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Flashback: A nation earns its wings

January 26, 2013

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.