Karachi to Bombay to Calcutta

The struggle to start Air-India.

Tata (circa 1960) wrote copious memos to his staff about everything from inflight coffee (“it tasted like bean soup”) to crew hairstyles (one stewardess “had an enormous hair bun at the back, larger than her whole head. She looked ridiculous”). (Tata Central Archives)
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Born in Paris in 1904 to a French mother, the young J.R.D.—“Jeh” to his friends and family—spent summers in Hardelot, in northern France. One of the Tatas’ neighbors was Louis Blériot, the Frenchman who in 1909 would make the first airplane flight across the English Channel. Blériot built a hangar on the beach, and J.R.D. found an early influence in Blériot test pilot Adolphe Pegoud. “To me Pegoud was one of the bravest and most foolhardy men that ever lived,” Tata told R.M. Lala, his biographer.

J.R.D. moved to Bombay in 1925, where he took an unpaid apprenticeship with Tata Group. (He ascended to the chairmanship in 1938, a position he held until 1991, overseeing the Tata empire in addition to retaining the chairmanship of Air-India.) When a flying club opened in Bombay, he got his pilot’s license in 1929, becoming the first pilot in India to do so, after only three hours and 45 minutes in the air. Of the achievement, he told Lala: “No document has ever given me a greater thrill than the little blue and gold certificate delivered to me on 10 February 1929, by the Aero Club of India and Burma on behalf of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. The fact that it bore the Number 1 added to my pride in owning it.”

A year later, Tata participated in the Aga Khan Prize race, in which the Muslim leader offered £500 to the first Indian to fly solo from England to India or vice versa. Tata took up the challenge, flying a Gipsy Moth from Karachi to the airfield at Croydon in England, by way of Basra, Gaza, Cairo, Tripoli, Naples, Rome, Marseilles, and Paris. His competition was a Sikh, Manmohan Singh, and an 18-year-old pilot named Aspy Engineer, who would later become the chief of staff of the Indian air force, and who won the race.

THE TATA NAME is everywhere in India. In Mumbai it’s on cars, trucks, billboards, and skyscrapers. The Tata Group has subsidiaries dealing in virtually every commodity: automobiles, mobile telephones, steel, shoes, life insurance, fertilizers, salt, bottled water, lentils. About the only thing they don’t have anymore is an airline.

In the nationalized airline Air-India, the visible record all but expunges the Tata name—and J.R.D.’s legacy. “Today’s Air-India pilots are not thinking about J.R.D.,” Bose said. “When I was flying, J.R.D. was a constant presence. As a young man, you’re busy with your flying and your career. They don’t have time to reflect on the airline’s founder.”

The leafy Tata “campus” in Pune, about 110 miles east of Mumbai, is a company headquarters that, among other things, serves as a training compound for hospitality workers in Tata hotels, the flagship of which is the Taj Mahal Palace, the luxury hotel adjacent to the Gateway to India in Mumbai. At the Tata Central Archives there, I found early Tata Air Lines documents, among them a 1933 speech Tata gave about air travel to the Bombay Rotary Club.

“Up to the end of 1929,” Tata told his audience, “apart from a few experimental flights, commercial aviation proper could have been suitably described by a zero so far as [India] was concerned. Considering the relatively advanced stage which air transport had reached by then in most of the other countries of the world, it may be asked why India of all countries should have been so conspicuously backward. Were there any obstacles in the way peculiar to India with which other countries were not handicapped?”

Never one to mince words, Tata answered his own question: “Lack of vision and initiative on the part of Government.”

India, Tata believed, was ripe for a service to fly mail and passengers. “Climatic conditions (for the greater part of the year), nature of the ground, distances, inadequacy of railways and roads, keenness of the people are all in her favour,” Tata told the Rotary Club.

J.R.D.’s partner in the new venture was Nevill Vintcent, a South African aviator and former Royal Air Force pilot. Born in 1902, Vintcent was a pugilist and an early proponent of flight in India, flying all over the subcontinent in the 1920s as a surveyor and barnstormer. In fact, it was Vintcent who took a proposal for an Indian airmail service to the Tatas. “I have tried to stress the fact that if Tata Sons are given this route it will give a great fillip to commercial flying in India,” Vintcent wrote of his negotiations with the government in a 1931 letter to J.R.D. “If the route is state operated I maintain that it will effectively put a stop to any further efforts by private firms to develop other routes, as they will argue that after the spade work has been done, the state reaps the benefit. I also maintain that private enterprise will develop flying far more quickly than the state can hope to do, and will consequently provide more openings for Indians in this profession.”

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