Have you heard of Nevill Vintcent and his inspiring story? But before we start with the tale, a brief preface. The best introduction to him is contained in the words of JRD Tata, who called him ‘undoubtedly the founder of Indian air transport’.
If you prefer a more graphic introduction, here are J.R.D.’s words: ‘Nevill Vintcent, that gallant and immensely able man, who conceived the [Tata Airlines] project and managed it with zest and efficiency, until he was shot down over the Atlantic ten years later, on a dangerous flight back to India.’
He was a tall, huge British man of South African origin with blond hair and blue eyes and a burning passion for flying. Apropos of his size, he was also a champion boxer. Born in 1902, he served briefly during World War I and was then commissioned by the Royal Air Force at the age of twenty, where he was honoured for his exceptional courage.
Once, piloting a fighter biplane with only a navigator to keep him company, he had to make a forced landing in the Arabian Desert. Hostile Arabian horsemen immediately rushed at the plane to capture both its occupants. Vintcent quickly got out, lifted the rear of the aircraft, put it on his shoulder and turned it around manually so that the navigator could use the mounted gun (aircraft in those days had a single fixed machine gun) to fire at the Arab tribesmen. They dispersed immediately.
How did this man become co-founder of air transport in India alongside JRD Tata? That exciting voyage started when Vintcent came to India in the late 1920s, along with a colleague in his de Havilland aircraft.
After World War I ended, he had flown airmail between Borneo and the Straits settlements and become convinced that India had huge potential for commercial aviation. In Mumbai, he first contacted Russa Mehta, the son of textile industrialist Sir Homi Mehta with his proposal to start an airline. But he did not get a positive response there. His next port of call was J.R.D. Tata, who had, coincidentally, just received his own pilot’s licence.
JRD and Nevill first met in 1929. Vintcent’s plan for a commercial airline in India appears to have resonated with the young JRD. As they discussed the proposal, JRD appears to have quickly developed the conviction that India needed an airline for its future, and also the business potential of such an enterprise. But most of all, he was struck by Vintcent’s great passion, knowledge and ability. Perhaps he also saw in him the entrepreneurial streak which is required to build a new enterprise.
So JRD requested Vintcent to submit a business proposal, which he took up to Sir Dorabji Tata, the then chairman of the Tata Group. After some hesitation, and reassured by the fact that the initial investment required was only Rs 2 lakh, Sir Dorab agreed. The Tatas wrote to the British Government of India, seeking their support and approval for commencing an airline in the country.
That led to a great amount of protracted correspondence for the next three years. Initially, the Tatas requested a subsidy, which was rejected. Then, there was a lot of dilly-dallying by the government, which was probably not keen to permit an Indian firm to start an airline. JRD Tata and his chairman, Sir Dorabji Tata, were getting increasingly restless, even frustrated, at the various impediments being put in their path.
But Vintcent was a determined young man who would not let government bureaucracy come in his way, particularly because he was convinced that the Tata business proposal was in the interests of the country. He decided to take forward the conversation directly with the viceroy, Lord Willingdon, and went all the way to Simla to seek a meeting with him.
Writing to JRD from Simla on 20 May 1931, he says: “Yesterday, I lunched at the Viceregal Lodge and managed to get about ten minutes’ conversation with HE [Lord Willingdon], and told him briefly about the situation...I asked him whether in his opinion Indian firms should be encouraged to engage in air transport, and he said most emphatically that he was in favour of it...I shall try to interest him further so that he may let his opinion be known.’
It took many more months before the government eventually approved the Tata Airlines proposal. A ten-year contract for carrying airmail was eventually signed between the Tata Group and the Government of India on 24 April 1932. Soon, for JRD Tata, Nevill Vintcent became the expert sounding board and guide in all aspects of establishing this airline, including the type of aircraft and the operating expenses involved.
On 15 October 1932, the inaugural flight of the Tata Aviation Service took off from Karachi to Mumbai, piloted by JRD Tata himself. JRD the pilot “soared joyfully from Karachi with our first precious load of mail”. After a refuelling stop at Ahmedabad, he landed in Mumbai at 1.50 p.m. and delivered to the postmaster 55 pounds of mail meant for the city. This was a proud day for India with its first-ever commercial flight.
On this occasion, too, Vintcent was JRD’s close collaborator. He received JRD at the Mumbai airport, and, within twenty minutes, took off with mail destined for Madras with a halt en route at the town of Bellary (which also received 6 pounds of mail). This then became a weekly feature, the Tata airmail flight from Karachi to Madras via Mumbai and Bellary.
Thanks to JRD’s passion for excellence and Vintcent’s strong operational capabilities in aviation, the airline completed its first year with a perfect 100 per cent punctuality record. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation, in its report for 1933–34, said, “As an example of how an airmail service should be run, we commend the efficiency of Tata Services...Imperial Airways might send their staff on deputation to Tatas to see how it is done.”
The airline flourished and its profits rose substantially. Soon, the airline was carrying both passengers and mail. It was operated with great discipline and efficiency, and in 1939, a passenger could fly from Bombay to Delhi at slightly less than the first-class rail fare!
However, with the outbreak of World War II towards the end of 1939, civil aviation was suspended in India. The Tata aircraft were put at the government’s command, where they rendered exceptional service to the Royal Air Force (RAF), including transporting wounded military personnel and refugees.
During this period, Vintcent would travel with JRD and discuss with him plans for the airline they had founded. When war broke out, Vintcent the entrepreneur immediately saw an opportunity to build an aircraft factory in India. Once again, JRD resonated with this idea because it would provide the country with indigenous aircraft that would be required after the war.
Initially, the British government agreed to support this proposal, though they would later suddenly back out. Vintcent travelled to London in 1942 where he undertook discussions with the British government for the manufacture of the Mosquito aircraft in Indian factories. So enthusiastic was he about putting this idea into action quickly that he wanted to come back to India as soon as possible to firm up details.
This was wartime and the fastest route back was to request a lift in an RAF aircraft. He did so and boarded an RAF Hudson bomber plane on 29 January 1942. Unfortunately, the aircraft disappeared without a trace. There was no news of Nevill Vintcent thereafter. It is said that for some time, JRD Tata kept waiting for his beloved friend and colleague to come back, but he never did.
It soon became clear that the Hudson bomber had been shot down somewhere off the coast of France. Vintcent’s body was never discovered, but the sad reality soon dawned on everyone. The man who had helped co-found India’s first airline along with JRD had disappeared off the face of the Earth, at the young age of forty.
Excerpted with permission from #TataStories: 40 Timeless Tales to Inspire You, Harish Bhat, Penguin Books India.