How many people remember the old air terminal, which is now part of the cargo complex of the Chennai airport? It was a thrilling experience to go there to receive and see off guests. To be able to climb the stairs and watch the flights arrival and take-off was the experience of a lifetime. And if your guest waved at you as he/she got off/walked towards the flight, your cup of joy ran over. A modernist structure very much in the Le Corbusier tradition, it was sufficient for the air traffic of those times.
Flying in Madras began with hotelier D’Angelis who piloted a Madras made aircraft using the Island Grounds as his airstrip. The aeroplane was manufactured by either Simpson or Addison. That was a one off. Some more exhibition flights did take place, including one by J W Madeley, the waterworks engineer. The next attempt was immediately after World War I when the Madras Chamber of Commerce was approached by aircraft manufacturer Sopwith to explore if there was a market in the Presidency. The Chamber was not responsive; such a service ought to run by the Government, it felt. In 1915, the house of Tatas began the Karachi-Madras airmail service, putting the city on the aviation map.
Rather ironically, several members of the Chamber were to be pioneering aviators thereafter. In 1930, the Madras Flying Club (MFC) was founded with William Maurice Browning of Burmah Shell as its first President. He was ably assisted by (Sir) Gerald Hodgson of Parry. Soon the sahibs of other British-owned companies, especially those that had far-flung industrial establishments, such as Beardsell and Binny, joined in. It is significant to note, however, that there were at least 14 Indians as Club members even at its inception; the Chettiar community in particular having a strength of three in the list.
The MFC’s stars were pilot G Vlasto, flight instructor Flt. Lt. H.N. Hawker, Chief Flying Instructor Tyndale Biscoe, and Chief Pilot Instructor Mohammed Ismail Khan. In 1936, Capt. V Sundaram became the first Indian to get a commercial pilot’s licence from Madras, and he flew a De Havilland Dove from Karachi to our city. Four years prior to this, J.R.D Tata’s solo flight in a De Havilland Puss Moth from Karachi to Bombay further continued to Madras via Bellary by Neville Vintcent.
World War II saw the Royal Air Force moving in, commandeering much of the MFC’s resources, and making full use of its facility of which there was nothing more than an airstrip near St Thoma’s Mount. By 1939, the top brass of the Government and several Indian leaders were flying into Madras.
In 1948, Madras became the first city in the country to get an airport. That it was headquarters to K V Al Rm Alagappa Chettiar’s Jupiter Airways, which operated a Madras-Delhi service even then, may have had much to do with this. The airstrip expanded to become the Meenambakkam aerodrome, named after the village near it. For years, a hamlet continued to remain in occupation in the triangle formed by the runways and it was only after considerable effort that those in residence were convinced to move. With aircraft being few and far between, the runway was also used for the races conducted by the Madras Motor Sports Club before it shifted to Sholavaram in 1955. The terminal building in the photograph above was completed in 1954.
Air facilities to Madras owed much to K Kamaraj who kept fighting for them during the 1950s and 1960s. By 1959, with domestic air services being operated by Indian Airlines, Viscounts were flying from Madras to Hyderabad, Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta, with the Bombay-Colombo flight touching Madras enroute. Dakotas operated between the city and Bangalore, Coimbatore, Cochin, Trivandrum, Madurai and Trichy. There was in addition a night airmail service operating from Madras to Bombay, Calcutta and Delhi via Nagpur. Besides these, the taking off and landing of The Hindu’s aircraft with newspapers on board was a familiar sight.
Air India operated the international routes with Madras being connected by Constellations and Super Constellations to Egypt, Greece, Italy, France, England, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan. The only overseas operator that also functioned from Madras in the 1950s was Air Ceylon that ran a service from here to Colombo. Other airline carriers, such as BOAC (now BA), the defunct TWA and Swiss Air, had offices here but their flights had to be boarded from Bombay. By the 1970s, however, more foreign airlines began touching down at Madras.
In the relaxed atmosphere that then prevailed, cinema shooting at the airport was a common affair. It was also common practice for the busy studios of Madras to hold up flights so that stars from Bombay could finish shooting and then rush to the airport (Gemini Studios to Meenambakkam in fifteen minutes flat) in full make-up to board the aircraft.
With the new passenger terminal coming up in the 1980s near Trisulam, the old Meenambakkam terminal was dedicated to cargo, a function that it still fulfils.
You may want to read about these other landmarks: