Wednesday, March 09, 2022

How Independent India’s First Woman Pilot Rescued Indians During Partition

The de Havilland Dove, a British short-haul airliner, is considered one of Britain’s most successful postwar civil designs. In and around 1946, it was noted for its modernity and load-carrying capacity, safe engine-failure performance, and easily interchangeable and removable parts. At the time, it was nothing short of an aviation marvel.

In 1950, the Government of Madras approached a couple to purchase one model for the state. For this, the duo travelled to England by ship and purchased a brand new de Havilland Dove. The following year, they co-piloted the aircraft from London to Bombay via Paris, Karachi and Baghdad. The journey was completed within 27 hours, setting a world record for an England to India flight on a piston-engined Dove. The record remains unbroken till today.

When the illustrious couple, Usha Sundaram and her husband V Sundaram, were not setting world records, they were busy being trusted co-pilots of several Indian dignitaries. While V Sundaram had been a pilot since the age of 19, Usha expressed her desire to fly shortly after they were married. When the duo set the world record in ‘51, she was only 22 years old.

“My mother took to the skies at a young age, soon after she married my father in July 1941,” Suresh Sundaram, the couple’s eldest son, told the Times of India. “He was an accomplished pilot who was an instructor at the Madras Flying Club. Those days, co-pilot licensing wasn’t very stringent. So my mother took the co-pilot’s seat on my father’s flights when he often flew airmail across India and to Ceylon from Madras.”

Usha thus holds the title of being the first woman to fly Indian skies after the nation became independent. Today, Indian women pilots comprise 15 per cent of the nation’s aviation industry, while the global average stands only at 5 per cent. But back then, a woman’s entry into the cockpit was an anomaly.

In 1946, Usha and V Sundaram shifted to Bangalore, where the latter became the Director of Civil Aviation for the State of Mysore. A few years later, he was appointed the principal of the Government Flying Training School (GFTS) in Jakkur, which had been set up in 1948. In ’49, Usha became the first student, and thus, woman, to pass out from the academy.

09/03/22 The Better India

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