus engine type was also built under licence in India and installed in a number of aircraft types, including the licenced produced Gnat, and these engines continued in service after the withdrawl of the UK produced engines. Thereafter, Rolls Royce, the inheritor of the Bristol Siddeley company, sold the Orpheus project to India and relinquished any responsibility for further development, production, product-support or flight safety involvement with the engine type. Consequently, some two decades later, little manufacturer's expertise specific to the Orpheus engine remains. BAE Systems, the inheritor of the airframe manufacturer, similarly no longer retains in-house specific knowledge of the aircraft. Thus, the support of such aircraft is difficult to provide and, together with the lack of newly manufactured spares, is likely to become increasingly so in the future.

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