Rise and Fall of Air India

The stage is all set for the sale of the heavily-in-debt national carrier

Younis Ahmad Kaloo

Ideas have consequences, wrote American philosopher Richard Malcolm Weaver. Greater the ideas, better the results. The journey of the national carrier Air India, too, began with an idea - not to carry passengers but to pick up the airmail letters that came from Europe and deliver them to their destinations. This was to cut down on the time taken by the trains in dispensing the mail after international airlines unloaded them in Karachi in the early Thirties.

A Boeing aircraft owned by Air India

It was a former Royal Air Force pilot Nevill Vintcent who came up with this idea and took it to Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, better known as JRD Tata, who had been fascinated by airplanes since childhood. As a 15-year-old, JRD had been given his first flight in 1919 by the French aviator, Adolphe Pegoud, who became the world’s first fighter ace during World War I and the first man ever said to accomplish the aerobatic manoeuvre called ‘loop the loop’ in which the aircraft flies a complete circle in the vertical plane. His aviation ambitions came true in 1929 when he became India’s first man to get a commercial pilot’s license.

Together with Nevill Vintcent, JRD started Tata Air Mail in 1932. To begin with, the venture had two second-hand de Havilland Puss Moth aircraft capable of flying at 160kmh and carrying a consignment of mail with two passengers. On 15 October 1932, the inaugural flight, which Tata piloted himself carrying 25 kilograms of mail from Karachi to Bombay, of Tata Air Mail took off. Then, the former Royal Air Force pilot Nevill Vintcent carried the remaining mail from Bombay to Madras.


Tata Air Mail to Tata Airlines

With the help of a very small staff and based out of a hut with a palm-thatched roof at Juhu, Tata Air Mail made the Karachi-Bombay-Madras flight every Monday, and in its first year of operations made a profit of Rs 60,000, flew 1,60,000 miles, carried 10.7 tonnes of mail as well as 155 passengers.

In 1938, Tata Air Mail was rechristened Tata Airlines. It then extended its services to Delhi, Hyderabad, Goa, and Colombo. Colombo became the airline’s first international destination, thus, entering the league of few airlines to witness such growth in such a short span of time. The airline, apart from the usual mail deliveries and commercial operations, also ran several flights during World War II carrying refugees from Burma, now known as Myanmar.


Air India

The year 1946 witnessed yet another evolution of the airline in terms of the procurement of new aircraft — which also included ‘Malabar Princess’ (Lockheed Constellation), a propeller-driven, four-engined airliner built by Lockheed Corporation and one of the most advanced aircraft of its time — and a new name that depicted the country of its origin. It was because of the huge possibilities for the aviation industry that JRD saw post World War II.  Tata Airlines became Air India Limited and opened its office on the second floor of the head office of Tata Group.

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