Wednesday, January 25, 2023

The homecoming of Biju Patnaik’s Dakota, a symbol of Odia pride

Finally, the iconic Dakota (DC-3) aircraft flown by legendary aviator and former Odisha Chief Minister Biju Patnaik has found a new address — Bhubaneswar’s Biju Patnaik International Airport (BPIA). Just a few hundred metres separate the aircraft’s new home and the late commander’s house, Naveen Niwas.

The 8-tonne and 65-foot-long aircraft, bearing registration number VT-AUI, was lying abandoned in a remote corner of Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International airport for 55 years. It took its first flight in February 1944.

The heroic tales of Biju Patnaik, the pilot, and the Dakota aircraft he flew are an inseparable part of the illustrious history of Indian aviation.

Last week, as three trucks carried the dismantled aircraft to Bhubaneswar, hundreds of people lined up on either side of the Kolkata-Bhubaneswar national highway to witness history in motion.

Biju’s son and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik welcomed the aircraft by showering petals on it at the Bhubaneswar airport.

“I am happy that the Dakota flown by Biju Babu has reached Bhubaneswar. He had undertaken several daring operations with this aircraft,” Naveen said.

“His most daredevil act was the rescue of Indonesian freedom fighters from the control of Dutch forces. My mother Gyan Patnaik was the co-pilot of Biju Babu on that Dakota,” he added.

The aircraft will be displayed for public viewing from March 5, Biju’s birth anniversary. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) has allotted 1.1 acres of land for this purpose at the airport.

According to BPIA Director Prasanna Pradhan, repair works are underway at the state government hangar in the airport. Following the repairs, the aircraft will be taken to the allotted space at the airport and reassembled before being installed on a pedestal for display.

The Odisha government has entrusted Bhubaneswar-based Aerospace Research and Development Center the job for its repair and installation at a cost of Rs 3 crore. The company also looked after the transportation of the aircraft from Kolkata to Bhubaneswar.

Before joining politics, Biju had in 1947 formed Kalinga Airlines with its base in Calcutta. He was the airlines’ chief pilot.

In 1946, Biju was asked by Jawaharlal Nehru to help the Indonesian freedom fighters and their cause by ferrying planeloads of medicines and humanitarian assistance. Along with his pilots, Biju flew numerous sorties, evading the Dutch who had put up land and sea blockades. The planes would fly from Calcutta with fuel stops at Mohanbari and Singapore.

On July 21, 1947, at the behest of Nehru, the 32-year-old Biju, along with his co-pilot and wife Gyan, leaving behind their 14-day-old son, took off on an old Dakota to Singapore enroute Jakarta. In Singapore, he received a message from the Dutch, threatening to shoot down his aircraft if it entered Indonesian airspace.

An unruffled Biju replied: “Resurgent India does not recognize Dutch colonial sovereignty over the Indonesian people. If my aircraft is shot down, every Dutch plane flying across the Indian skies will be shot down in retaliation.” He also dashed off a short message to Nehru: “Take necessary steps should my aircraft be shot down.”

In a dare-devil rescue act, the ace pilot, landing on an improvised airstrip and using leftover petrol from abandoned Japanese military dumps, eluded the Dutch to land in Jakarta. On July 24, he flew out Indonesian Vice-President Md Hatta and Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir and landed in Delhi.

For his act of bravery, Biju, who was a personal friend of the Indonesia’s first president Sukarno, was honoured with ‘Bhoomi Putra,’ the highest Indonesian award.

24/01/23 Debi Mohanty/Federal

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