Behind the brightly painted but unremarkable façade of the 83-year-old Delhi Flying Club lies the Capital’s rich aviation history.
The club, established as training ground for young aviators, has gone beyond its mandate and played a pioneering role in promoting aviation.
It not only operated airmails between Delhi and other cities but also issued pilot licences and trained air force and naval pilots during the Second World War.
“Ours was the most prestigious flying club in India and we trained some of the first pilots in the country. We also initiated the first airmail service in the country,” says AK Gupta, the club’s secretary.
When the flying club opened in 1928, it had two de Havilland moth aircraft named ‘Delhi’ and ‘Roshanara’.
In the 1920s and 30s, aviation didn’t mean flying an aircraft on autopilot. Flying was a real challenge.
“There was no navigation and between the take-off point and the destination, the pilots had no contact with ground,” said aviation historian Anuradha Reddy.
“They had to depend on maps and recognise visual landmarks. Sometimes, pilots followed railway tracks for guidance and names of railway stations were painted on roofs, so that pilots could read them,” she said.
Aircraft would fly low and pilots had to be weary of rough weather. “At the airfields, the smaller aircraft were tied to the ground or they would just fly off,” Reddy said.
Passenger flights between two cities didn’t mean direct flights like today as aircraft had to make short hauls.
“The journey would be made only partially on aircraft; for long flights, the rest of the journey would be on boats, flying boats and even trains,” she said.
One of the pioneers of the time was pilot Prabhu Datt Sharma, the first Indian airmail pilot.
A bust and pictures of Sharma adorn the walls of the flying club. His wife Sarla Sharma was among the first woman pilots of the country, who flew wearing a sari.
The flying club, once one of the most prestigious in the country, is tottering today. When once it trained the likes of Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and former Orissa chief minister Biju Patnaik, it only carries out aircraft maintenance courses today.
In 2002, the government put an end to flying activities at Safdarjunj Airport because of security considerations.
The club still has two aircraft but they remain grounded. The club has more ‘social members’ today than flyers; it regularly plays host to kitty parties and birthday celebrations than flying competitions.