Air India and the 747: Emperors that carried palaces in the sky - Hindustan Times
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Air India and the 747: Emperors that carried palaces in the sky

Aug 11, 2023 09:00 PM IST

Each of the early planes had a name. Their interiors reflected India’s opulent heritage. They helped put Air India in the league of the world’s best airlines.

The Boeing 747 was so large that Air India had to more than double its cabin crew when the first planes were inducted, raising that figure from about eight people (for a 707) to 19. “There were more doors and safety procedures,” says Mahrukh Chikliwala, a former flight attendant who began her career on the Boeing 707 in 1969 and progressed to various models of the 747.

The early 747s had iconic first-class decks. This Air India one featured couches, full table service, multi-course meals, and murals inspired by the frescoes at the Ajanta caves. (HT Archives) PREMIUM
The early 747s had iconic first-class decks. This Air India one featured couches, full table service, multi-course meals, and murals inspired by the frescoes at the Ajanta caves. (HT Archives)

The jumbo jet was inducted by Air India in April 1971, with considerable fanfare. The first five planes were called the Emperor fleet. The first two — the Ashoka and the Shahjehan — introduced patrons to art from the Gupta period. Murals in the first-class lounge were adapted from the frescoes of the Ajanta caves in Maharashtra. Window panels on the planes depicted episodes from the legends of Krishna. The rest of the fleet had grand names too: Rajendra Chola, Vikramaditya and Akbar.

Already known for its gracious service, on-time departures and elegant Indian aesthetic, the 747 put India’s national carrier firmly in the league of the world’s best. Air India became one of only four carriers in the world with a daily service between London and New York (the others were British Airways, and the American Pan Am and Trans World Airlines or TWA).

Tales of the upper-deck first-class sections, called the Maharaja Lounges, are part of aviation legend. “There were rich tapestries and art and cocktail bars that epitomised the golden age of travel,” says Suneeta Sodhi Kanga, a flight attendant on Air India’s 747-200 and 747-400 models from 1988 to 1996. “Service would go on for about two hours because there were so many people, and there was so much attention to detail. Yet I preferred the 747s because there was so much room to move about.”

The 747 was inducted by Air India in 1971, amid considerable fanfare. The first five planes were called the Emperor fleet, and each was given a name. Above is the Ashoka, whose interiors were decorated with replicas of art from the Gupta era. (HT Archives)
The 747 was inducted by Air India in 1971, amid considerable fanfare. The first five planes were called the Emperor fleet, and each was given a name. Above is the Ashoka, whose interiors were decorated with replicas of art from the Gupta era. (HT Archives)

The interiors of these planes were designed by the art department of Air India headed by Jal Cowasji. In a thank-you letter from JRD Tata to Karan Singh, then minister of tourism and civil aviation, Tata wrote: “1 am grateful to you for your kind letter of appreciation of the decor of our 747s. We took a lot of trouble over it for many months, having found that the decor and colour scheme proposed by the Boeing consulting decorators were not up to our requirements. The same thing happened with our 707s and you will I am sure be pleased to know that the whole of the decor of both fleets was designed and drawn entirely by our own Art Studio. The colour scheme of the third and fourth aircraft will be mauve and yellow, but with the same Krishna motif.”

The next generation of aircraft from this line, the 747-400s, were named after historical sites: Ajanta, Agra, Tanjore, Velhagoa. Some had jharokha window livery. “There were intricately painted Rajasthani arches around each window on the main deck. Murals on the inner walls, floral prints on cabin panels and different-coloured wallpapers for different sections made flying on these aeroplanes truly an experience,” Kanga says.

The 747 boosted Air India’s already-excellent image outside the country, says aviation historian Anuradha Reddy. “Even from the outside, the planes were stunning. Each had a name, a sense of identity and certain ethnic features. The Air India 747 wasn’t just an aircraft, it was an Indian aircraft.”

In their last days before the aging giants were decommissioned in 2020, Air India’s 747s were used for rescue operations to Wuhan in China, among other destinations, to bring Indians home at the start of the pandemic. It was invariably 747s that were picked for such operations, including rescue efforts during Operation Desert Storm in 1990; when tensions escalated between Lebanon and Syria in 2006; and during Operation Safe Homecoming in 2011, when more than 15,000 Indians were brought home from Libya amid the start of the civil war there.

Pilots still say there was no better plane to fly. “It was technically sound and sturdy. I like to call it a well-behaved aircraft,” says Gautam Mehta, a flight instructor and former pilot.

He recalls an incident during an early-morning flight from Los Angeles to Frankfurt. “There was a foreign object on the runway that struck the outside of one engine. The aircraft flew for 12 to 14 hours and the crew never even knew it. When the crew landed, the ground staff asked, ‘What happened to the engine’,” Mehta says. “In a two-engine aircraft, you lose one engine and you lose 50% power. On a 747, you can lose one engine and nothing happens… though it’s not legally viable to fly it in such cases.”

Facing technical issues and returning to base in Mumbai, “I’ve flown the aircraft on three engines, once from Calicut, twice from Hyderabad, and twice from Jeddah, with no passengers of course,” Mehta says. “But one could be so fearless when it was a 747.”

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