The bright white clouds in the spring sky flick over my head towards my feet as I pull hard on the control stick. “Harder,” says the voice in my headphones. The needle on the G-meter darts around the scale to six, and by now the green and brown ground is rising rapidly to meet the aircraft as I complete a loop in an astonishingly small amount of sky.
I’m flying a Folland Gnat, a single-engine jet of the type used by the Red Arrows from 1964, when the Royal Air Force aerobatic display team was founded, to 1979, when it switched to the BAE Hawk. The voice in my headphones is that of squadron leader Chris Heames, a former RAF fast-jet pilot and instructor who now spends part of his time teaching pilots to fly the Gnats operated by The Heritage Aircraft Trust, a charity that is the UK’s leading repository of expertise on a fascinating slice of aviation and industrial history. Based at North Weald Airfield in Essex, the Trust currently has two Gnats it flies and two it is restoring. Any skilled pilot who becomes a trustee could, if they put in the time, learn how to pilot a Gnat and display its qualities to the public.
Trustees include people who fly high in other worlds, such as banking, IT and telecoms. Currently all trustees are pilots and, for the majority, flying is their passion rather than their profession; most are qualified to fly the Gnat in multi-aircraft displays that are led by Heames. “Pretty much all the flying we do is training or performing for air shows,” says trustee Edwin Brenninkmeyer, chief executive of Oriens Aviation, which imports to the UK the thoroughly modern Swiss Pilatus PC-12 private aircraft.
Walking out to the T1 Gnat on my arrival at the airfield, I am struck by how small it is. The swept wings span just 7.5m, and the aircraft is less than 10m long and 3m high. Compare these dimensions with the most modern fighter ordered by the UK, the F35B Lightning, which has a length of 15.5m and a 10.5m wingspan. Meanwhile, the Lightning’s maximum takeoff weight of 27.2 tonnes makes the 4.3-tonne Folland look like, well, a gnat.
On the runway, the thrust at full power certainly grabs my attention, and the ground falls away rapidly. Up in the air we stay relatively low and slow at about 360 knots, or about 420mph – a lot shy of its 525-knot (604mph) or 0.95-Mach capability at sea level and its 48,000ft ceiling. But it’s the manoeuvrability that really delights. The cockpit may be small and quite cramped, but the stick doesn’t need much stirring – mere pressure is enough to have the sky and ground swapping places smartly. It feels as sharp and biddable as a go-kart on a racetrack. I can see how effective it was for training fast-jet pilots.
All that energy needs to be managed carefully when coming in to land. “You don’t flare and float like in a small plane,” Heames had told me. “You aim it at the runway and arrive.” But that means any excess speed can easily translate into a hard meeting with the ground and an inability to stop on the runway.
My first attempt hits the targets, though – 200 knots downwind, 165 knots at the middle of the continuous 180-degree curve to the final approach, and 145 knots on final. The plan was to make it a dummy run, piling on the power above the runway to accelerate away, but it is all looking so good that Heames leaves feeding in the throttle until the main wheels have already made gentle but firm contact with the asphalt.
Those who know their planes are fond of the Folland. Take the late RAF pilot Ray Hanna, who led the Red Arrows in the early years and was later celebrated for his flying of warbirds such as the Supermarine Spitfire IX. Asked to choose between the Gnat and the Spitfire, the squadron leader replied: “Both, please!”
The Gnat’s heritage can be traced back to midway through the 20th century. Folland Aircraft Company, set up in the 1930s, was a UK south coast manufacturer of components and assemblies, including parts for the Spitfire and Mosquito fighter planes. Its first attempt at a complete aircraft, in 1940, was not considered an aesthetic success – indeed, it became known as the Folland Frightful. The graceful Gnat was born in the 1950s from a concern that fighter aircraft were becoming too big and too complex to be built in the numbers required during a war.
UK military buyers remained wedded to the idea of large, complex aircraft – they still are – but they did see the Gnat’s potential as a fast-jet trainer, and Folland built a tandem two-seater version, the T1, to suit. Tiny, light, supersonic (though not in level flight), highly manoeuvrable and relatively cheap, the Gnat had a lot going for it. This was recognised by other air forces – chiefly India’s, which bought some and made others under licence, and operated it successfully as a frontline fighter.
Folland intended the aircraft to be easy to make as well as easier to run than some of the maintenance-hungry military planes of the time. These attributes stand the aircraft in good stead now that only a few of the 449 built (all now in private hands) are still flying. A Gnat can be bought for around £150,000-£160,000, which seems like a bargain against the £2-£3m for a Spitfire. However, maintenance requires skills that are becoming rarer and fuel costs alone are in the region of £1,000 an hour.
While the Trust has no shortage of maintenance expertise, it is always in need of funding. Brenninkmeyer reckons it swallows up about £350,000 a year – which actually sounds like a small price to pay for keeping aviation history in the sky where it belongs. What funding there is comes by way of the fees from displays put on by the Trust’s Gnat Display Team, and from the trustees, who tend to put in a sum that pays for the next aircraft restoration, then contribute a fixed amount per month. As an example, a recently joined trustee chose to donate £75,000 to cover the restoration of an F1 version – a single-seater fighter – that is still in the process of being reborn, and he continues to contribute £2,500 a month towards the operational costs of the charity.
Heames tells me he reckons that he could have me solo in the aircraft within six flights, each of about 45 minutes, and that’s not untypical for pilots who have some hours in jets, as I do. Typically, new pilots first complete a conversion course on the Jet Provost, a side-by-side two-seater used by the RAF as a stepping stone to the Gnat that is also cheaper, at about £500 an hour in fuel costs. After that, continuity is the key. Brenninkmeyer says he tries to fly a Gnat several times a month to keep his skills sharp.
But trustees don’t need to be pilots; they can fly as passengers on training sorties if they want to experience what their contribution is funding. The effect on the ground is easy to see – the Trust is keeping engineering skills alive by supporting the training of technicians, including an engineering apprenticeship scheme. The level of financial commitment required of trustees is also flexible, as the charity seeks new sources of funds to keep up its work.
Back up in the air, Heames has me flying ever-tighter circles, pressed down in the seat by the centrifugal force, so that I can feel how the Gnat vibrates as the wing goes into a high-speed stall. It’s the edge of the envelope, but it’s also safe. It’s thoroughly addictive. And it would be a shame to deny future generations the opportunity to experience, from the ground or in the air, this aerial go-kart.