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Flashback: A nation earns its wings


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orient airways
In 1946, as the emergence of Pakistan became imminent, there appeared to be a need for a national airline for the new country. Prominent businessmen and industrialists like M.A. Ispahani (called Burra Saheb), Abdul Rehman Siddique, Bawany, Dadabhai and many others got together and decided to establish the first national airline, to be called Orient Airways, around the middle of 1946.

Some senior staff was employed. Three DC-3 Dakotas were acquired from the United States of America with American pilots and some pilots were hired from local airlines. Orient Airways was registered with the government of India in the last quarter of 1946 and became the first Muslim-run airline in undivided India. The airline was licensed to operate between Calcutta, Akyab and Rangoon. It started its commercial flights soon thereafter. As a part of the process of establishing itself, Orient Airways needed its own traffic and commercial ground staff. As such, an advertisement appeared some time in November or December of 1946, in the Statesman, a newspaper published from Calcutta (Kolkata), calling for applications from young Muslim boys even without any previous airline experience for the position of traffic assistants. The salary offered was Rs95 or Rs125 per month.

I had completed my B.A. in 1946 and was working in a bank in Calcutta. I called on M.A. Ispahani, Chairman of Orient Airways, at his office located in Writers Building at Chowrangi, Calcutta, and requested a job. He asked me to meet Wilson the traffic manager for an appointment letter. This was done and I joined Orient Airways on December 16, 1946, in Calcutta as a traffic assistant. There were also about a dozen other newly employed traffic assistants; some that I remember include Iqbal Ahmed, Azeemuddin Ahmed, F.K. Choudry, Hayat Mahmood, Siddique Ashraf, Sultan Hyder and Shahud-ul-Haque. Some appointed earlier at higher positions, were Anwer Hussein, M. Ahmed, Afzal (engineering manager) and  Khorasani.

Orient Airways started operating from Calcutta to Rangoon in the first quarter of 1947. It thus acquired the distinction of being the first Indian international airline, as well as the first Indian Muslim-run airline.

After a short training of a couple of months, we (the newly employed traffic assistants), were transferred to Rangoon, Dacca, Karachi, Quetta, Lahore and Peshawar, in July 1947; I was transferred to Karachi. At that time, BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) and Indian Airlines were operating domestic flights in what later became West Pakistan. These flights were taken over by Orient Airways with arrangement with BOAC to look after the engineering and operational side throughout Pakistan.

Calcutta remained the head office of Orient Airways for some time until it established its engineering department in Karachi. Traffic staff were transferred to West Pakistan travelling in a DC-3 Dakota from Calcutta to Karachi via Delhi with other passengers in the last week of July or first week of August 1947, just a few days before the partition of the country on August 14, 1947. We were asked to report to the managers of the Ispahani Tea Company in their offices, which served as the Orient Airways office as well. The staff for Quetta, Lahore and Peshawar was flown by BOAC.

As far as Karachi was concerned we reported to the manager of Ispahani Tea Company at the Ispahani Building located at Mcleod Road, now known as I.I. Chundrigar Road, where Orient Airways started it first booking office. Some local staff was also employed. The office was headed by Mirza Rafi Ispahani a cousin of the chairman, Mirza Ahmed Isphahani. There was no office equipment, stationery, etc. There were also no printed tickets for the passengers. Instead small white paper pads were used, with carbon paper cut to size, placed between the two sheets. As far as I remember, the fare between Karachi and Delhi was Rs150 one way. There was a great rush of passengers for Delhi. Many a time passengers would not collect change, if any. This would leave a fair amount of such excess (uncollected) funds. There were no easily accessible banking facilities near the booking office. Orient Airways staff in Karachi was asked to carry such funds with them, as there was no fear of being robbed or assaulted.

The staff and all others associated with the airline were scrupulously honest. They were working for a nation-building cause and worked without setting limits to working hours. Sometime when Mirza Ispahani and staff were working past lunch or dinner time, he would give from his own pocket some money to buy meals which everyone including him would share. The booking office continued to operate from the office of Ispahani Tea for a few more months, till an office space was hired in Zeenat Mansion on Mcleod Road.

There, a catering section was also established which was headed by Ismail as catering in-charge; he was assisted by two or three cooks and helpers. They set up a kitchen in an open corner of the office with a portable iron stove for brewing tea, supplied in a flask, along with sandwiches and snacks. Mirza Isphahani used to inspect such supplies very frequently.

Once he found a sandwich larger than the normal size; he rebuked the staff and asked them to be more economical as this was a waste of national funds. The booking office was later moved to Club Road.

The head office continued to stay in Calcutta though the staff was transferred to Karachi as required. The Kala Chapra Hangar was used to park the aircraft. BOAC’s technical and operational services provided to Orient Airways were also gradually reduced and finally discontinued. In 1949, the Orient Airways head office was finally closed in Calcutta and moved to Karachi where it was located in a barrack at Karachi Airport.

No sooner had Orient Airways established itself, the Government of Pakistan embarked on a plan of forming an airline in the public sector. This resulted in the creation of Pakistan International Airlines in 1952, which initially ran parallel to Orient Airways. Since this was draining the national exchequer the government decided to merge Orient Airways with Pakistan International Airlines by passing a legislation called Pakistan International Airlines Corporation in 1954. Immediately thereafter Orient Airways ceased to exist and all it assets, liabilities and staff, myself included, were taken over by PIAC.

The government held the key positions, like that of chairman, managing director and other senior positions. It thus brought to an end the brilliant contribution made by Ispahani and his team in the service of the new-born nation and its development. Now very few people even know the names of Orient Airways and of Ispahani. Instead, most Pakistanis perhaps believe that the history of civil aviation in Pakistan started with PIAC and from the year 1954. The earlier period is just blank for them.

Comments (20) Closed

Ali Khar Majid Jan 28, 2013 11:06am
It's all ancient Indian history. Look at the state of Pakistan today! Can't even fly PIA aircrafts in eurpoean airspace. No spare parts for aircrafts. And let's not talk about railway, motorway, electricty, telephone service, medical service. Pakistan is a dismal failure! What good is glorious past when today and tomorrow is full of hopelessness!!
Kashmiri Jan 27, 2013 01:07pm
@author, well I think adm. of orient would hv been honest n without corruption. Now compare it with your PIA...I am impressed by "Once he found a sandwich larger than the normal size; he rebuked the staff and asked them to be more economical as this was a waste of national funds". Is any one in PAkistan who thinks like this. Who can come out of his political portfolio and say Pakistan first..... You guys (Pakistani's) need to introspect your self. Neither you hv achieved anything nor you want to achive in future. Just fight for power.
Avishek Roy Jan 28, 2013 10:46am
Loved the article...especially because its very much related to Kolkata.. :)
Rafiq Ali Jan 27, 2013 04:15pm
Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata (JRD Tata) was born in 1904. He received his pilot's license in 1929 and definitely did not start Tata Air India "way long back in 1918". Tata Air Services did, indeed, start a mail delivery service with the first flight some time in October, 1932. Keeping aside the factual errors in Mr Kabir's note (which, incidentally, was written to point out someone else's "wrong N incorrect article"), Mr Tata is easily recognized as one of the most brilliant entrepreneurs of the 20th century. My mother's father was fortunate to make his career working initially directly for Mr Tata, and Mr Tata's death in 1993 was an occasion for much nostalgic story-telling by my grandfather.
Zaidi Jan 27, 2013 04:05pm
Thanks for enlightening on the subject very few people know about.
m niazi Jan 27, 2013 05:36pm
what a fascinating article i work for an airline in USA and in 1972 my airlines started with 3 leased airplanes, and i talked to some old employ's of my airline and they told me how they used to save money and work hard to get this airline of the ground now my airline is 40 years old still profitable but new generation of employees only concern is how to work less and make more money . i don't know where my airline is gonna end up in next 5 or 10 years from now
Proud khan Jan 27, 2013 01:54pm
Sorry Kabir you read the article again. Your attitude is as venomous as your media. We criticize as we want to achieve better . Still Pakistan is operating six major international Air lines. I have seen none of Indian can match Pakistan standards in quality. In fact we aim high but Indian are happy with available facilities . And to remind you Orient Airways were first Muslim Airline as author has said and off course tata was first Hindu airline . You now where the profit went just google it you sleepy...
Freakonomist Jan 27, 2013 11:58am
Informative read. Thanks for taking your time to write!
I. Ahmed Jan 28, 2013 09:39am
Thank you Mr. Nasiri. What a treasure trove. Better than what PIA history book describes. You and your friends of your era should continuously document the proper history of development of Pakistan as the generations to come will need inspiration from your passion, zest and honesty to change current state of Pakistan. Dawn should find more people like Mr. Nasiri and publish their accounts.
Syed Jan 28, 2013 08:33pm
Mr. Majid, I don't think this article needs a pessimistic response such as yours. Agree that the current national affairs are at the lowest but for individuals born in the newer era, articles like this are an inspiration, that against odds, a small group of people from this same nation were able to create such an organization and made it operational. All this implies is that when there is a will there is a way to do it, and even in this state of hopelessness, our nation can produce brilliance. We just need to look beyond ourselves and think the bigger picture. You never know what history can inspire us to do.
Sundarraman Jan 28, 2013 09:53pm
Really 6 Airlines of highest quality, wow, i mean wow!!!!!!!!!!!!! we indians only have Jet, Air india which can fly to Europe and all the world, Indigo, spicejet, Goair, Jetkonnect and of course we have multiple international airlines that fly to various parts of the country directly. I must really appreciate the fact that you know all the statistics wonderfully well, like tata was a Hindu and great quality of pakistan airlines. Applauds for your knowledge
Ziad Bashir Jan 27, 2013 10:33am
What an excellent account. Thanks.
kabir Jan 27, 2013 10:38am
Wrong N incorrect article !...writer keeps boasting things which are factually wrong !! JRD TATA was the first indian to launch his own airline despite opposition from the ruling british in British INDIA and he was the first indian to launch TATA Air INDIA way long back in 1918.He gave over the airline after 1950 to indian govt .n called air india. Orient airways was made by muslims in bengal in calcutta and their decision to shift to pakistan led to loss of business n its eventually demise ! it was never meant to be a muslim airline hence the name Orient for East ! no doubt it was a spectacular failure due to religious clingings
Sonu Jan 28, 2013 01:09pm
Tata wasn't a Hindu.... You guys really need to get over your blinkered vision of religion chaps
Stranger Jan 28, 2013 12:56pm
Nice article. could have been better if photographs were added.
Ajaya K Dutt Jan 27, 2013 09:06pm
Only Muslims need to apply for a "Nation Building" corporation where "All would be treated equal". A nation which was created to "save" the minority from "discrimination" of "Hindu Majority".
hamid Shafiq Jan 28, 2013 12:44pm
i hope may be you are right or wrong but its an effort from minority people compare with big giants TATA and berla. the people thinks go wrong that muslims have no ability to run bigger corporations or newly business.
Sahil Jan 28, 2013 02:21pm
Khan, Try travelling through the international Airlines operated by indian Companies except Air India. We will talk then. Go and check out the list of top Airlines released by International Aviation Authorities you will find 2 Indian Airlines in it and no Pakistani Airlines. The problem is in Pakistan they make everything thatis Pakistani so big that people actually beleive them. Also check with any international traveller who has travelled on both Pakistani and Indian operated Airlines and your misconceptions will be cleared. The problem is you guys aim high, but that high point is lower than the average we Indians expect.
ip Jan 28, 2013 04:10am
What in the world is a 'muslim airline'???
abbas07 Jan 28, 2013 08:28am
I Salute and admire people like you and Mr. Ispahani and others who worked tirelessly to serve the nation. I wish our new generation is as much honest and hard working.