Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, popular as JRD, gave wings to the nation and established its civil aviation. A tribute by Shubha Madhukar
"He touched the sky,
and it smiled.
He stretched out his arms
And they encircled the globe.
His vision made giants out of
Men and organisations."
The message from Air India on the death of JRD, the person who dreamt of, and realised, civil and commercial aviation in India, couldn't have been more evocative. The words not merely pay homage to the person and aviator, but also aptly describes the passion and essence of JRD's life and times.
JRD's rendezvous with aviation began when he was just five. In France, where he grew up, his neighbour was Louis Bleriot, the famous aviator - the first person to fly across the English Channel in 1909. Jeh, as JRD was affectionately called, grew up fascinated with Bleriot's aircrafts, which led to a lifelong passion for flying. Clearly, during his formative years, Bleirot was his hero.
In 1919, when he was 15, JRD had his first joyride. It stirred and enchanted him. It was then that he decided to become a pilot. His resolve was realised nine years later when at the age of 24, JRD passed out of the Bombay Flying Club. Incidentally, JRD was the first Indian to become a commercial pilot. His aviator's certificate in blue and gold bears the number '1' and is dated February 10, 1929.
Flying was a childhood passion for him. In 1982, he said to a gathering in Mumbai, "Right from childhood I have been mad about flying and anxiously waited for the day when I would fly myself." It was probably this early passion that led him to dream of building a national air carrier for India.
In October 1932, JRD created history with Tata Airlines. The first flight took off from Karachi for Bombay, with JRD at the controls. The aircraft was a Puss Moth. Flying those almost primitive machines was not an easy job, but for him it was a labour of love. In one of his memoirs JRD said, "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."
The aerodrome, in fact, would be a mud flat at Juhu. In the rainy season when it disappeared under water, JRD would shift the two planes, three pilots and two mechanics to an open ground near Yearavada jail in Pune. What began as an airmail service grew with bigger and better aircrafts, flying people across and soaring revenues into a giant enterprise.
In 1946, Tata Airlines, a division of Tata Sons went public and became Air India. Two years later, Air India spread its wings to Europe and Air India International was launched. It was the first joint undertaking between the government and a private enterprise. In 1953, Air India was nationalised under the chairmanship of JRD.
This was the period when JRD, as the chairman of Tata Sons, had responsibilities towards Tata Sons, Tata Industries, TELCO and TISCO besides Air India. But Air India was visibly close to him and sometimes, he devoted upto half his time to it. That Air India was close to his heart was an open secret. He once said, "With Air India I was creating something new, something entirely new, and therefore I was creating history in a small way." In fact, with Air India he created history in a big way. He was truly, the father of civil aviation in India.
In the subsequent years Air India soared high and spread its reach. However, on February 3, 1978, JRD had the hurt of his life, when Morarjee Desai, then the prime minister, without reason and without informing him, replaced him with retired air chief marshal, PC Lal, to head Air India. JRD came to know of this only when Lal called to apprise him and the unceremonious ouster was announced publicly over the nine o'clock news.
Though the wound obviously did not heal for years but JRD, who had formed and nurtured Air India like a baby, neither did nor said anything. His passion for flying, too, evidently remained intact. At the age of 78, on October 15, 1982, during the golden jubilee anniversary of Air India, JRD undertook a commemorative flight. He flew a vintage Puss Moth of the early 1930s, similar to the one he had piloted on the inaugural flight, along the old mail route from Karachi to Bombay.
The hurt and offence mirrored only when he was interviewed later on the occasion and asked about Air India. He is reported to have exclaimed, "Why do you talk to me about Air India? I'm not on the board of Air India." To rectify an egregious wrong by her predecessor, Indira Gandhi, reinstated him on the board of India's flag carrier shortly after.
Re-enacting the first flight fifty years later, was, perhaps an act of nostalgia for JRD. But for his enthusiastic admirers who had gathered to welcome him at Juhu, it was a time to salute the living legend who gave wings to the nation and a pride of place to India in international aviation.