MUMBAI: This paper has reported – most recently last month – that India has the highest percentage of women airline pilots in the world. What is not known is that the first Indian to ever fly as a passenger in India was a woman. She also held the aircraft controls briefly during the course of the historic flight, technically making her the first Indian to pilot an aircraft in Indian skies.

A TOI report dated December 22, 1910 says that the men of Calcutta’s famous Tollygunge Club were playing golf one evening that month when Pierre de Caters, a Belgian baron, took off on a biplane from its expansive grounds for a practice flight with one Mrs N C Sen seated in tandem behind his pilot’s seat.

Newspaper reports referred to Mrs N C Sen as the sister-in-law of the then Maharani of Cooch Behar. “She was Mrinalini Devi, wife of Nirmal Chandra Sen, son of Keshab Chandra Sen, the Bengali philosopher and social reformer,” said a person familiar with old Calcutta families. “She was an adventurous woman. She was also a renowned beauty. She was first married to the Raja of Paikpara. After he died she married Sen,” the person said.

Tolly itself seemed unaware of this historic flight until Mumbai-based aviation enthusiast Debasish Chakraverty started making inquiries last year. He had stumbled upon the information in the online archives of the UK-based Flight Magazine, which was established in 1909. The magazine report had photographs of Mrs N C Sen, de Caters and fellow Belgian pilot Jules Tyck, who’d brought a Bleriot XI monoplane and a Farman biplane to India in 1910 to operate the first manned and powered flights to ever to take off from Indian soil.

“From Europe, the aircraft docked in Mumbai port. But the Belgian pilots were denied permission to fly in Mumbai and so they left for Kolkata,” said Chakraverty. Meanwhile, Dennis Read, an UK-based aviation enthusiast with whom Chakraverty had been corresponding, had found reports carried in three French newspapers. Read first learnt about the flight from a vintage invitation – that he had bought on ebay – to the ‘Aviation Meeting on December 28, 1910’ at the Tolly. TOI unearthed more information from its 180-year old archives library.

News reports from the three French newspapers, one British magazine, and TOI archives all spoke about Mrs N C Sen as the “first Indian lady” to ever board an aircraft that took off from India soil. Who then was the first Indian man? This journalist scanned the TOI archives for aviation reports published between 1903 and 1920 for the first Indian man to have flown an aircraft in India, prior to Mrs Sen’s flight but couldn’t find any.

Since the exact date of Mrs Sen’s flight doesn’t appear to have been reported anywhere, this journalist looked through all published material for the most proximate date. The TOI report, headlined “First Ladies to Fly”, was published on December 22, 1910, so she would flown before that. Tolly was to have an exhibition flight on December 28 but days before the event, the pilots carried out practice flights and Mrs Sen flew on one of them. The TOI report said the flight was operated on a Wednesday, which would be December 14. UK’s Flight Magazine, though, in a report carried on December 24, 1910, said Mrs Sen flew the Monday before, which would have made it December 19. So the best guess is that she flew sometime around December 14-19 .

There are no records of any Indian man to have flown an aircraft in India before December 19,1910. A report in Asiatic Review, a journal printed by the East India Association, read: “The first Indian passenger to venture into the air seems to have been the Kunwar Sahib of Benares, who was taken for a flight around the polo ground at Allahabad by M. Henri Pequet on December 22, 1910.”

If one scrubs clean these aviation reports published over a hundred years ago of gender bias, then it emerges that in recorded history the first Indian to ever fly as a passenger in Indian airspace was a woman. It would then appear that Mrs N C Sen wasn’t just the first Indian woman but the first Indian to ever fly as a passenger in India. French newspaper Le Figaro also reported that the Baron handed over the flight controls to Mrs Sen for a short while.

Little is known about this woman and the historic flight that heralded the beginning of Indian aviation history, though it was operated merely seven years after the Wright brothers flew the first powered flight in human history at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, US. Had it not been for Chakraverty and Dennis Read, this bit of information would have been lost in the annals of history. “She is from an influential family and so we will get details,” said Anil Mukerji, CEO of Tollygunge Club, which plans to erect a plaque commemorating the first-ever flight to take off in India. “By fortuitous circumstance, we learnt about when Debasish’s relatives came to stay at the Club. It came as a great surprise and brought a sense of pride in our own legacy,’’ said Mukerji.

The TOI Kolkata edition reported “Chakraverty’s find’’ in a report carried in June this year. Read, who lives in Colwall, Hereforshire, UK read the report online and contacted the Tolly Club, who put him in touch with Chakraverty.

Read says: “Not many people are interested in early flying machines’’. His search for the Tolly event began a year and a half ago when he came across a book titled “India by Mortimer Menpes“. It had the “programme for Tollygunge” nicely preserved within its pages, said Read.

The book was inscribed on its first paste down with the names A B Sanders July 1915 and Mabel G Bates 1919. Read bought the book from Richard White, a former private pilot licence holder, who now sells vintage aviation paraphernalia on ebay. The postcard, signed by Mabel Bates reads: “Baron de Caters took me for a flight in the Farman biplane, We flew for about half a mile…. Mrs Sen went up last week”.

Till then Read had never heard of Tollygunge. “It left me intrigued. Then I started looking through my books and the internet to find out what I can find out about the event and came across the 1912 Flight magazine article. But it left many questions unanswered,’’ said Read.

The two aviation enthusiasts connected and shared notes. Chakraverty said: “The true identity of Mrs. Sen has until now never been known. I spent hours of research as well as correspondence with Read in an attempt to uncover the mystery.’’

Between them, the two enthusiasts now had the Flight Magazine reports carried in December 1910 and 1912, the invite and postcards found in the book and reports published by three French newspapers. “The Flight article of Saturday December 24, 1910 referred to one or more private rehearsal flights on Monday 19 December 1910, carried out by Baron de Caters. I arrived at the conclusion that this is what Mrs. Mabel Bates meant in her postcard by “went up last week” – that is, Mrs. Sen was the first Indian woman to taste flight,’’ said Debasish.

Read had found three French newspapers that carried the news of the practice flight; Le Figaro dated Dec 22 1910, Le Temps dated Dec 23 1910, and Gil Blas dated Dec 26 1910. Le “Two out of the three French newspapers (Figaro, dated Dec 22, 1910; and Le Temps, dated Dec 23, 1910), refer to Mrs Sen as the sister in law of the Maharani of Cooch Behar,’’ said Chakraverty. He then embarked on a search to find out more about this mysterious Mrs N Sen.

“In 1910, the Maharaja was Nripendra Narayan. Maharaja Nripendra Narayan was married to Suniti Devi, daughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, the Bengali philosopher and social reformer. The Maharaja had no sons, so the sister-in-law would have been one of her brother’s wives. Keshab Chandra Sen had five sons. One remained unmarried, two had married foreigners, which left two of them; Nirmal Chandra Sen, who was married to Mrinalini Devi Luddhi and Saral Chandra Sen, married to Nirmala “Nellie” Sen,’’ said Chakraverty.

The confusion over her identity stems from the fact that married women were always referred to by their husband’s name. None of the newspaper reports have recorded Mrs N Sen’s first name. Chakraverty believes that Mrs N Sen was Nirmala “Nellie” Sen, wife of Saral Chandra Sen. However if one goes by the account given by people familiar with old Kolkata families, then Mrs N Sen as Mrinalini Devi, wife of Nirmal Chandra Sen and hence Mrs N C Sen.

Mrinalini, which in Sanskrit means a “collection of lotuses’’ probably rose above the swamps of her time to chart her own course or atleast she did on that winter evening when she climbed aboard the wood and fabric contraption, rigged up with ribs and spars soared into the sky.

Aircraft did not have passenger cabins back then. Read said that the aeroplane flown by Jules Tyck, which was a single-seat Bleriot XI had a 60 h.p. Gnome rotary engine. “This was developed from the original Bleriot XI in which Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel in 1909,’’ he said.

Baron de Caters’ machine was a Farman III copy. “Farman” became a generic term for aeroplanes of this configuration. “Baron de Caters called his version the “Aviator” which was the name of a company he founded to initially sell German “Aviatic” Farman copies and then construct and sell his own,’’ said Read. The biplane had two seats in tandem, with the passenger seated behind the pilot. It was long before the all-enclosed passenger cabin was invented which left the flyers exposed to the elements. (Read provided TOI with this link related to the Bristol Boxkite which is a very close relative of the “Aviator” machine of Baron de Caters.)

He also referred to one of the early books used by students called “Learning to Fly’’ by Claude Grahame-White and Harry Harper, which gives an account of what the flying experience would have been like in those days. The book first published in 1916 says: “A problem with which the pupil will be faced in his first flights, particularly if he is learning in winter, will be that of keeping himself warm. The speed at which an aeroplane travels, combined with the fact that it is at an elevation above the ground, renders the “bite” of the cold air all the more keen, and makes it difficult very frequently, even when one is warmly clad, to maintain a sufficient warmth in the body, and particularly in the hands and feet.’’

Mrs Sen had flown in the winter of 1910 when Calcutta was still reeling from the Partition of Bengal. In October 1905, on orders of Lord Curzon, the then viceroy of India, the British enforced the “divide and rule policy’’ and Bengal was separated into two on the lines of religion. Following outrage, Bengal was reunited by Lord Hardinge in 1911, in response to the Swadeshi movement‘s riots in protest against the policy.

According to the December 22, 1910 TOI report, headlined “First Ladies to Fly’’; “Lord Hardinge was playing golf with Sir John Muir MacKenzie’’ at the Tolly Club when Mrs Sen and later Mrs W S Dayrell, wife of Captain Dayrell of 72nd Punjab, flew with Baron on the biplane.’’

Other than these golfers, on that winter afternoon a crowd of curious onlookers, both members of the tony Tolly Club and the Calcutta hoi polloi, all of whom had gathered to see the plane soar.

“A few members of the Tollygunge Club on Wednesday afternoon enjoyed the privilege of seeing baron de Caters make the first ascent in a biplane that Calcutta has yet witnessed; the flight was purely experimental, and was most successful,’’ the Times report said. “The Baron circled gracefully round the Club grounds a couple of times and then sailed out of sight over the big belt of trees surrounding the grounds. In a few minutes he returned and alighted gracefully in front of the Club house. He next proceeded to take two ladies for short flights, the first lay in India to sit in a flying machine being Mrs N Sen, the wife of Mr Sen..’’ Both the ladies described the flight as “perfectly lovely’’, it said.

Early in the day, Tyck flew his Bleriot monoplane, circled the race-course three times, his instruments recording an altitude of four hundred metres. “On M. Tyck taking his seat and starting the machine ran for 20 yeards on the grass and then rose like a gigantic dragon to fly into the air, a thrill passing over the rowd of spectators…The machine rose higher, and higher, looking very graceful against the setting sun, and it appeared to be controlled and steered with the greatest ease. After circling the track three times it descended in graceful spirals, the aviator alighting lightly within a few years of where he ascended..’’

In the following months after the historic December 1910 in Tollygunge, India witnessed its flight commercial flight. On Feburary 18, 1911, French pilot Monseigneur Piguet flew from Allahabad to Naini covering a distance of about 10 km and carrying 6500 mails on a Humber biplane. It’s considered to be the world’s first airmail service and the beginning of civil aviation in India.

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