Remembering JRD Tata: The Father of Indian Civil Aviation

On the 29th of July, the entire aviation industry and the nation itself celebrated the 112th birth anniversary of the iconic industrialist Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata, known better as the Father of Indian Civil Aviation.

JRD’s tryst with aviation began as a child. His hero was the ace French pilot Louis Blériot, the first man to cross the English Channel by air. Blériot lived near the Tata’s French country home and once allowed a co-pilot to give the then 15-year-old JRD a ride. From that moment on, JRD was determined to fly.

Having moved to India, in 1929 he achieved his goal to soar the skies and became the first person in the country to be issued with a pilot’s license.

A year later, he competed for the Aga Khan Trophy, which was being offered to the first Indian to fly solo from India to England. JRD was flying from Karachi to London and landed en route at Aboukir Bay in Egypt. There he discovered another competitor, flying in the opposite direction, stranded by the lack of a spark plug. JRD willingly gave him his spare one and was ultimately defeated by a couple of hours. The experience only strengthened his love of flying, however.

In 1932, JRD set up Tata Airlines, the first Indian commercial carrier to transport mail and passengers within India. The company was based out of a small hut with a palm thatched roof at Juhu Airstrip in Bombay. JRD flew the first leg of the inaugural Karachi-Madras journey himself, taking mail from Karachi to Bombay via Ahmedabad using a single-engine De Havilland Puss Moth. In its first year, Tata Airlines flew 160,000 miles, carrying 155 passengers and more than 10 tonnes of mail.

Tata Airlines became Air India in 1946. Two years later, following Indian independence, the government took 49% of the company. Following JRD’s recommendation, the government established Indian Airlines to run domestic services while JRD took the helm of Air India International, which was granted a license to operate international flights. Five years later, the Government of India exercised its option to purchase a majority stake in the carrier and despite the nationalization of the airline, JRD remained in charge of Air India until 1978.

His contributions have greatly impacted Indian aviation. He was named Honorary Group Captain of the Indian Air Force in 1948 and an Honorary Air Commodore of India in 1966. His commitment to working together was probably his greatest contribution to modern aviation. As he put it, “No success in material terms is worthwhile, unless it serves the needs or interests of the country and its people.” For JRD, the flying experience was the greatest adventure of his life.

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