Most Indians remember Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, better known as JRD Tata, as the man who headed the largest industrial group in India for five decades. What few know is that he also played an important role in the history of India’s flagship carrier, Air India.
He completed his first solo flight on February 10, 1929, after just three-and-a-half hours in the air with an instructor to get the first flying license to be issued in India.
In 1932, JRD set up Tata Air Services, the first Indian commercial carrier to transport mail and passengers within India. In the absence of proper facilities, the firm was initially based out of a small hut with a thatched roof at the Juhu Airstrip in Bombay.
On October 15, 1932, a date that made aviation history, JRD famously piloted the first-ever flight of the Tata Air Services from Karachi’s Drigh Road Aerodrome to Mumbai’s Juhu Airstrip via Ahmadabad. The aircraft was a single-engine De Havilland Puss Moth and it carried 25kg of 4-anna airmail letters.
In its very first year of operation, Tata Air Services went on to fly 2, 57,495 km, carry 155 passengers and transport over 10 tonnes of mail. The same year, it also launched its longest domestic flight – Bombay to Trivandrum with a six-seater Miles Merlin monoplane. As these aeroplanes were tiny, the occasional passenger had to travel while sitting on top of the mail bags!
Re-christened Tata Airlines in 1938, the firm became a public limited company on July 29, 1946 when regular commercial service was restored in India after World War II. It was renamed Air India Ltd and headquartered at the Tata head office in Bombay.
Two years later, in 1948, Air India launched its international operations to Europe. On June 8, 1948, Malabar Princess (a 40-seater Lockheed L-749 Constellation) flew over 8,047 km from Mumbai to London via Cairo and Geneva. Air India’s maiden international venture was captained by K.R. Guzdar and D.K. Jatar, and carried 35 passengers, including JRD.
In 1953, Air India was nationalized, with JRD being appointed the company’s first chairman (he remained in charge until 1978). In October 1962, on the first flight’s 30th anniversary, JRD commemorated the occasion by flying solo from Karachi to Mumbai in a Leopard Moth plane.
JRD re-enacted the famous event again on its 50th anniversary in 1982, carrying a mailbag with messages from the president of Pakistan to the president of India, and from the mayor of Karachi to the mayor of Mumbai.
A year after he was awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, JRD Tata passed away in Geneva on November 23, 1993, at the age of 89. On his death, the parliament of India was adjourned as a tribute to JRD – a rare honour usually not given to people who are not members of the parliament.


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