How Indian aviation was born

3Decades before the mudflats of Juhu were in the news for housing Bollywood celebrities, they made history with the landing of India’s first commercial airline—Tata Airlines. It was on 15 October 1932 that the enterprising 29-year-old Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (JRD), landed his de Havilland DH 80A Puss Moth aircraft there, on the inaugural flight of India’s first scheduled air-mail service from Karachi to Bombay.

The plane had been shipped from England to South Bombay’s Alexandra Docks. There, JRD’s friend, industrialist Nusserwanjee Guzder, had the dismantled airplane transported to the Juhu Flying Club, where it was painstakingly reassembled.

Tata’s landing that day was the culmination of a schoolboy fixation with flying that began in France. He spent his formative years at his father Ratanji’s seaside cottage in Normandy. A little along the beach lived the dashing French pilot Louis Blériot—the first man to fly across the English Channel. Blériot’s daredevil adventures captivated the young JRD; from that point on, all he wanted to do was fly.

3-1During WWI, Jehangir read every book he could find on the battles taking place in the skies above Europe. But there was no airport in Bombay when he returned to India following military service in 1924, aged 21. So when, three years later, a new flying club opened in Juhu, JRD signed up immediately and, in 1929, became the first person in India to hold a pilot’s licence.

In 1930, JRD bought his first aircraft, a £1,200 Tiger Moth from England. Soon after, he met another flying enthusiast, South African Nevill Vintcent, with whom he conceived the idea of Tata Airlines. What started as an air-mail service between Karachi and Bombay was, by 1939, a full-service carrier

Tata Airlines supported the Royal Air Force with evacuations and carrying troops throughout WWII. In peacetime, it returned to commercial services, and, by the mid-’40s, built up a fleet of DC-3s servicing airports across the subcontinent. Tata’s vision was completed when, in 1948, Tata Airlines became Air India International, with JRD as Chairman—a position he held proudly for the next 25 years.

Based on research for The Taj at Apollo Bunder: The Story of the Taj Mahal Hotel, Founded 1903, Bombay by Charles Allen and Sharada Dwivedi

Published On Conde Nast Traveller

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