JRD Tata: The father of commercial aviation in India


October 16, 2013

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Hardelot is a beach town in the north of France. It is in the Pas de Calais, a region along the English Channel where the distance to Britain is short and, unlikely as it may seem, this is why it has a link to the development of commercial aviation in India.

Author: Vikram Doctor | Source: The Economic Times


Closeness to Britain was why, at the start of the 20th century, a group of investors decided to develop Hardelot as a holiday town for rich British families. One who took up the offer wasn’t British, but Indian and Parsi, the businessman RD Tata, cousin of Jamsetji Tata, who bought a house for his French wife and their children, and also became a property developer there. One of the roads in Hardelot would come to be named Avenue des Indes.

Hardelot is also less than 40 km from Sangatte, which is even closer to Britain and the place Louis Bleriot, the French aviator, set off from in the first successful crossing of the channel by plane. That was in 1909, the same time RD Tata came to Hardelot, and the event made a big impression on his five-year-old son Jehangir. When Bleriot bought a neighbouring villa in Hardelot, Jehangir quickly became friends with his son, Louis junior, and both of them would spend much time with Bleriot’s planes.

Jehangir, better known as JRD Tata, would later recall the excitement of seeing a plane landing on Hardelot beach for the first time: “It was flown by Adolphe Pegoud, the first man to loop-the-loop. From then on I was hopelessly hooked on aeroplanes and made up my mind that come what may, one day, I would be a pilot.” This would happen when he was back in Bombay and India’s first flying club was being formed. Twelve days after the launch of the Aero Club of India & Burma, JRD went on his first solo flight and then, on February 10, 1929 he got the first flying licence issued by the club.

JRD’s connection with flying went far deeper than just business. It survived not just the problems of the industry, but also more personal losses. In those early years JRD escaped death in a flying accident at least once, but his younger brother Jimmy was not so lucky. He was a strapping young man, who JRD always said was a better pilot than he was himself, and in 1936 he set out with an Austrian friend to fly from Austria to the UK. While they were flying over the friend’s Austrian home he tried to turn and wave to his family, but with two tall men in a tiny plane, the action imbalanced them and sent the plane into a spin and a crash, killing both of them.

Stories like that make JRD’s famous first commercial flight of Tata Aviation, which he flew himself on October 15, 1932 from Karachi to Bombay, a remarkable example of a businessman putting his own life on the line. JRD’s involvement, and the re-enactments he flew in 1962 and 1982 have come to overshadow the commercial aspect of the flight.

It was meant to demonstrate the viability of airmail from London to the subcontinent right down to Ceylon, and Karachi was the starting point as it had an Imperial Airways (the forerunner of today’s British Airways) service from the UK. The 45 pounds of mail JRD carried on his flight was immediately taken on by his business partner, the South African-born Nevil Vintcent, on a further flight, with halts on the way at places like Bellary, to end in Madras, from where it immediately set off on the return journey to Karachi, so that the mail could catch the Imperial Airways flight to the UK.

What is also remarkable is how soon this venture started turning a profit. Aviation is a notorious loss-maker, at least in its early years; yet by 1934 Tata Aviation had made a slim profit of Rs 10,000. Frederick Tymms, the director-general of civil aviation in India at that time is quoted as saying, “Scarcely anywhere else in the world was there an air service operating without support from the government.” The government had signed the mail contract by then, but that was pretty much all the support Tata Aviation was getting.

Luckily, another source of support had emerged with the maharajas. We are familiar with Air India’s moustachioed maharaja, but in the early days of the airline actual maharajas also played a role. An article in The Times of India in 1933 points out that with the Indian government displaying little interest in developing aviation facilities, it had been left to various maharajas to step in: “The aerodrome at Jodhpur is acknowledged to be the best equipped in India and by laying out such an aerodrome and providing facilities for hotel accommodation, etc the Maharaja has made his capital an important stopping place on the route between Karachi and the East.” Another example was the private aerodrome of Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar of Chettinad which was proposed to become the home base of a Madras-Ceylon air service.   And when Tata finally launched a Bombay-Delhi service it went by the rather circuitous route of Gwalior, Indore and Bhopal thanks to the facilities provided by the rulers in these states. These rulers also gave the fledgling airlines lucrative consignments. A Times article from 1935 notes the interesting cargoes carried by those first flights. Pearls from the Gulf, not oil, were the most valuable regular consignments, but the maharajas of Kashmir and Baroda were also sending mangoes of the best quality. An unnamed maharaja had used the service to send papads to London, and betel nuts were another promising cargo.

In the understandably bitter speech JRD delivered in 1953 on the eve of nationalisation of the Indian aviation industry, he recalled this phase, from 1932-40 as the “hard but satisfying era of pioneering”. The challenges were high, yet everyone involved was enthusiastic, opportunities were plenty and, best of all, the government was hardly involved. It was in the post-1940 period when the government started taking more interest that things went awry. The policy put in place then got two things wrong: it loaded the whole industry with a high tax on fuel, and also undermined existing players by indiscriminately giving out licences so that many new airlines started, but with no real viability.

That pre-1940 period had four main Indian airlines: apart from Tata there was Indian Trans-Continental Airways, Indian National Airways (both linked to Imperial Airways) and Air Services of India. After 1940 several shortlived services came up – Deccan, Himalaya, Ambica, Mistri.

As these flew into problems, the government got involved in trying to keep them going, and slowly got closer into the aviation business. JRD watched this with foreboding, regularly pointing out the folly of its involvement in a business that required both quick decisions and a service focus. “On both these counts, State enterprise, with its rigid and slow moving administration and its inevitable red tape and conservatism, cannot possibly compare with private enterprise,” he said to the Times in 1946.

Yet JRD knew it was best not to resist the trend too much. His personal closeness to Jawaharlal Nehru, despite differences over economic policy, made him realise the need to work with the government, and his plans to take Tata Airlines international seemed the ideal meeting point. First he took it public in 1946, renaming it Air India. Then the next year he submitted a plan to the government to set up an international airline for India, with the government holding 49%, Tatas holding 25% and the balance 26% with the public. And acknowledging that the government would probably want majority control soon, it was given the option of taking over 2% from the Tatas. The government agreed and Air India was incorporated in 1948 and launched its Bombay-London service three months later.

This seemed an ideal balance. The government was involved, but the service was run by Tata, and JRD threw himself into making it one of the best in the world.

Foreign experts were flown in to train the new staff, with special emphasis on the air-hostesses providing the best service. Bobby Kooka, the legendary marketing head of Air India was brought on board and given absolute freedom to develop strategy for the airline, which resulted in the maharaja mascot. India was a fresh, exotic and glamorous new country at that time, and Air India based its strategy around this image.   Yet, if one was superstitious, there was a bad portent early on. The plane that launched Air India’s international operations was a Lockheed Constellation named Malabar Princess which left Bombay for London on June 8, 1948. Barely two years later, on November 3, 1950 this same plane crashed into Mount Blanc with the loss of 48 lives (16 years later, the Air India plane Kanchenjunga would crash in almost the same place).

JRD’s hopes for a proper public-private partnership with Air India would crash three years later when the government made it clear that all private airlines in India would be nationalised (with Air India itself the process was even simpler, since the government simply exercised its option to take majority control). As a grace note, Nehru asked JRD to stay on as chairman.

In his speech at the last annual general meeting of Air India as a semi-private entity, JRD acknowledged that some in the private sector felt that by agreeing to stay on as chairman, “I had let down private enterprise.” This wasn’t quite true, he said, since Air India was not an entirely private company. But the main consideration, he said “which weighed with me was that I would be lacking in a sense of duty if I refused to make whatever contribution I could to the maintenance of the high standards and prestige which Air India International has established in India and abroad.”

Air India might be a mostly lost cause now, but that commitment to quality aviation, born on a beach in France and passed on to JRD’s successors at Tata Sons, makes the group’s re-entry with Singapore Airlines no surprise.


  1. Sonam Sharma

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