All up in the air

Tomorrow morning I fly back to Chennai and then on to the cottage by car. It is all so easy – Emirates have two flights a day from Glasgow to Dubai, and then three a day from Dubai to Chennai. No need to transit Heathrow or Mumbai or Delhi – a great advantage, especially in the winter months.

I won’t go into the travails of Air India which are well-reported – the normal ones of a nationalised industry anywhere. But shortly after we arrived in Chennai private airlines were allowed to operate and one or two of them are doing very well, providing some spur to the national airline to pull its socks up. The train journey from Chennai to Delhi may be cheap, and have its romantic side, but a 3 hour flight is much better if time is pressing.

Perhaps it is worth reminding people how big India actually is, and that it takes three hours or more for some internal flights. I was told early on that if you overlaid a map of India onto a map of Europe, then Delhi would be roughly over Copenhagen and Chennai over Rome. So a two week holiday to “do” India is as bad as trying to “do” Europe in the same time!

Anyway, returning to the air. While walking one evening with a friend I asked him to remind me of a story he had told me many years ago about flying to Calcutta on the planes which carried the mail. My memory being notoriously faulty, I hope I now have the basic facts right.

When the war ended, a number of Dakota aircraft from the American air force were left behind in Calcutta, as no longer needed and not worth shipping home. An entrepreneur saw an opportunity and acquired some of them to set up an overnight post and passenger service linking the four big cities – Calcutta, Delhi, Bombay and Madras. The town of Nagpur was chosen as the central hub. The service started in 1950 – flights left the four cities, all met up in Nagpur, passengers and mail were shuffled round, and they all took off again.

My friend was working in those days for a company in Calcutta but his family was in Madras. The train journey even now between Chennai and Kolkata takes 28 to 30 hours – then it was longer – and the scheduled daytime flights were expensive. You could take the mail plane for much less. He remembers taking off from Madras in the late evening and landing in Nagpur around midnight. While the mail was sorted out, the passengers waited on the apron and could have fried eggs, for some reason. Smoking in the cabin was not allowed (I imagine due to the mail on board) but if you knew the pilot, which he did, you could go into the cockpit and have a cigarette there!

I idly googled Nagpur and Airmail, and discovered an article from the Times of India saying that the night airmail service had been revived in 2009 – still using Nagpur as the hub – but it stopped again in 2010. What a shame, especially since India had seen the world’s first official airmail flight on February 18th, 1911, when a French pilot carried 6,500 letters from Allahabad to Naini, in what were then the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh.

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