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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In March 1929, just six weeks after J.R.D. received his license, Tata Sons Limited (as the conglomerate was called then), with Vintcent as a partner and chief pilot, submitted to the colonial government its first proposal for establishing a regularly scheduled airmail service to peninsular India. Tata Aviation Services would extend the existing service, which Imperial Airways, the precursor of British Airways, provided from England to Karachi. There at Karachi, the Tatas’ airline would collect the mail and fly it to Bombay and Madras (now Chennai). One of “two single engined American planes”—according to an internal Tata Group history—would connect with Imperial Airways in Karachi once a week, weather permitting, and fly to Bombay, a journey that would take around eight hours, compared with nearly 45 hours by rail.

The entire airline would consist of two airplanes, two pilots, and two ground engineers, one “apprentice” (meaning an Indian) engineer, four coolies, and two chowkidars, or guards. And all of this for the government investment of just 100,000 to 125,000 Indian rupees (worth about $680,000 today), the bulk of which J.R.D. said would be recoverable through the extra airmail postage. Still, the government pleaded poverty.

Despite the Depression-induced austerity, the British government was keen to open the subcontinent to airmail service. At the time, the French Air Orient Company operated a service between Marseilles and Saigon, and the Royal Dutch Line’s KLM was operating between Holland and the Dutch East Indies. Due to government restrictions that J.R.D. found “incomprehensible,” mail bound for India and Burma was permitted to be carried by both of these services only as far as Karachi, where it was loaded onto a train bound for Calcutta, even though the aircraft were also bound for Calcutta.

Finally, Tata and Vintcent made an offer the British couldn’t refuse, offering to start the airline at almost no cost to the government. On April 24, 1932, Tata Air Mail was born, with the signing of a 10-year contract. The deal involved no government subsidiary, only a small stipend per pound of mail carried. Under the agreement, Tata Aviation Services would get free use of government aerodromes, but if the service was infrequent or unreliable, it could be cancelled. Furthermore, Tata Aviation Services was required to employ British subjects and use British airplanes—so much for the “American” aircraft. Tata and Vintcent bought another Puss Moth, this at a time when other civil air transport services were already using four-engine Armstrong Whitworth Atalantas.

After landing at Juhu on that first flight, the mail that was to continue to Madras was transferred to the second Moth, flown by chief pilot Vintcent, who spent the night in Bellary (about 500 miles away) before continuing on to Madras, on south India’s east coast. An internal history says simply: “This marked the beginning of the Indian air transport.”

IN 1933, ITS FIRST FULL YEAR of operation, Tata Aviation Services flew 160,000 miles, ferrying 23,800 pounds of mail and freight and 155 passengers on the Karachi-Bombay-Madras route. In 1936, the company introduced Waco biplanes, and in 1937 added service to New Delhi. The next year it was renamed Tata Air Lines.

In 1940, Nevill Vintcent traveled to England to meet with Lord Beaverbrook, who asked Tata Sons to supply the Ministry of Aircraft Production with 200 Tiger Moth training airplanes. Vintcent headed to the de Havilland factory in Canada to learn how to produce the aircraft; when he returned to India, Tata Sons built a factory at their own cost. A few months later, the Ministry of Aircraft Production decided it didn’t want Tiger Moths, and asked Tata Sons to build 400 Horsa gliders instead. Vintcent headed back to England to make preliminary production arrangements. On the return flight, his bomber was shot down and he was killed. Several months later the ministry sent a telegram to Tata Sons cancelling the Horsa contract.

Despite the devastating loss of Vintcent, the airline expanded after the war, when J.R.D. entered a partnership with the Indian government, which bought a 49 percent stake in the airline, with an option to buy another two percent. In 1953, citing a policy of nationalizing all transport services, the Socialist-leaning government exercised the option, and the airline was nationalized.

J.R.D. RETAINED the chairmanship of Air-India until 1978, but nationalization never sat well with him. In a 1953 telegram to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, he wrote that the “nationalisation scheme is not sound and will not result in the creation of an efficient and self supporting air transport system…. [And] I can only deplore that so vital a step should have been taken without giving us a proper hearing.” (For his part, Nehru noted in a letter J.R.D. Tata’s “evident distress” on learning that nationalization had taken place.)

“He had enormous popularity throughout his own country and the world in the early 1970s,” said the late R.E.G. Davies, former air transport curator at the National Air and Space Museum. “He was well respected in the industry at a time in which aviation services were almost entirely dominated by European and U.S. airlines. He managed to lead an indigenous Asian airline into the top ranks, and the recognition he received was both technical and social. Technical, because the Air-India fleet was always modern and competitive. Social, because thanks to the efforts of him and [then Air-India commercial director] Bobby Kooka, the onboard service was both elegant and efficient—and very Indian. At the heyday of Air-India, J.R.D. Tata was one of the most respected and adored leaders of any airline in the world.”

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