One hundred years of flying high

Did you know that India is one of the cradles of world aviation? Yes, today we are in the 100th year of civil aviation with a lot to be proud of.

October 31, 2011 06:59 pm | Updated 06:59 pm IST

All in a row. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

All in a row. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

An undated Tata Airlines route map reveals a wide network — Karachi, Bhuj, Ahmedabad, Bombay, Goa, Cannanore, Trivandrum, Trichinopoly, Colombo, Madras, Hyderabad, Indore, Bhopal, Gwalior and Delhi. Much later, an Air India timetable, of 1947, quotes among many fares a Bombay-Madras return ticket fare at Rs.256, and a Cochin-Trivandrum return ticket at Rs.57.

It's sometimes hard to believe that India is one of the cradles of world aviation, yet the fact is that we are in the 100th year of civil aviation in our nation. The achievements reveal an absorbing mix — of some world firsts, pioneer flights, the arrival of women aviators and aero clubs, all a part of the fascinating world of man and the ‘flying machine'.

It all began on February 18, 1911. On that day the first commercial civil aviation flight took place between Allahabad and Naini Junction, a distance of six miles, when Henri Piquet carried 6,500 pieces of mail on a Humber biplane. It quickly grabbed the spot of a “world first” in the process, as it is considered to be the world's first airmail service.

The next year, in December, Indian State Air Services, along with Imperial Airways of the U.K., began a London-Karachi-Delhi flight, it becoming the first international flight to and from India.

In between 1915 and 1929, there was a flurry of activity — Tata Sons Ltd. (1915), and the Royal Air Force (1920) started regular air mail services between Karachi and Madras and Karachi and Bombay, and airports were constructed (1924) at Calcutta, Allahabad and at Bombay. Around this time a Department of Civil Aviation and an Aero Club of India also came into being (1927).

Aviation took a giant step ahead, once again with J.R.D.'s efforts. Scheduled air services gathered strength when he stepped into a deHavilland Puss Moth and flew from Karachi to Bombay via Ahmedabad, on October 15, 1932. He touched down at Juhu, with a pouch of airmail as well. He was joined in this pioneering effort by Neville Vincent, an RAF pilot, who had come to India to look at possible air routes. Vincent flew the aircraft further onto Madras via Bellary. J.R.D. soon came to be known as the Father of Civil Aviation in India .He was the founder of Tata Airlines, which later became known as Air India. Tata Airlines started air mail services on these touch points -- Karachi, Ahmedabad, Bombay, Bellary and Madras (October 1932).

The Indian Aviation Act was finalised in 1937, and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was set up with the help of the then Mysore Government in 1940.

In March 1953, the Parliament passed the Air Corporations Act, and Indian Airlines and Air India International were set up. From this point onwards, it is both Air India and Indian Airlines that set the pace, introducing many aircraft types. Helicopter services also made an appearance in India.

In 1960, Air India became the first airline to go all jet. “The Maharajah” flew his passengers by jet between India and the U.S.

1990 was the year it came a full circle again. Private airlines returned to Indian skies. War clouds in West Asia produced another world record. This time, Air India, in association with Indian Airlines and the Indian Air Force, entered the Guinness Book of World Records for “the largest evacuation effort by a single civilian airline”. It flew 1,11,000 people from Amman to Mumbai in 59 days operating 488 flights just before the Gulf war.

The era of low cost air travel (Air Deccan), which revolutionised travel, began in 2003.

In 2010, India finally saw the arrival of a world-class integrated air terminal, with the inauguration of Terminal ‘T3' at the Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi.

The same year, in December, Pawan Hans started sea plane services, called Jal Hans.

Finally, the big picture: India is the ninth largest aviation market, has 82 operational airports, with 50 million expected to fly by the end of the year.

And, if all goes well, in December, Air India will become the second airline in the world to get the Boeing 787, a revolutionary fuel-efficient aircraft, largely built from composites.

It's been, truly, one very great air journey!

Others celebrating 100 years

In June 2011, Singapore launched the Singapore Aviation Centennial Celebrations. On March 16, 1911, aviation took shape there when a British Bristol Boxkite biplane lifted off on a demonstration flight. Celebrations include a special 100 years show, a philatelic exhibition, a lecture series and an aviation run. It will culminate with the Singapore Air Show 2012, one of the world's largest aerospace shows.

Hong Kong too is in the limelight. On March 18, 1911, Charles Van den Born touched down in Hong Kong from Belgium in a biplane. The celebrations? A photo exhibition, a show with replica models of aircraft and contests.

Thailand too flagged off its Civil Aviation Exhibition, in December 2010-January 2011, that looked at a century of Thai aviation.

Flying women

It was a red-letter day for Indian women when Urmila K. Parikh became the first Indian woman to get a pilot's licence in 1932.

In 1948, Prem Mathur became the first woman commercial pilot, flying for Deccan Airways.

Indian Airlines encouraged women pilots and Durba Banerjee became its first woman pilot (1956).

Indian Airlines operated an all-women crew flight in 1985.

Some firsts

Space travel too comes under the subject of civil aviation. The entry in record books for this is 1984, when Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma (Indian Air Force) became the first Indian cosmonaut.

1998: Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian-born woman astronaut.

Cochin International Airport Limited became the first private airport (Nedumbassery, Kochi) in India.


J.R.D. Tata was granted the first pilot licence by the Federation Aeronautique International and he took part in an air race (London-Bombay).


In February this year, Civil Aviation Minister Vayalar Ravi felicitated some pioneers. He declared the Civil Aviation Centenary Year as starting from February 18, 2011 to February 18, 2012. He referred to people who have made a mark —J.R.D. Tata, Sarla Thukral (also mentioned as one of the first Indian women pilots), Air Marshal Aspy Merwan Engineer (who won the Agha Khan Trophy for being the first Indian to fly from London to Delhi in a light aircraft), Biju Patnaik (former Orissa Chief Minister and avid aviator, who was entrusted with the task of evacuating Sutan Sjahrir, the Prime Minister of Indonesia, during the country's struggle for independence from Dutch rule), Neerja Bhanot (Indian airhostess on a Pan Am flight that was hijacked and who lost her life saving passengers), cosmonaut Rakesh Sharma, Capt. Saudamini Deshmukh (of Indian Airlines, and who piloted its first all-women crew flight) and Vijaypat Singhania (industrialist who holds world records — for highest altitude gained while in a hot air balloon and for a solo microlight flight from the U.K. to India).

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