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Early flying development in India was slow, but since 1932 internal air lines have rapidly increased



AIRCRAFT OF INDIAN NATIONAL AIRWAYS. This company was formed in 1933 and most of the directors and shareholders are Indians. Indian personnel are also employed as far as possible. Indian National Airways runs a passenger and mail service between Karachi and Lahore and has a charter service based on Delhi. This company is also the principal agent in India and Burma for Imperial Airways and Indian Trans-Continental Airways.

CIVIL aviation in India was, until 1932, a long way behind that in other parts of the British Commonwealth, despite the peninsula’s position athwart the trunk routes to the Far East. The first effort to establish an internal mail service was due to Sir George (now Lord) Lloyd during his term of office as Governor of Bombay from 1918 to 1923. A mail service between Karachi and Bombay was operated by R.A.F. machines, but it did not secure public support and was abandoned.

In the last few years the enterprise of a few pioneers has caused a change. The internal routes are mainly, though not entirely, south of the trunk routes flown by Imperial Airways, K.L.M. and Air France. Further, the flying club movement has already produced Indian pilots of merit, because of the co-operations of Europeans, Indian business men and certain of the Ruling Princes.

The first aeroplane to reach India from England under its own power was a Handley Page bomber powered by two Rolls-Royce 360 horse-power engines; but the flight was not direct. The machine left England in July 1918, flew to Egypt, and then proceeded to Palestine; it returned to Egypt after the Armistice. In this machine Captain (later Sir) Ross Smith, accompanied by Major-General (later Marshal of the Royal Air Force) Sir John Salmond and another senior officer, left Egypt in November 1918. The aeroplane arrived in Delhi, the capital of India, on December 12, 1918.

The first through flight from England to India was made by a four-engined Handley Page bomber, which left England on December 13, 1918. This aircraft was piloted by Squadron Leader A. C. S. MacLaren and Lieut. R. Halley, with Brigadier-General N. D. K. McEwen as passenger. The aeroplane reached Delhi in January 1919. The flight from England and across India made by Ross and Keith Smith and their fellow Australians in 1919 (see the chapter “The First to Australia”) was the prelude to a succession of flights across the peninsula. These flights were made by aviators of many nationalities, as one arduous stage in air journeys to points beyond India.

Eventually an effort was made to establish civil aviation in India. A department of civil aviation was established and plans were prepared for a State air service. Four Avro 10 machines were ordered. Financial stringency, however, caused the abandonment of this scheme and three of the machines were sold. One was retained for the use of the Viceroy.

De Havilland Moths and their pilots were among the pioneers of civil aviation in India. The first England to India flight by a light aeroplane was made by the two Moths piloted by T. Neville Stack and B. Leete, who left England on November 15, 1926, and landed at Karachi on January 8,1927. Both these R.A.F. officers were awarded the Air Force Cross. Captain Leete afterwards became chief pilot instructor of the United Provinces Flying Club.

Two other Britons, J. S. Newall and Neville Vintcent, began what was called an “aerial tramp”. Each of them flew a Moth. They left in January 1928 and arrived at Karachi in April. In India they began a long tour; they gave demonstrations of flying and took passengers. The aviators did work in the peninsula similar to that of Alan Cobham in the tours which he made soon after the war of 1914-18. The first machines seen by thousands of Indians were the two flown by the partners. They traversed the length and breadth of the country, and took more than 5,000 Indians into the air for the first time. Later, Vintcent began his association with Tata Sons, Limited, a company which has contributed much to the growth of India’s internal services. Vintcent became the company’s aviation manager and chief pilot.

Sir Victor Sassoon initiated the flying club movement and his efforts led to the foundation of the Aero Club of India and Burma, Limited. This was followed by the foundation of clubs associated with the parent body.

When the Government decided to operate the trunk route across India, they began by chartering machines which were flown and operated by Imperial Airways from Karachi to Delhi. The contract expired at the end of 1931 and this left Karachi as the terminus of the route from England. Then the Government arranged with the Delhi Flying Club to fly the mails between Karachi and the capital. The Government hoped to begin a service eastward in two stages from Delhi, the first to Calcutta and the second from Calcutta to Rangoon. The Dutch and French air lines which crossed India were not allowed to carry internal Indian or Burmese mail. The eastbound mail was dropped at Karachi and the westbound at Rangoon or Calcutta, and transferred to surface transport. The Delhi Flying Club operated the mail aeroplane for eighteen months; the average load was about 100 lb.

By then a number of citizens of Bombay realized that their city, which for so long had been the first and last mail port in India for the arrival and dispatch of mails, had lost its place. Karachi was steadily ousting it. The Bombay firm of Tata planned a service to connect Bombay with Karachi and, although the Government refused a subsidy, for financial reasons, they agreed to a rate for the carriage of mail. Tata Sons, Limited, established its aviation department in 1932, and contracted to operate a weekly mail service between Karachi, Ahmadabad (Bombay Presidency), Bombay, Bellary (Madras Presidency) and Madras. Although the company began with only two light aeroplanes, two pilots, one ground engineer and a few unskilled assistants, it has made most important contributions to the development of the internal routes of India.

At the time of writing the total route mileage of Tata Air Lines in regular operation is about 3,600. There are fourteen machines; fourteen of the fifteen pilots are Indian and thirty of the thirty-four engineers are Indian. The original Karachi—Bombay—Madras route has been extended to Colombo (Ceylon), a length of 1,900 miles. Another route, from Bombay down the west coast to Trivandrum, is 780 miles long. The Bombay—Delhi route is 800 miles long. During five years Tata aeroplanes have flown 1,500,000 miles, have carried 328,000 lb. of mail and have maintained an average regularity of 99.4 per cent.

Route Altered During Monsoon

The frequency of the weekly Karachi—Bombay—Madras service was doubled in January 1935 and the route between Bombay and Madras was altered to run via Hyderabad instead of via Bellary. Bhuj, the chief town of Cutch, was later included as a regular halting-place between Karachi and Ahmadabad.

The monsoon also caused an alteration to the route in the western area. Between the end of May and the beginning of October the wind complicates flying in the difficult region of the Western Ghats. During the monsoon, therefore, Poona was selected in preference to Bombay. This deviation enables the machines to fly on the east side of the Western Ghats; the mail is carried by railway from Poona to Bombay. When the monsoon is over the service is resumed via Bombay.

A weekly service between Bombay and Trivandrum, near the southern extremity of India, was established in October 1935. This immediately saved two days in comparison with surface transport. This route was later extended in a north-easterly direction to Trichinopoly.

An important step was the establishment of a service between Bombay and Delhi, via Indore, Bhopal and Gwalior. This provided the first regular air link between Bombay and the Indian capital, as well as through air travel between Delhi and southern India by way of the services operating from Bombay.

RANGOON AERODROME as it appeared in 1934

RANGOON AERODROME as it appeared in 1934. The Imperial Airways route passes over Rangoon, which is also the operational centre of Irrawaddy Flotilla and Airways, Ltd. This company runs services from Rangoon northwards, and south-eastwards to Lower Burma. Seaplanes have proved the most suitable aircraft for commercial services in Burma, and the company uses Short Scion aeroplanes.

After the extension to India, Burma, and Malaya, of the Empire Air Mail Scheme in February 1938 (see the chapter “Air Mails of the Empire”), the air link from Karachi to Madras was extended to Colombo, via Trichinopoly. This first air service between India and Ceylon put Ceylon into direct communication with Karachi and all countries on the routes of Imperial Airways. The frequency of the service was four times a week in either direction; this was increased to five times a week in August, when the services from and to England of Imperial Airways were increased similarly. There is projected a night mail and passenger service between Bombay and Calcutta, to link the two largest centres of commerce in India.

British and American aeroplanes are in the fleet of Tata Air Lines. The types comprise twin-engined D.H. 89 (Dragon Rapide), Miles Merlin, Waco Freighter and Waco YQC-6. The last-named machine is a biplane driven by a 225 horse-power Jacobs engine, which gives it a cruising speed of 159 miles an hour at 6,000 feet; the wing span of the aeroplane is 35 feet and the length is 26 feet.

On none of these routes is there any flying at night. Aeroplanes take off from the termini at 6.30 a.m. The time table of the Karachi—Colombo route enables the traveller to arrive at Colombo early in the afternoon of the day after he has left Karachi. The machine connecting with the arrival of the Imperial Airways flying boat leaves Karachi and makes its first stop at Bhuj; the second halt is at Ahmadabad. The third halt is at Bombay (at Poona during the monsoon) and the fourth at Hyderabad, capital of the State of Hyderabad. Here the passenger rests, to resume his journey in the morning. Madras is reached within three hours. The next stage is to Trichinopoly, the centre of the district of that name in the Madras Presidency. The last stage is across the sea to Colombo, the capital of Ceylon, and one of the finest ports in Asia. The air connexion between Colombo, Madras and Bombay is one of the major achievements of Indian aviation.

Although the west coast route southward from Bombay is of less importance commercially, it has accelerated transport to the south of India by about two days. The first stopping-place is at Goa, the capital of the Portuguese territory of that name. The route continues coastwise to Cannanore, a seaport in the Malabar district of the Madras Presidency. Trivandrum, the port and capital of Travancore State, is reached in the early afternoon. On the following morning the aeroplane makes a two-hours’ flight north-eastward to Trichinopoly, where connexion is made with the main air route from Bombay to Colombo.

Air Travel More Comfortable

Connexion between Bombay and Delhi is by way of Indore (capital of the state of that name), Bhopal in Central India, and Gwalior (capital of Gwalior State). The northbound services are on Wednesdays and Fridays, and the southbound on Mondays and Thursdays. The air journey takes about seven and a half hours.

Bombay, the population of which is more than 1,160,000, is provided with access by air to all parts of India by the charter and taxi service of Tata Air Lines. There are established rates for flights to towns more than 2,000 miles distant. Victoria Point, at the tip of Lower Burma, is 2,275 miles from Bombay via Calcutta and Rangoon; Mergui and Kadwe, on the same route, are also more than 2,000 miles away. The distance to Calcutta by way of Kamptee and Raipur is 1,030 miles. The heat, dust, grime and crowds inseparable from surface travel in India are avoided by the traveller by air, and this fact, in addition to the great saving of time, is appreciated by officials and business men.

Indian Trans-Continental Airways, Ltd., was formed to associate with Imperial Airways in 1933, along the trunk route described in the chapter “Imperial Airways”. Indian National Airways, Ltd., holds a quarter of the capital of Indian Trans-Continental Airways, and was also formed in 1933 to participate in the British Empire service over India and to develop feeder and other internal air services. Most of the directors are Indians; Indian personnel are employed to the fullest extent possible. More than 91.5 per cent of the shareholders are Indians from various parts of the country. The headquarters are at Delhi.

The company operates the air mail service between Lahore and Karachi; this service connects at Karachi with the mails from and to England. At Delhi the company maintains twin-engined and single-engined machines for charter work, and also maintains and operates Government-owned aircraft.


FIRST MAIL AEROPLANE FROM KARACHI TO MADRAS making a call at Bombay on its way. The service was inaugurated by Tata Sons, Limited, of Bombay, in 1932. Although this company inaugurated its aviation department with only two aeroplanes, two pilots, one engineer and a few unskilled assistants, it has made most important contributions to the internal routes of India.

There were formerly two Government machines, the Star of India and an Avro X. The Star of India has been transferred to the R.A.F.; the Avro is maintained and operated by the company. The company acts as the principal agent of Indian Trans-Continental Airways and Imperial Airways throughout India and Burma east of Karachi and west of Rangoon, and has charge of the traffic organization on the Empire route within these limits.

The company’s route Karachi—Jacobabad—Multan—Lahore is north of the Empire route. The weather is often adverse and, although the route is not adequately equipped for night flying, a considerable amount of night flying had to be done during 1937 to expedite mails to and from the Punjab and Baluchistan. This involved 435 hours of flying after sunset and before dawn, or the equivalent of 43,500 miles at an average speed of 100 miles an hour.

Because of the lack of the night-flying facilities and the night-stop at Jacobabad, where amenities are few, passenger traffic on this route was not encouraged in 1937 and passengers were carried only in special circumstances. The mail load increased from 29,542 lb. in 1936 to 34,816 in 1937; in both years the weights of the northbound and southbound mails almost exactly balanced. The service of two return flights was doubled at the end of February 1938, and a new schedule was introduced enabling the entire route between Karachi and Lahore to be flown in daylight in eight hours. Passengers were encouraged and are being carried in increasing numbers.

The service is operated with one Percival Vega Gull, one Percival Gull and two de Havilland Fox Moths; two twin-engined de Havilland Dragons are in reserve to meet demands for extra loads.

To correspond with the developments of the Empire route, the service was increased in August 1938 to five return runs a week. The annual mileage on this route is calculated to amount to 372,320. Various extensions are projected. These include a regular service from Lahore to the North-West Frontier Province and possibly into Kashmir, an extension from Lahore to Delhi, and an extension from Lahore to Kalka (near Simla) during the summer months.

The development of the route was notable for the excellent flying by the senior pilot of the company, P. D. Sharma, who has been flying it since its inception. Sharma was awarded the Willingdon Challenge Trophy by the Committee of the Aero Club of India and Burma for the most meritorious flying performance carried out during 1936 in any part of the world by any Indian national. He flew on the mail route in 1936, a total of 753 hours, of which eighty-one hours were flown at night.

Originally the first halt northbound was at Sukkur (Sind), but this was later flooded and the machine used the R.A.F. landing ground at Jacobabad. The small beacon was transferred to Jacobabad with a mobile floodlight unit. This marked the beginning of night flying by civil aircraft in India, but the new schedule has eliminated the necessity for night flying.

Numerous Charter Flights

Many charter flights have been made from Delhi by the company, and this side of the activities expanded considerably in 1937. In that year there were sixty-four flights, twenty-two for the Government and forty-two on private account. Seventy-three Government passengers and 115 private passengers were carried. The total mileage of 64,918 represented 652 hours of flying. Passengers included Ruling Princes and Government officials. One important Government charter was carried out in the Government’s Avro X. Officers of the British Air Ministry were flown over the Southern Shan States to survey the Indo-China air route.

The pleasure flight traffic expanded considerably in 1937. At Delhi, Lahore and elsewhere 105 flights were made and 418 passengers were carried. This compared with thirty-one flights and eighty-five passengers in the previous year. The company leases a landing ground at Alipore from the Calcutta Port Commissioners. This landing ground is likely to become important with the development of aviation, as it is close to the heart of Calcutta. The ground was used in 1937 for charter and casual flights. It is maintained in serviceable condition as its more extensive use for local and external traffic is anticipated.

Indian Air Survey and Transport has its headquarters at Dum Dum, the airport of Calcutta. The company has surveyed and photographed extensive areas for various purposes, including land settlement, town planning and mining. During one survey for geological purposes in a district of Orissa the position of old copper workings was located by the examination of the photographs.


THE AIR ROUTES OF INDIA include one short route, unlinked with any other route, which is of particular interest. It is operated by Himalaya Airways from Hardwar to Gauchar. This service, inaugurated in 1935, carries pilgrims to the sacred places near the source of the River Ganges in the Himalayas. The flight saves pilgrims ten days of arduous travel.

On another survey the officer in charge of the districts drained by the Kosi River, in the Bhagalpur district, made a flight so that changes in the course of the river could be photographed. Irrigation, forestry and railway surveys are among the activities. The air taxi work is considerable. As early as 1930 the company carried 5,000 passengers. It operates the Bengal Government ambulance machine, which is a de Havilland Fox Moth, fitted with interchangeable floats and wheels so that it can alight on water or on land. The ambulance was put at the disposal of the Government of Bihar and Orissa for service in the area affected by the earthquake of 1934.

Farther east, Irrawaddy Flotilla and Airways, Ltd., operates from Rangoon, the capital and great port of Burma. A service from Rangoon to Mandalay, via Henzada, Prome, Yenangyaung, Chauk and Pakokku, 406 miles, was begun in November 1934. In the same month was begun a service from Rangoon to Moulmein; this service was extended in January 1935 to Tavoy, 267 miles from Rangoon. A modification was made later and a service from Rangoon to Moulmeingyan was substituted.

Seaplanes are the most suitable aircraft for Burma. The company formerly used a Short Scion seaplane on the regular routes and a Fox Moth seaplane for charter flying. The aircraft now comprise two Scions. The routes were modified in 1938 to run between Rangoon and Yenangyaung and, in Lower Burma, between Moulmein and Tavoy.

A remarkable service was inaugurated in the summer of 1934 by Himalaya Air Transport and Survey, Ltd., To serve pilgrims travelling to the sacred places near the source of the River Ganges in the Himalayas. The company flew pilgrims from Hardwar, in the United Provinces, to Gauchar, seventy miles distant. This short flight saved the pilgrims ten days of arduous travel.

Gauchar lies at an altitude of 3,000 feet and many difficulties had to be overcome to provide a landing ground. The pilgrims go to Badrinath, to the shrine of Vishnu, 10,000 feet above sea level. A three-engined Airspeed Ferry machine was used to open the route. On one day thirteen trips were made, and the passengers included two persons who had been injured in the mountains and needed treatment. The company surveyed other sites for landing grounds in the Himalayas.

Indian Air Race

Himalaya Airways, the company now operating the service, carried nearly 3,000 pilgrims in 1935, and flew 352 hours. The success of this service was another example of the skilful use of aircraft in mountainous country.

The growth of the flying club movement in India was fostered by Lord Willingdon, a former Viceroy, who, with Lady Willingdon, made many flights and tours of India by air during his term of office. After he had assumed office Lord Willingdon became Patron in Chief of the Aero Club of India and Burma, and Lady Willingdon became patroness.

The race for the Viceroy’s Challenge Trophy corresponds to the King’s Cup Air Race in Great Britain. The first race in 1932 was on a circular course of 709 miles, Delhi—Agra—Jhansi—Lucknow—Agra—Delhi. Eight competitors started and seven completed the course. The winner was Dr. Sproull, Punjab Flying Club, in a Moth.

The 1933 race was also over a circular course, Delhi—Bareilly—Lucknow—Agra—Rampur—Delhi; among the ten pilots was an Indian woman. Captain Riley, Delhi Flying Club, won with a Moth. The 1936 race, the next one to be held, was a more formidable contest over a course of 1,520 miles from Madras via Hyderabad, Bombay, Ahmadabad and Jodhpur to Delhi. An Indian pilot trained in India, Lieut. Risri Chaud, won, and this victory by an Indian stimulated popular interest.

Long-distance flying was encouraged by the Aga Khan’s offer of a £500 prize for the first solo flight from England to India or in the reverse direction, to be completed in less than one month, by a pilot of Indian nationality.


A SCENE AT KARACHI when the Indian Trans-Continental Airways in conjunction with Imperial Airways instituted the route across India from Karachi to Calcutta in 1933. In the foreground is one wing of the Atalanta type aircraft used for this service ; in the background is the Imperial Airways liner Honno from England.

Two young Indians, Ram Nath Chawla and Aspy Merwan Engineer, left Karachi in a Gipsy Moth in April, 1930, although the conditions stipulated a solo flight. Chawla, a Hindu from the Bombay Presidency, had learned to fly at Nottingham Aero Club and had continued training at the Karachi Aero Club. Engineer, also a youthful member of the Karachi Club, was the son of a Parsee; his father was K. H. Irani, a wealthy merchant. The youth was so enthusiastic about engineering that his school friends always called him “Engineer”; he decided to discard his family name and adopt that of Engineer.

Engineer’s father provided the Gipsy Moth in which the two youths set out for England. They left Karachi on March 3 and arrived in England on March 20; Chawla was senior pilot. The Government of India awarded a prize of 7,500 rupees (about £560) to Chawla. Then Engineer set out to win the Aga Khan’s prize by flying the machine back solo to India. There were three contestants: Engineer, Man Mohan Singh, a Sikh from the Punjab who had learnt to fly at Bristol, and Jehangir R. D. Tata, who intended to fly from India to England.

Singh took off from Croydon on April 8, 1930, but made a forced landing in a swamp near Marseilles. He damaged his machine, but was able to continue. He struggled through to India and reached Karachi on May 10.

He was the first Indian to fly solo to India, but exceeded the time limit. Engineer did not leave England till April 25, but he reached Karachi on May 11, the day after Singh. Tata, flying in the opposite direction, left Karachi on May 3 and arrived at Croydon on May 12, the day after Engineer had reached Karachi. Tata made the fastest flight. All three machines were Moths.

Miss Rodabeh Tata, the sister of J. R. D. Tata, was the first Indian woman to obtain her “A” licence. She and Mrs. Urmila K. Parakh, who obtained her licence in the same year, 1930, trained at the Bombay Flying Club. A “B” licence, granted in 1930 to Bhagat Behari Lal, Delhi Flying Club, was the first “B” licence gained by an Indian trained in India. Lal became an instructor of Delhi Flying Club.

Mass Flight to England

The Bombay Flying Club inaugurated a new feature of club flying by a mass flight from India to England and back in 1934. This instructional flight was commanded by the late Flight-Lieut. A. H. Binley, the pilot instructor. The object was to give pupils who had gained the “A” licence experience to aid them to qualify for the “B” licence. The pilot pupils were S. K. Mehta, S. N. Segal, K. R. Gazder, M. G. Naralkar and J. D. Mody. The club ground engineer accompanied the flight.

The four machines, which were Moths, took off from Bombay on June 11, and arrived in England on June 25. Each pilot was in rotation made leader of the flight. A sandstorm compelled a combined forced landing in Iraq, but there were no mishaps. During the return flight, bearings were lost while the fliers were over the desert between Baghdad and Basra, and the machines landed about seventy miles from Basra. Flight-Lieut. Binley obtained petrol from the tanks of other machines and flew to Basra. With the help of the R.A.F. and the Saudi Arabian Government, supplies were taken to the stranded machines, and the flight to India was resumed.

A number of the Ruling Princes have aided Indian aviation. The Maharajah of Jodhpur is a keen pilot. He is the first prince who has piloted his machine by night above the capital of his State. He and other Indian rulers maintain fleets of aircraft.

The Indian Air Force was constituted in 1932, the first flight being formed in 1933. The officers are trained at the R.A.F. College at Cranwell, England, and the airmen in India. Further details of the Indian Air Force are given in the chapter “Air Forces of the Dominions”.

Although circumstances prevented Indians from entering aviation until a few years ago, the enthusiasm and skill they have displayed individually and collectively has won the esteem of Europeans.


THE CONTROL TOWER AT DELHI AIRPORT, with part of the terminal buildings. Delhi is an important junction point in Indian air services. It is on one of the Imperial Airways routes across India, and it is the terminus of a Tata Air Lines service from Bombay. A route is projected to link Delhi also with Lahore.

You can read more on “Air Forces of the Dominions”, “Air Mails of the Empire” and “Imperial Airways” on this website.

Aviation in India and Burma