How civil aviation grew in Madras

The first aeroplane was showcased in Island Grounds

Published - February 18, 2022 11:22 am IST

Early bird: Aavudaiyappa Chettiar owned a plane and its remains were in his gardens before they were acquired by a hotelier. Photo by Special Arrangement

Early bird: Aavudaiyappa Chettiar owned a plane and its remains were in his gardens before they were acquired by a hotelier. Photo by Special Arrangement | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Long before anyone thought of aeroplanes and flying in India, in Madras, d’Angeli, the hotelier, inspired by Bleriot, had got Simpson’s, the city’s leading coachbuilders, to build him an aeroplane and tested this made-in-Madras machine in Pallavaram and, then arranged a demonstration - charging entrance fees - on the Island Grounds in March 1910, just seven years after the Wright brothers flew. He even took a passenger from the crowd. Subramania Bharati celebrated the event in his writing in the India journal saying, “Make in India”, the first one to use this term! (In 1904, Wilbur Wright flew in a plane for five minutes thus conquering the sky.)

In December 1910, parties from Belgium and England came to India with some aeroplanes that they were manufactured with an idea to showcase flying and naturally exploit any business opportunities. Then the aircraft ready to fly cost £ 550/-, just under Rs 7,500/- at the rate existing and was affordable by big landlords and businessmen of India. The first group that landed in India was from Coventry’s Humber Motor Company. Bombay (Mumbai) did not respond well, and the group proceeded to Allahabad where the first flight was successfully attained by Davies in a ‘Bleriot’, on the December 10, 1910.

Meanwhile, Baron de Caters and Jules Tyck took their aircraft around the country to display, and the show was fixed in Bangalore (Bengaluru) on February 3, 1911, and in Madras (Chennai) on February 18. ‘The Hindu’ reported on February 3, 1911, that after showcasing the craft in Bangalore the demonstration was scheduled in Madras on Wednesday, February 15, 1911. A large crowd gathered to see J Tyck’s Bleriot ascend in the sky, but the weather was not favourable and so next morning Tyck’s machine when tried, to the delight of the crowd and the flier, rose gracefully to a then unbelievable, height of 2,400 feet.

The Governor and Lady Lawley watched the flight. Tyck was then presented with two medals by the Governor, gifted by the Zamindar of Sivgiri and B. O. Reynolds, who managed the arrangements. Thus, Madras came on the map of aviation in India in February 1911 just eight years after the Wright brothers made history by flying their aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in the US!

The machine of Tyck was a Bleriot fitted with an engine of seven cylinders, rotating around a fixed crankshaft and the propeller was attached to the crankcase, which rotated.

Thus, an interest in Madras for flying was created and in 1929-30 the Madras Flying Club was founded.

In 1914 Madley, who was the water works engineer who designed the Rapid Filtering Station, had an aeroplane that he brought in a ship in parts and got assembled in the Island Grounds and flew in it to inspect the works at the Red Hills area.

G. Vlasto, a pilot, took an initiative and on November 19, 1929, at the Madras Guards Institute with interested citizens that resulted in incorporating a club on March 4, 1930, by six businessmen of Madras and an officer of the armed force. They were W. M. Browning, K. R. Simpson, Capt. Bootle Wilbraham (Military Secretary, Government house Madras), E. F. Lowman, J. s. Goodwin, S. A. A. Annamalai Chettiar and A. S. Galimore. The founding members were people like Sir C. P Ramaswami Aiyar, Rao Bahadur C. V. Krishnaswami Chetty, S. A. A, Annamalai Chettiar, Rao Bahadur Appasami Mudaliar, T. Rajamannar, T. Rajagopal Iyengar, S. Palanisami Chettiar and Rao Bahadur K. Govindachari.

Captain V. Sundaram was the first to get Commercial Pilot’s licence from the Madras Flying Club in 1937 and his wife, Usha, served as co-pilot in many of these flights. Ms. Sundaram became the first graduate of the Government Flying Training School Bangalore.

Rangachari of Madras was the first medical practitioner to own a plane and known as the country’s “first flying doctor”. His pilot was Capt. B. K. Nanjunda Rao, who later, bought a plane from Hamble, Symmonds Spartan, G-AAW Single engine bi-plane, built-in Southhampton, being then the cheapest, costing a mere 1,000 pounds and provided joy rides for Madras Flying Club at a cost of ₹10/- per passenger, which was quite popular.

Nattukottai Chettiars were interested in flying and Aavudaiyappa Chettiar owned a plane, and the skeletal remains were in his gardens for long before it was acquired by a hotelier for restoration.

Started by Alagappa Chettiar, Deccan Airways, the first private airline in the South, started its flight from Madras to Delhi via Hyderabad on July 1, 1946, with a 21-seater Dakota. The fare structure of this Airline was Madras to Hyderabad Rs 65, and Hyderabad to Bangalore Rs 70. Garuda was the plane, and it took off for Delhi via Visakhapatanam and Nagpur the flight was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister O P Ramaswami Reddiyar on June 7, 1948.

The writer, K.R.A. Narsaiah is a history enthusiast.

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