India’s First Aircraft

By Shekher Phadnis

All of us know that the Wright brothers flew the first aircraft in the world in the USA, 107 years ago on December 17, 1903, thus laying down the foundation for the vast airline industry.

But it was only two-years-ago in 2008 that India awoke to the fact that, barely seven-years-later in March 1910, the first aircraft fabricated by a French national by the name D’Angelis, in India, flew in Madras. This was remarkable as the first French aircraft by Albert Santos Dumont flew only in 1906, followed by Britain in 1907 and Germany in 1908.

With flight information archives available all over the world, initially it was supposed that it was on December 10, 1910, one-hundred-years-ago, that the first aircraft flight in India took place at the Industrial and Agricultural fair in Allahabad. The aircraft used was Bleriot, manufactured by the famous French aircraft firm of Bleriot. These facts have been fully documented by Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava (Retd)

But, in these days of the internet and google, Mr Bhargave was surprised to receive an email from Jefferis Donald Evans D’Angelis in Chile that the first flight in India was actually nine months earlier on March 1910 at Madras, and that too on an aircraft built in Madras. It appears that the great grandfather of Mr D’Angelis of Chile, by the name of Mr G D’Angelis of Madras, had a restaurant in Madras and his hobby was engineering. The junior D’Angelis of Chile referred to a column by Mr S Muthiah, the noted historian of Madras (now Chennai), and we are able to glean full details of the very first aircraft made and flown in India, one-hundred-years ago from the writings of Mr Muthiah.

Mr Muthiah quoted from the famed Royal Aero Club magazine ‘Flight’s’ March 26, 1910 issue which published a letter from E and A Levetus, and Co which stated: "We are posting you what we believe is the first aeroplane in India, which has been constructed by one of our customers, Mr G D’Angelis of Madras. The machine has been built by our friend, entirely from his own design, and we understand that although up to the present he has been experimenting with a small horse-power engine, the results given by this are so satisfactory that with a higher horse-power he anticipates being able to make long and consecutive flights." Reading between the lines it would appear that Levetus supplied the engine. ‘The India Weekly ‘of the same period mentioned that the biplane had been built by Simpson’s. Samuel John Green, who came out as a "motor engineer" to Simpson’s in 1902 — he was later to become a partner — would have had much to do with this manufacture and assembly. An outstanding engineer, he was responsible for the first built-in-India car, a steam car he unveiled in Madras, and then the first aircraft too.

D’Angelis, it would appear, had been inspired by Bleriot, a Frenchman who was the first to fly across the English Channel a few months earlier. D’Angelis first tested his aeroplane in Pallavaram (the location of today’s automobile races) and then arranged a public viewing of the aircraft at the Island Grounds in March 1910, charging entrance fees to the demonstration. The local newspapers reported the exhibition widely. He then decided to offer flying demonstrations one day at Island Grounds for a fee – and at least one boy was courageous enough to accept D’Angeli’s invitation to fly with him during one of his several flights that day. D’Angeli, thus, was not only the first in India, indeed in Asia to fly an aircraft but was also the pioneer who took a passenger with him.

As per records of the Hindu newspaper Giacomo D’Angelis, a confectioner from Corsica, arrived in Madras in 1880 and opened his ‘Maison Francaise’. His ‘Kitchen Department’, he assured the gentry of Madras, was "the first and finest of its kind". It didn’t take long for D’Angelis catering service to get known. His excellent service soon enabled him to open a small hotel in 1906. Continuing to prosper, this eventually became the Hotel d’ Angeli, with unmatched luxury and facilities, including an electrical lift, running hot water, etc. After his successful flight in 1910, Mr D’Angelis was known as the Flying Corsican. But with passage of time, changes of ownership and name, the hotel premises on Mount Road, Madras has now been transformed into Bata’s main showroom in Chennai.

MF (With inputs from the writings of Gp Capt Kapil Bhargava (Retd) and Mr S Muthiah)