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The Air-India Story


Birth story of Air India

The idea

Those airlines carried mail as well as passengers, with the mail bound for India being unloaded at Karachi. From there it would be moved across India by rail — a process that would take several days.


Vintcent was a World War 1 pilot with the Royal Air Force and an aviation evangelist. Having seen the British Imperial Airways, Air France and KLM launch flights through Asia, to destinations like Australia, Vietnam and Indonesia, Vintcent saw an opportunity in India.

Vintcent, with his experience of flying mail before, came up with the idea of an air mail service that would pick up the international mail in Karachi and deliver it to destinations in India within 24 hours.

Vintcent got to know that Imperial Airways was planning a service from Karachi to Kolkata, but went ahead with his idea, as that would still miss half the Indian airspace. So he floated an idea for a flight from Karachi to Mumbai and Colombo.

Vintcent took his idea to industrialist Sir Homi Mehta, who rejected the proposal but asked him to visit the Tatas. The then chairman of the Tatas, Sir Dorabji Tata was apprehensive but a certain 24-year-old nephew, who was an aviation enthusiast himself pursuaded the company to fund Vintcent's idea. With an investment of Rs 2 lakh, Tata Air mail was born, with Vintcent being the chief pilot

How the idea took wings

Two single-engined Puss Moth aircrafts with an average speed of 80km/hour were bought. They carried a consignment of mail, and sometimes passengers. The passengers would have no assigned seats though, having to sit on top of the mail bags.

The pilot would navigate by following the railway lines below. If there was confusion with the routes, the pilot carried a slide-rule in his pocket.

On June 8, 1948, Air India International, with the famous Maharaja as its mascot, spread its wings to Europe; the maiden flight aboard the Malabar Princess took 35 passengers, including JRD, from Mumbai to London via Cairo & Geneva

Story of Tata's pioneer flight

The story of Air India began at a tiny airfield in Karachi in undivided India on a balmy morning in October 1932 when JRD Tata, the 28-year-old scion of a well-known business family, took off for Bombay in a single-engine plane.

The Puss Moth - one of the two that Tata purchased from England - was beginning a modest weekly mail service.

The plane cruised at 100mph (160km/h), battling headwinds in what was a "bumpy and hot flight". A bird flew into the cabin and had to be killed.

After a refuelling stop - a bullock cart ferried fuel to the airline in Ahmedabad - the plane landed on a mud flat in Bombay (now Mumbai) in the late afternoon. After offloading some of the mail, the second, waiting plane took off with the remainder of its cargo to two cities in southern India.

The planes had to be started up by swinging the propeller by hand, flew without navigational or landing aids, and had no radio communication.

They routinely took off from the mud-flat near the beach in Bombay where the "sea was below what we called our airfield, and during the high tide of the monsoon, the airfield was at the bottom of the sea," Tata recounted later.

When the place got flooded, the airline - two planes, three pilots and three mechanics - moved to a small airfield in the city of Poona (now Pune), 150km to the south-east.

"Scarcely anywhere in the world was there an air service operating without support from the government. It could only be done by throwing on the operator the financial risk. Tata Sons were prepared to take the risk," Sir Frederick Tymms, the then chief of civil aviation in the region told a newspaper in 1934.

Over the years, the mail service expanded to other cities. A lone passenger was also accommodated. In 1937, two Tata planes began a service between Delhi and Bombay, each plane carrying 3,500 letters and one passenger. Within six years of starting up, the airline owned 15 planes, an equal number of pilots and three dozen engineers. It claimed a punctuality of 99.4%.

Story of a stamp issued for use only on 8th June 1948






Air India's Inaugural International Flight on 8th June 1948

Author: Air India

Category:​The Unforgettable

"Malabar Princess"!

Few details of Air India's maiden international flight:
Date: June 8, 1948
Departure time: 00:05
Aircraft: VT-CQP, 40-seater, Lockheed Constellation
Departure from: Bombay's Santa Cruz airport
For: London Via Cairo-Geneva
Capt. KR Guzder (Bombay-Cairo) & Capt. DK Jatar (Cairo-Geneva-London)
Passengers on board: 35
Fare: Rs.1720 (Bombay-London)

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Air India's website but is no longer available there. 


June 8, 1998 marked the 50th anniversary of Air India's maiden international flight - a milestone in the history of Indian civil aviation.

His Highness, the Jam Saheb of Nawanagar, Rajpramukh of Saurashtra, looked at his watch. The golden dial caught the light and the bejewelled hands indicated the hour. The time has finally come! Jam Saheb rang the bell and asked for his luggage to be brought down. Europe would be wonderful at this time of the year he thought as his liveried servants loaded his heavily monogrammed, leather luggage into the boot of the gleaming limousine parked outside.

Soon the car was speeding towards the airport\; its crested flag fluttering in the night air.

In front of the Jam Saheb's car, another vehicle was also on its way to Santa Cruz airport, Mumbai. The car's occupants, the Jetha family, were excited. Mr Hasambhoy Jetha had explained, perhaps for the hundredth time, to his children that the flight would not leave without them. Nevertheless, the children persisted with their questions. "What kind of plane were they going to fly in? Where would they halt? What was the pilot's name?"

The cars finally reached the airport coming to a halt alongside a throng of journalists and photographers. Both drivers leapt out simultaneously to open the car's doors.

There was a palpable excitement in the air. Tonight Indian Civil Aviation history would be created. The time had finally come!

The date was Tuesday, June 8, 1948 and Air India's aircraft - Malabar Princess, a 40-seater Lockheed L-749 Constellation, registration number, VT-CQS, with Captain K.R. Guzdar in command - was in the final stages of preparation for its 5,000 mile journey from Mumbai to London via Cairo and Geneva. The flight's time of departure was late in the evening and of the 35 passengers that were to board the flight, 29 were bound for London and six for Geneva.

Meticulous planning:

Months of meticulous planning had finally paid off. General preparations for the flight had been under way for a long time. Air India had the requisite experience of flying on domestic routes. However, some extra effort had to be put in order to fly on an international sector. Carefully selected staff members were allotted to the new operation, new staff were recruited and Air India offices were opened in Cairo, Geneva and London. The Cairo office was set up by Mr F. Nariman\; Mr G. Bertoli took charge of the Geneva operations and London was headed by Mr M.A.S. Dalal where Air India had a very small set-up at London airport with the Operations and Engineering Departments housed in temporary hutments and the Traffic Department in a caravan which was parked somewhere behind the old control tower. Mr Dalal and Mr S.K. Kooka had physically tramped the streets of London for many miles looking at possible premises and hoping to secure the right ones. Ultimately they decided on 56 Haymarket for the Booking Office and 35 Curzon Street for Air India's Administrative Office.

A two column x 15 centimetre, non-graphic advertisement in The Times of India June 3, 1948 had the airlines' mascot, the Maharajah, bowing to welcome passengers. It read, "Fly with me to London via Cairo and Geneva every Tuesday in a beautiful Constellation for Rs.1,720."


Outside on the tarmac, Captain Guzdar was inspecting the aircraft. It was a summer night and the moon seemed suspended in the sky by a string of sparkling stars. Ideal conditions for a historic moment, thought Captain Guzdar as he looked up at the silver state-of-the-art Constellation. The aircraft was the finest money could buy and the operating crew which included the navigator and the radio officer, would soon be in the familiar self-contained environment where they could function with the skill and independence for which they had been trained. The camaraderie of the air - intangible, yet real to those who shared it - would be theirs once more.

The food was coming on board now. Given the nature of the flight - Air India's maiden international venture - and the list of distinguished passengers, it had been chosen with great care. Hors d'oeuvres, a succulent main course, a delectable dessert and of course, a savoury.

The food was coming on board now. Given the nature of the flight - Air India's maiden international venture - and the list of distinguished passengers, it had been chosen with great care. Hors d'oeuvres, a succulent main course, a delectable dessert and of course, a savoury.


Capt. KR Guzdar interviewed by Hamid Sayani of the All India Radio at Santacruz Air Port on 8th June 1948 prior to his departure.

In the distance Captain Guzdar could see the flight crew walking down the tarmac towards the aircraft. They were talking excitedly. And why not? It was, after all, a once-in-a-lifetime event.

The air hostesses and the lone Flight Purser, greeted Captain Guzdar before they ascended the stairs leading into the plane. Dressed in midnight-blue coats and skirts complemented by light blue, short-sleeved blouses, the girls looked smartly efficient. The hostesses had been trained not just as mere stewardesses but as personnel whose duty it was to ensure that every person in the aircraft felt that he or she was a special guest of the airline as opposed to just being a passenger on board. The air hostesses were given intensive training in the art of service on board. Air India's distinguishing mark in the intensely competitive world of international air transport. Western apparel was to remain the uniform for Air India air hostesses till 1960 when sarees were introduced giving the uniform its first ethnic touch.

Inside the small terminal building the atmosphere was electric. Passengers and visitors rubbed shoulders with the press and airport officials. Never before had Santa Cruz seen so many excited faces. Tonight it was a bustling, jam-packed, noisy conglomeration of people, many of whom, despite the late hour, had come to witness this historic event.

At one end of the hall the Air India contingent comprising Mr J.R.D. Tata, the then Chairman\; Mr S.K. Kooka, then Traffic Manager who later became Commercial Director of the airline and Mr B.W. Figgins, then General Manager, watched the bustling crowd with affection. They knew just how much hard work, how many late nights and months of preparation it had taken to make this dream come true.

Distinguished passengers:

Passengers were being checked in. Other distinguished persons who were to be on board the Malabar Princess that night were:

Maharaja Shri Duleepsinhji who was looking forward to seeking the England-Australia Test match\; Mr and Mrs Keki Mody\; Lt. Colonel W. Grey, formerly of the Government of India Political Department\; Mr Bhatti Gulam Mohamed\; Mr Narottam and Mrs Sulochana Lalbhai\; Mr H.R. Stimson\; Dr Eric Streiff\; Mr Hans Balthasar Reinhard\; Mr Dhunjibhoy Noshir\; Mr and Mrs Fazel A Fazelbhoy\; Mr Salim Gulamally Bhimanee\; Mr Sinha Govindjee\; Mr Venkatachalam Iyer\; Mr Neville Wadia\; Mr L.V. Malkani\; Mrs G.S. Patell\; Mr N.K. Patel\; Mr P.S. Jayasinge\; Mr Charles C.M. Broughton\; Mr C.R.K. Rao\; Mr C.R. Rao\; Mrs Rosemary Southorn\; Mr J.I. Williams and Mr Sardar Singh. Also on board were Mr H.B. Malcolm and Mr R.R. Noble, Indian cyclists, who were to represent India at the Olympic Games at Wembley.

"What a lot of luggage there is," thought Gulshan Jetha wondering whether it would all fit into the aircraft. Little did she realise that apart from luggage, the Malabar Princess was carrying on board, 164 bags containing 1700 pounds of mail, the greater part from Indians to their friends and relatives in Egypt, Switzerland and the UK.

Akbarali Jetha was getting impatient. Tapping his father's hand he asked, "When will we board the flight?" Just then came the flight departure announcement. Akbarali cheered and to his surprise found that he was not alone. The entire building seemed to comprise one applauding mass of people.

This is what the many visitors had come to witness. The lateness of the hour had not dampened their spirits. This was one moment they were not going to miss.

"Drink a toast to me when you're up in the air," said Mr Neville Wadia's mother as he headed towards the doors leading out onto the tarmac.

Outside near the gleaming, silver Constellation, bearing the Tricolour, a quiet calm prevailed. Passengers were beginning to board and the hostesses stood with folded hands welcoming them aboard.

On the flight deck, Captain Guzdar had already begun the pre-flight check. The clock in the cockpit displayed the time - 11.15 pm. "Almost time to go," Captain Guzdar smiled excitedly to himself. Inside the aircraft the girls had begun their pre-takeoff rituals.

Ready for takeoff:

Akbarali Jetha peered out of the window. Further down the aisle Mr and Mrs Fazel A. Fazelbhoy were engaged in an animated conversation which came to a standstill when they heard the announcement. "On behalf of Captain Guzdar and your crew we welcome you aboard our maiden flight to London via Cairo and Geneva..."

The cabin lights were dimmed for takeoff and a few minutes later Malabar Princess began moving, taxiing down to reach the takeoff runway.

In position now, Captain Guzdar revved the engines while he waited for permission from the control tower to takeoff. It soon came: "Air India Malabar Princess, cleared for takeoff...." Hearing these words, Captain Guzdar did not wait. His outspread fingers slid the main throttles forward to their full extent. The engines' sound deepened from a steady whine to a thunderous roar. Then as Captain Guzdar released the brakes, Malabar Princess leaped forward down the runway.

Lights flashed past as the aircraft gathered speed. The nose wheel left the tarmac and Malabar Princess was now in lift-off mode, ready to leave the ground. A moment later with speed still increasing, they were in the air - bound for Cairo!

In 1948 only a few airlines existed and not many countries had their own international operations. India had achieved a notable milestone, ahead of others, that night. The civil aviation industry was still in its nascent stages so aircraft were small - while the Lockheed L-749 Constellation a state-of-the-art aircraft in its time, had a seating capacity of 40 people, the state-of-the-art Boeing 747-400, operated on this route today, is a 417-seater.

Aircraft also did not have the capability of flying long distances non-stop as they do today. Constellations could do 4,800 kilometres as opposed to 13,340 kilometres non-stop today. Flights, therefore had to make technical halts en route for fuelling. For Malabar Princess, Cairo and Geneva were to be such halts.

Malabar Princess arrived in London in the early hours of June 10 taking a little more than 24 hours as compared to flights of today which take under 10.

air india cairo manager.png


Cairo 1948: Air India International District manager Fali R, Nariman and the Indian ambassador to Egypt Mr. AA Fyzec

For the second leg of the journey from Cairo Captain D.K. Jatar was in command. He was assisted by Captain B.B. Dhuru\; Radio Officer, N.R. Sule\; Flight Engineer, Freddie D'Souza\; Navigator R.S. Mani\; air hostesses Thelma McCoy and Ray Salway and Flight Purser, Ganesh.

After a halt in Geneva, Malabar Princess cruised towards London. A few hours in the night the voice from the control tower cut abruptly through Captain Jatar's thoughts: "Air India Malabar Princess, this is London. Begin your descent now."

Holding the aircraft in a steady descent, on course, Captain Jatar ran through the pre-landing check list. There was the familiar sound of the landing gear going down and he saw the runway lights strung ahead of him like strands of converging gold. Diminishing speed, Captain Jatar applied the brakes and soon Malabar Princess was taxiing down the runway coming to a halt at London airport.

Among the several people waiting to receive passengers was Mr Krishna Menon, then Indian High Commissioner to the UK. A broad smile spread across his face as he extended his hand in welcome to the then Chairman of Air India, Mr J.R.D. Tata, aptly described as the Father of Indian Civil Aviation.


Mr VK Krishna Menon, then High Commissioner for India in the UK, greeting JRD Tata and his wife, Ms Thelma Tata on arrival of the inaugural flight at London airport,

Flash bulbs popped as Mr Tata stepped down from the aircraft followed by other passengers. With sparkling eyes and a broad smile he affirmed, "Set your watches boys, we are right on schedule!" He was clearly delighted at this great achievement.

Mr Tata carried with him messages of greeting and goodwill from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the then Prime Minister of India to the Prime Ministers of Great Britain and Egypt and the President of the Swiss Republic. He also took with him similar messages from Mr Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, the then Communications Minister of India to his counterparts in these countries.

Considering its great significance, the event received extensive coverage in the Indian media. The Times of India dated June 9, 1948 wrote, "The inauguration of India's external air service...marks the attainment by this country of its majority in their realm of aerial development....this is the first stage in India's march to international status..."

Celebrations continued the following day when an enormous party was held at the Dorchester Hotel, London where Mr Tata made his first speech in his capacity as Chairman of Air India International. The event was a great success and the national carrier of India was launched as an international airline.

History had been made and one man's vision had finally taken shape. A dream had been translated into reality.

Story of India,Air-India and Parsi Heritage was saved/respected.

parsee temple aden1.png
parsee temple aden.png

 A really interesting and inspiring story, which has been wiped out from the pages of Indian history. This story will make you feel proud of India's secularism and the extra mile we go in protecting those values. Please share if you find it interesting.


During the 1800s, Aden had become an extremely prosperous port city and a home to thriving business. About a thousand Parsis (Zarathustis) belonging to business and shipping community had settled in Aden by the end of 19th century. The Parsis also built a fire temple in Aden to cater to their spiritual and religious needs. 


A unique characteristic of Parsi religious fire - known as 'Atash' - is that it is an amalgamation of fire from 16 hearths, of which 14 are from different occupational hearths (fire from a blacksmith's hearth, shepherd's hearth, baker's hearth, etc.), 15th from a funeral pyre and the 16th from a fire caused by natural lightning. The core and fundamental religious belief of the Parsis states that this religious fire - Atash - must remaining burning uninterrupted and must be protected at any cost so that the fire is not even seen by any non-Parsi.


In 1967, the British left Yemen and the country became a hardcore communist country. With no respect to religious sentiments of anyone, the communist government of Yemen wanted to seize the Parsi temple, which would mean an end to the religious fire - that should have burned uninterrupted without the flames being doused. This was becoming difficult and so the Parsis started to look for another country where they can carry this fire.


The land route of carrying this fire would be sacrilege as the holy fire would have to pass through Islamic territories, which would mean sacrilege. Another dilemma was that the fire could not be directly carried on ships as it is not allowed for the religious fire to be on water. Yemen was not coordinating and helping the Parsis with this problem of 'spiritual existence'. 


When things seemed grim for the Parsis, India agreed to host. The story doesn't end here, rather gets more interesting from here. It took a lot of diplomatic efforts to figure out a concrete plan - not just to bring the fire from Aden to India, but also by protecting all the religious sentiments. PM Indira Gandhi, Foreign Minister Y.B.Chavan and Field Marshal Sam Maneckshaw took the matter in their hands.


It was planned that India will send an Air India Boeing 707, manned by ALL-PARSI CREW, with Parsi priests to receive the fire from Aden. This was a difficult task because Air India needed Parsi pilots. There were a few, but they had been flying other planes and hence needed to train and complete flying hours needed to fly 707. After a lot of efforts, this finally happened on 14 November 1976. Captain Sam Pedder, a Parsi, took off for Aden. Once the flight landed, it was not touched by any ground staff at Aden airport to maintain the sanctity of the plane that would carry the holy fire.


All along this, Air India had reconfigured this Boeing 707 first class to carry LIVE BURNING FIRE - first and only incident in the world when a plane has carried live fire in flight. With prayers, chants and all customs followed, the fire was loaded into the all-Parsi plane that took off for Mumbai. To prevent the fire from dying, sandalwood was continuously being added to it inside a pressurised plane cabin at the altitude of 30,000 feet. Any spark could have resulted in a massive catastrophe. Thankfully, with all care, the plane landed safely.


Once it reached Mumbai, the fire again had to be protected from the sight of non-Parsis to protect the religious sentiments. It was planned by now that the holy fire would rest in a Parsi temple in Lonavala. The entire Mumbai - Lonavala stretch of road was blocked for public and a green corridor was created. The fire was unloaded and escorted by Parsis in cars and eight buses. The holy fire, finally, reached its new home in 1976.


Can any country in the world show an example of secularism and love for a religion whose followers are only ~50,000 in number all across the country ! The last label anyone in the world can attribute to India, and in particular Hindus, is of intolerance. Show me an example of tolerance greater than this!


(Kshitij Mohan Singh)

Makalu  Sabotage was  it a conspiracy against Shrimati Indira Gandhi.

Makalu sabotage: Was Indira Gandhi the target in Air-India Boeing 707 affair?


It contained all the classic ingredients of a true-life political thriller - attempted sabotage of the prime minister's aircraft, a spate of arrests, a surfeit of scapegoats, suspicion of a "foreign hand", uproars in Parliament and high courtroom drama.

An Air-India Boeing 707 and  Raj: True-life political thriller

It contained all the classic ingredients of a true-life political thriller - attempted sabotage of the prime minister's aircraft, a spate of arrests, a surfeit of scapegoats, suspicion of a "foreign hand", uproars in Parliament and high courtroom drama.

But by last fortnight, with Mrs Gandhi, the alleged target in the Makalu affair, safely back from her foreign tour, the only ingredient lacking was perhaps the most vital of all - the actual villains of the piece and their possible motive. That it was an attempted case of sabotage has been clearly established. But the manner in which it was done and the Government's ill-conceived reaction to it, has only succeeded in surrounding the case with extra layers of intrigue.


In fact, the sequence of events pieced together by India Today clearly indicates that the Government overplayed its hand and, by turning it into a political issue, has only succeeded in clouding the case unnecessarily.

The Makalu, an Air-India Boeing 707 with registration number VT-DPM, landed at Bombay from Abu Dhabi on April 15 at 1 am. By then, a large number of people, mainly Air-India personnel, knew that Makalu was earmarked for a VVIP flight, obviously Mrs Gandhi's scheduled trip abroad on May 5.

On the morning of April 15, the aircraft was washed down and routine inspection started. Even without the actual confirmation, it was obvious to insiders that Makalu was the aircraft that the prime minister would use.

Out of Air-India's nine 707s, two - Everest and Dhaulagiri - had already been grounded. Two others - Gauri Shankar and Nanga Parbat - were being used as passenger cum-freight carriers, while Kamet and Trishul were fitted with Conway engines, only adequate for short-haul flights. Lhotse, the seventh 707, had been troubled with excessive fuel consumption, leaving only Annapoorna and Makalu.

Of the two, Makalu, bought in May, 1964, was already due for a major overhaul or, in airline parlance, a PIII check. When, on April 16, the protocol division of the External Affairs Ministry formally requested Air-India's Production Planning Department for an aircraft to fly the prime minister on her foreign tour, a total of 537 Air-India employees from various departments knew or could have known that Makalu had been picked for Mrs Gandhi's flight.

Discovery: According to Air-India Chairman Raghu Raj's confidential report on the case on April 17, all the aircraft's control cables were inspected and found "satisfactory" except for one - the elevator cable located under the rear lavatory floorboard which was found to be "slightly frayed". It was decided to replace the cable. Since April 19 was a Sunday, it was not till April 20 that the new elevator cable was installed.

When the system was being tensioned by Kumar Ganeshan, an airline engineer, one of the four elevators refused to respond fully. Engineering personnel assumed that the control cable might have been stretched and it was removed the next day for replacement. During its removal, it was discovered that the control cable was badly frayed at a point above the wing centre section. This was enough for airline maintenance officials to order an inspection of all the control cables in the aircraft.


During the inspection four other control cables were found damaged - the pilot's elevator cable, the rudder cable, the rudder trim cable and the stabiliser cable. Raj's report states that the damage was due to "intentional application of external force", which, in any other language, spells suspected sabotage.

The curtain on the second act of the Makalu drama went up one hour before midnight on April 21, when Raj, who was in New Delhi, received a frantic telephone call from Air-India's Deputy Managing Director, C. L. Sharma in Bombay. Sharma tersely informed Raj that there was reason to suspect that Makalu had been the target of intended sabotage.

Raj asked Sharma to carry out another check and confirm his suspicions. At 10.30 a.m. on April 22, Sharma again confirmed that five control cables had been tampered with and that the tampering was "very recent, only about five or six days old". A hurried message was dispatched to A. P. Sharma, the tourism and civil aviation minister who, in turn, informed the prime minister.

Blunder: Predictably, politics entered the act, with both A. P. Sharma and Home Minister Giani Zail Singh battling to be the first to announce the event in Parliament. Meanwhile, Air-India security staff drew a blank in its efforts to probe the mystery and, on April 25, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) was called in.

A hand-picked team of CBI sleuths led by the agency's Director, J. S. Bawa, flew into Bombay and set up their operational base at the site of the old airport at Santa Cruz. However, there was one major hitch in their investigative efforts - Makalu, the key to the entire case, was missing. Incredibly, Air-India and Home Ministry officials had released the aircraft for a flight to Singapore on April 24. The only evidence was the five cut cables sealed in a locker.

The incongruity only succeeded in sparking off doubts that Makalu had been deliberately sent out on a flight to prevent the CBI team from doing a thorough on-the-spot investigation. In fact, when the aircraft returned from Singapore the CBI had to remain content with a mock reconstruction of the sabotage, by which time any possible clues would have conveniently disappeared.

According to V. Chelliappa, former director of air safety, and chief investigator in the crash of Emperor Ashoka in 1978, the mistake in not keeping the aircraft sealed off for investigations was a serious one. A visual inspection by an expert, he said, would have disclosed whether the cables were damaged intentionally or not and also the type of implement used to cut them. It would have also greatly helped the investigating team if the damaged cables could have been inspected in their actual positions in the aircraft.

The error, however, was only one in a series of discordant notes that have been struck ever since a breathless Zail Singh dashed into Parliament on April 27 to announce the sensational news. There are, for instance, differing versions regarding how and when the sabotage was first detected. The First Information Report (FIR) lodged with the CBI states that the reason for ordering a change in the elevator cable was that it could have malfunctioned due to "stretching".

Accidental Find: However, according to Air-India sources, the National Aeronautical Laboratory in Bangalore has categorically stated that "the cables cannot be stretched under tension". The sources also stated that the sabotage was detected purely by accident when some water seepage was discovered near the rear toilet.


To prevent possible corrosion, the painting section was ordered to spray the area with anti-rust paint. After the painting was done, it was found that some of the paint had accidentally been sprayed under the rear toilet floorboard, which had been removed for the Pill check. A cleaner was instructed to wipe off the paint and also grease the cables.

While greasing the stabiliser cable, the cleaner injured the palm of his hand on a sharp object. On closer inspection by Ramjit Singh, the shift engineer, it was discovered that the cable had been cut. A hurried look at the other cables uncovered four more cuts in control cables.


Ramjit Singh's report was relayed to the Deputy Director, A.S. Karnik, who had the cables removed and rushed with them into the office of M. P. Kharkar, the director of engineering, his immediate boss. Kharkar reported the findings to C. L. Sharma, deputy managing director at 11 p.m. on April 21. Sharma immediately telephoned chairman Raj, who had left for Delhi a few hours earlier, and passed on the news.

However, according to a copy of the PHI check list done on Makalu and obtained by India Today, all systems, including the control cables, were checked and found satisfactory. This clearly supports the view that the sabotage was discovered purely by accident.

Another curious feature was the discovery of three brand-new cables in the hangar where Makalu was undergoing the PHI check before the sabotage was actually discovered. According to sources, the cables had been removed from the store without any official indent and airline maintenance staff and CBI sources were unable to explain the mystery.

Political Factor: The major error in the investigations, however, was clearly the political element that was forcibly interjected when the over-zealous Zail Singh stole A.P. Sharma's thunder by being the first to dramatically announce the sabotage in Parliament, thus forcing Sharma into a position where he had to stage something equally dramatic to show his loyalty, however misguided, to the prime minister. Accordingly, he pressurised Raj to sack the officials in charge of security and maintenance.

On April 29, Air-India's headquarters in Bombay issued a terse 35-word press release stating that the services of five officials of the airline had been terminated. No names were mentioned and no reasons stated. The sacked officers were M.P. Kharkar, director of engineering; A.S. Karnik, deputy director of engineering; and three senior security officers, R. Srinivasan, T.K. Raisinghani and N.S. Rao.

That the dismissals were orchestrated by the Government is confirmed by various sources in the airline, though Raj said: "We have terminated their services, not dismissed them, which amounts to retirement. The two areas involved in the sabotage attempt were engineering and security. There would have to be some accountability of senior officers."

A senior security official put it more succinctly: "The net has been cast and there is no saying who will get pulled in. There will be big fish as well as little fish." His words proved prophetic when the CBI arrested a number of technicians in Air-India on April 30. Some had been arrested on the flimsy ground that a search of their houses had led to the discovery of some foreign currency notes.

Chorus: By now, of course, the Government's theory that the sabotage was directed against Mrs Gandhi was being wrung dry by the official media and ruling party members. To add credence to their claim, the Congress(I)'s chorus soon took up the "foreign hand" refrain. Predictably, the suspicions of a foreign government being involved in the attempt were scoffed at by the Opposition and by the general public.


Zail Singh and Sharma: Overzealous

Even the man in charge of the investigations, Bawa, the CBI director, said last week: "There are indications of outside elements being involved. That means," he hastily added, "ouside the Air-India fold."

The "foreign hand" issue was actually sparked off by a casual remark made by a CBI source to a newspaper reporter about the questioning of a Ugandan national who had recently completed a training stint with Air-India and was a regular visitor to the airline hangars as part of his practical training.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties were confounding confusion, with members like Janata Party's Subramaniam Swamy branding the event a "hoax" while George Fernandes, a former Union minister, in his inimitable manner, accused Maharashtra Chief Minister A. R. Antulay of having engineered the entire event.

In the flurry of allegations and counter-allegations the fact that the sabotage could not possibly have led to the aircraft crashing while Mrs Gandhi was aboard was largely, and conveniently, obscured.

According to aviation experts and senior airline pilots, no engineer in his right mind would have handed over an aircraft for a VVIP flight immediately after a PHI check. The standard procedure is to schedule the plane for at least two flights before it is handed over. In fact, Makalu was meant to operate two commercial international flights before it finally flew the prime minister on May 5.

Further, the manner in which the cables were cut makes it obvious that any pilot flying the aircraft on its first flight after the Pill check would have known something was wrong with the elevator cables as the plane would have been difficult to control on take off and landing. According to the operating manual of the 707, the cables that were cut are termed "primary controls", and the tampering would have become evident fairly early in the flight.

Aviation experts unanimously agree that the aircraft would have crashed if the sabotage had remained undetected but exactly when would have been impossible to predict. "It is not possible to fix the exact lime when the cables would snap," said Dr Sehgal of the Central Forensic Science Laboratory, "but snap they would."

Moreover, the sabotage was conducted around April 15 - almost 20 days before the prime minister's flight. It is inconceivable that the saboteurs, if their target was Mrs Gandhi, would have cut the cables at such an early stage, when the chances of detection were so high. Investigations and periodic reports have revealed that security at Santa Cruz is full of holes and it would have been just as easy for the saboteurs to have cut the cables just before Mrs Gandhi's flight.

Amateur: In hindsight, investigators are hard-pressed to explain why saboteurs chose the method they did instead of planting an explosive charge at a strategic point. According to aviation experts, there is one point where all the cables that were cut converge. If even a small explosive was placed at this point, it would have been infinitely more effective and more difficult to detect. In fact, the lack of a sophisticated strategy indicates that whoever was involved in the sabotage was a rank amateur.


The cables that were cut are made of high-tension steel with seven intertwined strands. Each strand comprises 19 steel wires. According to the CBI investigating team, the tool used in cutting the cables was a tinsmith's snip, which is normally used to cut the slender aluminium sheeting that makes up the "skin" of the aircraft.


Defective cables being changed on a 707

The sabotage implement was identified by K. G. Appuswamy, former managing director of the airline, who demonstrated to CBI sleuths that the cuts made by the snip on a piece of cable were similar to those made on the Makalu control cables.


This, however, implies that cutting the cables with the snip would have been a protracted and laborious job. No experienced or intelligent saboteur would have chosen to cut the cables when there were simpler and more effective methods available.


Ironically, the security breaches at Santa Cruz were dramatically exposed just before the Makalu story was hitting the headlines when a girl was allegedly gang-raped by Air-India employees and dumped in an airline Jumbo parked in a hangar. She was only discovered the next morning when the aircraft was towed to the terminal to be readied for take off.

Possible Culprits: Air-India sources are convinced that the sabotage was the result of inter-union rivalries in the maintenance and engineering sections. It was either done, they allege, to ensure that the airline's aircraft were grounded, thus giving them an opportune moment to air their grievances, or it could have been done by one union to denigrate the other.

It is entirely possible, however, that the sabotage was the work of a mentally unstable person like Lalwani, the man accused of trying to assassinate Mrs Gandhi last year with a flick-knife.

The Makalu affair, in fact, is the third recorded instance of attempted sabotage of an Air-India aircraft. The first involved the Annapoorna which was scheduled to fly the then prime minister, Morarji Desai, to Moscow.

During the inspection, it was discovered that the aileron cables had been tampered with. Last year, in June, a number of electrical wires in the electronic bay below the cockpit of a 707 were found deliberately severed. The discovery, however, was hushed up and never reported.

However, the saboteurs of the Makalu and their motives will probably never be exposed despite Bawa's optimistic prediction that "we are confident of solving the case soon". By last week, the CBI had interrogated 237 airline employees who had access at one time or another to Makalu, but without making much headway. All possible leads, according to a CBI source, had come up against a dead end and they are no closer to solving the case now than they were when the investigations started.

Even the rumour mills have ground to a groaning halt with the current hiatus in the investigations. It is also unlikely that the court cases against those arrested will shed any further light on the Makalu mystery except, perhaps, to eliminate further leads.

Last week the CBI claimed in court that certain documents relating to the Makalu case had been "tampered" with, but to many observers it merely smacked of another red herring in a case that already has too many of them.


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