Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy (JRD) Tata’s life was a convergence of influences and interests. Born in 1904 in Paris, to a French mother and Indian father, he successfully straddled two cultures, eventually receiving both the French Legion of Honor and India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna.
His business life was equally diverse. He became Chairman of Tata & Sons, India’s biggest industrial group, in 1938. The group was founded by his father’s cousin but under JRD’s leadership it went from a $100 million business controlling 14 companies to a $5 billion concern with nearly 100 companies.
Despite the depth of such distractions, JRD’s overriding passion was aviation. His hero was the French piloting ace Louis Blériot, the first man to cross the English Channel by air. Blériot lived near the Tata’s French country home and once allowed a co-pilot to give the 15-year-old JRD a ride. From that moment on, JRD was determined to fly.
Having moved to India, in 1929 he achieved his goal. He became the first person in the country to be issued with a pilot’s license.
A year later, he competed for the Aga Khan Trophy, which was being offered to the first Indian to fly solo from India to England or vice versa. JRD was flying from Karachi to London and landed en route at Aboukir Bay in Egypt. There he discovered another competitor, flying in the opposite direction, stranded by the lack of a spark plug. JRD willingly gave him his spare one and was ultimately defeated by a couple of hours.
The experience only strengthened his love of flying, however. In 1932, JRD set up Tata Airlines, the first Indian commercial carrier to transport mail and passengers within India. The company was based out of a small hut with a palm thatched roof at Juhu Airstrip in Bombay (Mumbai). JRD flew the first leg of the inaugural Karachi-Madras (Chennai) journey himself, taking mail from Karachi to Bombay via Ahmedabad using a single-engine De Havilland Puss Moth. In its first year, Tata Airlines flew 160,000 miles, carrying 155 passengers and more than 10 tonnes of mail.
Tata Airlines became Air India in 1946. Two years later, following Indian independence, the government took 49% of the company, also giving itself the option to acquire an additional 2%. Following JRD’s recommendation, the government established Indian Airlines to run domestic services while JRD took the helm of Air India International, which was granted a license to operate international flights.
Five years later, the Government of India exercised its option to purchase a majority stake in the carrier. Despite the nationalization of the airline, JRD remained in charge of Air India until 1978.
His love of aviation never diminished and his contribution to the industry is reflected in numerous awards and achievements. In 1979, he won the Tony Jannus Award, and in 1986 he received the Edward Warner Award given by the International Civil Aviation Organization. He was also Chairman of IATA from 1957–1958, an indication of his standing and his vision for a fledgling industry.
Particularly telling in the modern aviation environment is JRD’s commitment to working together. Consensus was his modus operandi and he became famous for courting opinion before taking a decision. He was also quick to bridge the gap between workers and management and Tata’s benefits, such as free medical aid, were later adopted by India as statutory requirements. As JRD put it: “No success in material terms is worthwhile, unless it serves the needs or interests of the country and its people.”
It is in India though that his impact on aviation is greatest. He was named Honorary Group Captain of the Indian Air Force in 1948 and an Honorary Air Commodore of India in 1966. In 1982 he recreated his legendary first journey for Tata Airlines flying a De Havilland Leopard Moth in an effort to instil future generations with his entrepreneurial spirit and love of aviation. For JRD, the flying experience was “the greatest adventure” of his life.