Published in March 2016 issue

As the latest Star Alliance member (Airways November 2014), Air India has passed yet another milestone in its long and eventful history—a tale punctuated by triumphs and tribulations and often set against a backdrop of national conflict and political intrigue. Kicked off by two far-sighted men, its story, stretching over eight decades, is unveiled by Maurice Wickstead, who served with the airline in the 1970s.

By Maurice Wickstead

Late in April 1928, two adventurous young ex-Royal Air Force (RAF) Pilots, Nevill Vintcent and John Newall, landed in Karachi in a pair of war-surplus World War I bombers—an event that, unbeknownst to them, would eventually lead to the creation of India’s flag carrier. Over the ensuing months, they flew more than 5,000 miles (8,000km) across the sub-continent, giving demonstrations and joyrides in a land that had hardly been touched by the advent of the airplane. However, the vast country was gradually awakening to the potential of aviation, a process that was accelerated when Imperial Airways (the forerunner of today’s British Airways) extended its Empire Air Route to Karachi on April 6, 1929.

It was in this climate that Vintcent, the prime mover of the original expedition, began to formulate the idea of flying the overseas mail, brought in by Imperial, all the way south to Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

Vintcent found little support for his ambitious proposal until he met Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, a rising star in the dynastic iron and steel business that would become today’s giant Tata Industries conglomerate. JRD, as he became known throughout global aviation circles, had been brought up in France. There, he had become a close friend of Louis Bleriot, Jr. and of other pioneer French aviators, who had treated him to baptismal joyrides, inspiring him to become a Pilot himself. After getting India’s first ‘A’ category Pilot’s license, in May 1930, he competed in the Aga Khan’s cash prize challenge to become the first Indian to fly between India and the United Kingdom.

Vintcent had at last found an enthusiastic supporter for his plans, but three frustrating years of negotiation ensued before a contract was secured from the government to carry unsubsidized mail. Shortly afterwards, in July 1932, the entrepreneurs set up the Aviation Department of Tata Sons Ltd, and purchased two de Havilland Puss Moth aircraft to start their service.

The inaugural run had been set for September 15, 1932, but it was delayed by a month after the annual monsoon rains washed out Bombay’s (Mumbai) lowlying Juhu aerodrome. Eventually, at 06:30 on October 15, JRD Tata left Karachi’s Drigh Road aerodrome with 55lb (25kg) of mail bound for Bombay. After a brief refueling stop at Ahmedabad, he arrived at Bombay at 13:50, handing the controls over to Vintcent for the southbound leg to Madras (Chennai) via a half-way overnight stop. The first northbound service was completed on October 17.

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At first, the prospects were not promising. Due to delays on the long, strung-out route from England, only five out of the first 15 Tata services connected with the incoming Imperial aircraft. And yet, despite little support from the government, after one year of operation, the fledgling airline had achieved 100% punctuality, carrying 151 passengers and 23,611lb (10,710kg) of mail over a total 1.1 million miles (1.77 million km), and generating a small profit of 10,000 rupees ($2,631 in 1932). Thus encouraged, a pair of three- to four-passenger de Havilland Fox Moths were added to the fleet, enabling a twice-weekly frequency, flown via Hyderabad, on the southern sector, after the local princely ruler had offered a modest subsidy.

In November 1935, Tata opened an experimental route down India’s west coast, linking Bombay with Goa, Cannanore, and Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala). Needing faster aircraft to speed the mail, the carrier purchased a pair of 150mph (241kph) Miles Merlins. The company continued to rely on single-engine aircraft, primarily a fleet of Waco biplanes, until 1937-38, when it introduced multi-engine de Havilland types for the busier passenger lines. Meanwhile, the Wacos were opening several new routes, not least the prestigious link between Bombay and India’s new capital, Delhi, on November 6, 1937.

Fulfilling Vintcent’s original concept, the trunk line mail service was extended all the way to Colombo on January 22, 1938. Around this time, the government finally recognized the value of internal air services by awarding Tata a 10-year contract under the Empire Air Mail Scheme. As a result, mail uplift increased four-fold and passenger numbers six-fold, leading to a profit of 600,000Rs. (Rupees)—worth around $220,000 in 1938. On March 2, 1938, the circle was completed when the two halves of the network were joined at Trivandrum and, befitting the company’s growing status, its name was changed to Tata Air Lines. At this stage, Tata boasted a fleet of 15 aircraft, now including three four-engine DH86 Express airliners, covering around 1.6 million miles (2.6 million km) annually with an almost 100% dispatch reliability.

That year, JRD’s second cousin, the incumbent Chairman of the Tata business empire, died suddenly. This led JRD to take over the onerous responsibilities of Chairman of Tata’s many divisions and departments, and left the 34-yearold with less time to devote to the airline.

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Throughout World War II, much of the airline’s resources were directed toward the war effort, performing such diverse duties as evacuating casualties and overhauling RAF aircraft. At the beginning of the war, the government requisitioned larger aircraft for coastal patrol work, which restricted Tata to operating only single-engine machines. Replacements were needed, and, thus, five Stinson Model A trimotors were acquired in 1941 from Marquette Airlines of Chicago. The company also added three Douglas DC- 2s, and put them to good use later that year in helping refugees evacuate from Burma in the face of advancing Japanese forces. It undertook a similar mission in Baghdad in August 1942 in the wake of the pro-Nazi Rashid Ali revolt.

Tragedy struck the airline at the end of January 1942, when Nevill Vintcent lost his life returning from the UK after discussions concerning the possible production of Mosquito fighter-bombers by Tata in India. The military plane in which he was traveling disappeared without a trace over the Bay of Biscay, off western France. Sir Frederick Tymms, India’s Director-General of Civil Aviation, stepped into this void as a temporary replacement. As the war drew to a close, Tata Air Lines reinstated its suspended Bombay-Colombo route in April 1944, and added India’s other major cities, Calcutta (Kolkata) and Madras (Chennai) to the network a year later.

Benefitting from inherited wartime infrastructure, India emerged with 11 major airports together with meteorological, navigation, and wireless aids in time for the resumption of civil flying on January 1, 1946. Based at Bombay’s Santa Cruz Airport (today, Mumbai’s Chatrapati Shivaji International) with a fleet of 10 Douglas DC-3s and several Beech 18s, the airline became a public corporation on July 29, 1946. Re-titled Air-India, Ltd. (A-I), the company was now carrying one in three of India’s domestic air passengers and boasted a capital of about $15 million.

The new company, confident of its position, invested in eight brand-new Vickers Viking airliners, the first of which arrived in April 1947, enabling an increase of frequencies on its prime trunk routes and, eventually, the introduction of night flights. The great social and political unrest that occurred in the wake of Indian independence and the resulting India/Pakistan partition of August 1947 saw A-I heavily involved in repatriating displaced refugees. It committed 12 aircraft to operations in disputed Kashmir alone.

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Now that India had at last achieved independent nationhood, it suddenly became imperative for it to establish international air links. Lying astride the main East-West trunk route, India was in a strong bargaining position. BOAC had already reasserted its established rights through the subcontinent, while, in January 1947, TWA inaugurated a through-service between New York and Bombay. Air-India became TWA’s General Sales Agent in India and, reciprocally, TWA helped train A-I’s first Flight Attendants.

Against this background, India’s government formed the desire to create its own international airline, but soon realized that this would take too long to achieve without help. Naturally, the government turned to the established expertise of Air-India, which had already ordered three brand-new Lockheed Constellations without any advance guarantees. The result was the formation of Air-India International (AII) on March 8, 1948, structured as a joint corporation between A-I Ltd and the Indian Government (51%-49%), the arrangement guaranteeing protection against losses for five years.

India’s flag carrier proudly took to the skies on June 8, 1948, when an L-749 Constellation, Malabar Princess, inaugurated a weekly service between Bombay and London by way of Cairo and Geneva. The return trip departed three days later and, with a schedule of less than 24 hours, was the fastest then available between the UK and India. Service was initially limited to a single weekly round trip; it was not until November 1948 that political tensions sufficiently eased in the Middle East to permit twice weekly service. Then, with the arrival of two improved L-749A Constellations in August 1950, Air-India’s sole long-haul route upgraded to five flights per fortnight.

Realizing that his airline could not hope to compete with the world’s established major carriers, JRD determined from the outset that quality of service and reputation would set his airline apart. Under his close personal direction, Air-India International gradually built a reputation for punctuality, reliability, and unique cabin service among Indian and international passengers alike. At the end of 1949, despite many operational and financial challenges, the company earned a small profit of Rs 700,000.

Just as things were going well, the fledgling airline suffered a major blow. On November 3, 1950, Malabar Princess, operating a charter carrying 40 Indian Navy sailors, struck the face of Mont Blanc 2,500 feet (750m) below the summit on approach to Geneva in marginal weather conditions. There were no survivors.

In January 1950, Air-India started a fortnightly Constellation service to Nairobi via Aden and later, Karachi, in order to serve the large Indian expatriate community in East Africa. A second alltourist class DC-4 service followed in December 1952. After a year, the route was supporting a twice-weekly mixed-class service.

For the India-UK route, Air-India added Rome, Paris, and Düsseldorf as alternating en route stops, and also added Delhi and Calcutta to its international services. With a modest fleet of just four Constellations, the airline was clocking around 2.7 million miles (4.35 million km) annually, carrying 21,500 passengers and 843 tons (765,000kg) of mail and cargo over the course of 12,000 flying hours.

While Air-India’s overseas operations showed a small but significant profit, the domestic division continued to run at a loss despite a consistently healthy load factor. The situation was largely the result of a government minister’s decision to license 11 domestic carriers, rather than only four as recommended. This proved to be a recipe for vast overcapacity and led to the failure of three of the less well-funded outfits within a couple of years. A lack of aircraft spares, fuel shortages, and the loss of two of the company’s new Vikings in accidents only compounded the difficulties.

It was against this backdrop that the government, after much deliberation, elected to solve the problem by nationalizing India’s domestic air transport. On August 1, 1953, the Indian Airlines Corporation was created from the surviving independent carriers: Air-India Ltd, Air Services of India, Airways (India), Bharat Airways, Deccan Airways, Himalayan Aviation, Indian National Airways and Kalinga Airlines. The new company inherited a combined fleet of 74 DC-3s, 12 Vikings, three DC- 4s, and sundry smaller aircraft. Now a stand-alone organization, Air-India International could look forward to a period of sustained development, both in terms of route expansion and equipment.

Somewhat reluctantly, JRD agreed to become unpaid Chairman of the newly constituted Air-India International Corporation, if only to maintain the direction and high standards that he had already set.

Following the trend-setting pure-jet operations pioneered by BOAC, Air-India placed a letter of intent for two de Havilland Comet 3s in June 1953, but the aspiration would remain unfulfilled after a catastrophic series of accidents plagued the Comet 1 in 1954. The first of Air-India’s new L-1049C Super Constellations, Empress Nurjehan, landed at Bombay on June 6, 1954, and, two weeks later, lifted off on its inaugural service to London.

Having established its credentials in Western Europe, Air-India now turned its sights eastward and, in July 1954, conducted a proving flight to Singapore prior to opening a regular weekly service via Madras 12 days later. Bangkok and Hong Kong followed in August and so did, ultimately, Tokyo in May 1955. In line with developing international practice, Air-India aircraft now operated in mixed-class configuration.

Just as Air-India began emerging as a rising star on the international airline scene, it suffered another major calamity in April 1954 with the loss of L-749A, Kashmir Princess, chartered to carry the Chinese delegation from Hong Kong to Djakarta for the upcoming Asian-African Conference. While cruising off southern Sarawak, an explosion occurred in the area of the inner starboard engine. Flying debris severely injured the aircraft’s Commander, leaving the co-Pilot, Capt M. C. Dixit, to skillfully ditch the stricken Constellation, but the post-impact break-up resulted in the death of all but three of the 11 souls aboard. The subsequent inquiry attributed the incident to unspecified sabotage; as the airline would learn some 30 years later, the scourge of air terrorism was just beginning.

The delivery of its first L-1049G Super Constellation, Rani of Nilgiris, enabled Air-India to extend Singapore service to Sydney via Darwin. It further penetrated Southeast Asia by adding Kuala Lumpur and Djakarta to the Australia route. In the west, Air-India brought Zurich, Prague, Beirut and Damascus online. The mounting Suez Crisis required the airline to enact considerable operational ingenuity to bypass Middle Eastern flashpoints. Thus, Abadan and Istanbul were substituted as trunk route stops for the duration.

Around the same time, following a series of ethnic skirmishes and territorial disputes between India and Pakistan, Air-India eliminated the original gateway city of Karachi from its network.

India’s developing political and economic relationship with the USSR resulted in a pooled air service with Aeroflot between the two nations’ capitals via Tashkent from August 1958. Shrewdly, Air-India fostered this co-operation as a way of providing a possible alternative route through to Europe during times of conflict in the Middle East.

Towards the end of 1958, the carrier started an experimental all-cargo service using DC-4s leased from Seaboard & Western, a precursor to an in-house operation, two years later, under the Flying Sherpa banner, that used redundant Constellations as freighters.

By the end of the decade, Air-India had truly achieved ‘chosen instrument’ status and held 19th place in IATA’s rankings of major carriers. Its fleet of nine Super Constellations covered an unduplicated route network of 24,671 miles (39,704km) and, since its inception a decade earlier, traffic and revenues had risen year-onyear to a high of 89,385 passengers and 4 million tons of cargo and mail during the course of 28,800 flying hours.

After a decade of almost continuously profitable operations, Air-India International had truly joined the ranks of the global carriers and was now poised for its next challenge: jet operations.

Acknowledging the competitive disadvantage associated with continuing to operate pistonengined aircraft while most of its competitors would be converting to jet equipment, in 1956, Air-India placed an advance order for three Boeing 707 Intercontinental airliners for around $20 million. This new equipment would allow the airline to take full advantage of its recent admission to the BOAC/Qantas pool between London and Australia, from which it would derive 21% of the joint revenue.

Already well experienced in piston-engine overhaul, in 1958-59, in preparation for the imminent arrival of the new jets, the company commissioned a new technical headquarters together with a dedicated Boeing hangar and workshops at Santa Cruz airport.

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On February 21, 1960, Air-India’s first Boeing 707, Annapurna, touched down at Bombay in grand style after a record-breaking 8 hour 15 minutes nonstop flight from London. This same aircraft opened commercial jet service between Bombay, Cairo, Rome, and London on April 19 and, just under a month later, became the first aircraft of an Asian carrier to provide throughservice to New York. As the Boeings became an established part of the fleet, the Constellations were gradually relegated to less important routes such as a weekly Prague terminator in pool with Czechoslovakian carrier CSA (Ceskoslovenske Aerolinie), and new service to the Persian Gulf.

By June of 1962, Air-India had effectively become an alljet operator by disposing of all but two of the Connies to the Indian Air Force and Navy. Coincidentally, ‘International’ was officially dropped from the company’s title.

The superior capabilities of the new jet airliners enabled Air-India to resume its policy of serving Indian communities overseas. This allowed the Australian service to extend weekly to Fiji, starting in August 1963, to take advantage of a potential 300,000-strong ethnic market. Showing its growing confidence, the airline moved to new, prestigious headquarters at Nariman Point on Bombay’s spectacular Marine Drive waterfront. Three years later, it inaugurated a fortnightly service to Mauritius and, completing encirclement of the Indian Ocean, added Addis Ababa and Entebbe in 1968. While Air-India periodically adjusted its European network during this period, with Amsterdam, Brussels, Prague, and Zurich all coming and going as on-line stations, a major new growth area was developing in the Persian Gulf. These oil-rich nations were gradually directing their economic power towards improving infrastructure, fueling phenomenal traffic growth. Responding to the large number of Indian guest workers heading for the Gulf, Air-India opened regular service to Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dhahran, Dubai and Kuwait.

Not content to stand still and anticipating the Supersonic Transport (SST) era, in 1966, AI spent $800,000 on delivery options for three Anglo-French Concordes and two Boeing SSTs. But after later equipment reviews, it never converted these options into firm orders.

Amid all of the company’s outstanding developments, Air- India was particularly unfortunate as it suffered an accident almost identical to the Malabar Princess crash, back in 1950. Descending to Geneva on a VOR cross-bearing approach, Boeing 707 Kanchenjunga (VT-DMN) collided with the 15,330ft (4,672m) peak of Rocher de la Tournette in the Mont Blanc range on January 24, 1966. This was a particularly hard blow to JRD, as among the 11 crew and 106 passengers killed was the celebrated Indian scientist, Dr Homi Bhaba, a close friend with whom he had collaborated intensely in the development of India’s nuclear research capability.

As late as 2013, Mont Blanc’s Glacier des Bossons continued to spit out debris and artifacts from the two Air-India crashes, including parts of the Constellation’s landing gear—exhibited at a nearby hotel—a mailbag, and a box of precious gems from the Boeing accident.