Flashback: Remembering Air India Co-founder Nevill Vintcent

(Images via Google Images)

Henriette Nicholson has a clear memory of her days as a young girl in India. Even at 80, she remembers the walks on Juhu beach, the coffee soirees at Willingdon Club and the long swims at the Breach Candy swimming pool. But when speaking of her father, the one distinct memory that pops into her head is that of the time that he was stuck in a lift. She would have been five when she saw “only the upper half of his body” waiting for the lift to be pulled up. “I don’t know why that image stuck on,” says Nicholson, daughter of late Nevill Vintcent, the retired RAF pilot who co-founded what is now known as Air India with JRD Tata.

It is hardly a surprise that Nicholson has vague memories of her father, because the year she turned six, he went missing in action aboard an RAF Hudson on his way back to India from England. Her love affair with Mumbai, the city she was born in, was cut short as her mother moved back to England two years after that. Dressed in a blue summer dress and a straw hat, Nicholson has taken care to accesorise it with Indian earrings, bangles and sandals. She is reliving her childhood, says Nicholson, who is back in the city after more than seven decades.

Henrietta Nicholson
Henrietta Nicholson

Words like ‘brave’ and ‘visionary’ are all what she can muster up when asked about her memories of Vintcent. These, too, sound borrowed. “He was a tall, huge man,” says Nicholson, showing me a black and white photograph of Vintcent. “And, he was very busy all the time. So we got to see very little of him.” It was from such photographs and the many stories she heard about his bravery that Nicholson and her brothers conjured up an image of their father.

What kept Vintcent so busy was his undying passion for flying.  Commissioned by the RAF at 20, he served in the middle east during the First World War. “He was a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross), a DSO (Distinguished Service Order) and an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellelnt Order of the British Empire),” Nicholson’s eyes light up as she lists the many honours the British Government conferred upon her father. She goes on to share with me one of his wartime stories her mother, Pamela, had told her. “Once my father had to crash land his plane in the Arabian desert and was attacked by the hostile local tribes who came on horses,” says Nicholson, trying to piece together the story she heard as a child. “There were machine guns on planes then. He got out of the plane and lifted the rear up on his shoulders and turned it around so that his co-pilot could fire properly and scare away the Arabs.”

This incident is explained in detail in Beyond The Last Blue Mountain, the biography of Jeh Tata written by R.M. Lala. “He did all this at grave personal risk as he himself was exposed,” writes Lala, underlining Vintcent‘s exceptional bravery. Lala also adds to Nicholson’s “tall, huge” description of her father by referring to Vintcent as a “strapping blonde with blue smiling eyes” in the book. Thanks to all the bulk, he was also a heavyweight boxing champion in his RAF days. Once he left the RAF, Vintcent, says Nicholson, was on the lookout for “interesting opportunities”. She lets her mother’s words in Murad Fyzee’s book on Tata titled Aircraft and Engine Perfect that she has brought with her complete the story for me. Pamela describes how Vintcent chanced upon an advertisement about a vacancy for a seaplane pilot while he was travelling on the London Underground District Line. “He jumped off at Turnham Green with his mind made up,” Fyzee quotes her. “Nevill had never actually flown one [seaplane] before, but he picked it up by crouching behind another pilot’s shoulder and seeing how it was done.”

In no time, Vintcent started flying air mail from Borneo to the Strait Settlements. In the late 20s, along with Captain J.S. Newall, he flew from England to India in two DeHavilland DH.9 planes, one of the earliest long-distance flights then. They also started offering joyrides and through two years of aerial photography and survey were convinced that the country had huge potential for commercial aviation. Vintcent had also heard that Imperial Airways was planning to start an air service from Karachi to Calcutta.  “…he realised that Peninsular India would be left out…So even before the Imperial service could start, he worked out a proposal from Karachi to Bombay and on to South India and Colombo,” writes Lala.

The Tatas were, however, not his first choice. It was after an unsuccessful round of meetings with Russa Mehta, son of then textile magnate Sir Homi Mehta, that Vintcent decided to approach Jeh Tata, who had just received his pilot’s license four weeks ago. After long-winding correspondences, disagreements and discussions, finally in 1932, Tata Airlines started services with two Puss Moths with Vintcent as chief pilot and manager, assisted by pilot Homi Bharucha. The first flight carrying mail bags that had left London a week ago started from Karachi. Jeh Tata flew the aircraft till Mumbai from where Vintcent took over and flew it to Madras via Bellary.

A letter flown in on the first flight from Madras to Bombay and signed by Nevill Vintcent
A letter flown in on the first flight from Madras to Bombay and signed by Nevill Vintcent

It was a year before this that Vintcent had met Pamela. “My mother had accompanied her American friends on a ship to India and my father was on his way here after some work at the government,” says Nicholson, with a smile. “It was quite a love story or so I hear from my mother’s friends.” The Vintcents got married in England and soon made Mumbai their home. By then, Tata Airlines had started making profit, which in Vintcent‘s own words, writes Bhakthiar Dadabhoy in his book Jeh, A Life Of JRD Tata, was almost Rs 10,000. “Within eight years of its inception, the airline had covered a million-and-half miles and passengers could fly Bombay to Delhi at slightly less than the first class rail fare,” adds Lala.

Those were the good times. Nicholson remembers their family trips, sometimes with the Tata family, to Ootacamund. “The two-day train journey was beautiful and is still vivid in my memory,” she says. “My father used to come with us when he was free and he would play golf over there with his friends.” Vintcent also owned a yacht in Mumbai and loved to go on hunting trips with his friends, she says. Pamela talks about how during this time Vintcent and Jeh used to plan for the future of the airlines. “I remember them wondering, before the war, whether they should get air hostesses,” Fyzee quotes her. “Nevill was all for it.”

A file photo of Vintcent with JRD Tata
A file photo of Vintcent with JRD Tata

And then, war broke out and like in other parts of the world commercial air transport came to a standstill in the country. The visionary that Vintcent was, he saw the war as an opportunity for building an aircraft factory in India.  Although he continued to push for the same with the officials, this project never took off completely.  After repeated talks with Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of Aircraft Production in the British government, Vintcent  finally obtained permission to set up a factory in Poona to build Horsa Gliders for wartime defence. With this agreement, he set out to India to get things started on January 29, 1942 on an RAF Hudson. But soon after take off, the aircraft dissappeared without a trace.

“My mother was heartbroken but she still waited thinking he was taken in as prisoner and would turn up someday,” says Nicholson. However, no official confirmations arrived for two years. As another RAF aircraft had been attacked around the same time, it was presumed thatVintcent was shot down somewhere near France. Pamela moved back to England with her three children and lived with her sister, the British actor Celia Johnson of Brief Encounter fame. Their only connect to India was the Tata family, “Uncle Jeh and Auntie Thelma”, as Nicholson puts it.

Vintcent‘s death came as big blow to Jeh, too. “The high regard Jeh had for Vintcent is apparent from the fact that in his office, apart from his father’s portrait, the only other photograph was that of Vintcent,” writes Dadabhoy. A few years after the tragedy, Tata Airlines was converted to a public company and renamed Air India. The rest is, as they say, history.

As Pamela moved on to remarry, the conversations about Vintcent, too, started fading away in the household. But years later, her mother did point out flashes of Vintcent in Nicholson’s son Henry, who went on to become a glider pilot, she says. “Unlike my other two children, Henry was passionate about flying, like his grandfather. He even took me up solo once,” says Nicholson, whose smile dips for the first time during the whole conversation. “Unfortunately, we lost him in a skiing accident.”

After finishing her nostalgic rounds of Mumbai, Nicholson is planning to visit Jaipur and Agra before she flies to London from the capital city. Whether she gets another chance to revisit other parts of the country or not, India will always remain special to her, says Nicholson. “It is the country I was born in,” she says. “The country for which my father dedicated his entire life for.”

 

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