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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ON OCTOBER 15, 1982, 50 years to the day after Tata Aviation Services’ inaugural flight, a 78-year-old J.R.D. Tata, dressed in the light blue safari suit that had become his late-period trademark, took off from Drigh Road in Karachi in a Leopard Moth (a suitable Puss Moth couldn’t be found) bound for Bombay to commemorate the birth of Indian civil aviation.

J.R.D. had appointed Captain Bose to organize the flight. Bose remembers the board meeting in which Tata announced that he wanted to reenact the journey. “There was silence all around,” Bose said. “No board member dared open his mouth, but we all thought it was a dangerous idea,” given J.R.D.’s age.

Bose was charged with finding the airplane, then coordinating with de Havilland on its refurbishing. “Once this was done,” said Bose, “he didn’t want anything to do with me. He wanted to be in total control of the flight, and he didn’t want to be made to feel that he was in any way incapable of handling it himself.” In fact, Surendra Gupte, who worked closely with J.R.D. on the 50th anniversary celebrations, told me that J.R.D. confided to him before the flight that he had recently suffered a mild heart attack and that his doctor advised him against making the flight.

Afterward, J.R.D. told reporters that this flight too was uneventful.

“Ten minutes before the scheduled hour of 4 o’clock,” according to an account published in the Bombay newspaper Mid-Day, “Mr. J.R.D. Tata’s Leopard Moth was sighted over Bombay. But being a stickler for punctuality, he hung on over the horizon till the appointed hour.

“Then he came over the old Juhu airport and, like any other young daredevil airman, he swooped low over the [tent] holding some 1,500 invitees…. Then, taking a full circle, the Leopard Moth made a perfect three-point landing.”

When asked by reporters after the flight why he did it, J.R.D. expressed sentiments echoing the ones that led him to form India’s first and most enduring airline. “I felt rather shaken that in recent times there was a growing sense of disenchantment in our land,” he said, a possible reference to the country’s stalled economic development at the time. “There was a loss of hope, aspirations, and enthusiasm and a fall in morale amongst our youth. This flight, I hope, will rekindle a spark of enthusiasm and the desire in them to do something for the good of our country.”

Today’s Air-India passengers may join in J.R.D.’s wish. The carrier has fallen on hard times of late. Its legendary cabin service and punctuality is in decline; a delivery of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner has been deferred because of lack of cash; and the company is in talks with banks, hoping to restructure 200 billion rupees of debt. The elegance for which Air-India was once known has faded.

David Shaftel, a writer from New York City, now reports from Mumbai, India. His last article was “Brooklyn’s Jewel: Floyd Bennett Field” (Oct./Nov. 2010).

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