By Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava (Retd)
In 2003 the whole world celebrated the centenary of powered flight. But we Indians have to wait till 2010 to observe the centenary of flight in India. After the flight of the Wright Flyer, it took just seven years, almost to the day, for the first aircraft to get airborne at Allahabad in UP. There was hectic activity to bring planes to India and show them off in December 1910.
First off the block was His Highness the Maharaja of Patiala. He sent his British Engineer CW Bowles to Europe to look at the new art or science of flying and bring a couple of planes back with him. Bowles returned to India in December 1910 with a Farman biplane made in England and a Gnome-Bleriot monoplane fitted with two seats. Apparently in Europe, France was the first to get into the business of flying. The Farman was also a French design but built in England by a Thomas Holt, recognized as the father of the aviation industry in England, in collaboration with Farman Brothers of France. Fortune did not favour Patiala and neither of these aircraft became the first to get into the air.
In early December 1910 a party from Belgium and two from England also came to India with several aeroplanes. Their idea was to showcase flying and naturally exploit any business opportunities that might arise out of the demonstrations. The first of these to land in India was from Coventry’s Humber Motor Company, famous for its cars especially used by the police in UK. It included a leader, Capt WG Windham, two pilots – one French and one English, and two mechanics also one French and one English. The Humber Company asked the team to proceed to Allahabad immediately after it landed in Bombay by a merchant ship. This group with all its packing cases set off for Allahabad with the intention of demonstrating the aircraft at the Industrial & Agricultural Exhibition due to be held there shortly. It arrived on December 5 and assembled the planes in five days at a polo ground right next to the Exhibition Grounds. A local newspaper reported the first flight in India as follows: –
“The first actual flight was successfully attained by Mr. Davies in a ‘Bleriot’. On the 10th of December Mr. Davies had the machine ready and early in the morning circled the polo ground at a height of twenty five or thirty feet” The paper added, “Thus Allahabad has had the distinction of giving the lead not only in India, but also to the whole of Asian Continent in connection with the latest of scientific wonders”.
The aircraft ready to fly weighed five hundred pounds without the pilot and cost £ 550/=, just under Rs 7,500/= at the rate existing then. Surely this amount was affordable by many people at the time.
The second aircraft flew the next day, December 11 1910, under the control of the French pilot Henri Pequet and carried the first air passenger in India. He was one of the sons of the Maharaja of Benares, obviously an intrepid young man. But The Statesman of Calcutta, a newspaper still very well respected, published a different version of the flights in Allahabad. Its issue of December 18 reported that Henri Pequet made the first flight in India on December 17. According the paper, Pequet flew the biplane over the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna (Sangam) and also over the Allahabad Fort. The newspaper expected regular display flights to begin on December 20 over the Exhibition Grounds and continue displays till January 6, 1911. The possibility of joyrides being given was also mentioned. By then it was estimated that a total of five hours of flying had been accumulated covering almost 50 miles. Henri Pequet was paid £.50/= per hour of flying, provided each flight lasted longer than two minutes. He is today recognised, especially by knowledgeable stamp collectors, as the pilot to carry world’s first airmail from Allahabad to Naini just across the Yamuna, and back to Allahabad. He carried 6,000 odd letters and postcards, many of which were addressed to celebrities worldwide, including King George V in England. If you can find one of these postmarked covers or stamps with the words “First Aerial Post”, you can sell it today for the price of a flat or a house.
Calcutta, the capital of British India before it was shifted to Delhi, was not far behind in making aviation history. But perhaps news at the time did not travel between cities fast enough. The Statesman of December 21, 1910 said that the second flight in India was at Tollygunj, a suburb of Calcutta on December 20. Baron de Caters flew the Bleriot monoplane over Tollygunj Club for fifteen minutes. The same day the Baron flew with a lady passenger, Mrs NC Sen, who thus became the first woman in India to get airborne. The paper had also claimed that Mrs Sen was the first woman in the world to fly in a plane. But this claim was quite wrong, as by then in the West it had become fashionable for society ladies to casually drop their news of having dared a ride in a flying machine.
For December 28, Baron de Caters organised a flying display at Tollygunj. This attracted almost all the able population of Calcutta willing to forego work or other pleasures for a day. The Baron did the first few flights in the Farman, gave rides to two ladies and several gentlemen. While this was exciting enough, the next day, December 29, Jules Tyck set two national records in his Bleriot. He became the first to fly over the city, including directly over the Government House. The second record was set when he climbed to all of 700 feet above ground level. Calcutta was in for more excitement.
On January 6, 1911, a huge crowd gathered at the Maidan to witness Henri Jullerot display his Boxkite developed by the British & Colonial Aeroplane Company of Bristol, England. The crowds were reported the next day to have been in excess of 100,000, perhaps even more than seen now-a-days at Eden Garden for one day international cricket matches. Seats at the Race Course’s Grand Stand of the Maidan were exorbitantly priced at Rs 5/= each! The flight was cheered with gusto. But the show concluded fast enough as the Boxkite had to be dismantled and taken to Aurangabad by train to demonstrate it to the Indian Army.
Obviously, just like the armed forces the world over, Indian Army was quick to realise the military importance of new technology such as the flying machines. The Boxkite was assembled in open ground next to the Aurangabad railway station. Perhaps world’s first reconnaissance flights took place in it on January 15 and 16 to report on the forces opposing a Cavalry Brigade. The pilot, Henri Jullerot sat on the spar of the leading edge of the lower wing with his feet on a rudder bar. The observer, Sefton Branckner sat close behind, a bit higher and with his feet around the pilot. The reconnaissance sorties were highly successful. But except for a few generals, including the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army and the Chief of Staff, most army officers did no think that the aeroplane had much use for them except perhaps for limited reconnaissance of enemy positions. This attitude persists till today, only slightly moderated due to introduction of aviation within the army itself.
Meanwhile Baron de Caters and Jules Tyck took their aircraft around the country and gave displays at many towns. The show in Bangalore was on February 3, 1911 and in Madras on February 18.
The First World War soon interrupted any progress of aviation in India for a while. Two Indians distinguished themselves in this war. Inder Lal Roy joined the Royal Flying Corps in April 1917 at the tender age of just over eighteen years. After receiving his training and the King’s Commission, he joined No.. 56 Squadron in France but was shot down in December. He was given up for dead but gained consciousness surrounded by dead bodies. After recovery he returned to flying and shot down nine German planes before losing his life in his last air combat. He was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC), the first Indian to receive the honour. The other famous Indian pilot was Sardar Hardit Singh Malik, who had also joined in April 1917. He was wounded in November but returned to flying in time for the defence of London. He was demobilised after the war and had a really distinguished career as a diplomat. He was, not long ago, the senior-most citizen playing golf at the Delhi Golf Club.
The Royal Air Force inaugurated its first station in India at Ambala. But the Indian Air Force (IAF) was launched by an act of the Governor General on October 8, 1932. The A Flight of No. 1 Squadron came into existence on April 1, 1933 under the command of an RAF officer on deputation. Its senior-most Indian officer was Pilot Officer Subroto Mukherjee who later became IAF’s first Indian Commander-in-Chief as an Air Vice Marshal and then took over as the Chief of Air Staff as an Air Marshal. His successor was Air Marshal AM (Aspy) Engineer.
Aspy Engineer had started his flying career rather early. He and RN Chawla were the first Indians to fly a De Havilland Moth from India to England. They left on March 3 and arrived on March 20,1930. Aspy’s return flight from England was to contest for the Aga Khan Prize of £ 500 for flying between the two countries in either direction. JRD Tata took off in a Gypsy Moth on May 3 from Karachi for England. They crossed each other at Aboukir in Egypt where Aspy was in some trouble due to problems with some spark plugs. JRD helped him out. Aspy arrived in India when JRD had just reached Paris. Presumably because he took longer, JRD Tata came second to Aspy who won the Prize. But JRD was never a loser. After protracted negotiations with the Government of India, he started his airmail service under the name of Tata Aviation. He piloted the first carriage of mail from Karachi to Bombay on October 15, 1932. The initial efforts at passenger carriage in India were limited to British owned or funded airlines, such as the Indian Trans-Continental Airways and Indian National Airways. But as the need for more air travel facilities became paramount, permission was given to almost anyone wanting to start an airline. This resulted in a profusion of quick start airlines, which competed with each other perhaps by cutting fares and down time for maintenance. Soon enough the situation became untenable. Eventually the Air Corporation Act of 1953 was passed nationalising all airlines. Air India International took over the international traffic and Indian Airlines Corporation the domestic. While the two national airlines still operate, the domestic scene changed once again as a result of economic reforms. The prospects of passenger and cargo traffic in India can only be described now as rosy.
Meanwhile in December 1940, Seth Hirachand Walchand launched Hindustan Aircraft Limited (HAL) with the help of an American and the State of Mysore. Dr VM Ghatge, India’s first aircraft designer soon joined the company and designed the G-1 Glider, the first such venture in India. However, due to World War II, the G-1 did not get used and Dr Ghatge became the first to start teaching aeronautical engineering at the Indian Institute of Science. He rejoined HAL after independence and designed India’s first powered aircraft the HT-2. In time, HAL became a Corporation with several Divisions in the country. The first fighter aircraft designed in the country was the HF-24 though a German team led by Prof. KW Tank largely managed it. Many aircraft types have been produced under licence and in large numbers. Lately the country has come into its own in designing aircraft, engines, avionics and accessories. The success story of indigenous designs restarted with the ALH, now named Dhruv, a helicopter for all the defence services and also meant for civilian use. This has been followed by the Light Combat Aircraft and the Intermediate Jet Trainer.
India has so far produced transport aircraft only under licence from foreign sources. These include the Avro-748, Dornier Do-228 and the Partinavia. But now National Aerospace Laboratories is developing the Saras, a twin turbo-prop commuter aircraft. HAL is also likely to embark on the development of a 100-seater aircraft with capabilities for other roles, perhaps in collaboration with Russia.
The prospects of aviation in India are on the right path and should gladden the heart of any aviation enthusiast.
Author’s Note: Events of early aviation history in India mentioned in this article have been gleaned from the book “Glimpses into INDIAN AVIATION HISTORY” by Late Mr Alka Sen. He was the doyen of aviation journalists in India and started his career with Indian Aviation, India’s first aviation magazine in 1929. Later he became the Editor of Skyways and finally restarted Indian Aviation – Civil & Military in April 1986.