The Gnat in India
(As told by Air Marshal Denzil Keelor PVSM, KC, AVSM, VrC, VM
Air Marshal Ashok Goel PVSM, AVSM, VM)
The smallest machine ever produced as a fighter plane in the fifties and proved to be a “Sabre Slayer” is a story which only Indian Air Force Pilots could prove again & again.
This was an aircraft which British had rejected. The aircraft was accepted as a necessity in a poor country’s fighting outfit, with very little choice.
It was in the year 1956 the Government of India formalized an agreement with Folland and for production of Gnat under license at Bangalore. Inspite of earlier, forced armed conflicts (47 & 48) 1965 war was thrust on India (1962 did not see any air force involvement). Second major armed conflict after 1947 within a period of less than 20 yrs of independence.
I very distinctly remember the beginning of aerial combat on 6 Sep 1965. Twelve Vampire aircraft were sent to halt the advancing columns of the Pak tanks in Chhamb sector and unfortunately 1/3rd of these were shot down.
It is a matter of surprise and pride that the Gnat first fired its guns in anger on 03 Sep 1965 over the Chhamb sector of J&K. The Gnats first kill, an F-86 sabre of the Pak air force was taken by senior brother Trevor Keelor, who was in No. 23 Sqn. He was duly supported by Amarjit Sandhu who was part of No. 9 Sqn.
It is also interesting to know that IAF had only four Gnat Squadron at the time when war broke out. Fifth squadron was just under formation, at the very onset of war.
During the first few days of war Sikand was on a mission, and to surprise of all he did not land back. As later understood, Sikard’s gnat was low on fuel and over unfamiliar territory. He saw an airfield and landed at Pasrur (a Pak air field). He was taken a POW and the aircraft was impounded another first for Gnat aircraft.
Denzil & Trevor two brothers were a unique combination. Two brothers both fighter pilots, flying the same type of air craft in a similar battle scenario.
Denzil was part of No 4 Sqn (which he later commanded also). Denzil came on the scene of war slightly later. Denzil also shot down a saber a rare feet of achievement, both the brothers were awarded the coveted Veer Chakra in the same operation and during the same war.
I take great pride to say that I belonged to the old Gnat fraternity. Once again after 74 months that sabers next fell to the gnats cannon.
It was in December 1971 India & Pakistan had a third round. The events preceding the third round are well known. Victory of Shiekh Mujiber Rehman’s party in the Eastern Wing had annoyed the Pathan’s in the west. An angry reaction by the Eastern Wing and the gurilla campaign by “Mukti Bahine” brought an intense reaction by the Pak Forces. Incursion by the Pak Army was on the increase and a war hysteria has been created. The situation got worsened in the eastern sector, and it was on 22 Nov71, intruding PAF sabers were down by Indian Air Force Gnats, (over the Boyra Salient).
The ultimate display of air superiority of Gnat was displayed on 14 Dec 1971. It was around 8 ‘O’ clock in the morning of 14 Dec 1971 at Srinagar airfield, a formation of two aircraft was scrambled. Srinagar was already under attack by Pak Sabres. One of the pilots was Flt Lt Nirmal Sekhon he got airborne against all odds and engaged two of the Pak sabers and got both of them. Unfortunately he was also hit, he ejected, but was too low to make a safe landing. He was posthumously awarded the Nation’s highest Gallantry awards the “Param Veer Chakra” PVC.
Denzil Keeler takes pride in being the ‘Gnat’ pilot and very proudly states “an aircraft which was rejected by the British became the first to shoot down a Sabre in 1965, was the first to have shot down a ‘Saber’ in the 1971 war. First to claim the “Nation’s” highest award (and the only one so far also by a Gnat Pilot).
India Strategic salutes all those who flew the Gnats, who saved the Indian border sand laid down their lives and also to those who kept these flying machines agile and trust worthy (In spite of all limitations) the “Maintenance Personnel”.