Passenger aircraft from the past....

June 18, 2013

I was just musing on a few lines in a novel by Dick Francis, “Smokescreen”…“You can’t keep a good Dakota down. There were two of them …..sitting on their tail wheels and pointing their dolphin snouts hopefully to the sky.”

I remember the Dakota as being the very first aircraft I travelled in. The only airline we had then was Indian Airlines, a nice, neat logo and a navy-and-silver livery. I must have been very young, but I do remember the incline that we had to climb up after having got in at the rear of the aircraft. I think this was the Douglas DC-3 Dakota…it was only decades later that I knew the “why” of the aircraft’s name. I also vaguely remember going to Dumdum Airport (as it was then, in Kolkata) to see a Dakota aircraft belonging to the Maharaja of Darbhanga. Funny, how that memory came back to me when I thought about the Dakota, with its aerial stretching from the top of the cockpit to the tail!

The next plane I remember was the Viscount. (I am deliberately not googling for the details of all these aircraft, but writing about them from memory.) The Viscount, probably made by Vickers?…was a sleeker-looking aircraft.

Another propeller craft that I liked very much was the Fokker Friendship. With its wings over the fuselage, I travelled in it, too, many times. I do not remember destinations other than the annual visit to Madras (now Chennai) during the summer or winter vacations. I recollect that there was also a Fokker Fellowship, though I cannot recall how the aircraft looked.

As children, we would often go to the “aerodrome” just to see aircraft, in that age of innocence. Everything was accessible,behind just some aluminium fences! We would see the aircraft control tower, and be awed by the miracle of flight (which is still as miraculous to me!)

Then began the age of jet flights, and as my father moved up the corporate ladder, we made the trip to Chennai, not on the Howrah Mail or, later, the Coromandel Express, but by the Caravelle. I realize, from the spelling, that this must have been a French company… and I remember the sleek shape of the craft, with the engines by the tail instead of on the wings.

I cannot recollect when Boeing started figuring in my aircraft horizon; but I recollect my parents travelling by the 707 when it was a newly-introduced aircraft. I did follow all the models, number-wise…now we have the Dreamliner, which I suppose is the 777 :)

I followed the slow deterioration of Indian Airlines…the rise of Air India into a world-class airline and then its rapid decline, too, as politicians got their dirty hands on the act…my father used Air India exclusively, in those heady days. As the MD of a huge British company, he travelled to London twice a year…first class! My mother, too, flew first class, often travelling with him to Europe, onwards from London. It was they who inculcated in me, my love of travel.

KM, too, was a big traveller, and I also started seeing the Airbus aircraft. I used to drop him and pick him up from every single flight, and airports were still friendly places, within fifteen minutes’ drive… On his many travels around the world, he did make a memorable trip on the Concorde, from London to New York, and his account of his experiences were the highlight of my interest in passenger aircraft, for a long time.

I remember the pride that airlines took in their craft…the Caravelles were named after rivers, I think, and the Jumbos after Himalayan peaks.I would check to see what each aircraft was called!

My younger brother had his own area of interest…any time our father travelled by a new aircraft, his questions were, “How many toilets did it have? Where were they located?”

Slowly, the glamour faded out of air travel, as the process got faster and faster in the air, and simultaneously, slower and slower on the ground. An aircraft was a marvel of engineering, a magic of science, and yet, became just an air bus, ferrying people from A to B. And yet, with shrinking seats, luggage allowances, blackout dates for frequent flier miles, and other inconveniences….I still like to look at the big aluminium bird that is about to lift me into the air and take me to a distant destination…and the marvel of flight has me in thrall once again!