In the early 20th century, all sorts of magical things were taking place in the sky. In 1903, the American Wright Brothers invented the aeroplane and, in 1911, the world’s first-ever air mail flight was flown by a young Frenchman in present-day Uttar Pradesh, in India.
After these early feats of flying, a number of planes were imported into India by the wealthy and by Indian royals, even though they were ‘gliders’ of a very basic nature. But there was an Indian Prince who was absolutely smitten with flying. He couldn’t wait to feel the wind beneath his wings as he flew into the wide blue yonder.
That Maharaja-in-the-making was a teenage Umaid Singh of the Princely State of Jodhpur in what is now Rajasthan. As a young boy, Umaid Singh read everything he could lay his hands on about developments in the world of aviation, and he promised himself he would be a part of that world some day.
That day arrived in 1924, six years after Umaid Singh ascended the throne on the death of his elder brother. He was just 21 years old. Umaid Singh had observed the spectacular potential of aviation during World War I (1914-1919) and was bowled over by the circumnavigation of the globe by American army pilots. So what if it took 74 stops and 175 days. It was a world record!
But, at this early stage, Umaid Singh’s plans for aviation were a little more grounded. He wanted to use them to help his people out of a crippling drought that had struck the region in the 1920s. Just two years into his reign, he built the magnificent Umaid Bhavan Palace, to offer his people employment during these dark times. In 1924, he also started building airfields across the princely state, the two prominent ones being in Jodhpur and Uttarlai (now in Barmer district).
Helping Umaid Singh understand the basics and the technicalities of flying was a friend, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, son of the first Indian to own an aircraft. Umaid Singh’s dream really took off in 1930, when at the age of 27, he received permission from the Delhi Flying Club to house private aircraft.
With the green signal coming through, the young royal inaugurated the Jodhpur Flying Club in 1931, with one Gypsy Moth, two Tiger Moths and two Lockheed aircraft. He took flying lessons himself and received a level ‘A’ flying licence and the honorary rank of ‘Air Commodore’ from the colonial British.
The next nine years saw Jodhpur making major strides in aviation, where many technical establishments were set up. The Princely State was also part of the Indian Trans-Continental Airways route and was a halt for international flights connecting India to Karachi, Rangoon and Cairo.
Jodhpur State was now home to as many as 23 airstrips, prompting the British to request Maharaja Umaid Singh to refrain from constructing any more, for security reasons! Airmail services and ‘aerial picnics’ had also become quite the fashion in Jodhpur, and Umaid Singh, apart from being a pioneer of aviation in India, indulged in a bit of pleasure. He delighted in flying guests and friends around in his Lockheed aircraft.
During World War II (1939-1945), Jodhpur’s airfield was a convenient place for British and American air force pilots to station their bomber aircraft. They also used it to train for air combat. This crucial contribution earned Umaid Singh the honorary rank of Air Vice-Marshall in 1946.
However, the Maharaja died the following year, from an acute attack of appendicitis during a hunting expedition. He was just a month shy of his 44th birthday.
More tragedy followed for the Jodhpur royal family. In 1951, Maharaja Umaid Singh’s eldest son and successor, Maharaja Hanuwant Singh, died in a plane crash along with his wife Vidya Rani (actress Zubeidaa). The royal family, who were in shock, shut down the aviation department of the palace and sold all the planes in their possession.
However, Maharaja Umaid Singh’s aviation legacy lives on in the airfields he built and in the purposes they fulfill today. The one in Jodhpur was split into two parts – one part is in the possession of the Indian Air Force and the other under the Airports Authority of India. While the former houses an air force station, the latter is used as Jodhpur’s domestic airport. The second airfield built by the Maharaja, the one in Uttarlai, is now an Indian Air Force fighter base. The remaining airstrips have fallen prey to march of urbanization within the state.
If you’re ever in Jodhpur, the Air Force Heritage Museum is a must-visit, a glorious testament to a Maharaja who reached for the sky.
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