Indian civil aviation’s flight path: 1947-1960
In 1903, American aviators Wilbur and Orville Wright made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk with their first powered aircraft, changing transportation forever. India was soon put on the global aviation map when the country witnessed its first commercial flight from Allahabad to Naini—a distance of 10km—as Henri Piquet carried 6,500 mails on board a Humber biplane. This is considered to be the world’s first airmail service and the beginning of civil aviation in India.
The country’s first commercial airline (Tata Airlines) was started by J.R.D. Tata in 1932 and Tata piloted its inaugural flight from Karachi to Mumbai (then Bombay). In 1946, it was renamed Air India and two years later, Tata set up Air India International Ltd in collaboration with the government and started international operations. With Parliament passing the Air Corporations Act in March 1953, the Indian aviation sector was nationalised and all operating carriers were consolidated under two ventures—Indian Airlines for the domestic segment and Air India International for operating overseas flights.
Here’s a quick look at Indian aviation’s glorious moments between 1947 and 1960, when the sector witnessed many firsts (more to come during our year-long series).
The first long-haul flight
On 8 June 1948, Air India started its first long-haul international service with a weekly flight between Bombay and London via Cairo and Geneva, using a 40-seater Lockheed Constellation L-749A. The aircraft was named Malabar Princess (registered as VT-CQP). The first flight had 35 passengers on board, including prominent dignitaries J.R.D. Tata and Maharaja Duleepsinhji, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, among others.
The historic journey took 24 hours and the aircraft made stops at Cairo and Geneva for technical check-ups and refuelling as it could not fly non-stop for long duration, according to Jitendra Bhargava, a former executive director of Air India and author of book The Descent of Air India. At the time, the aircraft could fly up to 4,800km non-stop compared with the new-generation machines that can fly non-stop up to 14,000km. According to newspaper advertisements at the time, a one-way ticket was priced at Rs.1,720. Today, a one way Mumbai-London (economy class) trip costs anywhere between Rs.30,000 to Rs.40,000.
Spreading wings with a larger fleet
By 1950, the airline had started flying to Nairobi in Africa and also to Rome, Paris and Düsseldorf in Germany. Air India International took the delivery of its first Lockheed Constellation L-1049 in 1954 and inaugurated services to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore. The aircraft was named Rani of Jhansi (registered as VT-DGL). Between 1947 and 1959, a clutch of other airplanes also came in, including Douglas DC-3 Dakota (a fixed-wing propeller-driven airliner), Vickers Viking (a twin-engine short-range transport) and Douglas DC-4 (a four-engine propeller-driven airliner). The Vickers Viscount aircraft, a medium-range turboprop airliner, was also inducted in 1957. Around this time, France-based Airbus SAS and US manufacturer Boeing started expanding their footprint in India’s aviation sector. Another US-based plane maker, Lockheed Corp. (now Lockheed Martin), also entered the Indian market during that time. Today Airbus and Boeing have a combined strength of over 400 commercial planes in India.
Also, before 1960, there were around 18 functional airports, including four metro airports and other key ones such as Hyderabad, Bengaluru and Mysuru. Of these, a few were given a facelift and runways were expanded to accommodate bigger planes such as the passenger jets. The jetliners required bigger runways, over 3km in length, compared with the conventional flying machines needing runways up to 2km.
Choppers fly in
In November 1953, civil helicopter services were ushered in though the choppers used for this purpose were originally procured by the Indian Air Force (IAF) for military use. Between 1954 and 1957, the IAF took delivery of three Sikorsky S-55 and two S-55C aircraft, built by the US plane maker Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. Most of these were used to ferry people in the north-east, Jammu and Kashmir and other remote areas of the country. The market grew only after the Helicopter Corporation of India was set up in 1986 (it later became the state-run helicopter company Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd, or PHHL). Currently, there are close to 300 helicopters in the country, mostly owned either by corporate houses or by PHHL.
Urmila K. Parikh was the first Indian woman to get a pilot’s licence, but it was Prem Mathur who became the first woman commercial pilot in 1948 when she started flying for the private carrier Deccan Airways. In 1956, state-run Indian Airlines followed suit, appointing Durba Banerjee—the first woman pilot to work for the carrier. Banerjee started her aviation career in 1951, flying a Dakota plane for the Kalinga Airlines as an air survey pilot. Next, she became a commander of a Fokker F27-600 Friendship turboprop airliner. Later on, she got rated as a jet pilot and flew the Boeing 737 as well as the Airbus 300 aircraft. Banerjee retired from Indian Airlines in November 1988. Back in the 1960s, the national carrier also brought in a much-appreciated dress code and allowed female cabin crew to don sarees instead of western uniforms.
India enters the jet age
India entered the jet age on 21 February 1960, when Air India inducted the first Boeing 707-420 named Gauri Shankar (registered as VT-DJJ). In fact, it became the first Asian carrier to induct a passenger jet aircraft in its fleet. In the same year, India and the US were directly air-connected as the carrier started its first flight to New York on 14 May.
Liked the story? Subscribe to our daily and weekly newsletter, InfraReads, to keep track of India's infrastructure space.