Opinion

JRD Tata — the gentleman sportsman

Sreelakshmi Hariharan | Updated on July 28, 2021

A file picture of JRD Tata with a De Havilland Leopard Moth aircraft, after re-enacting the 50th anniversary flight of the first scheduled air service in India which he piloted for Tata Airlines on October 15, 1932   -  The Hindu

How sportsmanship and four spark plugs gave India an Air Chief Marshal

The Olympic spirit has gripped the world, with the 32nd edition officially inaugurated on July 23, 2021, at Tokyo. More than 11,000 athletes from 206 nations are competing this year in one of the biggest celebrations of human achievement.

While the world roots for its nation’s athletes, each hoping for a shot at glory, some of the most memorable moments in the history of the games have really been demonstrations of sportsmanship, humanity, and fair play. For, the mark of a true sportsperson is not just about how well you play the game, but equally about how you play the game; it’s not just about how you win, but also about how you lose.

This is one such story of defeat — the story of how JRD Tata, the longest serving Chairman of the Tata Group, lost to his competitor but won a friend for life.

In 1930, the Aga Khan announced a prize for the first Indian to fly solo from India to England or vice versa. This journey had to be completed within six weeks of commencement and the prize was open for a period of one year. Three Indians undertook this challenge. Two of them would soon cross paths mid-way through the competition, not knowing that a chance encounter at Egypt was to intertwine their destinies for years to come.

JRD Tata, who has the distinction of holding India’s first flying licence numbered ‘1’, was one of the aspirants attempting the prize, starting from Karachi to London in a Gipsy Moth plane.

Aspy Engineer, still in teens, was another, who started in the reverse direction from London. What happened next is narrated in JRD’s own words in an interview to All India Radio, which was recently released from their Archives.

“Aspy Engineer was very young. By then, in 1930, I was 26. Aspy Engineer was just 19 or so. A young Parsi from a relatively poor family in Karachi,” recounted JRD in his gentle, yet endearing voice, tinged with the hint of a lingering French accent.

“I first went to Cairo, because (of) my compass — I flew all the way … to Cairo with a compass that was 45 degrees out. So, all the way, towards the way to the Mediterranean from here, I used to drift to the right endlessly. So, it was unfortunately a Sunday, and I flew to Cairo and the British Airforce was closed down. And they said to go to Alexandria. And there it happened that at Alexandria, I found another little Moth, and I thought, what’s it doing here? And it was Aspy Engineer.”

“And so, I asked him, what are you doing here. He said I am waiting for plugs.” Aspy’s spark-plug was not working, effectively stranding him till he got a replacement. “I said my dear fellow, don’t tell me you left England without spare plugs. He said, ‘yes, I did. But I have ordered them’. So, I wasn’t going to let him wait, and (not) to win therefore as he was (the) most advanced of those who had come in. So, I gave him my plugs. I had spare plugs. And I gave him the plugs. He in return gave me his Mae West (life jacket). And he arrived at Karachi when I arrived in Paris.”

Aspy, with his repaired plane, reached Karachi two-and-half hours before JRD reached London and therefore won the race.

No regrets

When asked whether he regretted missing the prize by just a few hours, JRD said, “This is something that I think anybody would have done. That’s what sport is for. If you don’t have sportsmanship, what is the point?” An equally gracious Aspy reciprocated by welcoming JRD at Karachi when he returned with a platoon of scouts and presented him with a medal as a thank you for helping him win the race!

On the strength of this victory, Aspy Engineer was admitted to the fledging Indian Air Force. He went on to become independent India’s second Chief of Air Staff. JRD Tata would go on to pioneer India’s civil aviation industry in 1932, with Tata Airlines, and later become the Chairman of Air India. JRD forever cherished this adventure that he had shared with Aspy.

He fondly reminisced, in a letter to Aspy many years later, “Our friendship ever since has been much more worthwhile than winning the competition would have been.” And, thus, a chance encounter, a little grace, and an abundance of sportsmanship cemented a lifelong friendship between India’s military aviation and civil aviation leaders.

On his 117th birth anniversary, lessons from his JRD Tata’s life continue to serve as powerful reminders that there is victory in defeat, grace in failure and honour in sport.

The writer is an officer in the Tata Administrative Service, and works with the Corporate Brand & Marketing team at Tata Sons

Published on July 28, 2021

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