From JRD Tata’s Flying Licence To Maharaja: The Air India Story In 5 Pics

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The late JRD Tata, photographed here with the crew of Air India.

Tata Sons has regained control of Air India after 68 years, with the government picking up the salt-to-software conglomerate as the winning bidder for the state-run airline. Air India, founded by JRD Tata in 1932 (as Tata Airlines), was nationalised around the time India gained independence in 1947. Welcoming the airline back into the fold of the Tata Group, Tata Sons chairman emeritus Ratan Tata today tweeted an old photograph of the late JRD Tata getting down from an Air India aircraft. 

“On an emotional note, Air India, under the leadership of Mr JRD Tata had, at one time, gained the reputation of being one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. Tatas will have the opportunity of regaining the image and reputation it enjoyed in earlier years. Mr JRD Tata would have been overjoyed if he was in our midst today,” Mr Tata said in the statement he tweeted alongside the old photo.

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JRD Tata received the first flying licence in India
Photo Credit: Tata.com

Air India, the airline that gave wings to a nation, was born of JRD Tata’s love for aviation. Not only did JRD Tata pioneer aviation in India, he was also the recipient of the first licence ever issued to an Indian. 

JRD Tata was 24 when a flying club opened in his home town Bombay. Though he wasn’t the first person to register, he did become the first Indian to pass out with ‘No. 1’ endorsed on his flying licence, according to a blog post from Tata Group. 

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The first flight in the history of Indian aviation
Photo Credit: Tata.com

On October 15, 1932, JRD Tata famously piloted the first flight in the history of Indian aviation. The Tata Air Services flight took off from Karachi’s Drigh Road Aerodrome and flew to Mumbai’s Juhu Airstrip. The aircraft was a single-engined De Havilland Puss Moth. 

“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,” JRD Tata later recalled. “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.”

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JRD Tata with Air India crew
Photo Credit: Tata.com

Hearing “Air India” today conjures up images of its iconic mascot: the portly Maharaja. 

This now familiar lovable figure first made his appearance in Air India way back in 1946, when Bobby Kooka as Air India’s Commercial Director and Umesh Rao, an artist with J.Walter Thompson Ltd., Mumbai, together created the Maharaja, according to the airline.

JRD’s 46-year aviation career spanned an era from the little two-seater Puss Moth to the 400-seater giant Boeing 747. A perfectionist himself, Mr Tata demanded that there should be no compromise on operating and maintenance standards or on service. An executive with the airline recalled how the chairman once called him in the middle of the night to offer suggestions on how to improve the wording on a publicity hoarding.

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JRD’s 46-year aviation career spanned an era from the little Puss Moth to the giant Boeing 747
Photo Credit: Tata.com

JRD Tata once told the airline’s employees, “I want that the passengers who travel with us do not have occasion to complain. I want to establish that there is no airline which is better liked by passengers, that is safer and more punctual, where the food and services is better, and which sets a better image than Air India.”

In fact, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru once wrote to Mr Tata to praise the high quality of the airline. “I think that Air India International has played not an unimportant part in raising the prestige of India abroad,” the former prime minister said in his letter. 

Tata Sons won a bid of Rs 18,000 crore to regain control of the government airline nearly 70 years after its nationalisation.

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