Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy JRD Tata was behind some of the most ambitious ventures across numerous Indian industries in the 20th century. His business impact can even be felt across the country today. However, the entrepreneur was also a skilled aviator. Not only is he regarded as the father of civil aviation in India, but he was also the first person to obtain a commercial pilot license in the nation.
Across the continents
JRD Tata was born in Paris, France, on July 29th, 1904, into the famous Tata family, which is one of India’s most prominent business groups. A teenage Jehangir took a joy ride in an aircraft at Hardelot, and his fate was sealed. He knew he wanted to become a pilot and have a career in aviation. However, he would have to wait nearly a decade for this goal to come to fruition.
The soon-to-be aviator moved to India as a young adult, and in 1929, Tata renounced his French citizenship and became an Indian citizen. It was also this year when he obtained his pilot license. After turning 24 years old, he set his eyes on a flying club that opened in Bombay (Mumbai).
The big moment
Despite not being the first to register, he was the first Indian to pass out with ‘No. 1’ printed on his license. Mr. Tata didn’t take this achievement lightly. He went on to have a fruitful career in many markets, including the aviation industry.
In 1932, Mr. Tata flew the first commercial mail flight, which was a trip from Karachi to Juhu airport, in a de Havilland DH.80A Puss Moth. India’s first air service was launched with this journey. However, the airman didn’t take the credit. He gave the praise to a former RAF officer, Nevill Vintcent.
Vintcent, nonetheless, offered Mr. Tata a project to launch an airline. Sir Dorab Tata, who was the chairman of Tata Sons at the time, wasn’t as keen on such a venture. However, JRD Tata’s mentor and colleague, John Peterson, managed to help convince the businessman.
“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’ hundred miles an hour, I breathed a silent prayer for the success of our venture and for the safety of those who worked for it,” Mr. Tata said, as shared by the Tata Group.
“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.”
A national treasure
Tata was soon praised by the Directorate of Civil Aviation (DCA) of India, highlighting it as an example of “how airmail service should be run” due to the carrier’s 100% punctuality, even during the most challenging monsoon months.
JRD Tata became the chairman of Tata Sons in 1938. Under his leadership, the assets of the business grew from $100 million to over $5 billion. By the time he left the company in 1988, the group was a conglomerate of 95 enterprises.
Aviation was undoubtedly a huge part of the company’s growth. In 1946, Tata Air Lines went public and became a joint-stock company in the form of Air-India. Offering passenger services, the carrier even began flying all the way to London. Moreover, the order of three Lockheed Constellations continued the development of the operator.
In 1953 the Indian decided to nationalize the country’s airlines and proposed to merge them into a single state business with Mr. Tata at the helm as chairman. However, the visionary advised that the domestic and the international carriers of the nation should be kept separate as two different entities. This request was accepted, and Mr. Tata was chosen to head the international operation. Thus, for the following quarter of a century, he was chairman of Air-India and a director on the board of Indian Airlines.
Leaving a legacy
Mr. Tata passed away in Geneva, Switzerland, on November 29th, 1993, at the age of 89. His success was undoubtedly acknowledged by his counterparts, regionally and globally. With such a decorated journey, the pioneer deservingly received several awards over the years.
“Air Marshal Nur Khan, former head of the Pakistan Air Force, and later Chairman of Pakistan International Airlines, when asked by an Indian magazine what he thought of his neighbour airline, Air-India, and its then Chairman JRD Tata, replied: “A great airline and JRD Tata is an epic figure.” In recognition of this epic figure’s services to air transport, JRD Tata was made the recipient in 1979 of the Tony Jannus Award, named after the founder pilot of the first scheduled airline in the world, which began in Tampa, Florida, in 1912,” the Tata group shares.
“Amongst its recipients are the inventor of the jet engine Sir Frank Whittle; the developers of the Concorde SST, and the founders of the Douglas Aircraft Corporation, Pan-Am, the Eastern and the United Airlines. Other awards followed. In 1989, the Daniel Guggenheim Medal Award, first conferred on Orville Wright, was presented to JRD Tata.”
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The Tata Group still has a strong presence in the aviation industry today. Notably, it presently operates two separate joint ventures with Singapore Airlines and Air Asia in regard to Vistara and Air Asia India. Interestingly, things could also come in full circle, with the Tata Group in the bidding race for Air India.
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