A slice of history: Indian Airlines in 1972 and the Tripura hopper

For those who are interested in old airline timetables, this may be one of the best resources available. It covers most corners of the world:


We pick on Indian Airlines when it was the only domestic airline and covered a number of places which are not served by any other airline today.


Examples being Keshod, Jamshedpur, Cooch Behar, Lilabari and the Tripura trio of Khowai, Kamalpur and Kailashahar. Also note that in those days the flights from Calcutta to Port Blair had a technical halt at Rangoon-as the Viscounts didn’t have the range and probably Caravelles and 737s could not be spared for these routes. Even today few people realize that the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are much closer to Myanmar and Indonesia than to the Indian mainland.

Here is a sample of the timetables on the less important routes. (Of course, you can see the entire timetable through the link given above):

IAC 1972 TT 001

The airport at Keshod was supposed to facilitate visitors to the Gir forest. It has permanently shut down, while in the same general area Diu is now served by one flight a day. The famous Tripura flight (operated by a Dakota) can also be seen.

There are some odd things about the airport at Agartala. I have a small connection with this as the state government acquired the land from my maternal grandfather’s family in the late 1930s. They were probably happy with this as the land was not very suitable for growing tea.

Now take a look at this map showing it as it is today:


You can see that the runway is very close to the India-Bangladesh border. Any flight from Kolkata to Agartala would begin its descent long before it enters Indian territory. (This also happened at Shillong when commercial flights operated there for a short time). The airport is located near a village called Singarbil, and there is a railway station of that name across the border. It started functioning in 1942. Apart from limited civilian traffic, the airport was used by the US military as a base for air-dropping of supplies in Burma and China.

Now, in the period from 1947 to 1952 there was still a lot of travel between India and East Pakistan. As the partition in the East was relatively peaceful (unlike the earlier events in Noakhali and Tippera (Comilla) districts), there were many Hindus as well as Muslims who thought they were all right where they were and did not think of moving immediately.

There was a cutoff date sometime in 1952 by when people had to decide which country they wanted to be citizens of. During this transition period my mother and other members of her family used to regularly travel between Calcutta and a place in Sylhet district.

One could take the land route, but that involved long ferry crossings (around half a day from Goalundo to Narayanganj, still more from Goalundo to Chandpur) and a fairly long journey to the ultimate destination near Kulaura. Then, as now, air fares to Agartala were highly subsidized. They normally flew to Agartala, stepped off the runway and walked a few hundred metres to the border. Sometimes there was a single bored policeman at the border, sometimes not. A little further one would find rickshaws to Akhaura, from where one could get trains to anywhere in the eastern part of East Pakistan.

We now take a look at the Tripura hopper shown on p.15 above, which must be India’s best example of rural air transport. At that time roads were very limited in Tripura, and some WW2 airfields came in useful to connect Calcutta and Agartala with Khowai, Kamalpur and Kailashahar. These places are so obscure that it is difficult to find them on an average atlas. Here is the route from Agartala onwards:

Tripura map 001

As we see from the timetable, the scheduled time was typically 20 minutes between these airports. From the published coordinates, the straight-line flight distances were:

Agartala-Khowai: 41 km

Khowai-Kamalpur: 23 km

Kamalpur-Kailashahar: 28 Km

This 23-km and 28-km hops would have been the shortest-ever distances on any scheduled flights in India (though there are some in places like the Scottish islands where there are flights of 1 to 2 km). A news report of that period mentioned that on these short hops a student concession ticket may have cost as little as Rs 5.

Anyway, it appears that these three airports have not been used for many years and may now be unusable. In the mean time roads have improved and the railway line connecting Tripura with the rest of India was built at a snail’s pace over 60 years and finally reached Agartala. It was converted to broad gauge recently and extended to Udaipur, Belonia and Sabroom by 2019. An extension to a place near Akhaura will be opened soon. This will probably involve transhipment of containers from the metre gauge of Bangladesh to broad gauge.

When Indian Airlines phased out their Dakotas soon after this timetable came out, many of these small airports with little traffic lost their connection. Vayudoot may have run their 19-seat Dorniers for a while to some of these places, but the airline itself vanished quite quickly. Thus ended the golden era of aviation in Tripura. In no other state were such small towns served by a national airline.

A related article on Indian Airlines’ operations in the early 1960s can be seen here:


A 1962 article on Indian Airlines

The now-defunct magazine Flight  now has most of its old issues (from 1909 to 2005) archived as pdf in this website:


You can find some interesting articles pertaining to Indian aviation here. The only irritant is that each page is stored as a separate pdf file.

For instance, here is a 6-page illustrated article from early 1962 on the Indian Airlines Corporation as it was then. It is particularly interesting to see a map showing all the routes being flown then and the average number of passengers daily. Even the famous Agartala/Khowai/Kamalpur/Kailashahr flight is there on the map and gets due mention.

This should be of interest to anyone interested in the history of civil aviation in India.

Please read the following pages in order:

1962 – 0202      1962 – 0203      1962 – 0204

1962 – 0241      1962 – 0242       1962 – 0243

Extension: List of all Indian aviation accidents involving the loss of 20 or more lives

Continuing from my last post, here is a comprehensive list of all accidents in India and to India-based aircraft which resulted in the loss of 20 or more lives. Both civil and military aircraft are covered. The list is here:  List of Indian aviation disasters with loss of 20 or more lives  I intend to move further down the scale so that all such accidents resulting in the loss of 5 or more lives (plus a few more with other features of interest) are covered. These will form part of a more comprehensive survey in a book which will come out some time in the future.

List of all Indian aviation accidents involving the loss of 30 or more lives

It took a while, but this is it: the final compilation of all India-related aviation disasters resulting in the loss of 30 or more lives. This information is not available anywhere else on the net or in any publication. Click on this : Aviation India List

Looking into the history of aviation disasters in India-2

Getting a full record of accidents of the IAF and its earlier avatar RIAF is not possible from official documents. The results of enquiries rarely make it to the press. However, newspaper reports have been compiled into this resource: http://www.warbirdsofindia.com/crashes.html . It stops at end-2008, but aviation-safety.net more or less lists everything after that. However, the Warbirds data has been updated up to 2013 and can now be seen at  http://www.bharat-rakshak.com/IAF/Databases/Accidents.html . Apart from the IAF, there are a sizable number of aircraft operated by the Navy and smaller numbers by the Army, Coast Guard and the top-secret Aviation Research Centre. (But then, many top-secret organizations have articles about them in Wikipedia).

Regarding civilian crashes (Passenger and freight airline flights, general aviation, some government and paramilitary aircraft) we have the DGCA which investigates them and there is some record of the enquiries. They also cover accidents to foreign aircraft occurring in India from the 1960s onwards. Conversely, accidents to Indian aircraft outside India are generally investigated by the country where the crash occurred, though Indian authorities are involved.

To see accident summaries, click on http://www.dgca.in , then on Aircraft and then on Summaries. These are mainly in pdf form from 1960 to 2009. There must have been summaries from 1950 to 1959 as well. but they are not on the net.

More detailed accident reports from 2008 can be seen by clicking Reports rather than Summaries.

Coming back to the summaries, they give the very bare details and the inquiry reports may not have been released to the public. Perhaps RTI applications would help if one was really interested. Anyway, here are a few accidents which would be of interest:

19 Sep 1965, Expeditor VT-COO which was the plane carrying the Gujarat CM Balwantrai Mehta which was shot down in the course of the Pakistan war. (This has received a lot of coverage in the news media in the last few years)

23 Jun 1980, Pitts S-2A VT-EGN in which Sanjai Gandhi and another was killed.

26 Apr 1979, Indian Airlines Boeing 737 VT-ECR near Chennai. Fortunately no one was killed or badly injured, but it was clearly a terrorist bomb. There does not seem to have been any subsequent report as to who was responsible.

In closing: there is no single book or online resource which gives a listing and details of aviation accidents in India and involving Indian aircraft. Perhaps it is time someone wrote such a book. Watch this space.

Next, I will provide a list of all Indian or India-connected aviation disasters in which 30 or more persons were killed. This list does not appear anywhere else on the net or in any publication.

A presentation on a few major Indian air disasters

Continuing from yesterday’s post, here is a presentation made a few days ago at a conference on Industrial Safety at IIT Gandhinagar. Here I cover a few newsworthy major accidents, namely:

Air India crash off Bombay, 1978

Air India sabotage over the Atlantic, 1985

Saudia-Kazakhstan Airlines collision near Delhi, 1996

Air India Express crash at Mangalore, 2010 (yes, this does make use of the “vanished” DGCA report)

A Study of Some Major Indian Aviation Accidents

Those familiar with the subject may find things a little compressed. Remember this had to be squeezed into 20 minutes!

Aviation safety in India

Aviation safety, like other branches of safety, has a public perception greatly dependent on what the general public thinks. This in turn largely depends on what the mass media decides to project. The current year has had two particularly tragic and peculiar incidents in MH 370 and MH 17, which may lead one to think that things are becoming worse. Not really. Improvements in technology in aircraft and communications technology have made things much safer than before. But there are always going to be saboteurs and plain incompetence of individuals in the system.

Let’s take a closer look at India. There was a time until around the mid-80s when there was at least one crash of an Indian airliner every year. Indian Airlines was rated among one of the world’s most unsafe airlines. But there was no fatal crash of any Indian commercial airliner between June 2000 and May 2010-which is particularly creditable as this period marked the expansion of many of today’s private airlines (admittedly aided by more modern aircraft).

Military aviation safety in India is another matter. Anyone wanting to make a serious study of this topic will end up having to depend on media reports of accidents. At least the DGCA is now giving more details of accidents on their website. Summaries going back to 1960 are here:  http://www.dgca.nic.in/aircraft/acc-ind.htm

and more detailed reports of accidents and incidents since 2008 are also there (click on Reports rather than Summaries).

Rather interestingly, the detailed report of the 2010 crash at Mangalore is now password protected-although it was not protected for several months. You can still find a cache somewhere on the net via Google. If that sounds like too much trouble, there is a reasonable summary of this and many other accidents on Wikipedia. Most (but not all) significant accidents are covered. In this particular case we have: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_India_Express_Flight_812

Next I will be covering a few major Indian aviation accidents from 1978 to 2010 to illustrate what can go wrong.