Popularly known the world over as ‘JRD’, and to the close circle of friends as ‘Jeh’, Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (29 July, 1904 – 29 November, 1993) was the pioneer of aviation in India – holder of India’s first Private Pilot License; a dynamic entrepreneur and the legendary chairman of the great Tata Group of Companies and Tata Sons Ltd.
He was a man of impeccable honesty, integrity and humility – the hallmark of a truly great person. His name has become synonymous with ethics. He was a bit of a romantic, with a dare-devil attitude and an adventurous life, all through his remarkable eighty-nine years. If there was a truly global Indian, it was JRD Tata.
Young Jehangir studied mainly in France (he always thought of French as his first language) and India. He was the second child of Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (second cousin of the pioneer Industrialist Jamshedji Tata) and Suzanne (Sooni) Tata, a French woman – and the first Indian lady to drive a car! Her second son Jahangir, who was born just few months off the historic event at Kitty Hawk where Orville Wright first flew his spruce-wood and muslin cloth contraption, a flying machine, an aeroplane, The Spirit of Saint Louis. These infant planes were used as fighting crafts for the first time in history during the World War I.
The famous aviator Bleriot had built his house quite near where JRD’s house was located at Harlot. One can simply imagine what adventurous thoughts must have crossed the young man’s mind. No wonder the boy Jahangir took to flying. What epiphanic thrill young Jahangir must have experienced, at about 14 years of age when he flew for the first time in a joy-ride at Hardelot! And imagine the consternation of his father. This was a century ago and tomorrow on 29th July, will mark the 114th birth anniversary of Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata.
This little flight at Hardelot must have been a giant step in his life. His mind was made up. He decided to become a pilot. And a pilot he did become. He enrolled in the newly opened flying club in Bombay with three hours and forty-five minutes of dual flying he did his solo flight and earned for himself his greatest possession, his flying license No. 1 from the Flying Club of India and Burma on 3 February 1929. It was the landmark year for young JRD. This is the year he renounced his French citizenship and became an Indian citizen. This is the year when instead of joining Cambridge for further studies in engineering, he came to India and started working at Tatas. It was in 1929 that his heart was bowled over by Thelma Vicaji whom he married a year later. It was on 19th November, 1929 that he saw in the London Times an announcement, “prize for England – India Flight.” It read, “The Aga Khan has offered through the Royal Aero Club a Prize of five hundred pounds to any person of Indian nationality for the first flight from England to India or vice-versa. It must be a solo flight completed within six weeks…” To JRD, this announcement must have been like a matador’s cape fluttering in front of a bull. Of course, he took part in the race. Reminds one of the comic movie ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines.’ Only, this was no comedy. It was a dare-devil adventure. The early days of flying are very succinctly described by JRD himself as the Happy days when “skies were less crowded, the planes were less reliable and the man and women flew them because they loved to fly.” They had courage, skill, confidence and faith.
JRD took off from Karachi on 3 May 1930. On he went from Karachi to Gavdar to the god-forsaken Jask, in Baluchistan where it was so hot that even `flies died in summer.’ On to Hormuz, Bushire and Basra, he flew cross the Euphrates and the Tigris and on to Gaza in Palestine. There he met another fellow competitor, a devil-may-care type aviator Manmohan Singh in his Gipsy Moth. Manmohan Singh had started from Croydon Airfield, London, had lost his way over the channel and had to return to Croydon again. His plane was called ‘Miss India’. A tongue-in-cheek remark ensued in a magazine, “Mr. Manmohan Singh called his plane `Miss India’ and he is likely to.”
After Gaza, JRD was to fly over the elongated expanse of the Dead Sea but he found that he was flying over a round expanse. Actually he had drifted over to the Sea of Galilee. Correcting the course he landed in Cairo. There he discovered that he had come all the way from Bombay with a defective compass which was 25 degrees off the course. Being a good map reader JRD had made it to Cairo despite the defective compass.
In Alexandria JRD met yet another aviator, eighteen year old Aspy Engineer. He was waiting for spare plugs. JRD had eight spare plugs. He gave the courageous teenager four plugs. In return Aspy Engineer gave JRD his Mae West lifejacket.
JRD crossed the Mediterranean and landed in Naples. Unfortunately it was a military airport where he had landed and would not allow any air movement before 6:00am the next day. This delayed his take-off early the next day. By the time he touched down in Paris Aspy Engineer had already landed in Karachi and won the prize. JRD lost. Years later JRD said he was glad that Aspy Engineer had won the race because that helped him to join the Air Force. Engineer rose to become the Air Marshall of IAF in 1960, and after his retirement he was also appointed India’s Ambassador to Iran.
A flying instructor friend of mine once remarked that the surest way to disaster was to take granny’s advice to `fly low and slow.’ `Go high enough before you try anything’ was the advice given to JRD too by his veteran flying instructor. This good advice helped him in good stead. Whilst trying to teach himself aerobatics JRD once went into a spin. He had no intention of doing so. He was dazed with the air craft spinning round and plummeting earthwards. He instinctively pulled back the joy stick instead of releasing and pushing the joystick forward which is the correct way to come out of a spin. Fortunately he realized his mistake and managed to come out of the spin. This was possible only because he was trying aerobatics at about 6000 feet.
The aeroplanes then were just basic aircrafts with air-speed and RPM indicators altimeters and a compass, sans brakes, sans RT for air to ground communication. Such was his Puss Moth in which he had many close calls and many adventures.
One day in Paris, at Le Bourget airport, JRD was taxing to take off when a sudden blast from a nearby parked plane started drifting towards a plane of Imperial Airways parked on the tarmac. In order to avoid collision with the aircraft revving up at the full blast on the tarmac with serious consequences he allowed his plane to slide into the side of a British plane. He was fined twenty-five pounds.
In years that followed 1929 JRD set up Tata Airlines, investing about $3000 as the initial investment. He flew the maiden flight of the airlines to Karachi himself with a cargo of 25 kgs. It was de Havilland Puss Moth. In 1937, a regular service had started between Bombay and Delhi. 1n 1946, Tata Airlines became a public limited company. It was renamed Air India and was nationalized
JRD continued his adventures, now more and more in corporate world climbing ever upwards winning laurels from all over the world. He had spent some time serving as a Spahis, a body of cavalry in French Service. He received the French Légion d’honneur. India bestowed upon him the Padma Vibhushan and later the highest civilian honor, the Bharat Ratna.
With or without his flying machine, He was a Great Man.