Government

Air India Backs Away from Plan to Commemorate JRD’s Epic Journey

The cash-strapped national carrier is wary of spending the Rs 3 crore needed to restore the Fox Moth Tata flew in 1962 to recreate the 1932 Karachi-Bombay journey, India’s first commercial flight.

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Publicity photograph taken at Bombay airport on 15 October 1962 shows Mr. J. R. D. Tata, Chairman of the Tata group and of Air-India, who piloted this flight and the original 1932 flight as well, standing with Mr. S. K. ‘Bobby’ Kooka of Air-India. Behind him is the De Havilland DH85 Fox Moth, VT-AKH in which he recreated the flight. This aircraft was similar to the De Havilland DH80A Puss Moth, VT-ACZ in which he did the original 1932 flight. Credit: airindiacollector.com

London: The famous business chief , a household name in India and abroad, flew a single engine Puss Moth from Karachi to Mumbai in October 1932, stopping over only in Ahmedabad.

This landmark journey was the brainchild of Tata Airlines, the ancestor  of Air India, that is still talked about by air experts both in India and abroad.

In 1962, JRD himself inaugurated his 30 year old journey by flying another vintage aircraft, the Fox Moth, along the same route. Pictures taken of JRD at the time show him with a smiling face standing outside his Fox Moth VT AKH with words painted on the fuselage that read  ‘30th anniversary, Karachi-Ahmedabad-Bombay, Tata Airline – Air India , 15th October 1932 – 15th October 1962.’  Twenty years later, in 1982, the flight was re-enacted to commemorate the 50th anniversary

In 1985, JRD gifted the same aircraft to the headquarters of the Aero Club of India located at Safdarjung Airport in New Delhi – where it is still located – and where maintenance crew have it suspended from the ceiling of the main building. Aero club staff have been bubbling with excitement at the possibility, however remote, of seeing their prize exhibit take to the skies again.

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The Fox Moth (VT-AKH) flown by JRD Tata in 1962, at the Aero Club of India. Credit: Wikimedia

Late last year, preliminary talks got underway with Air India indicating its interest in commemorating JRD’s 1932  flight as well as 85 years of civil aviation in lndia. Air India experts asked what could be done to  bring the Puss Moth down from display at Safdarjung Airport to make it air worthy again. Once that was accomplished, it was suggested, Air India pilots would fly the original route as far as possible.

India lacks experts for vintage aircraft maintenance, nor is there any institution available to issue an air worthiness certificate for a vintage aircraft.  The UK has those facilities and one possible candidate who indicated his willingness to undertake the job if asked is British Airways Captain Mike Edwards, MBE , currently the unpaid chief adviser for IAF Vintage Flight, who has so far helped to restore one IAF Spitfire and has approval to restore another eight aircraft that will make up an IAF vintage squadron.

Edwards, author of  a newly published biography of Air Vice Marshal Harjinder Singh – Spitfire Singh: A True Life of Relentless Adventure – is currently working on the revival of an IAF Dakota, that he hopes will participate in an IAF vintage flypast for the Independence Day celebration in August 2017.

When asked if he could help with the revival of JRD’s aircraft, his estimate was that it could cost three crore rupees and take as long as two years to complete. Until last year the project had the enthusiastic backing of Air India chief Ashwani Lohani, formerly of Indian Railways, who was quoted as saying about JRD’s flight, “We dream to recreate a historic event.”

Actual mail flown from Karachi to Bombay on the flight piloted by JRD Tata on 15th October 1932. This was the first flight of the Aviation Division of Tata Sons Ltd. Credit: airindiacollector.com

Actual mail flown from Karachi to Bombay on the flight piloted by JRD Tata on 15th October 1932. This was the first flight of the Aviation Division of Tata Sons Ltd. Credit: airindiacollector.com

Since then, Lohani appears to be having second thoughts and refuses to participate in interviews to  discuss the subject. Nor is he willing to be drawn on whether the project to revive the historic Karachi-Mumbai journey – as well as a vintage aircraft – is any longer feasible.

According to a senior Air India manager, Captain Pankul Mathur, it is the cost of the project rather than the project itself that is making Lohani have second thoughts.

Last year, Air India’s declared profits were a comparatively modest six crore rupees. So using the equivalent of  50% of those profits to fund the revival of a vintage flight would be hard to justify to airline stakeholders, Captain Mathur told The Wire.

At stake, however, is a piece of Indian history whose true value – as a vintage machine and a symbol of India’s pursuit of aviation – is surely priceless.