How JRD Tata Gave Birth To India’s Civil Aviation Industry

JRD Tata was not just a pioneer businessman but also India’s first licensed pilot.

4 min read
JRD Tata has been considered the father of civil aviation in India. 

(This article was originally published on 21 March 2015 and has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of JRD Tata.)

JRD Tata would have been 115 today. And India’s aviation industry owes a lot to this remarkable man’s birth. He single-handedly changed the skyscape of the country. The successor to the conglomerate of companies left behind by JRD Tata, Ratan Tata, once said,

JRD Tata was a visionary. He established civil aviation in India and he believed that the country and its people must benefit from what the rest of the world did. 
Ratan Tata, Chairman of Tata Group
JRD Tata was India’s first licensed pilot. 
JRD Tata was India’s first licensed pilot. 

JRD Tata, the Aviator

If you want excellence, you must aim at perfection. It has its drawbacks but being finicky is essential.
JRD Tata

Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, better known as JRD Tata was not only an innovator who headed the largest industrial group in India for five
decades, but also widely considered as an important figure in the history of Indian civil Aviation.

Born on 29 July 1904 in Paris, he would later become India’s first licensed pilot in 1929 where he recalled the excitement of seeing a plane landing on Hardelot beach in France 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.
JRD Tata

Though JRD founded TCS, Tata Motors, Titan Industries, Tata Tea, Voltas and Tata Airlines which later became Air India, his connection with flying went far deeper than just his business.

In 1929, JRD renounced his French citizenship and became an Indian citizen and was back in Bombay where India’s first flying club was taking its roots. 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 license in the country.

JRD’s famous first commercial flight of Tata Aviation, which he flew himself on October 15, 1932 from Karachi to Bombay is a remarkable example of a businessman putting his own life on the line.

“On an exciting October dawn in 1932, a Puss Moth and I soared joyfully from Karachi with our first precious load of mail, on an inaugural flight to Bombay. As we hummed towards our destination at a dazzling 100 mph, I breathed a silent prayer for the success of our venture and for the safety of those who worked for it. We were a small team in those days. We shared successes and failures, the joys and headaches, as together we built up the enterprise which later was to blossom into Air-India and Air-India International,” JRD recalled later.

When he landed on the Juhu mud flats that October day in 1932, India’s first air service was inaugurated. He did not take credit for it and gave it to an Englishman called Nevill Vintcent, who was a good friend.

Vintcent offered JRD Tata a project to start an airline which was accepted by then Chairman, Sir Dorab Tata with an initial investment of Rs. 2 lakh.

We had no aids whatsoever on the ground or in the air. No radio, no navigational or landing guides of any kind. In fact, we did not even have an aerodrome in Bombay. We used a mud flat at Juhu. The sea was what we called our airfield, and during the monsoon the runway was below the sea! So we had to pack up each year, lock, stock and barrel - two planes, three pilots and three mechanics, and transfer ourselves to Pune where we were allowed to use a maidan as an aerodrome, appropriately under the shadow of the Yeravada Jail!.
JRD Tata

In 1948, JRD Tata launched Air India International as India’s first international airline. In 1953, the Indian Government appointed JRD Tata as Chairman of Air India and a director on the Board of Indian Airlines - a position he retained for 25 years.

Under his chairmanship, the assets of the Tata Group grew from US$100 million to over US$5 billion. He started with 14 enterprises and five decades later on 26 July 1988, left Tata & Sons with a conglomerate of 95 enterprises.

Upon JRD Tata’s death the Indian Parliament was adjourned. 
Upon JRD Tata’s death the Indian Parliament was adjourned. 

The Accolades

JRD Tata received a number of awards during his lifespan. He was conferred the honorary rank of Group Captain by the Indian Air Force in 1948 and promoted to the Air Commodore rank before being further promoted on 1 April 1974 to the Air Vice Marshal rank.

He also received several international awards for aviation like The Tony Jannus Award in March 1979, the Gold Air Medal of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in 1995, the Edward Warner Award of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, Canada in 1986 and the Daniel Guggenheim Award in 1988.

The French Legion of Honour was bestowed on him in 1983. In 1992, JRD Tata was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna for his selfless humanitarian endeavours.

He died in Geneva, Switzerland on 29 November 1993 of a kidney Infection. He was 89.

On his death, the Indian Parliament was adjourned in his memory - a rare honour usually not given to people who are not members of the parliament. He was then buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetry in France.

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