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And the sky became the limit for Indians

The Bombay Flying Club, birthplace of the country’s aviation industry, has managed to keep the spirit of adventure alive for the past 85 years

  • A feat to remember J.R.D. Tata re-enacts his 1932 flight from Karachi to Mumbai during its 50th anniversary inImage Credit:
  • BFC issued the firstflying licence to J.R.D. TataImage Credit:
Gulf News

Soaring through the skies is the stuff dreams are made of. And the Bombay Flying Club (BFC) is fulfilling that dream of hundreds of aspiring pilots. With the goal of acquiring a private pilot licence (PPL), every weekend, a number of students take classroom lessons at the oldest flying club in India.

Established 85 years ago, BFC is the birthplace of aviation in the country. It came into existence on May 9, 1928, at Juhu, where a piece of muddy land served as the aerodrome.

The club received the first two De Havilland Moth aircraft — Puss Moth and Leopard Moth, presented by the Government of India — in 1929. BFC won the third aircraft, an ADH Moth, as a prize offered by Sir Charles Wakefield, the mayor of London.

J.R.D. Tata, who on October 15, 1932, flew the pioneering airmail flight aircraft, the Puss Moth, from the Drigh Road airport in Karachi (now in Pakistan) to Bombay (now Mumbai), became the first pilot to acquire a licence from BFC.

Tata took off with 54 kilograms of mail and stopped as planned in Ahmedabad, halfway through the 805-kilometre journey. He later wrote in his memoir, “I was fuelled by Burmah Shell out of 2 gallon tins brought to the airfield in a bullock-cart.” He took off after 20 minutes to reach Juhu at the scheduled time.

Chief instructor and principal of BFC, Flying Officer Chandra Kumar says, “Tata took to flying on being inspired by aviation pioneer Louis Bleriot of France. He obtained the first pilot licence issued in India on February 10, 1929. And in 1932, he founded Tata Airlines, the country’s first domestic commercial airline, which, in 1946, became India’s first international airline Air India. Though Tata went on to become an industrialist, his fondness for BFC and his passion for flying remained intact.”

BFC, which is now affiliated to the 155-year-old Mumbai University, in 1930, became the only club in the world to conduct the cross-country international flight from Bombay to London and back, with four Tiger Moth aircraft participating in it.

The aircraft were used for tuitions, joyrides and travel, and soon BFC became a centre of attraction for both professional fliers and hobbyists.

There are many firsts this prestigious institution has been credited with — from flying an illuminated aircraft at night for advertisement to indigenously manufacturing an aircraft and enrolling the first woman pilot of the country.

Mumbai-based Rabia Futehally, who obtained a PPL from BFC in 1962 and is now a member of its managing committee, recalls, “I had a 9-month-old baby when I enrolled at the club to be a pilot in the early Sixties. That time, few women would even think of pursuing it as a hobby. But neither my father, nor my brothers objected, as I was used to playing cricket and riding horses along with them. So, when they all decided to learn to fly, there was no way I was to be left behind.”

Futehally climbed into the cockpit of a Piper PA-18, a two-seater aircraft and made history. But she was very clear in her mind that flying was just a pastime and never considered taking it up as a profession. As she puts it, “Back then, employment for a woman as a pilot was unthought of.”

While Futehally was the only woman visible on the BFC airfield then, times have changed and the club now has several girls participating in various aspects of flying — from trainees on the airfield to employees in the mechanical department. In fact, India today has the highest percentage of female pilots in the world.

But, BFC, which at one time had acquired 12 aircraft — the Gypsy Moth, Major Moth, Tiger Moth, Moth Minor, Shipmunk, Piper Super Cruiser, Piper Super Cub, Sentinel L-5, DH VegaGull, Argus, Beechcraft Bonanza and Auster Auto Car — today has just about half a dozen in its fleet. These include Pipers and a Cessna.

“We would certainly like to strengthen our fleet, but need funds and the support of the government,” a BFC official says. “With other sectors of the Indian aviation industry now being accorded greater priority, the role of flying clubs all over the country has diminished considerably and the BFC is no exception.”

He recalls the club, with its unique distinction in the country, celebrating its diamond jubilee with great pomp: “To commemorate this momentous occasion, the club flew an aircraft from Juhu to Virar and Bhiwandi and back without using any navigational aids on a Cessna 172, a four-seater handled by BFC president, Captain Mihir Deepak Bhagwati, and B.L. Bijlani, secretary and senior pilot, whose licence dates back to the 1960s.”

Explaining the idea behind it, BFC president Bhagwati says, “The first flight was a landmark event and we wanted to replicate it. The flight was undertaken at a time when there were no radio navigational aids and the pilot simply looked out of the window and exercised his geographical sense.

“We decided not to use any navigational radios, distance-measuring equipment, automatic direction finder and global positioning system, found in modern-day aircraft. And, instead, we used the visual flight rules as in earlier days, including taking the help of magnetic compass and maps. All this was a great challenge.”

Emphasising the plus points of the club, he says, “BFC is easily accessible due to its proximity with central Mumbai and provides numerous courses for aspiring pilots, aeronautical engineers as well as hobby fliers.”

While the three- to four-month course offers 40 hours of flying time, the eight- to ten-month course offers 200 hours of dual/solo, general flying, circuit and landing sorties. It also includes instruments and cross-country flights, skill tests, route checks and night flying.

The candidates are required to be 18 years old at the time of issue of their commercial pilot licence and to have passed 12th grade with physics and mathematics.

Chief instructor Kumar says: “A licence holder can act as a pilot in command of any aircraft entered in the licence, which is valid internationally. And the person can be employed as a pilot in government and private airlines or by corporates or flying clubs.”

Aisha Aziz enrolled for the pilot licence course when she was barely 15, the youngest so far, and is keenly waiting to receive her commercial pilot’s licence next year. “I had just cleared tenth grade when I decided to become a pilot,” she says

In 2012, Aziz was only 16 when she first sat in the cockpit and flew a Cessna 172R. Shuttling between home, school and the flying club, she is now a member of the Indian Women Pilots’ Association, besides holding the flight radio telephone operator’s licence (FRTOL).

She was awarded the student pilot licence (SPL) last year and aims to pursue higher education in aviation and aeronautical engineering. Aziz has become an inspiration for numerous young girls, who are following in her footsteps to realise their dreams.

She now flies a single-engine aircraft and wants to gradually progress to multi-engine aircraft and complete the intensive tests.

Unlike Aziz, who is vying to become a commercial pilot, there are numerous hobbyists, who have regular jobs through the week, but queue up at the BFC in their spare time to learn flying.

A business entrepreneur who travels across the country says that he cancelled a few work-related trips falling on weekends to ensure he did not miss out on any of the classroom lessons.

Akshay, an architect, who enrolled at BFC recently, says, “I was keen on becoming a pilot, but being the only child, there were apprehensions in my family and my parents did not agree to my taking to the aviation industry. But, of late, when one of my cousin sisters enrolled to become a pilot, they relented and let me take it up as a hobby.”

Vinod Rathi, a software engineer, was obsessed with aircraft. He fulfilled his dream after retirement, in less than ten weeks. So age is no bar for getting a licence.

Unfortunately, since BFC can train only 15 aspirants in a batch, there is always a long waiting list. But that does not deter aspiring pilots, who lap up anything and everything to do with the much-celebrated club.

The chief instructor shares a titbit: “Until four decades ago, the city airport’s primitive radar network could not find an aircraft when pilots from the BFC landed at Aksa, a popular beach in Malad, located in western part of Mumbai, to secretly take their girlfriends for a walk. But the aircraft’s tyre marks on the sand gave away their secret!” Veterans at the BFC have numerous such stories to tell and many personal experiences to share.

- Nilima Pathak is a New Delhi-based journalist.