A vast expanse of grassy fields, a few tents and the Safdarjung Tomb in the background — that is how the Willingdon airfield, New Delhi’s first ‘airport’ looked like when the first airmail flight landed here on November 30, 1918.
A bi-plane became the backdrop for this historic picture from the 1927 air show at Willington airport. The show was attended by Lord and Lady Irwin and 1 lakh Delhi residents.
The first flights in Delhi were only airmail flights. It would take a decade for the Delhi Flying Club (1928) to start and the Willingdon airport (now Safdarjung airport) to take shape.
The first aircraft that touched down in Delhi were small bi-planes like de Havilland’s Puss Moth and Tiger Moth. The first aircraft carrying passengers were operated by Dutch airline KLM, which were stopover flights.
“For the British, communication was always more important than passengers since carrying government orders and correspondence by ships took a long time,” said aviation historian Anuradha P Reddy.
Passenger flights began operating after the 1920s, mainly with Imperial Airways (later British Airways), KLM, Lufthansa (German) and some French airlines.
“Back then, flights had small range and could not fly non-stop for long distances. The British had an advantage, with their territories spread across the world and the Royal Air Force providing infrastructure everywhere,” Reddy said.
Flights from Europe, mainly London, would first stop at Karachi and then at Jodhpur, before arriving in Delhi.
The early aircraft could carry five passengers. The number increased to 20 after Dakota and DC 3 aircraft started operating in 1940s. The Palam air base, where the Capital’s airport would later shift, was mainly used for defence purposes.
“Frequent air races and competitions like the Viceroy’s Cup were organised to promote aviation,” said Reddy.
Then, like now, there was a profusion of private airlines — like Indian National Airways, Air India and Deccan Airways — that operated flights between Delhi’s Willingdon Airport and other Indian cities.
It was in the late 1960s, when the small runway at the Willingdon Airport couldn’t support the new bigger aircraft, that the Palam airport was developed. With the coming in of Jet aircraft in late 1960s, all operations had to be shifted to Palam. Willingdon Airport became a relic of New Delhi’s glorious aviation history.