Book: J. R. D. Tata Keynote

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Bi-planes to Boeings

In November 1960, Mr. J.R.D. Tata, as Chairman of Air-India International was invited to give the Sixteenth British Commonwealth Lecture on 'The Story of Indian Air Transport' before the Royal Aeronautical Society, London. Mr. Tata was invited to speak about the growth of aviation in India, 'one of the great members of the Commonwealth.' The following excerpt is reproduced from The Journal of the Royal Aeronautical Society, January 1961.

 

hile some in India may claim that passenger air travel, although admittedly on a somewhat limited scale, really began with the Flying Gandharvas of Hindu mythology, I shall content myself with the historical fact that this great business of air transport, which today plays such a vital role in world commerce, travel and communications, was born in India when, on February 18, 1911, and therefore about four months before the first mail flight took place in England from Hendon to Windsor Castle as part of the celebrations for the Coronation of King George V, Mr. Henri Piquet, flying a Humber bi-plane, carried mails by arrangement with the local postal authorities from the exhibition grounds at Allahabad to Naini Junction, some six miles away. The mails were duly delivered in thirteen minutes. It is worth noting, incidentally, that this flight was organised by the same Captain Wyndham, later Commander Sir Walter Wyndham, who was responsible for the subsequent Coronation mail flight and was thus the real founder of the air mail.

This commendable piece of pioneering enterprise on the part of the Indian postal authorities, coupled with the passing in the same year of an Act regulating in considerable detail the flight of aircraft over Indian territory at a time when the motor car was still a novelty, shows that the Government of India was then one of the most air-minded governments in the world. It also seems to have been exhausted by this twin effort for, except for adherence to the International Convention on Air Navigation in October 1919, nothing remotely connected with air transport happened in India until after the First World War.

Indian scheduled air services, in the real sense, began in 1932. They had their origin in the lone vision and efforts of a far-sighted and immensely able man whose name was Nevill Vintcent. After a fine career in the R.A.F., Vintcent and an associate, J.S. Newall, came to India in 1929 in two First World War D.H.9's on a 'barnstorming' tour, in the course of which they flew over the greater part of India and surveyed a number of possible air routes. Vintcent realised from the start the immense potentialities of commercial aviation in India and, in order to get the necessary backing for his scheme, he joined the firm of Tatas in a happy and fruitful association which lasted until his death in 1942. While returning from a mission to England in connection with a Tata project for the manufacture of military aircraft in India, he was lost at sea in an R.A.F. Bomber presumed to have been shot down off the coast of Spain. I had the privilege of being associated with Nevill Vintcent from the beginning of his career in India and cannot pass over this opportunity of paying tribute to the memory of a gallant and resourceful man, who was undoubtedly the founder of Indian air transport.

The plans prepared by Vintcent for Tatas in 1929 for a service between Karachi-Bombay-Madras to connect with the Imperial Airways service at Karachi failed, at first, to secure the approval of the Government of India. The proposal for the Karachi-Ahmedabad-Bombay-Bellary-Madras mail service was finally approved in 1932 when, after prolonged negotiations with the Government, Tatas finally agreed to operate it without any guarantee of mail revenue or subsidy. The service was inaugurated on October 15, 1932 with a Puss Moth, which I flew from Karachi to Bombay via Ahmedabad, and which Vintcent took over at Bombay for the rest of the flight to Madras via Bellary. Tata Airlines consisted then of one Puss Moth, one Leopard Moth, one palm-thatched shed, one whole-time pilot, assisted by Vintcent and myself, one engineer on a part-time basis, two apprentice-mechanics and unlimited optimism.

No doubt air mail services were being operated at the time in other parts of the world with single-engined aircraft, but none, I should think, with less support from the ground as the early Indian services received. Taking Tata's Karachi-Madras 1,300 mile route as an example, with the exception of Karachi, which had radio and night landing facilities of a sort, the rest of the route was totally devoid of any aid whatever and Bombay, the principal base of the airline, did not even have an all-weather aerodrome. The Bombay 'airport' was a dried mud flat near the sea serviceable only during eight months of the year. At high tide during the monsoon, the 'aerodrome' was virtually at the bottom of the sea! The airline had then to transfer operations bodily to a small landing strip at Poona next to Mahatma Gandhi's favourite residence, the Yeravada Jail. As there were no lighting facilities at any of the airfields on the route, no night flying was possible and with a night stop at Bellary, the average speed from Karachi to Madras was a snappy forty miles an hour. The route crossed 5,000 feet high hill ranges, deserts, swamps and parts of the country which received up to three hundred inches of rain in four months. Apart from heavy monsoon rains, the route was subject to thunderstorms, sandstorms and severe turbulence. Notwithstanding these somewhat unhelpful conditions, Tata Airlines, during its first year of operation, flew 160,000 miles with an unbroken record of regularity.

In 1933, Tata Airlines were followed on the Indian air transport scene by Indian National Airways, a company based at Delhi, and formed with the dual purpose of operating services of its own and participating along with the Government of India as one of the two Indian minority shareholders in Indian Trans-Continental Airways. I.N.A. began operations of their own on December 1, 1933, when they inaugurated a weekly passenger, mail and freight service between Calcutta and Rangoon and between Calcutta and Dacca, now in Pakistan, with De Havilland Dragon aircraft.

A third airline, Air Services of India, came on the scene in 1937 to operate passenger services between Bombay and some of the Indian States in Kathiawar and between Bombay and Kolhapur to the south-east. Its fleet consisted of De Havilland Fox Moths, Percival Gulls and D. H. Dragons. A point of interest is that this company decided to charge only a little over second class rail fares. As costs, even at 100% load factor, must have been well above first class rail fares, the operation was not exactly profitable and the services closed down within two years.

In the meantime, Tata Airlines and Indian National Airways made unspectacular but steady progress.

While the War disrupted and curtailed some services, it also created opportunities for expansion and diversification. The airlines were given many special assignments, such as the survey of the South Arabian route on behalf of the R.A.F., the carriage of supplies to Iraq, the transport of civilian refugees from Burma and the overhaul and maintenance of R.A.F. equipment.

Civil aviation in India was restored to commercial status on January 1, 1946. The Indian air transport industry, which then consisted only of Tata Airlines and Indian National Airways, although relatively small, was well organised, experienced in the handling of modern aircraft, and financially sound. It could look forward to great opportunities ahead with every assurance that the development of civil aviation after the War would be on sound lines as well as extensive. For, as early as 1943, the Government of India had shown commendable foresight in placing Captain F. C. Tymms, M.C. (later Sir Frederick Tymms), who had succeeded Sir Francis Shelmerdine as Director of Civil Aviation in 1931, on special duty to prepare post-War plans for civil aviation in India. Armed with vast technical and administrative experience and an alarming capacity for work, Sir Frederick submitted by September 1943, a series of carefully thought but papers on all aspects of post-War aviation. He estimated that the total capacity required to be provided in the initial post-War period would be something under twenty million ton miles, requiring in all less than forty aircraft of the DC-3 type and the number of airlines operating scheduled air services should be limited to three or at the most four.

The basic Tymms Plan was eminently sound but by the middle of 1947, the Tymms post-War Plan was reduced to a shambles, when provisional licences had been granted to eleven companies over fifty-one routes. The scene was well and truly set for the ultimate and inevitable debacle.

 

Spreading Abroad

 

In the chaotic and sombre picture of the post-War history of Indian air transport, the only bright spot was the creation and solid success of Air-India International.

During the War, Nevill Vintcent and I had prepared tentative post-War plans of development of our own, which included in the last stage the operation of external services westwards and, if possible, all the way to England. It was clear that if India were at all to enter the field of long-range international services she must do so quickly as, once foreign airlines were solidly entrenched on all the world's best air routes, India's entry would become a difficult and financially risky enterprise. Apart from her own growing importance as a great trade and travel centre, India had a commanding strategic position astride the only practical air route from Europe to the Far East and Australia. She was thus in a strong bargaining position vis-à-vis other countries which operated services to or through India or intended to do so.

Air-India had a detailed plan ready to take advantage of this happy situation and in the summer of 1947, submitted comprehensive proposals to the newly formed, post-Independence Government of India. It was proposed to create a new company to be called Air-India International Limited, in the capital of which the Government of India, Air-India and the public would participate, which would be managed and technically assisted by Air-India Limited, and would operate, initially, regular services between India and the U.K. with modern, long-range pressurised aircraft. The Government was at first somewhat cool towards this proposal as it was inclined to prefer a scheme for an airline wholly owned and managed by itself. When, however, they realised that the Air-India scheme would save both money and valuable time because of the ready-made organisation and technical facilities placed from the start at the disposal of the project, they readily accepted the proposal and gave it from then on their full and enlightened support.

In order to make the earliest possible start, Air-India had, some months earlier, placed a provisional order for three Lockheed Constellation aircraft and arranged for the training of pilots and other staff. By a stroke of luck, delivery of the aeroplanes was advanced by nearly six months, thanks to the cancellation of an order by another purchaser. Thus it was that Air-India International, although formally incorporated only on March 8, 1948, was able to inaugurate its Bombay-London service by June 8 of the same year.

 

Nationalisation

 

The Government of India, early in 1950, appointed the Air Transport Inquiry Committee headed by a distinguished High Court Judge.

The Committee's report, submitted in September 1950, largely vindicated the case of the air transport industry by confirming that the unsatisfactory condition of the industry as a whole was due principally to the unsound and indiscriminate working of the licensing system under which licences to too many operators resulted in wasteful competition, increased costs and reduced revenues for all. Dealing with the future, the Committee expressed itself in favour of only four operators being licensed, thus conforming to the original recommendation made by Sir Frederick Tymms six years earlier. It recommended that some of the airlines should be merged and that the licences of two of them should not be renewed.

By and large, the recommendations of the Committee were eminently sound and, if implemented, would have not only brought much needed relief to the industry as a whole but would also have ultimately resulted in the development of a sound and dynamic air transport system. In fact, the report was totally disregarded by the Government! The reasons for this were never publicly explained. My own view is that the Minister concerned at the time had already made up his mind in favour of nationalisation and, for tactical reasons, decided to do nothing to strengthen the industry in the meantime. It must be admitted that, in the circumstances then existing, nationalisation did offer the easiest and quickest solution from the Government's point of view with the added advantage that, while satisfying ideological aspirations in some quarters, it would forever still further controversy over its past aviation policies.

In March 1953, India's Parliament passed the Air Corporations Act, which received the assent of the President on May 20. The main provisions of the Act were that 'there shall be two Corporations to be known as Indian Airlines and Air-India International.'

Nationalisation brought to a close an eventful era of twenty-one years marked first by pioneering endeavour and slow but solid growth, followed by a phenomenal but chaotic expansion and finally by controversy, confusion and collapse.

 

A 'First' from Air-India

 

On the morning of August 1, 1953, the Indian Airlines Corporation took over the assets and business of all air transporter companies operating scheduled air services in India and between India and nearby countries, while the Air-India International Corporation took over Air-India International Limited. Nationalisation opened a new and, thank goodness, a more orderly chapter in the story of Indian air transport.

Air-India entered the jet age on April 19, 1960 when its Boeing 707s went into service for the first time on its Blue Ribbon route to London.

A point of interest in regard to A.I.I.'s Boeing order is that it was the first airline in the world to specify Rolls-Royce Conway engines. The exceptional range and fuel economy of this combination of aircraft and engine rendered possible the first nonstop flight ever made between London and Bombay by a transport aircraft. This was achieved in February 1960 in the course of a delivery flight, when the distance of 4,850 miles was covered at an average speed of six hundred miles an hour in exactly eight hours and five minutes. As we landed at Bombay I recalled, somewhat nostalgically, that it had taken that many days and hours to cover the same distance thirty years earlier, almost to the day, when I flew solo from Bombay to London in eight days and five hours.

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