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Feature: Significant milestones in the 100 years of Indian civil aviation

In what is considered the world’s first airmail service, on 18 Feburary, 1911 the first commercial civil aviation flight in India took place in India between Allahabad and Naini, a distance of 6 miles when Henri Piquet carried 6500 mails on a Humber biplane.

The first international flight to and from India commenced in December 1912, when the Indian State Air Services in collaboration with UK based Imperial Airways introduced the London-Karachi- Delhi flight.

In 1915 Tata Sons Ltd. started regular air mail services between Karachi and Madras and on January 24, 1920 the Royal Air Force started regular airmail services between Karachi and Bombay.

1924 saw the commencement of construction of civil airports in India in Calcutta at Dum Dum, Allahabad at Bamrauli and in Bombay in Gilbert Hill.

April 1927 saw the setting up of a separate Department of Civil Aviation to look after all civil aviation matters and also the establishment of Aero Club of India.

In February 1929, JRD Tata was awarded the first pilot license by Federation Aeronautique International on behalf of the Aero Club of India and Burma. The same year Aga Khan announced a solo air race between London and Bombay. There were three participants – JRD Tata, Man Mohan Singh and Aspy Merchant. The race was won by Man Mohan Singh.

Lt. Col. Shelmerdine was appointed the first Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in 1931 to look after civil aviation regulatory issues.

In 1932 Tata Airlines came to being as a division of Tata Sons Limited. On October 15, 1932, J.R.D. Tata flew a single-engined De Havilland Puss Moth carrying air mail from Karachi’s Drigh Road Aerodrome to Bombay’s Juhu Airstrip via Ahmedabad. The aircraft continued to Madras via Bellary piloted by former Royal Air Force pilot Nevill Vintcent. Tata Airlines was based out of a hut with a palm thatched roof at Juhu Aerodrome with one pilot and two apprentice mechanics along with 2 piston engined aircraft, one Puss Moth and one Leopard Moth aircraft. 1932 also saw the first Indian woman Urmila K. Parikh get a pilot’s license.

Between 1933 and 1934 a number of private Indian airlines – Indian Trans Continental Airways, Madras Air Taxi Services, Indian National Airways commenced operations.

The Indian Aircraft Act was promulgated in 1934 and was formulated in 1937.

In 1940, industrialist Walchand Hirachand in association with the then Mysore Government set up Hindustan Aircraft at Bangalore. We today know this company as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. or HAL.

India’s first aircraft, the Harlow trainer was rolled out for test flight in July 1941.

On April 2, 1942 the colonial government announced that Hindustan Aircraft had been nationalised by its buy-out of the stakes of Walchand Hirachand and other promoters.

In 1943 the Bangalore facility of HAL was handed over to the United States Army Air Force but still using HAL management. The factory expanded rapidly and became the centre for major overhaul and repair of American aircraft and was known as the 84th Air Depot. When returned to Indian control in 1945, HAL Bangalore had become one of the largest overhaul and repair facilities in the East.

In July 1945 the Deccan Airways, jointly owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad and Tatas, was founded.

On 29 July 29, 1946 Tata Airlines became a public limited company under the name Air India. Deccan Airways also commenced its first flight this year.

Post independence, in 1948, 49% of the airline was acquired by the Government of India, with an option to purchase an additional 2%. In return, the airline was granted status to operate international services from India as the designated flag carrier under the name Air India International. On June 8, 1948, the airline operated its first long-haul international flight from Bombay to London via Cairo and Geneva, using a Lockheed Constellation L-749A named Malabar Princess (registered VT-CQP)

In 1948 Prem Mathur became the first female commercial pilot and started flying for Deccan Airways, having obtained her commercial pilot’s license in 1947.

In 1950 Air India International increased its service to Nairobi, Kenya via Aden.

1953 was the black year for Indian aviation. In March 1953, the Indian parliament, passed the Air Corporations Act, which forced nationalisation of the entire airline industry. On August 25, 1953, the Government of India exercised its option to purchase a majority stake in Air India International. At the same time seven former freedom domestic airlines, Deccan Airways, Airways India, Bharat Airways, Himalayan Aviation, Kalinga Airlines, Indian National Airways and Air Services of India, were merged to form the new domestic national carrier Indian Airlines Corporation. Indian Airlines inherited a fleet of 99 aircraft including 74 Douglas DC-3 Dakotas, 12 Vickers Vikings, 3 Douglas DC-4s and various smaller types from the seven airlines that made it up. 1953 also saw the introduction of India’s Civil Helicopter Services.

In 1956 Ms. Durba Banerjee was inducted as the first woman pilot of Indian Airlines.

In 1960, Air India International entered the jet age when its first Boeing 707-420, named Gauri Shankar (registration VT-DJJ), was delivered, and on May 14, 1960, the national carrier commenced jet services to New York City via London.

On June 8, 1962, the airline’s name was officially truncated to Air India. Three days later, on June 22, 1962, Air India became the world’s first all-jet airline.

In 1971, the airline took delivery of its first Boeing 747-200B named Emperor Ashoka (registration VT-EBD). This coincided with the introduction of the ‘Palace In The Sky’ livery and branding. A feature of this livery is the paintwork around each aircraft window. This aircraft holds a special significance for me as it was the first aircraft I ever flew as a passenger at the ripe age of 8 years. Sadly, the Emperor Ashoka crashed on new year’s day 1978 performing Air India Flight AI-855 about 3 km (1.9 mi) off the coast of Bandra, Bombay (now Mumbai), India.

In 1972 the International Airports Authority of India (IAAI) was constituted to operate the international airports in India.

April 1976 saw the first three Airbus A300 wide-body jets being introduced in to domestic service with Indian Airlines which has always maintained a close relation with the European airframer.

Vayudoot Airlines (again government owned) started operation in the year 1981 to service the north-eastern states of India where road facilities were limited due to mountainous terrain.

In 1984 Squadron Leader Rakesh Sharma of the Indian Air Force became the first Indian astronaut and the 138th man in space spending 8 days in space abroad Salyut 7.

In 1985 Captain Saudamini Deshmukh commanded the first all women crew flight on an Indian Airlines Fokker Friendship F-27 on the Calcutta-Silchar route. She later also commanded the first Boeing all-women crew flight in September 1989 on the Mumbai-Goa sector. 1985 also saw the establishment of Pawan Hans Helicopters Limited (again government owned) and the establishment of the government owned Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Academy in Fursatganj, Rai Bareli in Uttar Pradesh for training of pilots.

In 1986, the National Airports Authority was established to operate purely domestic airports. (I am sure you see the steady rise in the levels of bureaucracy and multiplicity of organisations essentially performing the same service).

In 1987, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security was established following the mid-air bombing over the Irish sea of Air India Boeing 747 Emperor Kanishka performing flight AI-182 between Montreal and New Delhi in 1985.

In 1989, Indian Airlines continued its close relations with Airbus to become one of the earliest adopters of the new A320 aircraft.

1990 saw Air India entering the Guinness Book of World Records when it conducted the largest evacuation effort by a single civilian airline flying over 111,000 people from Amman, Jordan to Mumbai over 59 days operating 488 flights, just prior to the first Gulf war. 1990 also saw Captain Nivedita Bhasin of Indian Airlines becoming the youngest commander of a jet aircraft at age 26. She subsequently became the first female check pilot on an Airbus A300 aircraft.

1990-93 saw the entry of private airlines after the de-regulation of the civil aviation sector. Private airlines were given permission to operate charter and non-scheduled services under the ‘Air Taxi’ Scheme. East West Airlines was the first national private airline to operate in the country after almost 37 years.

In 1994, following the repeal of the Air Corporation Act private airlines were permitted to operate scheduled services and a number of private players including Air Sahara, Damania Airways, East West Airlines, Jet Airways, Modiluft, and NEPC Airlines and commenced domestic operations. Most airlines closed before the end of the decade, with the exception of Jet Airways. Air Sahara was bought by Jet and re-branded JetLite. Modiluft which closed in 1996, was re-incarnated as SpiceJet in 2005.

In 1995 the private airlines accounted for about 10% of domestic traffic, today they account for almost 85%.

Also, in 1995, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) was constituted after the merging of the International Airport Authority of India with National Airports Authority.

In 1998 Dr. Kalpana Chawla became the first Indian-born woman to fly to space as part of a NASA team. 1998 also saw the first private airport under the Public Private Partnership (PPP) model come up in Cochin, Kerala.

2003 saw the introduction of the ‘Low Cost Carrier’ business model in the country with Capt. G.R. Gopinath launching Air Deccan which was ultimately purchased by Kingfisher Airlines and re-branded Kingfisher Red. Today the LCC segment accounts for half the domestic air travel in the country.

In 2004 the government approved the setting up of private greenfield airports at Hyderabad and Bangalore which subsequently commenced operations in 2008.

In December 2004 private airlines with a minimum of 5 years of continuous operations and a minimum fleet size of 20 aircraft, were permitted to operate scheduled services to international destinations.

On December 7, 2005, Indian Airlines was re-branded as Indian for advertising purposes as a part of a program to revamp its image in preparation for an initial public offering. Conveniently the IPO was ditched and the airline was made to haemorrhage scare funds. In the same year, the flamboyant Dr. Vijay Mallya launched Kingfisher Airlines.

In 2006 the government approved the restructuring and modernisation of Mumbai and Delhi Airport through Public Private Partnership.

In 2007, the Government of India announced that Indian would be merged into Air India. As part of the merger, a new company called the National Aviation Company of India Limited (NACIL) was established, into which both Air India (along with Air India Express) and Indian (along with Alliance Air) will be merged. The merger remains controversial and incomplete till today.

In 2008 the Parliament passed the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) Bill but the authority was set up only in 2009. Within a year there are already significant disputes between the Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Authority which is leaning towards the single till system not wanted by private airport operators.

In July 2010, the mammoth Terminal 3 (T-3) integrated terminal was inaugurated at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport.

At present India is the 9th largest aviation market in the world with 82 operational airports, 735 aircraft, 12 operational scheduled airlines and 121 non-scheduled operators (read private companies creating charter companies to import their business jets free of customs duty). The number of air passengers travelling in India crossed 50 million.

Thanks to the Ministry of Civil Aviation for its inputs.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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