KOLKATA: A heritage city club has stumbled on a discovery that sets back Kolkata’s aviation history by a few years. Exactly seven years after Wilbur and Orville Wright invented the airplane and made four brief flights at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903, not one but two planes took off from Tollygunge Club’s golfing greens on December 28, 1910.
Kolkata airport was founded years later and the first plane — the Royal Air Force roundthe-world flight — landed there in 1924. The first known civil aviation flight in India happened in 1911 when a plane took off from a polo ground in Allahabad carrying mail across the Yamuna river to Naini.
The flights at the Tollygunge Club founded in 1895 were recorded by chronicler Ernest Esdaile in an article titled ‘Aviation in India’ published in the Royal Aero Club’s newsletter Flight on November 9, 1912. This piece of history had, however, got lost. It was a curious query from a visiting reciprocal member that drew the club’s attention to it.
US resident Rani Chakravarty, who was staying at Tolly Club, asked its deputy CEO Gautam Nandy if a plaque existed to commemorate the historic flights. The question left the official stumped as there was no such record in the club.
“What she said was incredulous and I politely told her as much. But she insisted that her son Debasish, an aviation enthusiast, was sure about it and had told her that two planes had flown from the club grounds that year. It was he who had asked her to inquire if a plaque or monument was there,” recounted Nandy.
It was Debasish Chakravarty who then got in touch with Nandy and sent photographs of the event as well as an article from the Flight Magazine dated November 9, 1912.
Astonished by the find, Nandy and club CEO Anil Mukerji compared the photographs with the club’s landscaped greens and realised the flights had taken off and landed somewhere between the first and the second green, south of the bamboo grove. “Now we can proudly lay claim to one of the most significant milestones in India’s aviation history,” said Mukerji.
Shipped from Eng, planes reached Kolkata by train
The discovery was news to even Air Chief Marshal (retd) Arup Raha, who has researched on aviation history. “This is a gem of a find. Airfields sprang up all over Bengal during World War II with Allied Forces using them to blunt the Japanese thrust. But to have had a flight in Kolkata in 1910, this is truly a surprise,” he remarked. Incidentally, Commander-in-Chief of Indian Army Sir Moore O’Creagh was present at The Tollygunge Club that day.
In 1910, the two airplanes — a Henry Farman biplane owned by Baron Pierre de Caters and a Bleriot with a Gnome engine owned by pilot brothers Jules and Jean Tyck — were shipped to Mumbai by sea from England. The planes were transported by rail to Kolkata, where arrangements were made to fly them at Tollygunge Club grounds on December 28.
The Bleriot, flown by Tyck, took off from the golf course as 10,000-odd Indians and 5,000 Europeans inside the club — and many times that number outside it — watched as the wonder machine reached a height of 6,500ft and circled for nearly 45 minutes.
The Farman did 20 short hops, each time carrying a different passenger. N C Sen, sister of the late Maharaja of Cooch Behar, was one of them and became the first woman in India to fly in an aeroplane.
The flights ended when the Farman’s engine backfired and ignited the petrol that had dripped on the aeroplane’s lower wing. Sand from the golf course bunkers were used to douse the fire.
Club member Sumit Ray has written an article on the discovery in the soon-to-be published in-house bulletin ‘Tolly Tattler’. “I hope after realizing the importance of this moment, members will suggest setting up a plaque or monument to celebrate it,” he said. Debasish Chakravarty is glad he contributed to reviving a piece of history that was almost lost. “The Tollygunge Club is a sacred place for aviation enthusiasts and hopefully now that the management knows its own history, they will be able to promote their heritage accordingly,” he added.