More than three decades have passed since the death of Sanjay Gandhi in a plane crash near Delhi’s first airport in Safdarjung. On the ill-fated Monday morning of June 23, 1980, while performing an aerobatics manoeuvre over his office, he lost control and crashed a Pitts S2 aircraft, a two-seater plane. The only passenger in the plane — captain Subhash Saxena — was also killed in the crash. Fascinated by Delhi Flying Club’s new aircraft, Gandhi tried diving and looping and lost control while landing. Flying dangerously low enough to spot his family in his back garden, Gandhi, then 33, plummeted barely 500 yards diagonally behind his official residence at 12, Willingdon Crescent. HT South Delhi takes a look at the bygone years and turning of the main Delhi airport into mere abandoned set of runaways.
Adjoining the famous Safdarjung’s Tomb and leading into Lutyen’s Delhi, the airport was established during British Raj. It was formerly known as Willingdon Airfield in 1929 after the viceroy and governor-general of British India Lord Willingdon. Being Delhi’s first and India’s second airport, Safdarjung Airport initially had grass runways and tents and was used during World War-II, 1947 and the 1971 Indo-Pak war. After Independence, it was renamed Safdarjung after the tomb.
“In view of the first international convention for air navigation, signed on behalf of the Government of India by the Secretary of State for India in 1919, civil aviation, which had acquired great importance in World War-I, was formally put under the charge of the department of commerce and industry, civil aviation. First it was just a landing ground for military aircraft or airmails but it was later expanded,” said Pankaj Pipersaniya, air traffic controller at Safdarjung Airport.
It took a decade to set up the airport infrastructure and the Delhi Flying Club was established in 1928 after the first commercial flight landed in the same year. Hosting two de Havilland Moths aircraft named ‘Delhi’ and ‘Roshanara’, the flying club was thronged with flying enthusiasts.
“I don’t think my memories are relevant anymore. The airport premises used to be full of youngsters flocking every morning to learn flying. Young boys would get their girlfriends for a ride. We had no concept of hijacking. That was a different time when the cost of flying was just `10 for an hour,” said Gurcharan Bhatura who was the air traffic controller at Safdarjung Airport in 1967.
After Independence, Willingdon Airport was renamed after the Safdarjung tomb in the backdrop of the airstrip
Once a growing hub of amateur aviators, the airport is now restricted as a transit airport for VVIPs under Special Protection Group (SPG), including the prime minister, president and vice-president. The SPG-protected people fly in helicopters or single-engine aircraft to the Indira Gandhi International Airport to travel further.
Many aviation experts feel that apart from security reasons, the reason for no flying activity is that the cost of flying has gone up to lakhs. As urbanization started affecting the old airport, a new site was chosen on the outskirts of the city in Palam. Though still functional, keeping the global terror activities in mind, especially the 9/11 attacks, the government shut the airport for all flying activities in January 2002 and all Delhi Flying Club flights were shifted to Hisar Airport.
“After the twin tower attacks, there were orders that, under no circumstance, must an aircraft turn right after take-off as the PM’s house is to the right of the airport. It is strictly closed for any kind of activity now,” said Alok Varshneya former director, Safdarjung Airport, Airports Authority of India (AAI).
Apart from the Delhi Flying Club (where no flying activity happens now due to security concerns), the airport complex also houses the AAI club, Pawan Hans office and is also a base for choppers of paramilitary force. In December 2002, the Ministry of Civil Aviation formed a committee to suggest alternate uses for the airport. However, so far no proposal has been finalized. Officials at AAI say that there were reports of the airport being leased out as an exhibition centre to the Indian Trade Promotion Organisation (ITPO) but that hasn’t materialized yet.
“This is now an abandoned airport with a club where people occasionally turn up for drinks. This place has lost relevance over time and today is a lot of wasted space and nothing else,” said a senior official at Delhi Flying Club.
Officials say that while the construction of a 1/2km tunnel, connecting the PM’s residence at Race Course Road with Safdarjung Airport has been in talks since 2010, its execution and completion is still a secret. The proposed tunnel will run through Kemal Ataturk Marg, Golf Course and Safdarjung Tomb ending at the helicopter hangar at Safdarjung, where it meets the ground.
As part of the park-and-ride facility during the 2010 Commonwealth Games, the airport grounds were used for parking of vehicles for those going to the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. Spread over 1,70,000sqm, the parking area could accommodate 3,000 cars, 6,000 two-wheelers and 450 buses. Aviation experts feel that such projects could save the face of the abandoned airport.
“In 2010, NDMC undertook extensive renovation of the area which included construction of new roads within the airport premises and installation of jersey barriers between the main tarmac and a temporary parking area. The look of the airport had changed. The government should think of more such initiatives to keep this airport relevant in the eyes of the public,” said a Delhi Flying Club member.