|The following is an excerpt from The Creation
of Wealth, R. M. Lala's celebrated story of the House of Tata.
It was written in 1981
the spirit of adventure - Mahatma Gandhi
Two young boys spent their summer holidays at Hardelot, a beach
resort near Boulogne in Northern France. One was the son of the
legendary Louis Bleriot, the first man to fly across the English
Channel in 1909. The other was the son of an Indian industrialist,
R. D. Tata. As they played, the boys would occasionally see Bleriot's
Chief Pilot Adolph Pegoud land a plane on the beach. Pegoud was
the first man to loop-the-loop in a plane. He was a hero, especially
for Tata's young son Jehangir.
In such small beginnings lie the seed of history. The exploits
of the Frenchman stirred the heart of the young Indian. At the age
of 15 after taking a joy ride in a plane at Hardelot, Jehangir decided
to become a pilot and if possible make a career in aviation. Young
Jehangir had to wait nine years. He was 24 before a Flying Club
opened in his home town Bombay, India - 5,000 miles away from that
wind-swept beach in Northern France.
Though not the first
to register, he was the first Indian to pass out with 'No. 1' endorsed
on his flying licence. And so it came to pass that India's first
pilot was to pour most of his creative genius into building an airline
for his country, giving his nation wings.
Those were years of adventure. In 1930, Aga Khan announced a prize of £500 to the first Indian who would fly solo between
England and India, starting at either end. Among the competitors
was a young man called Manmohan Singh. His spirit was willing but
his navigation was weak.
Twice he left England with a flourish to fly to India. Twice he
lost his way over Europe and had to fly back to England to start
all over again. C. G. Grey, Editor of The Aeroplane observed: "Mr
Manmohan Singh has called his aeroplane 'Miss India' and he is likely
to!" Another hopeful from the England end was I8-year-old Aspy
Engineer. Still another to enter for fun, taking off from the Karachi
end, was the now 26-year-old Jehangir R. D. Tata. At Aboukir near
Alexandria in Egypt, JRD ran into Aspy, who had left England a week
earlier and who was stranded for want of spark plugs. JRD gave Aspy
his spare spark plugs, and they took off in opposite directions.
Aspy reached Karachi a few hours before JRD reached England, winning
the prize. On the strength of his performance, Aspy was admitted
into the Indian Air Force, which had just been created. Aspy Engineer
was the second Indian to be Chief of the Air Staff. JRD, meanwhile,
had another ambition and he did not have long to wait.
"On an exciting October dawn in 1932, a Puss Moth and I soared
joyfully from Karachi with our first precious load of mail, on an
inaugural flight to Bombay. As we hummed towards our destination
at a 'dazzling' hundred miles an hour, I breathed a silent prayer
for the success of our venture and for the safety of those who worked
for it. We were a small team in those days. We shared successes
and failures, the joys and headaches, as together we built up the
enterprise which later was to blossom into Air-India and Air-India
When JRD landed on the Juhu mud flats that October day in 1932,
India's first air service was inaugurated. He does not take the
credit for it. He gives it instead to a far-seeing Englishman -
a former officer of the RAF called Nevill Vintcent, who a year earlier
had come to India barnstorming the country giving joy rides. Nevill
Vintcent offered J. R. D. Tata a project to start an airline. The
then Chairman of Tata Sons, Sir Dorab Tata, was not a bit enthusiastic
about the proposition. But the initial investment was small - Rs.
200,000 - and he was persuaded by JRD's mentor and colleague John
Peterson to give his approval.
"We had no aids whatsoever on the ground or in the air,"
JRD recalls, "no radio, no navigational or landing guides of
any kind. In fact we did not even have an aerodrome in Bombay. We
used a mud flat at Juhu (fishing village-cum-beach resort near the
city). The sea was below what we called our airfield, and during
the monsoon the runway was below the sea! So we had to pack up each
year, lock, stock and barrel - two planes, three pilots and three
mechanics, and transfer ourselves to Poona (Pune) where we were
allowed to use a maidan as an aerodrome, appropriately under the
shadow of the Yeravada Jail!"
The annual report of the Directorate of Civil Aviation (DCA) of
India for the year 1933-34 stated:
"As an example how airmail service should be run, we commend
the efficiency of Tata Services who on October 10, 1933, arriving
at Karachi as usual to time, completed a year's working with 100
per cent punctuality... even during the most difficult monsoon months
when rainstorms increased the perils of the Western Ghat 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."
Karachi was chosen as the starting point because Imperial Airways
terminated there with the mail from England and the route chosen
by Tatas was Karachi-Bombay-Madras. Tatas requested the Government
for a small subsidy for carrying the mail as was the normal practice
in other countries. The subsidy asked for was small but the Government
declined. Tatas reduced the figure to a bare minimum. Government
still declined. So Tatas decided that they would just give the service
to the country collecting the little stamp surcharge which the addressor
put on the envelope to connect it with the Imperial Airways at Karachi.
When asked why they did so, JRD replied, "Vintcent and I had
faith in the future of aviation and believed that if we came in
at the beginning of an era we had a better chance ultimately to
achieve growth and leadership in the field."
The unfolding years were to justify that faith. In 1936 the all-up
Empire Mail Service was launched by the British Government, under
which all first class mail travelled by air without surcharge, and
Tata Airlines' revenues soared. At the beginning the aeroplanes
used were so small that the service was restricted to mail, but
a single passenger was occasionally allowed to sit on top of the
mail bags - usually with his heels higher than his head!
In 1936 larger aircraft, though still single-engined, were introduced.
Tatas felt the need to give more sophisticated training to their
pilots and hired an instructor from England to start a training
centre for pilots. The Bombay-Delhi service was inaugurated in 1937.
Then came the War and all services, including Tatas', were commandeered
by the Government of India.
With their airline operations severely restricted and controlled,
Nevill Vintcent and J. R. D. Tata looked for alternative avenues
for their brimming enthusiasm and their growing expertise. A specially
exciting opportunity, they felt, offered itself in the field of
aircraft manufacture. Whereas the construction of metal aircraft
would have involved an elaborately equipped factory, the De Havilland
Mosquito, an outstanding twin-engined fighter-bomber made of wood,
could, they felt, be put quickly into production in India. Tatas,
therefore, submitted in 1942 a project to the British Government
for the large-scale manufacture of Mosquito aircraft in a factory
they would build for the purpose in Pune. The project was approved
by the British Government and a new company, Tata Aircraft Limited,
was formed to give it life. Land was acquired and a large factory
building constructed. Had this plan come off, Tatas would have gone
into aircraft production.
The British Government had second thoughts and decided instead
that invasion gliders should be built under the project. This change
was reluctantly accepted by Tatas as the work of building the factory,
recruiting staff and organising manufacture had already gone too
far to be abandoned. The project was revised accordingly.
Nevill Vintcent was a man of
great physical courage and resourcefulness. More than once he flew
to England for discussions with the British authorities. Usually
flying by Imperial Airways long-range aircraft, he was flown by
a sufficiently circuitous route to keep out of range of German fighters.
Tragically, however, on one occasion Vintcent, as an ex-RAF officer,
arranged to get a lift on an RAF Hudson bomber on the first leg
of a flight from England to Gibraltar. The plane never reached Gibraltar
and was reported to have been shot down off the coast of France.
The loss of Vintcent was a grievous blow to Tatas and to JRD personally,
for apart from being the able and moving spirit behind Tata Airlines
and Tata Aircraft that he was, Vintcent and JRD were close friends.
This tragic blow was followed by the cancellation of the project
itself by the British, who in response to Tatas' own enquiries on
the subject, discovered that invasion gliders made by Tata in Pune
could not be used in the War because there were no aircraft to tow
them! Thus came to a tragic end a project on which JRD had set his
heart and which, if it had gone through, as originally planned,
would probably have resulted in another invaluable addition to India's
In 1946, Tata Air
Lines, a Division of Tata Sons, went public and became a joint stock
company. It was called Air-India Ltd. The age of passenger travel
had arrived and there was to be plenty of competition. Even during
wartime Tatas were working on a scheme to extend their services
to London. In October 1947, in the turmoil of the post-partition
period, Tatas proposed to the Indian Government a service to Europe.
They placed an order for three Lockheed Constellations, on faith
that this venture would be approved. It was a measure of their faith
in the newly born independent India, then in the convulsions of
the partition of the sub-continent.
Tatas proposed that the Indian Government take 49 per cent of the
capital, Tatas 25 per cent and the rest be publicly subscribed.
The Government had the right to buy a further two per cent from
Tatas taking their share to 51 per cent giving them total control.
This was the first ever proposal of a joint enterprise between the
public and private sectors in the country. The proposal was made
by J. R. D. Tata at a most inopportune time, when communal strife
raged in Delhi. To his astonishment, which still lingers, JRD got
acceptance to his joint sector proposal from the Government within
weeks. Many years later he asked a senior Cabinet Minister, Jagjivan
Ram, why a decision could be made so speedily in those days when
today it took the Government at least two years 'not to make a decision'.
Mr. Ram replied, "We did not know any better then!"
The proposal provided for a new company to be called Air-India
International. It was to be managed and provided with its staff,
its maintenance and its services by Tatas' domestic airline Air-India
Ltd. On June 8, 1948, Air-India International with its famous Maharaja,
spread its wings to Europe. The fledgling airline soon established
itself as one of the finest air carriers of the world.
Meanwhile India's domestic airlines
were heading for a crisis. At the end of the War, planes were disposed
of by the American Tenth Air Force in India at throw-away prices.
For political reasons the Government sanctioned every airline applicant,
and India soon found itself with eleven airlines while there was
room for only two or three. As a result they all ran into rough
weather for there were not enough traffic routes to allocate amongst
them. Except Air-India all the airlines lost heavily. In 1953 the
Government took a decision to nationalise the airlines proposing
to merge them into a single State Corporation with JRD as Chairman.
Mr. Tata advised that the domestic and the international airlines
of India should be kept apart and two separate corporations be formed.
The suggestion was accepted and he was invited to head the international
airline, a task he accepted. For the next 25 years he was to be
the Chairman of Air-India, and a Director on the Board of Indian
airline business is ferociously competitive and JRD, Chairman of
some of the largest companies in India, had to give more and more
time to the running of Air-India. He carried this burden happily,
for aviation was, and remains, his first love. He did everything
he could to make Air-India as good as the best among the world's
airlines. Its planes were lavishly decorated. He insisted that even
if a plane was used for 20 years, it should always look as if it
had come out from its factory — new, inside and outside. And
it did. With Air-India, efficiently run, JRD saw no reason why all
public undertakings could not also be run to the world's best standards
and be profitable.
As Chairman, JRD believed in personalised attention. He was dubbed
a perfectionist for he called upon his staff: "Always aim at
perfection for only then will you achieve excellence." On every
flight on which he travelled he kept detailed notes of his observations
and would painstakingly take action on them on return to base. He
gave India pride in its national airline. His 46-year aviation career
spanned an era from the wood and fabric of the little two-seater
Puss Moth to the gleaming 400-seater giant Boeing 747. He insisted
that there should be no compromise on operating and maintenance
standards or on service. One of the airline's publicity chiefs recalls
how he once received a midnight phone call at his home from the
Chairman suggesting how to improve the wording on a publicity hoarding.
"We had to give so much of ourselves because he gave so much
of himself," said this executive.
||Air Marshal Nur Khan, former head
of the Pakistan Air Force, and later Chairman of Pakistan International
Airlines, when asked by an Indian magazine what he thought of his
neighbour airline, Air-India, and its then Chairman J. R. D. Tata,
replied: "A great airline and JRD is an epic figure." In
recognition of this epic figure's services to air transport, JRD was
made the recipient in 1979 of the Tony Jannus Award, named after the
founder pilot of the first scheduled airline in the world, which began
in Tampa, Florida, in 1912. Amongst its recipients are the inventor
of the jet engine Sir Frank Whittle; the developers of the Concorde
SST, and the founders of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation, Pan-Am,
the Eastern and the United Airlines. Other awards followed. In 1989,
the Daniel Guggenheim Medal Award, first conferred on Orville Wright,
was presented to J. R. D. Tata.