Aviation in India and France: Blériot and Tata, the first steps

Samuel Berthet

J.R.D. Tata with a Tata Airline airplane in 1963

My first important memories from the point of view of a growing child, blessed with a fairly observant and inquisitive mind, were about cars and aeroplanes. My father decided that we needed a home of our own in which to spend holidays, and he picked on a new and developing beach resort on the Channel coast of France, south of Boulogne, called Hardelot, where he not only bought a villa but later on built a number of villas and shops as real estate developer. In fact, of the two main streets of Hardelot was officially named Avenue des Indes. 

It happened that the legendary Louis Bleriot, who acquired world fame in 1909 by being the first to fly a plane across the Channel, also chose Hardelot for his family’s summer resort. Bleriot built not only a fine villa close to ours but also a hangar near the beach. On the beach his personal plane used to land much to the excitement of everyone there – grown ups and children, none more starry eyed than myself. From then on I was hopelessly hooked on aeroplanes and made up my mind that, come what may, one day I would be a pilot. I had to wait many years for that dream to come true[i].” 

R.M Lala, Behind the Last Blue Mountain, A life of JRD Tata, pp. 17-18, Penguin, 1992 
Louis Blériot’s airplane being prepared for his cross channel flight

Louis Blériot flying over from France to England over the Channel is a landmark in aviation history, arguably the first “long distance” flight in history. Five years later, the path of the pioneer of aviation will meet the one of a 10 years young French boy named J.R.D. Tata who will become the first Indian to have a flying license. J. R. D. Tata was born, mostly schooled and grown up in France. He learnt piloting in France, before shifting base to India, renouncing his French citizenship in 1929, and getting a license from the Aero Club of India and Burma associated Royal Aero Club of Great Britain. His license reads in French as well as in English: Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, British Empire:

Nous soussignés pouvoir sportif reconnu par la FIA pour l’Empire Britannique que Mr Jeangir Ratan Tata born at Paris on 29-7-1904 ayant rempli toutes les conditions imposées par la FAI a été reconnu a été breveté pilote-aviateur. 

We, the undersigned sporting authority recognized by the FIA for the British Empire, that Mr Jeangir Ratan Tata born at Paris on 29-7-1904 having fulfilled all the conditions imposed by the FAI has been recognized as a pilot-aviator license.

As a matter of fact, the federation was launched in Paris in October 1905 where its first conference was held.  

Excerpt from International Aviation Magazine

Two new chapters in the history of Indo-French aeronautics were written even before for J. R. Tata to get its license in 1926 thanks to Dieudonné Coste and Jean Rignot.[ii] The first one was the first to fly the South Atlantic before successfully attempting the deadly cross Paris-New York. In November that year, the two famous pilots break the record of long distance flight through a 5 396 km long flight between Paris and Djask in Iran, over a 32 hours journey (28th-29th October), then from there to Karachi,  and Patna, reaching Calcutta on 5th November where they are celebrated like hero. They flew back with their Breguet 19 equipped with a Hispano 500 engine through a slightly different itinerary via Delhi, Karachi, Bassora, Alep, Athens and Rome reaching Le Bourget near Paris on 11th with 21 mails. It seems that they flew again in the same month to Hanoi via Karachi and Calcutta. In January 1930, Pierre Weiss and Lucien Girier fly between Istres and Pondichery, landing more precisely in Souttoucany on a Breguet 19 TR Bidon propelled by once again by a Hispano-Suiza engine. Their flight is widely publicized in the French newspaper leading to a much attended conference titled “Raid de Pondichéry”.  

In the meanwhile, the passion for aviation sown in J.R.D Tata and his siblings grew only bigger. It paved the way for a unique aeronautic saga: “the early pilots have long been forgotten”, he said. “Who remembers today the name of Adolphe Pegoud, Bleriot’s chief pilot? To me Pegoud was one of the bravest and most foolhardy men that ever lived, for he was not only the first in the world to loop the loop but did so inverted, because as those early planes did not have enough power to climb into a loop in the normal way, Pegoud had to do so by diving beyond the vertical. Poor Pegoud must have been hanging on his flimsy belt the whole way around, with no parachute to save him in case the plane broke up, as he must have expected it to do[iii].” “When J.R.D Tata flew in France, he enjoyed the experience of landing in little fields and whenever possible visited various friends to give them joy rides.” 

J.R.D had arranged with his brother Darab to land at his college near Rouen. ‘I’d asked him to put a white strip to guide my landing. Darab’s brilliant sport teacher put the strip right in the middle of the football field, between the goal posts. So naturally I had to search for a more suitable one which I found nearby. I managed to give Darab the promised joy ride[iv].” 

Tata’s history with aviation is a collective one, a real saga. J.R.D said: “My elder sister, Sylla Petit was the first Indian lady to get her flying license in India. Later, also having learned at the Bombay Flying Club, my younger sister Rodabeh was the second Indian lady to get her flying license in India. But unquestionably the best flyer and most naturally gifted airman among us all, was my youngest brother, Jamshed or Jimmy (…). A born flyer, Jimmy was released solo only after four hours[v].“ 

J.R.D Tata’s pilot liscence

Combining the skill of a pilot with the qualities of an entrepreneur, J.R.D. Tata inaugurated the first Tata Aviation service on 15 October 1932, taking off from Karachi to Bombay on a Puss Moth. This was the first air service in India, and just a new chapter in a long saga in the history of aeronautics in India, one that started in France and would be linked to France in the coming years too.  

[i] R.M Lala, Behind the Last Blue Mountain, A life of JRD Tata, pp. 17-18, Penguin, 1992 

[ii] Samuel Berthet : La culture française en Inde de 1870 à 1962 : présences et actions : dynamiques indiennes et politique française, thèse de l’Université de Nantes, 2002, p. 336. 

[iii] R.M Lala, Behind the Last Blue Mountain, p. 82 

[iv] Idem., . 85. 

[v] Idem., p. 89.