JRD Tata and the Indian Air Force

Who was the first Indian pilot?

Did you say Mr. JRD Tata?

Well, you’re only partly right. He was the first civilian pilot of Indian origin. Here’s his Commercial Pilot’s Licence. Don’t miss the licence number next to the date. It is CPL No. 1.

For the record, when I got my CPL in 2004 after leaving the IAF, the number was 4346; and young CPLs these days get licence numbers around 20,000!

Here’s a tribute to him on his birth anniversary, highlighting JRD’s links with the IAF.

At first glance, there seems to be no connection between the Indian Air Force and JRD Tata, but there is a deep and long-lasting association, with both happy and sad events.

In 1929, to encourage flying in India, Prince Aga Khan offered a prize of 500 British Pounds (equivalent to over 42 Lakh Rupees now) to the first Indian to fly solo between England and India, either eastward or westward, in six weeks.

Six full weeks? You ask? Yes, when you travelled by your favourite airline, it took only 8 hours.

Remember, this was 9 decades ago, when airplanes were small, slow, and prone to frequent failures. Also, there were no ground-based radars or any other navigation equipment to guide you.

So, besides being an expert pilot, one had to be an excellent navigator, an amateur engineer, a reasonable meteorologist, a daring adventurer, and obviously very wealthy, to even try it.

Before modern navigation systems and highly reliable airplanes became available, it was common to see in an airliner’s cockpit, the Captain, the Co-pilot, the Navigator and the Flight Engineer, and of course the Autopilot!

If you have tried driving in a strange place without Google Maps, GPS and signboards, multiply your difficulty tenfold and you’ll understand the complications of navigating.

In the air, there is no road to follow; the only instrument showing you directions, the basic magnetic compass, is hardly accurate; unseen winds push you off track without you even knowing it; and storms, clouds, rain, and fog make it impossible to see the ground.

In 1930, three young men rose to the challenge of flying from India to England.

Manmohan Singh persisted despite two failures, and made it across in his third attempt, but he took a day more than a month.  

JRD, while flying from Karachi, via Basra, Gaza, Cairo, Tripoli, Naples, Rome, Marseilles, and Paris, to Croydon in England, landed at Aboukir near Cairo in Egypt. 

There, he met Aspy Engineer, his competitor, who was flying in the opposite direction, from England to India. But Aspy was stuck because of engine trouble, and needed a new spark plug.

Imagine, you are midway through a dangerous yet prestigious race for being the first among millions of Indians to do something special. A faulty spark plug has grounded your only competitor, and he is awaiting the delivery of a new one, which could take weeks.

What would you do?

On the other hand, imagine being stranded, for God knows how long, when you meet your only competitor, who is happily on his way to England.

But he has yet to cross the Mediterranean Sea that you already have, which is a dangerous mission in a highly unreliable single-engine plane.

What would you do?

JRD gifted Aspy his spare spark plug and Aspy gave a return gift of his life vest to JRD.

Both flew off in opposite directions and both made it to their destinations, Aspy beating JRD by just a few hours.

Aspy was only 18 years old, and JRD was 26.

Fathom the immense maturity displayed by both.

No wonder JRD went on to become what we all know and, what is lesser known is, Aspy joined the IAF and rose to be its second Indian Chief.

That was JRD’s first brush with the future IAF, which was yet to be born then.

The second interaction, however, was not happy.  In November 1960, Air India operated its first ‘proving’ flight to Japan. JRD had invited a few friends and dignitaries to travel on that flight, which included Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee, the Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force. 

On 8th November, while dining at a restaurant in Tokyo, Mukerjee, the senior-most IAF Officer with many firsts to his credit, choked on a piece of food, and before a doctor could arrive, passed away.

That was a tremendous shock to India, the IAF and JRD.

Who succeeded him? Air Marshal Aspy Engineer, whom JRD had gifted a spark plug.

The third and the subsequent interactions between JRD and the IAF were happy indeed. 

In 1948, in recognition of his service to Indian aviation, the IAF conferred the honorary rank of Group Captain on JRD.

In 1966, the IAF ‘promoted’ him to the rank of Air Commodore, and then, in 1974, granted him an honorary promotion to the rank of Air Vice Marshal.

That’s how fellow aviators, irrespective of whether they were military or civilian, respected each other.

Later, even after JRD was forced to leave the Chairmanship of Air India, whenever Air India required pilots urgently, IAF seconded them, and they served Air India with distinction for decades.

In 1982, at the age of 78, JRD repeated his first airmail flight on its 50th anniversary.

I’m awed and impressed by his feat, especially because now that I’m 62, I realise how difficult it is to remain fit to fly year after year.

But I am not surprised.

As the famous saying goes, “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.”

©Avinash Chikte

A similar article was first published by me at: https://www.indiatimes.com/explainers/news/indian-air-force-j-r-d-tata-551541.html

Pictures courtesy: IAF, Tata Group, Twitter, Wikipedia and Reddit.

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