Spe­cial Fea­ture: Fly­ing the Gnat

Mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist, RV builder and pi­lot Colin Good­win rel­ishes the chance to fly the Fol­land Gnat, former RAF trainer and first Red Ar­rows’ mount

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By Colin Good­win

Colin Good­win finds out what the Red Ar­rows’ first mount is like to fly

When I first started as a mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ist decades ago there were many sleep­less nights brought on by the ex­cite­ment and an­tic­i­pa­tion of driv­ing a new high­per­for­mance car. A Fer­rari on Mon­day meant lit­tle sleep Sun­day night. To­day there is still a buzz, but not the de­bil­i­tat­ing sense of ex­cite­ment−not least be­cause these days there is rarely the thrill of the un­known, ex­cept for ul­tra high per­for­mance hy­brid cars which of­fer a dif­fer­ent sort of per­for­mance at a dif­fer­ent level. But last night, so Mrs Good­win re­ported this morn­ing, there was a lot of wrig­gling and move­ment. Per­haps in my sub­con­scious I was try­ing to get into a G-suit.

I grew up know­ing all about the Fol­land Gnat, as it en­tered ser­vice only three years be­fore I did. It was of course the Red Ar­rows’ mount be­fore the Hawk en­tered ser­vice in 1979. For a bud­ding RAF pi­lot in the ’60s and ’70s it would have been your port of call after the Jet Provost and be­fore the Light­ning, Phan­tom or other front-line fast jets. I have never flown in any­thing like this aero­plane and my only first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of jet propul­sion in such a di­rect sense was when I drove the Vam­pire jet car in which Richard Ham­mond made his first and most fa­mous at­tempt on his own life. The ac­cel­er­a­tion was vivid and I’m ex­pect­ing sim­i­lar from the power to weight ra­tio of the 4,520 lb thrust Roll­sRoyce Or­pheus tur­bo­jet and the 9,520 lb MTOW (max take­off weight) Gnat.

It’s very tight in the back of the Gnat− al­most claus­tro­pho­bic. The whole air­craft is tiny, with a wing­span that at 24ft is a foot nar­rower than my RV-7’S. It feels tight and I can see why my pi­lot Ed­win Bren­ninkmeyer, who is 6ft 5in, is re­stricted to the front cock­pit. He has given me a very thor­ough brief­ing about the pro­ce­dure for eject­ing from the Gnat that in­cluded the ad­vice to keep el­bows in on the way out. (I learn af­ter­wards that Bren­ninkmeyer was mea­sured up be­fore join­ing the team and un­der­went a ‘seat-pull’, be­ing hoisted from the air­craft, com­plete with seat and equip­ment, ef­fec­tively repli­cat­ing the full ejec­tion path from the cock­pit to en­sure safe ejec­tion.)

More im­por­tant in­struc­tions: I must not touch any­thing in the cock­pit ex­cept the joy­stick and throt­tle be­cause it is ex­tremely easy to dis­able some of the front cock­pit’s con­trols, which would mean that Bren­ninkmeyer might end up in the hor­ren­dous sit­u­a­tion in which he’d have to sit there help­less while Good­win did the land­ing. In this in­stance I feel he would be well ad­vised to eject!

We’re at North Weald at the home of the Her­itage Avi­a­tion Trust. Her­itage Avi­a­tion is on the look­out for new trus­tees (more of which later) and very kindly of­fered this ex­tremely ex­cited 54-year-old a ride in a Gnat. Ed­win Bren­ninkmeyer in­stils a lot of con­fi­dence, which you need when you’re be­ing flown in a high per­for­mance ma­chine that can eas­ily bite the fool­hardy and in­cau­tious. His brief­ing, a lot of which is about va­cat­ing the premises via Fol­land’s own ejec­tion seat (which is sur­pris­ing as you’d ex­pect the Mart­inBaker route to have been cheaper and sim­pler for the com­pany rather than de­velop its own sys­tem), is clear and pre­cise. He re­minds me of Richard Grace (of Grace Spit­fire fame) who is also a mas­ter at set­ting the mind at rest. Like Grace, Bren­ninkmeyer has been fly­ing all his life and has a CV that is most re­as­sur­ing, in­clud­ing dis­play fly­ing with the Tiger Club−which for me is a pretty suit­able tes­ti­mo­nial.

If you like dress­ing up you’ll love this world of fast jets. First of all there’s the drab green Raf-is­sue over­alls with their trade­mark map pock­ets on the knees; then a pair of heavy boots. I’ve al­ways won­dered why RAF pi­lots wear footwear that looks de­signed for steve­dores but it’s ap­par­ently to pro­tect the feet in an ejec­tion and for walk­ing across in­hos­pitable ter­rain af­ter­wards. Then there’s the G-suit which is ac­tu­ally like an in­flat­able pair of

cow­boy’s chaps and, top­ping it off, a Top Gun- style hel­met. Oh, and RAF Cape leather gloves which should never be worn when fly­ing any Cessna or Piper.

Suited and booted, it’s out to the lit­tle jet. It’s so low to the ground that no lad­der is needed. A foothold folds out and then it’s a mat­ter of grab­bing the wing’s lead­ing edge, the cock­pit sur­round with the other hand, and hoik­ing your­self up.

As pre­vi­ously men­tioned it’s tight in the back of a Gnat. I slip my feet in and thunk down into the seat on top of sev­eral painfully sharp buck­les. You need help from the ground crew for what comes next. Not only does the har­ness have to be done up, but the G-suit’s air sup­ply must be con­nected and also the air sup­ply to the mouth­piece that’s part of the hel­met assem­bly and which con­tains the mi­cro­phone. Then there’s more ejec­tion seat brief­ing and a re­minder of

how to man­u­ally sep­a­rate your­self from the seat if it doesn’t hap­pen au­to­mat­i­cally, which it should, and how to man­u­ally de­ploy the para­chute if it doesn’t hap­pen au­to­mat­i­cally. Which it had bloody bet­ter do!

I am now rea­son­ably com­fort­able, strapped in tight and con­nected to the air­craft via sev­eral tubes. The nar­row­ness of the cock­pit makes you feel part of the air­craft, be­ing plumbed into it in­creases that feel­ing. Now for a look around the en­vi­ron­ment: be­tween the back of Bren­ninkmeyer’s head and me is a Per­spex bar­rier or dummy screen and be­low that is the in­stru­ment panel. It has a very mil­i­tary look but I wouldn’t call it par­tic­u­larly well laid out. Many of the gauges I’ve never seen in any air­craft I’ve flown−like a Mach me­ter (which reads to Mach 1.2), ex­haust tem­per­a­ture and per­cent­age rpm. Most of the other in­stru­ments are fa­mil­iar such as a VSI, al­time­ter, ASI and fuel con­tents. The lat­ter reads up to 20 and that isn’t gal­lons−it’s two thou­sand pounds of Jet A1. We will use up a large chunk of it in our forty-minute or so flight.

There’s an­other gauge on the panel that I haven’t men­tioned and that one gives you the po­si­tion of the tailplane. The Gnat has an all-fly­ing tail like the Piper PA-28. It’s hy­drauli­cally op­er­ated (there’s a pres­sure gauge for the hy­draulic sys­tem). Ed­win gave me a very thor­ough de­scrip­tion of what hap­pens when the trim sys­tem packs up but it’s so com­pli­cated that I didn’t re­ally un­der­stand much of it. Ba­si­cally you have to fly the air­craft on a small trim tab−but even that isn’t as straight­for­ward as it sounds. (By chance I bumped into an ex-gnat pi­lot just a few days after fly­ing this one and the first thing he men­tioned is the trim­ming sys­tem. “It failed on me once and I couldn’t stop the thing climb­ing. Had to go in­verted to stop it going to the moon.” Right.) You start the Gnat’s Or­pheus en­gine by com­pressed air sup­plied by a de­vice called a Palouste. It’s a gas tur­bine that was used to start many jets of the pe­riod, in­clud­ing the Buc­ca­neer. Apart from the baby in the seat in front of me on a re­cent flight home from Italy, I have never come across any­thing so small that can make so much noise.

Bren­ninkmeyer gives a thor­ough and fas­ci­nat­ing com­men­tary over the in­ter­com. He hits the ig­nit­ers as com­pressed air spools up the en­gine and the en­gine is lit. So smooth, with a very tol­er­a­ble whine that I’m sure is a lot nois­ier to ears out­side the air­craft. Bren­ninkmeyer tax­ies slowly and care­fully to North Weald’s run­way, para­noid about a stone or other FOD be­ing sucked up into the Or­pheus. As chief en­gi­neer Peter Walker tells me later, it will be a lack of en­gines that will even­tu­ally ground the Gnats. From where I’m sit­ting the air­craft seems to be very ma­noeu­vrable on the ground, helped nat­u­rally by its com­pact size.

This is it then. Lined up and ready to go and I’m be­yond ex­cited. The ac­cel­er­a­tion is far from ex­treme (a big-en­gined Ex­tra feels faster off the mark) but is very lin­ear and doesn’t tail off. Wheels up and the bottom of Stansted’s con­trolled airspace is 1,500ft above us. We’re head­ing out east to­wards the coast north of Felixs­towe purring along at 250kt. This is our speed limit if we are not on some­one’s radar screen. Wat­tisham’s radar is up the spout to­day so we’re going to call up Southend and as soon as that’s done the man in front can pour on more gravy.

This low there is a speed sen­sa­tion. It’s not oth­er­worldly as we’re only going about eighty knots faster than my RV’S full-chat speed−for now. “You have a go,” says Bren­ninkmeyer from the front. The throt­tle is on the left side of the cock­pit so I’m forced to use my right hand on the stick, which is the op­po­site to what I’m used to. I can’t do a swap any­way be­cause the hand­grip is con­toured for a right hand. Bren­ninkmeyer told me that the Gnat re­acts quickly to con­trol in­puts, has a very fast

The nar­row­ness of the cock­pit makes you feel part of the air­craft

roll rate and that gen­tle con­trol in­puts are the ideal. With this in mind I take a light hold of the stick. Our main con­cern is that at 250kt I don’t spear us up into con­trolled airspace. I’d set the al­time­ter be­fore we took off but the eas­i­est in­stru­ment to read is the VSI so I keep an eye on that to make sure I’m not putting the Lil­liput jet into a climb. Ac­tu­ally, it’s not twitchy in pitch at all−less so than the RV. And it isn’t ner­vous in roll ei­ther, but it does gen­tly roll a few de­grees from side to side. After a few mo­ments it’s clear that the best ap­proach is to let it self-cor­rect rather than try and can­cel it out with the ailerons.

We’re in con­tact with Southend now which means I can nudge the throt­tle for­ward. “Try about eighty per cent,” says Bren­ninkmeyer. Far from the de­lay I was ex­pect­ing, the Gnat im­me­di­ately surges for­ward and in a re­mark­ably short time the ASI is read­ing 350kt. Now we re­ally are clip­ping along and I sus­pect that there is a mas­sive grin on my face, un­com­fort­able oxy­gen mask per­mit­ting. With this ex­tra air­speed the Gnat has stopped rolling from side to side and is now com­pletely sta­ble. We’re warned of a Cessna out to our left (and he’s warned ‘Gnat at your nine o’clock, fast mov­ing’) but he’s passed in a flash.

We’re now at the coast north of Felixs­towe and south of Sizewell. There’s a tem­po­rary pur­ple air­way to our north so we have lim­ited space for Bren­ninkmeyer to do a few aeros. He starts with a cou­ple of twin­kle rolls. You’re obliged to pause be­tween each roll in the Gnat be­cause a string of them risks in­er­tia cou­pling caus­ing con­trol dif­fi­cuties. “It rolls quickly,” he says, “so be ready.” It does too−about 360 de­grees per se­cond. Not as mad as an Sbach but very brisk. My turn. Lift the nose but nowhere near the ‘an­kles on the hori­zon’ that the RV re­quires, and bang. Beautiful!

Bren­ninkmeyer ex­plains to me that the Gnat, due to its swept back wings, doesn’t stall like a con­ven­tional air­craft and has a wide buf­fet mar­gin. As the an­gle of at­tack in­creases you get a mush with a mas­sive

sink rate. A loop, as he demon­strates, is flown at the ‘nib­ble’−the on­set of buf­fet. We haven’t got a high enough cloud­base for me to try one but the man in front does a lovely, tidy one. Any­way, if I haven’t done quite a lot of aer­o­bat­ics within the last few days−and I’ve not−i start to feel sick very quickly. And the Gnat’s cock­pit would be very dif­fi­cult to clean...

We turn the jet back to­wards North Weald and again I take over. It’s so smooth through the air, no vi­bra­tion at all and hardly any noise. So dif­fer­ent from be­ing in a big pis­ton-en­gined ma­chine. In a Spit­fire you have the con­stant ham­mer­ing and vi­bra­tion from the Mer­lin, lovely as it is, to give you the feel­ing that you are be­ing punched through the air. The Gnat’s smooth­ness and tran­quil­lity gives the im­pres­sion that the air has given up try­ing to drag us back and is let­ting us slice our way through.

Within a very short time the North Weald cir­cuit is on our nose. Bren­ninkmeyer will demon­strate the clas­sic ‘run and break’ to knock our speed down to more suit­able num­bers for down­wind and fi­nal ap­proach. They’re still big num­bers. De­pend­ing on weight, the over-the-hedge speed varies be­tween 130 and 145kt. Those fig­ures seem scary but in re­al­ity when our man brings us in it’s a non-event. From my re­stricted-view perch in the back I can see that he flies us onto the run­way rather than floats us onto it. We’re re­ally crack­ing along and I can feel that Bren­ninkmeyer is do­ing a lot of tail­drag­ger-style work with his feet to keep the Gnat straight and true. Look­ing at the ridicu­lously nar­row 5ft 1in un­der­car­riage I’d sus­pected that some con­cen­tra­tion would be re­quired. The brakes are in­cred­i­bly ef­fec­tive and in short or­der we are taxy­ing off the run­way.

All of this has been an ex­tremely undis­ap­point­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. So dif­fer­ent from any­thing else that I’ve been in or taken con­trol of. I’d imag­ine that fly­ing in for­ma­tion with an­other Gnat and then aer­o­bat­ting in com­pany with it would be the ul­ti­mate buzz. There is an­other Gnat in the trust, the yel­low ma­chine once owned by Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, but Bren­ninkmeyer’s eyes re­ally sparkle when he talks about the sin­gle­seat fighter ver­sion that they’re ready­ing for the air. It’s lighter than the trainer and should be even more ex­cit­ing. You can see the gas ex­trac­tion ports in the en­gine in­takes where the orig­i­nal can­nons were fit­ted.

Trustee pi­lots

The Her­itage Air­craft Trust op­er­ates the Gnats via a lim­ited com­pany. The group is on the look­out for a cou­ple more trustee-pi­lots. Clearly, run­ning and main­tain­ing the jets is hugely ex­pen­sive so the num­bers are big. A new trustee has to bring with him or her £75,000 which will be put into the trust. It’s not a share, so once it’s handed over that’s it. Then there’s a monthly fee of £2,500 to cover hangarage, main­te­nance and all other stand­ing costs in­clud­ing en­gi­neer Peter Walker, who is the most ex­pe­ri­enced (he’s EX-RAF) Gnat en­gi­neer in the world, and a cou­ple of ap­pren­tices.

Large sums of money, but as I point out to Bren­ninkmeyer, not so out­ra­geous when com­pared to other ex­treme adren­a­line hob­bies. Run­ning a clas­sic For­mula One car for ex­am­ple. A friend who does just this in his­toric racing reck­ons that a Euro­pean meet­ing will cost him around £15,000 for the week­end and that a full re­build for a Cos­worth DFV is around £100,000. In that con­text, the cost of putting your­self into the Gnat isn’t any more ex­treme. Each sor­tie costs around £1,000 in Jet A1 which wouldn’t buy you a set of slicks for your old F1 car. Any­way, it’s some­what point­less talk­ing about pound notes be­cause most of us are not in this league and have enough trou­ble putting a few litres of 100LL in our ma­chines and pay­ing for the hangarage. But there are oth­ers for whom cash isn’t an is­sue and for them the Gnat will pro­vide a thrilling ex­pe­ri­ence. If there is a dis­tant aunt who I don’t know about but who is about to leave me mil­lions, I will for sure be writ­ing Mr Bren­ninkmeyer and his fel­low trus­tees a fat cheque. A blast in a Gnat once a fort­night would con­trast nicely with flights in my Hawker Sea Fury.

The Gnat’s skinny tyres will kiss the sur­face at be­tween 135 and 150kt

Most rear cock­pit in­s­tu­ments are fa­mil­iar, ex­cept the Mach me­ter. Colin was in­structed only to touch throt­tle and stick!

Pi­lot and trustee Ed­win Bren­ninkmeyer has to squeeze his 6ft 5in frame into the Gnat

Col makes sure he’s well-hy­drated be­fore the trip

Anti-clock­wise from above: Her­itage’s stock of bone domes, es­sen­tial for Gnat ops; Ed­win checks Colin’s oxy­gen mask for fit; and Good­win walks the jet pi­lot’s walk

Colin and Ed­win strike a team pose with the air­craft be­fore the sor­tie

Clock­wise from above: nose art and, built into the en­gine in­takes, can­non gas ex­trac­tion ports of the ex In­dian air force sin­gle-seat fighter ver­sion of the Gnat be­ing read­ied for flight by the trust at North Weald

Pre­flight rit­ual: Ed­win checks the flaps, hid­den from his sight by the wing, and a ground crew­man con­firms their po­si­tion

Taxy­ing must be done slowly and care­fully to avoid suck­ing any FOD into an en­gine

The un­der­car­riage is only 5ft 1in wide and the wing­span 24ft — nar­rower than that of Colin’s RV-7

Canopy open — it’s time to take off the hel­met. Did he en­joy the sor­tie? The grin says it all

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