Book: J. R. D. Tata Keynote

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When the Skies Were Less Crowded

Looking Back


From an article in the Report of the Aero Club of India, 1970.


n the early part of this century, when the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (F.A.I.) was virtually the only controlling body in aviation throughout the world, governments took a dim view of aviation. Flying machines obviously had no future except in war time and they and their pilots were a nuisance, made a lot of noise and attracted large crowds that left a lot of litter to be carted away. Sometimes, the aeroplanes and their pilots had to be carted away too!

No one, except those crazy people in aero clubs believed in a future for civil aviation other than as a sport and spectacle. Officialdom only intervened, usually in the shape of a stern policeman with a peak cap and handle-bar moustache, when a farmer complained of the damage caused to his field or his cow by someone's aeroplane, or when crowds needed controlling at air shows.

No document has ever given me a greater thrill than a little blue and gold aviator's certificate delivered to me on February 10, 1929, by the Aero Club of India and Burma on behalf of the F.A.I. The fact that it bears Number I added to my pride in owning it, even though the fact that I held the first certificate issued in India by the F.A.I. meant nothing more than that I was the first one to have qualified in this country. In the rest of the world, flying had already become a fairly serious and humdrum business by then. The heroic days of pilot constructors like the Wright Brothers, Bleriot, Farman, Caudron Curtiss, Latham, Breguet and others, and their strange looking contraptions of wood, wire, canvas and bicycle wheels had long gone. Few even remember their names today. I was lucky enough to have been born early enough to have seen some of them in action.

The early pilots have also long been forgotten. Who remembers today the name of Charles Pegoud, Bleriot's chief pilot? To me, he was one of the bravest and most foolhardy men that ever lived, for he was the first to loop the loop and to fly inverted in an aeroplane. Our dashing young pilots of today would say, 'What of it? The loop is the simplest of all aerobatic manoeuvres and so is inverted flying.'

True, but sixty years ago, Pegoud looped the loop in an early Bleriot stick-and-fabric monoplane, with so little engine power that he could not have pulled it up past the vertical into a standard loop. He had to do an outside loop or none at all! So, with his heart in his mouth if he had any sense, he pushed his plane into a dive and kept pushing until he went past the vertical, on to his back and up the other side into level flight, his plane no doubt creaking, and its wires screaming in protest at a speed far in excess of what it had been designed for. While in a normal loop, centrifugal force keeps the pilot pressed against his seat, in an outside loop it tends to throw him out. So, poor Pegoud must have been hanging on his flimsy belt the whole way round, with no parachute to save him in case the plane broke up, as he must have half expected it to do.

After the early birds, came the legendary fighter pilots of the First World War, such men as von Richtoffen and Boelcke of Germany, Ball and MacCudden of England, Guynemer and Fonck of France, Rickenbacker of the U.S.A. and Billy Bishop of Canada, to whose exploits my generation thrilled.

Then came the spate of long-distance pioneers from Kingsford Smith to Lindbergh, whose flight across the Atlantic was perhaps the greatest individual feat ever performed in aviation, who brought a whole era of individual achievement to its climax, and, at the same time, opened an entirely new one in which commercial aviation reached maturity.

By the time I began flying in 1929, much of the romance had gone out of aviation along with its great heroes. Fortunately, however, there was still a lot of fun, some risk and a little glamour left in individual flying by the time I took to it. The Flying Club movement, highly developed abroad, had at last come to India, thanks largely to the late Sir Victor Sassoon, whose generosity brought to hundreds, and later thousands of young Indians who, like myself, had long dreamed to fly, the blessed chance to shed their earth-bound chains.

A year later, under the auspices of the Aero Club of India, the Aga Khan imaginatively offered a prize of £500 – a considerable sum at the time – to the first Indian who flew solo between India and Britain in either direction in not more than thirty days. Possessing a Gypsy Moth in those days, I decided, somewhat late, to try my luck. By that time, a young pilot, called Manmohan Singh, had already made two attempts starting from the London end, but had lost his way both times over the continent, whereupon a well-known English magazine tersely reported, 'Mr. Singh has called his plane "Miss India" – he is likely to.'

On his third attempt, Manmohan Singh and I met at Gaza, where he nearly rammed my own plane on the ground. Next day, he enterprisingly decided to land in the Syrian Desert to shoot gazelles with a pistol! He did reach India ultimately, but not in time to get the Aga Khan prize, which was won by an eighteen-year-old from Karachi called Aspy Engineer. I lost to him by just two and a half hours, landing at Paris as he touched down at Karachi. On the strength of his performance, Aspy was admitted to the newly created I.A.F. where, at the end of a fine career, he rose to be the Head of the Air Force some thirty years later. We were both put to shame, however, by Amy Johnson who, in a great solo flight to Australia shortly after our own, flew from England to India in three and a half days, as against the eight days and five hours I took, by a much longer route along the Mediterranean. Exactly thirty years later, I flew, as a passenger this time, from London to Bombay on a delivery flight of Air-India's first Boeing 707 jet in the same number of hours and minutes as I had taken days and hours in 1930.

My next contact with the Aero Club of India and the F.A.I. was in 1934, on the occasion of the MacRobertson Air Race from London to Sydney, with stops at Karachi and Allahabad, where I acted as a ground marshal. Amy Johnson, by then Amy Mollison, was one of the competitors with her famous husband. They reached India first, but their engine burnt out at Allahabad, and the most likely winner was out of the race. Times have indeed changed since those eventful and happy days, when the skies were less crowded, the planes less reliable and men and women flew them because they loved to fly.


The Tata Air Mail


Paper read to the Rotary Club of Bombay on January 24, 1933, when the Tata Air Mail was barely a hundred days old.


When Mr. Wingfield first suggested to me that I should speak at one of the Rotary lunches on Air Mail Services, my first reaction was to laugh it out on the ground that I really knew nothing of the subject, but I was met by the devastating reply: That's quite alright old boy, neither does anybody else!'

There are a number of factors which render a country suitable or unsuitable for the rapid development of commercial aviation. India is fortunate enough to possess all the favourable ones and practically none unfavourable. Climatic conditions (for the greater part of the year), nature of the ground, distances, inadequacy of railways and road, are all in her favour. Unfortunately, appreciation by the Government of these advantages and action on them were sadly lacking. To all intents and purposes, the Government of this country has barely awakened as yet to the tremendous value of speeding up communications and to the almost unlimited future of air transport. What was required, in my opinion, was not the establishment and operation of air services State-run at the taxpayers' expense, but first the building up of a sound ground organisation in the shape of aerodromes, meteorological stations, wireless equipment, flying and navigational aids, etc., and then encouraging, or at least allowing, private enterprise to operate. How were these requirements fulfilled?

In the summer of 1928, the Indian Air Mail from Croydon to Karachi was inaugurated by Imperial Airways and India was linked for the first time by a regular air service to the countries of the West. This service, however, could be considered only as a part of an Imperial trunk route to Australia, and the necessity of extending it eastwards was imperative.

Tatas placed in 1929, a scheme before the Government for the establishment of an air service between Karachi and Bombay. Or rather, they put up two schemes. One, purely for mails, and the other, a little more ambitious, for a combined mail and passenger service. The answer, which was not unexpected but which took some time to come, was a decisive 'no' and the main reason was 'No Money' although the schemes involved a guarantee of only about one lakh and one and a quarter lakhs per year respectively, the bulk of which was, in any case, recoverable from the additional postal charges to be levied on letters.

If the Government could not, or would not, spend a lakh or half a lakh, or a cent for an air service, would they see their way to accept one gratis, for nothing? The Government would, and the Tata Air Mail came into being. Detailed negotiations followed, and early last year (1932) a ten-year contract was signed between the Government and ourselves, which involved no subsidy of any kind but only payment of a certain rate per pound carried, based on a sliding scale according to the distance over which the mails were actually flown. It is worth mentioning here that the income from the postal surcharge levied for carriage of mails by air in India covers the rates payable to us with the result that the service actually costs nothing to the Government and, therefore, nothing to the taxpayer.

The service was officially inaugurated by me as pilot on October 15, 1932 and the first air mail reached Bombay in the afternoon of the same day, and Madras on the following morning. Two Puss Moth aeroplanes operate on this route. One of them on the Karachi-Bombay run, and the other on the Bombay-Madras run.

The whole route covers a distance of approximately 1,350 miles out of which about 1,100 miles are flown in the day. On the southbound flights, the mails leave Karachi at or before dawn on Saturday morning and arrive about eleven hours later at Bellary, where the night is spent. The next morning (Sunday) the mails are flown to Madras where they arrive at a quarter past nine. The return mails leave the next afternoon, that is Monday, spend the night at Bellary as before, and leave the next morning for Karachi where they arrive the same evening in time for the departure of Imperial Airways westbound machine early on Wednesday. As will be seen, the schedule has been fixed so that the mails arrive as early as possible at Bombay and

Madras and leave as late as possible on the return flight so as to give the public the maximum time in which to reply. This, at any rate, represents our normal time-table, but because our service is mainly an extension of the Indian Air Mail Service of Imperial Airways, our schedule must necessarily be altered every time a delay occurs in the arrival of Imperial Airways at Karachi.

We are today completing our fifteenth return flight and it is unfortunate, to say the least, that out of this number of flights the Indian Air Mail (London-Karachi) was on time only on five occasions. This handicap is, in fact, becoming a serious matter for us, for every time the delay exceeds twenty-four hours we have to send a machine empty to Madras in order to be able to leave with the northbound mails on schedule. We sincerely hope that greater regularity will be achieved in future by Imperial Airways.

We are at present carrying no passengers because, according to our contract, when passengers are carried, mails have to be stored in a separate compartment. With the small machines we use at present there is not sufficient room to accommodate both passengers and mails in this way. As soon, however, as public support, on which our service entirely depends, results in such an increased mail load as to exceed the capacity of our present aircraft, we shall re-equip with larger machines and we hope then to carry passengers on a limited scale. Ours is, however, primarily and essentially a mail and freight service and passengers must take second place in our programme at least for some years to come.

We are convinced that under the present conditions in India, the combination of mails and passengers is unsatisfactory. The main reason is that while with mails almost the only consideration is speed, in case of passengers, safety and personal comfort are of greater importance. The position is effectively summarised in a maxim, originated I think by the Editor of The Aeroplane', which says that, 'Passengers may be delayed but must never be lost while mails may be lost but must never be delayed.' You will appreciate that under certain conditions these two cannot go together.

I shall not say any more about the actual operation of our service at present. It has only been running for about three months, and this is too short a time in which to form definite conclusions or opinions on the results achieved.

So far as we are concerned, I ask you to believe that our sole object is to give you greater and better service. Practically the only way in which this can be achieved in running an air mail service is to carry mails faster, and still faster. Our aim therefore is to speed up our service to the maximum extent but speed unfortunately costs money. It can be obtained in two ways. Either by putting in use faster machines or by flying the mails day and night. The latter is undoubtedly the right way to do it because it seems absurd, and it is absurd, to tear across the sky from dawn to dusk as fast as you can go, and then to spend the next ten hours on the ground. In fact, I am personally convinced that air transport will not attain its true value as the only means of carrying mails until flying is done day and night, but night flying is only possible with a very extensive, and expensive, ground organisation in the shape of lighting equipment, emergency landing grounds, wireless communications, radio beacons, etc. The expenditure required for this could not possibly be undertaken by operators. It is clear that the provision of such a ground organisation must, and can, only be undertaken by the Government.

Considering the attitude of the Government towards commercial aviation up to the present, the position is not very promising .... So far as the immediate future is concerned, therefore, we shall probably have to fall back on faster machines as the only means of speeding up mails. In the case of our service, mails are at present flown at a speed of about one hundred miles an hour. The greatly increased purchase price as well as running costs of faster machines, however, can only be justified if the night stop at Bellary can be cut out. In order to do so, we would have to use aircraft that could cover the distance between Karachi and Madras during the daylight hours – which would require an upward jump in cruising speed of something like forty miles per hour. This is out of the question for the present so far as we are concerned, not because the machines are not available, but because the cost would be prohibitive with the amount of mails that we carry at present.

I want to express, perhaps unnecessarily, the unbounded confidence we have in the ultimate future of air transport in India. A few lean years will precede the great development that must come but that has always been so with any new enterprise, and, in the case of air transport more perhaps than in any other, the difficulties are worth conquering. We look forward confidently to the day when none of you will think of travelling or sending your letters by any other way than by air, and, when this time comes, if we have done our bit in helping India to make up for lost time, and to attain a position in aviation worthy of her, we shall have achieved our purpose and we shall be satisfied.


The Dawn of the Air Age


Ten years after the previous speech, on November 2, 1943, J.R.D. Tata spoke again to the Bombay Rotary Club.


It is evident that the aeroplane is still far from having come into its own as a means of transport in the same sense as the railway train or the motor car. If, therefore, this is not yet the Air Age, when can we expect it and what will it be like?

I would define the Air Age as the time, some twenty or thirty years hence, when facilities for air travel will be as widely available as railway and steamer facilities are today; when fares charged for various classes of travel will approach those of surface transport; when all long-distance passenger traffic will be carried by air; when the normal average speed of air transport will be around 400 m.p.h.; when no point on the earth's surface will be more than a day's travel from any other point.

The first and most important consequence of the arrival of the Air Age will therefore be to make the world one neighbourhood and to bring its peoples closer together physically, as well as mentally and spiritually.

The next will be a tremendous acceleration in the tempo of our life. With increased opportunities for business and cultural contacts, the range and number of our activities will be much greater than they are today, and we may have to make room for these increased activities by cutting out unnecessary or unproductive occupations like listening to Rotary talks! The strain on our hearts and nerves will probably increase proportionately, but this should be compensated for by the increased opportunities for sport, relaxation in better climates, and the greater health and longevity which advancing medical science will bring us. Travelling will have become so comfortable that one of the present causes of human wear and tear in our professional life will disappear. And, when the rush of our lives becomes intolerable, the aeroplane itself will furnish the ideal remedy. For, what will be more restful and soothing at such times than to spend a few hours cruising in the upper air, 'far from the madding crowd.'

The essence of air transport is speed, and speed is unfortunately one of the most expensive commodities in the world, principally because of the disproportionate amount of power required to achieve high speed and to lift loads thousands of feet into the air. This is strikingly illustrated by the fact that while an average cargo ship, freight train and transport aeroplane are each equipped with engines totalling about 2,500 H.P., the ship can carry a load of about 7,000 tons, the train 800 tons and the plane only two and a half tons. Expressed in another way and after allowing for the difference between maximum and cruising horsepower, the aeroplane will expend one hundred and twenty times more energy than the ship and about fifty times more than the railway train to carry the same load the same distance.

Let me say a few words about the aeroplane in its more sinister guise. What it has already achieved in this War as a killer and as a destroyer of man's creations is a grim omen for the future. The potentialities of the aeroplane as a war machine in 1960 or 1970 are so immense and so terrible that if man in his perverseness chooses to develop it still further as a weapon of war, it will overwhelm him in time, and usher in an age of barbarity and terror in which life will be possible only in the bowels of the earth. If freedom and peace and all that man has struggled to achieve down the centuries are to survive, he must resolve to treat the aeroplane exclusively as an instrument of peace and to use only to serve the people of the world and hasten their predestined unity. Only then can we look forward, unafraid, to the Dawn of the Air Age – the gleaming age of an ever advancing civilisation.





At its 78th General Conference in New Delhi in November 1985, the F.A.I. conferred on Mr. J.R.D. Tata its Gold Air Medal. The citation said that Mr. Tata's vision and dedication to aviation made a significant contribution to the growth of Indian civil aviation and the airline industry.

American Air Mail Pilot Charles A. Lindbergh flew in a Ryan monoplane from Long Island, New York, to Le Bourget Airport, Paris, on May 20 1927. He arrived on May 21 having flown 3,600 miles in 33 hours 39 minutes.

In those days, there was postal delivery on Sundays.

The Directorate of Civil Aviation, in its report of the year 1933-34, wrote in all solemnity: 'As an example how air mail service should be run, we commend the efficiency of Tata Services who on October 10, 1933, arriving at Karachi as usual on time, completed a year's working with 100% punctuality .... Even during the most of the difficult monsoon months when rainstorms increased the perils of the Western Ghats portion of the route no mail from Madras or Bombay missed connection at Karachi nor was the mail delivered late on a single occasion at Madras .... our esteemed Trans-Continental Airways, alias Imperial Airways, might send their staff on deputation to Tatas to see how it is done.'

Next: The Maharajah