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School that made JRD totters on the brink

Mumbai, Nov. 5: This is the spot from where J.R.D. Tata took off. But the Bombay Flying Club, India’s first flying club and one of the world’s premier pilot training institutes, has nose-dived into penury.

The hangar could have been mistaken for a godown if they didn’t have the planes parked inside. The vast unkempt grounds, just off Juhu beach, stretch out like wilderness. The clubhouse, once the haunt of the rich and the famous, is a sad, depleted place in dire need of repair. The coffee, with apologies from honorary secretary Rashid Taleyarkhan, is served in a glass. It is difficult to imagine the social set of J.R.D.’s time, or even later, having their cocktail evenings here.

The club has six planes, but only two of these are operational, because the organisation — it trains both private fliers and professional pilots — can’t afford more than that. Three more aircraft have been taken on lease. “We just don’t have the funds,” says Taleyarkhan.

But the good news is that the club is trying to reach those heights once again, by spreading “awareness of flying”.

“We have started a 10-month course in professional pilot training. It’s the fastest guaranteed course in India,” says Taleyarkhan. “Our buildings may need repair, but our training still remains world class. The two functional planes, a Cessna and a Piper, are in top condition,” he says, adding lack of money hasn’t taken away from the quality of flying here. “The UK licence is the most respected in the world. Then comes ours,” he adds.

The club has also entered into a tie-up with the Australian Tourist Commission for mutual publicity.

It held a spot-landing competition on October 17 on the occasion of India’s first postal airmail flight conducted by J.R.D. on October 15, 1932. The participants had to land their plane exactly on a spot marked on the runway. It has also started some repair work on the premises.

The club started off, unofficially, around 1925, with a group of pilots getting together with a few planes on these grounds, which were then far away from residential Mumbai.

After acquiring about 400 acres of land, the organisation registered itself as “The Bombay Flying Club”.

Philanthropist Sir David Sassoon helped the club, then a mix of Britishers and the Indian elite, with generous funds. The club continued to play an important role in Mumbai’s social life with J.R.D. and prominent members from the Parsi society.

But things started to decline since the ’50s, with members not paying up, says Taleyarkhan. At present, there are about a 100 active flying members who have to pay Rs 3,300 per hour. The professional pilot course costs Rs 10 lakh per person. With the new course structure, it hopes to get more students.

All this is not enough to bring back the glory days, but the club hopes that it will reclaim the sky one day, bit by bit.

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