Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The story of the first men (and woman) to fly in India

Human beings in India first began to fly between March 1910 and February 1911. In the space of a few months, aviation saw its early beginnings – this included the world’s first postal flight on February 18, 1911.

In December of 1910, a huge patch of ground near the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Yamuna in Allahabad was cleared to prepare for an Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition. The timing of the exhibition was crucial: it followed a period of good rainfall and coincided with the Magh Mela celebrations. In the first months of a new year in 1911, organisers expected a big crowd.

Although the exhibition was initiated by the government, several notables, including the maharajas of Benares and Kishangarh, judges and other local leaders, were involved with its funding, which took place through contributions and subscriptions.

The exhibition showcased new innovations in agriculture and industry, along with entertainment for the crowds, in the form of a bioscope and a Laughing Gallery (which induced laughter via nitrous oxide). But one of the chief promised attractions at the exhibition-fair was the sight of humans flying. There were to be airplanes and daily flights around the exhibition area, all thanks to the initiative of one Captain Walter George Windham.

Windham was a man who wore many hats: he was a diplomat who had served as a king’s messenger, in times when thanks to rudimentary communication, only a trusted aide was entrusted with such missions; a motoring enthusiast with patents to his name; and a pioneer in the field of aviation.

One of Windham’s early design motorcars had seen some success. In 1896, he participated in a motor race from London to Brighton, labelled by motoring enthusiasts as the “emancipation run”, because the British government had finally relaxed some of the draconic provisions of the restrictive Locomotive Acts. These acts of legislation had regulated the speed of motor vehicles and even insisted that a man with a red flag run ahead of vehicles (especially if the vehicle hauled wagons) to warn pedestrians away.

Windham had set up his own “detachable part company” – an innovation which allowed the part behind the driver’s seat to be removed and replaced, as and when required. But his attempts to fly his own planes failed spectacularly. These early planes, even those made by other makers – the earliest being the Voisin company in France – were made of light wood (usually bamboo) and fabric, with engines of low horsepower and familiarities like a tail resembling a kite.

Windham encouraged the efforts for flight in several other ways. He set up the Aero Club, and along with the newspaper Daily Mail, he sponsored the first air flight across the English Channel, from Dover to Calais on July 25, 1909. Despite the rivalries portrayed in the 1965 film, Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines, there was a lot of Anglo-French collaboration in the making of flying machines those days and in flight experiments in general.

In 1910, Windham was invited by the organisers of the Allahabad exhibition and he accepted the invitation without a second thought. The Indian subcontinent was Britain’s most strategic colony – to its North, Russia was keen to expand its influence and posed a clear threat. Here, Windham saw a chance to experiment with longer, uninterrupted flights in different, less windy conditions. He also foresaw the possibility of enthusing the defence services about the possibilities of aviation power.

Windham’s planes – six of them – were built by Britain’s Humber company and arrived by a merchant ship, SS Persia, to Bombay. The planes, dismantled so as to be assembled later with ease, included two biplanes and four monoplanes. Once in Bombay, these were loaded in special wagons and taken by train to Allahabad. Special hangars had already been erected to house these planes and there were other exhibition structures, all-modelled on the prevailing Indo-Saracenic style (imbibing elements from native architecture as well as neo-classical and Gothic aspects).
14/03/17 Anu Kumar/Scroll.in