April 2004

How the Maharaja got his wings

Starting with delivering four-anna airmail letters from Karachi to Bombay, JRD Tata went on to build Air India, India's first international airline.

  • Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across the English Channel (in 1909), was JRD's hero and neighbour in France. JRD's first joyride in the open blue skies was in 1919. He was just 15 years old.
  • JRD got his pilot's A-licence in India and that too in the shortest number of hours. He flew solo after just three-and-a-half hours in the air with an instructor.
  • Tata Airlines began with an investment of Rs2 lakh from Tata Sons, and had two second-hand de Havilland Puss Moths.
  • On October 15, 1932, JRD soared in a tiny single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth from Karachi with the 25kg load of mail to Bombay via Ahmedabad. This was the nation's inaugural flight. At Bombay, Neville Vintcent, a former RAF pilot and close friend of JRD, took over from JRD and flew the Puss Moth to Madras via Bellary. Karachi was chosen as the starting point because Imperial Airways terminated there with the airmail from England.
  • At first Tata Airlines got no financial help from the Government of India, only an extra four annas (a rupee then had 16 annas) air surcharge per letter, for which a postage stamp had to be fixed.
  • As these flying machines were tiny, the occasional passenger travelled sitting on top of the mail bags, often ending up with his heels higher than his head!
    In the initial years a mud flat at Juhu served as the airfield. During monsoons it would get flooded, so JRD would shift the two planes, three pilots and three mechanics to Poona.
  • In 1933, the first full year of operations, Tata Airlines flew 160,000 miles, carried 155 passengers and 10.71 tonnes of mail. Homi Bharucha was the first pilot on the payroll. JRD and Vintcent were the other two pilots.
  • The frequency of the Karachi-Madras route was stepped up to twice a week in 1934 and, a year later, a weekly service was started between Mumbai and Trivandrum, with stops at Goa and Cannanore. The first passengers were JRD's colleague Jal Naoroji and the well-known Bombay merchant, Seth Kanji Dwarkadas, the latter wearing a traditional dhoti, a long black dagalo coat and a small black cap.
  • In 1937, another flight from Bombay to Delhi, via Indore, Bhopal and Gwalior, was started.
  • In 1938, Tata Airlines spread its wings for the first time overseas, to Colombo.
  • During World War II, the airline was involved in a survey of the South Arabia route, carriage of supplies to Iraq, movement of refugees from Burma and overhaul and maintenance of RAF equipment.
  • In 1946, Tata Airlines went public and became a joint stock company. It was called Air India Ltd. The airline's office in those days was on the second floor of Bombay House. Genell Moots of TWA came from Kansas City to train India's first batch of air hostesses. The first booking office was opened opposite the Churchgate railway station, in Bombay.
  • On June 8, 1948, Air India International, with the famous Maharaja as its mascot, spread its wings to Europe.
  • On October 15, 1962, JRD re-enacted his first flight from Karachi to Bombay for the airline's 30th anniversary. This time it was in a Leopard Moth.
  • On October 15, 1982, JRD flew the refurbished Leopard Moth once again along the same route, to celebrate Air India's 50th anniversary.

Uploaded in August 2004