Beautiful old story of JRD Tata and Aspy Engineer, both great men of our nation

When JRD Tata was just 25 years old, an interesting news item in the London Times newspaper caught his attention. A unique air race had just been announced, by His Highness The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, to popularize aviation and flying in India. The announcement read :

“The Aga Khan has offered through the Royal Aero Club, a prize of UK Pounds 500, for the first flight from England to India, or vice-versa, by a person of Indian nationality. It must be a solo flight, completed within six weeks, from the date of starting. The prize will remain open for one year from 1st January 1930.”

JRD Tata was already an avid flyer, and he had just obtained his flying license earlier that year. Since he was the first person to have qualified in India, his license, issued by the Aero Club of India and Burma, proudly bore the number “1”. He was now excited by the Aga Khan Prize, and decided to take up this flying challenge. India to England, or vice-versa, was an arduous route, with several days of solitary flying over the sultry deserts, swamps and marshes of Iraq, Egypt and Basra. Given the small bi-planes of those years, the race to reach first would also involve several stop-overs along the way.

Two other flyers also decided to take up the challenge, seized by the same excitement as JRD. One of them was Manmohan Singh, an enthusiastic civil engineer with aeronautical training, from Rawalpindi. The second was Aspy Merwan Engineer, a dashing young man who had obtained his flying license at Karachi. So here was a race involving three people. The big question – who would win ?

Manmohan Singh and Aspy Engineer decided to fly from England to India, whereas JRD went the other way around – he began at Karachi, and aimed to reach Croydon airport, in England. Manmohan Singh’s attempts were unfortunately not successful. Once, he got lost in a thick fog in a mountain road in Southern Italy, and his aircraft, which he had interestingly named “Miss India”, was badly damaged. He bravely persevered, but on another attempt, he had to make a forced landing in a swamp near Marseilles, and, while he did eventually reach India, he could not make it in the stipulated time.

In the meanwhile, the second competitor, Aspy Engineer, started out from England, in his second-hand DeHavilland, Gypsy Moth bi-plane, on 25th April 1930. He was only 17 years old. A superb aviator, he flew very well, but encountered some engine trouble over Libya, at Benghazi, due to faulty spark plugs. Aspy was well known for his mechanical and engineering skills, and so, despite these problems, he was able to reach the Aboukir airstrip, near Alexandria in Egypt.

Here, Aspy parked his plane, and immediately began his hunt for spark plugs in good condition, which would enable him to fly further. This was not an easy search in this far-flung location, and it could take several days for these spark plugs to reach him. Valuable time would surely be lost.

We now turn our eyes to the third competitor in the flying race, JRD Tata. Where was he? JRD had taken off from Karachi on 3rd May 1930, in a Gyspy Moth G-AAGI plane. He faced significant headwinds as he flew towards Jask, a small, hot and dusty town on the coast of Iran. There, he stayed overnight, and then took off towards Basra in Iraq. He drifted a little, and had to double back from the salt marshes, north of Lingoh, to reach Basra. From Basra, he flew towards Baghdad, and then onwards towards Cairo.

En route, his faulty compass led him to drift out again, and land in an old, disused First World War airstrip covered in anthills, at Haifa. But he recovered quickly from this error, and reached Cairo, where he was re-directed to land at the Aboukir airstrip. In other words, he had reached the same airport near Alexandria where Aspy Engineer had parked his plane for some time now, searching for the elusive spark plugs which would enable him to resume his race.

What happened at Aboukir that day is beautifully chronicled by JRD Tata’s biographer, RM Lala. Here is what JRD told Lala.

“At Alexandria, at 7am., I saw another Moth parked there and realized it must be Aspy Engineer (my competitor)…When he heard that I had landed, he came out to the aerodrome to meet me. I asked him what he was doing there. He told me he was waiting for some spare plugs, since he had not taken an extra set of them. This was not very good planning ! Since mine was a four-cyclinder aeroplane, and I had eight spare plugs, I gave him four of them. He was so pleased and grateful that he insisted I take something from him, and he have me his Mae West life jacket. He had a Mae West, but no spark plugs!”

So the stranded Aspy Engineer got his spark plugs from his competitor JRD, set his aircraft right, and took off towards India. JRD too got moving quickly, but lost further time in Naples, where he landed late evening at a military airfield. Here, because of strict army rules, he had to wait for the military commandant to permit him to take off, and lost four valuable hours. Thereafter, he flew uneventfully towards Rome and Paris, and then the final leg from Paris to Croydon in England.

However, by the time JRD landed in Paris, Aspy Engineer had already reached Karachi in India, and had won the Aga Khan Prize. JRD Tata had lost the flying competition by just 2 hours and 30 minutes. The race was over.

But wait a moment…that is not the end of this story (as we say in India – Kahaani ab baki hai, mere dost). 27 years later, in 1957, both men had grown significantly in their careers and lives. JRD Tata had become Chairman of the Tata Group, and Aspy Engineer had joined the Indian Air Force, where he had risen to become Air-Vice Marshal. A few years later, Aspy would go on to become the second Indian to head the Indian Air Force.

Aspy Engineer now wrote to JRD Tata, to greet him on the 25th anniversary of India’s first airline, which JRD had founded way back in 1932. JRD was greatly moved by his letter, and here is an extract from his reply to Aspy, dated 19th October 1957 :

“Of all the letters and messages I have received…none pleased me more or brought back more pleasant memories than yours…Those days were fun, weren’t they ? We were both so much younger, particularly yourself…Although you were only seventeen or eighteen at the time, I atleast did not underestimate you in the Aga Khan competition…I took you so seriously as a competitor that I spent atleast a day more in checking everything on the plane and everything else connected with the trip.”

JRD goes on to say :

“Our friendship ever since has been much more worthwhile than winning the competition would have been. I must say I enjoyed every moment of that adventure as I am sure you did too.”

And then JRD adds a concluding part of the story, in his letter to Aspy :

“Incidentally, one of the highlights that remains imprinted on my memory was my arrival at Karachi by Imperial Airways, on my return to India (from England, after the race). When, to my embarrassment, you met me with a platoon of scouts and presented me with a medal. That was terribly nice of you, and so undeserved.”

So, Aspy Engineer had actually met his competitor JRD on his return, at Karachi airport, and had given him a ceremonial welcome with a platoon, and a special medal too, for helping him win the race. What a graceful gesture, and one that must have surely brought a smile to JRD’s face. And perhaps some tears to his eyes too.

We all run and fly so many races in our lives. Winning some of these races is important to us, but is this all that matters? And is it worthwhile to win them at any cost? Or is it far more important and meaningful, to help someone, to bring a smile to someone’s face, whenever we can, along the way? And to nurture friendships that stand the test of time, which make our lives all the more fulfilling? As we search for our own answers, perhaps we can reflect on this beautiful old story, of JRD Tata and Aspy Engineer, both great men of our nation.

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