Click here for more...

(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 14, November 1-15, 2010
Two Anniversaries
When air mail came to Madras
(By a Special Correspondent with inputs from Dr. Srilal Fernando)

October 15th marks the birth anniversary of Civil Aviation in India. On that day in 1932, Tata Sons Ltd. began Karachi-Ahmadabad-Bombay-Bellary-Madras air mail services, carrying mail bags that had left London a week before. The service was operated by a de Havilland Puss Moth VT-AND aircraft flown by the 28-year-old J.R.D. Tata from Karachi to Bombay and by Neville Vintcent (not Vincent) from Bombay to Madras. The service arrived in Madras on October 17th after a stop-over at Bellary the previous night. Till February 25, 1935, Tata Sons had to halt at Bellary on account of the demands by the then Nizam of Hyderabad who wanted a considerable amount from the company to allow its aircraft to land in Hyderabad.

J.R.D. Tata.

That Tata flight, a connecting service to the London-Karachi flight operated by Imperial Airways (now British Airways) via Basra and Cairo, marked the commencement of commercial internal air transport in the subcontinent. The service was pioneered by the young JRD Tata who was the first Indian to get a pilot licence. He had to persuade his parents and uncles to invest Rs. 1 lakh on air services from corporate funds. On June 8, 1948, the company turned into an international airline by operating a flight from Bombay to London via Cairo and Geneva. That was the beginning of Air India International. The Centre nationalised airlines operations on August 1, 1953, marking the birth of Indian Airlines Corporation and Air India International Ltd. for domestic services and global operations respectively.

* * *

The first carriage of mail by air in the world was in India. Sir Walter Wyndham r.n. was invited by the Government of India to show airplanes at an exhibition in Allahabad. Wyndham was approached by the clergyman in charge of the Holy Trinity Church, Allahabad, to carry mail as a fund-raiser for a church project. The Postmaster General approved the idea and on February 20, 1911 the first consignment of letters was flown by a Frenchman, Pacquet, from Allahabad to Aligarh across the Ganges. A surcharge of 6 annas was levied and a special postmark was applied.

When Wyndham returned to England, he set about organising an Airmail Service in the United Kingdom. The first-ever Airmail Service in England was on September 9, 1911, coinciding with the coronation of King George V.

* * *

In April 1929, Imperial Airways established the London-Karachi route and Tata Sons in 1932 extended it to Madras. A faster service for air mail from Colombo to London now became available. Two rates came into force: one for the slower service by which air mail letters were conveyed by sea to Karachi from Colombo and thence by air, and the more rapid method to Madras by rail and ferry and thence by air. These services continued till 1936 after which all air mails were sent to Madras for onward connections. The Madras-Colombo air mail service had its beginnings in a series of experimental flights.

In 1931, a firm of motor dealers in Colombo organised a flying gymkhana using the Colombo racecourse as the landing ground. A Puss Moth plane chartered from Tata’s, with Neville Vintcent as the pilot, flew in from Madras. Vintcent flew back to Bombay on May 6, 1931, carrying with him a special edition of The Times of Ceylon marked First Air Mail Edition. Only 25 newspapers were thought to have been carried. He left Colombo at 6.00 a.m. After refuelling and breakfast in Bangalore he reached Bombay at 5.00 p.m, a journey of eleven hours. This was an incredible feat for the time, as the usual sea mail route took four days to Bombay. The idea of a regular air mail service to Ceylon was born.

In April 1932, a survey flight was carried out by Vintcent for Tata Airlines. A few letters were carried on the flight. The covers were endorsed “Preliminary Investigation Flight” in red and carried Vintcent’s signature and designation “Dy. Director, Civil Aviation, Government of India”. They were postmarked 8th April 1932.

One major obstacle to the extension of the Karachi to Madras service to Ceylon was the lack of an aerodrome in the island. In 1934 the Ceylon State Council, after lengthy discussions, passed a resolution to construct an aerodrome in Ratmalana, a southern suburb of Colombo. The site, a 240-acre rubber and coconut estate, was acquired, cleared and levelled. The first flight into Ratmalana Airport was by Tyndale-Biscoe, the Chief Flying Instructor of the Madras Flying Club that had been established in 1929-30. Tyndale-Biscoe landed his de Havilland Puss Moth at Ratmalana on November 27, 1935, 25 years after Madras had seen its first flight, Tyck, a Frenchman, having landed his Bleriot on the Island Grounds.

Homi D. Bharucha (he had won an Air Force Cross with the Royal Air Force) in 1936 piloted the first flight offering a regular air mail service between Madras and Colombo.

Later that year, Tata’s arranged a special flight from Madras to Colombo to carry the Christmas mail, connecting with the Imperial Airways flight to and from London. Two special flights in each direction were made between Madras and Colombo via Trichinopoly. Mails left the UK on December 16th via Imperial Airways to connect with the special flight leaving Madras on December 23, 1936.

A delay occurred in the transit of the English mail and the special flight left Madras carrying only Indian mail. The return flight left Colombo at 8 a.m. on December 24th. By the time it reached Madras, the UK mail had arrived. A second special flight took off, landing in Colombo on the evening of December 24th. The second return flight to Madras carried no mail. The return mail reached England on January 2nd.

Tata & Company issued a special cover for the occasion, coloured blue carrying an imprinted Indian etiquette and an airplane silhouette. A circular cachét was applied to all mail carried on these flights, while the rectangular cachét with first “Special Airmail INDIA-CEYLON DECEMBER 1936” inscribed was applied only to the Indian mails of December 23rd.

* * *

Neville Vintcent, who had pioneered the services to Madras, was born in 1902. He was a Royal Air Force pilot who, on retiring from the service, joined J.R.D. Tata in 1940 in his mission to lead India into the world of aviation. With World War II taking a turn for the worse as far as the Allies were concerned in the first years of the 1940s, Vintcent felt that, apart from the Government-planned Hindustan Aircraft Factory in Bangalore (now HAL), India needed another factory. And Tata, acting on Vintcent’s advice, planned it for Poona. Vintcent, visiting wartime Europe, got Allied support for initially building a trainer aircraft in India. But shipping and other difficulties delayed the setting up of the Poona factory.

In 1941, Lord Beaverbrook, then the British Minister for Aircraft Production, summoned Vintcent to England. Their discussions led to a contract for the building of troop-carrying gliders in the Poona factory which needed to be set up immediately. Vintcent set off in an Air Force aircraft on January 29, 1942 on a hedgehopping flight to India. Sadly, the aircraft was attacked off the coast of France and was brought down near Gibraltar, killing all on board. Vintcent’s death set back Indian aviation by many years, Tata always felt.

Vintcent was the son of South African cricketer Charles Vintcent.

In this issue

Visions of Chennai 2020: Speakers paint
pictures for the few
Lessons from Seoul on river restoration
Another lesson from Ahmadabad
Two Anniversaries: When air mail came to Madras
Two Anniversaries: 75 years of stock broking
Other stories

Our Regulars

Short 'N' Snappy
Our Readers Write
Dates for your diary


Back to current issue...