GP Nair and the ‘Spirit of India’

Newspaper and news headlines these days are full the Malaysian plane MH370 and its unfortunate last journey. But this is a not about that event and is about a flight that took off in 1937, piloted by one GP Nair.

On 10 February 1929, J. R. D. Tata was awarded India's first pilot license in India, Pilot License No.1 by the Federation Aeronotique International and signed by Sir Victor Sasoon on behalf of the Aero Club of India and Burma. He was the first pilot licensed in India, though he was not the first pilot of Indian origin.
But without doubt Govind Parameswaran Nair was the first Malayali to become a licensed pilot in the British Empire.  History is replete with stories of winners, even gamblers. But not too many of them are about people who have tried and lost. GP Nair was one of the latter and for a brief period, his name was splashed in many a newspaper all over the world, posthumously. Who was he and what was his story? A Mathrubhumi article and some uncharitable responses about the person, made me check this story out.

GP Nair said – One’s life must be complete with heroics and one who shies away from such acts will reach nowhere! But why did this person who had spent a few months in jail after conviction for embezzlement charges, desire redemption? Well, let us take a look at his story and get a flavor of the times.
HINDU FLIER AIMING FOR SOUTH AMERICA IS KILLED IN FRANCE - ROUEN, France, Oct. 28. G. P. Nair, Indian flier, who left Croydon shortly before noon on a projected South Atlantic flight in his aeroplane, "The Spirit of India, was killed today when his craft crashed near Forges - les - Eaux. The tragic end of Nair' dream of flying to South America and returning across the North Atlantic came "at 1 p.m. when his plane plummeted to earth and was completely destroyed.

Forges-Les-Eaux is near Rouen, about twenty five miles inland from La Havre, on the English Channel, and about 350 miles short of Nair's goal, Marseilles, first stop on his projected flight. Indian well-wishers showered Nair with yellow flower petals for good luck before he hopped off. His plane, 'The Spirit of India," had been blessed by a Hindu priest at Croydon. The ' Daily Herald" says that a desperate desire to atone for his past drove Nair to his death. He was seeking by the proposed flight to redeem, his name and remove a slur on his native country. Nair took off against advice "Don't worry," he said "I will come back" But watching pilots muttered, "He’ll kill himself". Nair was sentenced in London seven years ago to five months jail time for obtaining money and jewels by worthless cheques. He felt that a flying achievement would vindicate him.
As you can see, all news focused on the Hindu background, his moral character and the lady priest who blessed him. His wish to atone for his sins was also highlighted. Subsequently this crash was brought up in parliament due to questions on how and why he was allowed to fly and how he got his ‘A’ pilots license. As it is no longer possible to get to the bottom of the embezzlement charge (I assume it was a bounced cheque), we will leave it at that and assume that it was the case.

What we do know from a Western mail and South Wales news article is that GP Nair had come to study law and politics at Cardiff University in 1930. We note that he was arrested in 1932 on a cheque fraud and served five months jail time. We also know from that report that he hailed from Travancore and that he had planned at first to fly from Britain to India and spend time with his aged and ailing mother. The report also stated that he used to own and publish a newspaper named ‘Republic’ at New Delhi before he ventured out to Britain for higher studies (Some other reports mention he ran a newspaper in England). Perhaps somebody reading this will provide information from the Indian end.
We know that the Committee of the Royal Aero Club London met on Wednesday, November 11, 1931, and delivered an aviators certificate # 10176 to Govind P Nair, who had incidentally been taught flying at the Reading Aeronautic club. A few other Englishmen who had learned flying with him at Reading also got similar certificates. A total of 61 certificates were granted on that day (I believe the certificate course cost £15).  I also noted from the Wales report that Nair initially trained at the Brooklands flying school and was taught the basics by Capt E Johnson.

His plans to fly from Ireland to Trivandrum in 1932 in his own plane came to naught as the air ministry refused permission. It appears from the Wales report that he was desperate to get to Travancore quickly to see his mother, perhaps she was in a bad shape and that indicates a potential reason for the check fraud to quickly obtain some money. Whether it was for a plane purchase or other form of travel (P& O steamer ticket) to India is not clear. He blundered and spoilt his name, and wanted badly to vindicate himself after the sordid mess. What more than an Atlantic crossing?
Early aircraft engines did not have the reliability, nor the power to get the lift with so much fuel. Then there was the difficulty in navigating over vast expanses of water without any landmarks and changing, unpredictable weather. In June 1919, British aviators Alcock and Brown made the first non-stop transatlantic flight after an American Navy sponsored flight had done it in May 1919, but with multiple stops. Charles Lindbergh and the "Spirit of St. Louis" crossed over to Le Bourget Airport near Paris in May 1927, completing the first solo crossing of the Atlantic. In August 1932 Jim Mollison made the first east-to-west solo trans-Atlantic flight; flying from Portmarnock in Ireland to Pennfield, New Brunswick, Canada.

So why not have an Indian do a solo ‘double crossing’ across the Atlantic? That was GP Nair’s thought, flying through the day and night, back and forth. A reader could sigh and say, well - he had guts and others might say – what foolish bravado! I believe he tried next to get permission to fly from Ireland to Newfoundland, but that was also refused, perhaps due to his inexperience. So he set his sights next on flying to France and from there to Brazil and New York. Well, if he had succeeded, he just might have become one of the first Malayalees to step on American soil!!
What else do we know of the flight? Let us get to the flight and its preparation, information gleaned from the parliamentary discussions in UK in 1938, after the death of Nair. Was he planning a suicide mission, perhaps a kamikaze attempt? Try or die – Perhaps?

One report says - Mr. Nair, who was more or less a novice pilot, with only 200 flying hours behind him, had said: "I am making the flight for the sake of my country. I am the first Indian to attempt an Atlantic flight." He was a former Cardiff law student, and came from Travancore. As it appears, he had written for Indian papers and had run one of his own in England.
He had originally requested permission to fly across the Atlantic to New York, but did not receive it. So he filed flight plans to fly some 15,000 miles from Croydon to Marseilles, then to Algiers, Oran, Casablanca and to Dakkar West Africa on the first leg. Then it was the long hop across the Atlantic Ocean to Port Natal-Brazil. From there he intended to fly to New York and then to Newfoundland and eventually return to Ireland and back to Croydon in Britain. From the looks of it, the whole attempt was foolhardy.

We note that a oriental looking lady, termed a Hindu priest and named Mme Hari Prasad Shastri (In reality there was an Acharya Hari Prasad Shastri living in those days in London, the one who started Shanti Sadan, so this must be somebody connected to him), blessed him and showered yellow Chrysanthemum petals on him before takeoff at 1130AM. We also note that in 1937, the year he died, he was just 32 years old.
Oct 1937 flight magazine - By way of helping to put India more firmly on the map in the field of human endeavour, Mr. G. P. Nair is to attempt a solo crossing of the Atlantic. He will fly the specially tanked Miles Hawk Major, with a range of about 3,000 miles, which was originally made to the order of Mr. J H. Van and which has, until recently, been lying in the Phillips and Powis shops at Reading. Mr. Nair was due to leave Croydon on Saturday, but the weather conditions were not favourable. On Wednesday of last week a reception was held by his fellow-countrymen at the Caxton Hall, Westminster, when various representatives of, Indian organisations over here wished him the best of luck. The chair was taken by Mr. M. S. Ramaswami, and one of the speakers was Mr. Frogley, of the Herts and Essex Club, where Mr. Nair has carried out some of his more recent “refresher" flying. Although we are not in favour of such a project, particularly now that Caledonia and Cambria have, with suitable equipment, made the crossing so often and with such comparative ease, we can but wish Mr. Nair success in his venture.

His plane was a Miles M2S Hawk Major duo prop plane duly certified, but modified to hold extra fuel. Its call sign was G-ADLH, CN 194. It was sold by JH Van of Boxbourne to Govind Parameswaran Nair in 1935. This was the long-range 3000 mile version powered by a 150 HP Blackburn Cirrus Major engine. The Miles Hawk’s were made at Philips and Powis’s Reading unit. The original company was founded by Charles Powis and Jack Phillips as Phillips & Powis Aircraft after a meeting with Fred Miles. The company was based on Woodley Aerodrome in Woodley, near the town of Reading and in the county of Berkshire. In 1936, Rolls-Royce bought into the company and although aircraft were produced under the Miles name, it was not until 1943 that the firm became Miles Aircraft Limited when Rolls-Royce's interests were bought out. The company produced 55 Miles Hawk M2 planes. These planes flew at about 150mph, not so much faster than today’s cars. They could climb to 20,000 ft at the rate of 1000 ft/min. For many the Miles Hawk was an obsession, and a great plane. For Nair, it was to become a vehicle to certain death.
Some records indicate that Nair purchased the plane ‘with monies subscribed by his compatriots in Britain’, on 21-08-1935. Perhaps it was done so, after his own attempts to raise money through other means failed. The rough cost for such a used plane in 1935 would have been £600 to £700. The plane was aptly named ‘Spirit of India’.

It was 28th of Oct 1937. The take-off from Croydon airport was very poor, and many spectators though that Nair was going to crash there and then. He took off into the wind, left the ground, bumped down again, left the ground a second time, and bumped down again. Then he managed to get the machine off, but wobbled about in the air, and at one time his wing-tips nearly touched the ground. When he eventually reached a good height he flew off somewhere in the direction of Liverpool and disappeared in the clouds in that direction. He must have corrected his course and flown back across the Channel, but he was not seen to recross the airport.
Nair's machine stalled while banking above Pommereux, near Forges-les-Eaux, and lost height. For a moment it seemed to recover as it was just above a hedge, but it hit an iron upright (telegraph pole) in the ground and crashed into some trees. The machine was smashed to smithereens and Nair was killed instantly, according to a Reuter report. It was approximately 1PM, under two hours after he departed.

As it seems from the report, the machine stalled. Perhaps a better aviator could have brought the M2S under control, but Nair could not do much, it crashed.
In Nov 1937, the Royal Aero Club reported as follows – After covering less than 200 miles of the 10,000 which he had planned, Mr G. P. Nair, the Hindu airman, crashed and lost his life at a point some 30 miles south-east of Dieppe. He had intended to fly to Dakar, across the South Atlantic, and back across the North Atlantic. Those who knew him were quite certain that he had neither the experience nor the qualifications to succeed in such an ambitious project, and could only hope that the inevitable failure might not have involved his death. His plan to leave Marseilles aerodrome, which is neither very large nor very smooth, with full tanks and an overload of 1,000 lb. on a machine with which, as his take-off at Croydon last Thursday showed, he was not familiar, alone meant almost certain disaster. He was licensed and the machine was his own property, but it is a pity that nothing could have been done to discourage him from the attempt.

The post mortem of the event started in Dec 1937 in a parliamentary committee meeting.
Lt Commander Reginald Fletcher asked the Under-Secretary of State for Air whether he was aware that, prior to the departure of Mr. Govind P. Nair on his fatal flight, the Air Ministry had received communications from instructors and other authorities that Mr. Nair was not fit to hold an "A" license.  Lieut.-Colonel Anthony Muirhead replied that although doubts had been expressed in certain ‘unofficial quarters’ regarding Mr. Nair's flying capabilities, there were no adequate grounds for preventing the flight in question, as the pilot had already satisfied the requirements for the grant of a Class "A" pilot's license, and the flight did not infringe the regulations. He added that it was Ministry policy to allow private pilots the greatest possible measure of freedom provided they fulfil the prescribed regulations. Fletcher then implied that the official requirement of just 3 hours of solo flying a year in order to retain the "A" license was perhaps the cause for accidents like this.

Fletcher again brought up the issue in 1938 and provided more details. He said - He went up in this machine (after purchase of the plane) with Mr. Hackett, who is the instructor of the firm in question. On landing after this flight, Mr. Hackett told Mr. Nair that he certainly could not fly the machine. In spite of this, Mr. Nair insisted on going up alone for a solo flight, and at once proved that Mr. Hackett was right by crashing, after which he spent three weeks in hospital. On coming out, he gave orders for the old machine to be repaired or for a new one to be built for him. Mr. Hackett again told him that he could not fly, and I understand, although I am subject to correction on this point, that Mr. Hackett communicated with the Air Ministry and asked them if they could do anything to take away the "A" license which Mr. Nair possessed, or somehow stop him. Mr. Hackett found that the Air Ministry could do nothing. The Reading aerodrome authorities, who also appear to have behaved very properly, refused to allow Mr. Nair to fly the machine away from the aerodrome but he got a friend to fly it for him to Croydon.
It seems that Cinque Ports Aviation Company, Limited, with whom Mr. Nair at one time had business relations, also tried with the Air Ministry and with Croydon aerodrome to get Mr. Nair stopped from attempting the Atlantic flight as they also knew that he must infallibly and inevitably crash if he undertook it. Apparently Croydon airport could do nothing about the matter except to stop him taking off with an overload of petrol (The plan as you saw earlier, was to fill up at Marseilles). Everybody concerned with this matter knew that the flight must end fatally if it were attempted, and they made every representation they could to this end to the Air Ministry and to other authorities. But nobody it seems had any authority whatever to stop Mr. Nair from setting out on this flight.

Muirehead replied stating that Mr. Nair obtained a licence some five years ago and in accordance with the provisions, sufficient time had elapsed to require him to re-qualify with the full qualifications when he obtained, a second time, a licence in 1937. It is quite true that we were notified through what I would call unofficial sources. We had opinions expressed as to Mr. Nair's incompetence to fly this particular aeroplane. An aircraft that is granted a certificate of airworthiness has possibly certain restrictions, and there was no such certificate of airworthiness in this case for the performance of the Atlantic flight.
The Indian pioneer JRD Tata had once pointed out that the greatest adventure of his life was the flying experience and that nothing else could equal that. He added in an interview that when one is on your own in that little plane at the controls and without an instructor, and while the plane speeds on the runway and finally takes off into a space, one is finally and totally alone…..

And so Govind Parameswaran Nair took off on a risky venture, with little training and all alone. Why he did it and whether he was courting certain death is not clear, but it was a suicidal mission in the eyes of many. He took off, labored on for 200 miles and clipped a telegraph pole to crash and die. Perhaps it was an engine failure and ended the mission in vain.
And when GP Nair was alone in the cockpit, I wonder what his last thoughts were….Of the backwaters in South Kerala, of his mother and family, of his wasted life…

But then again, Life is like that!!!!

References
Flight International, Volume 32 - Oct 1937
Straits times’ article
Mathrubhumi article
Parliamentary sessions 1 & 2 
Various Newsarticles
Plane registration details
Air Power review Vol 11 2008

Notes
Pioneers in flight
Jeejeebhoy Piroshaw Bomanjee Jeejeebhoy became the first Indian to enter the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, but had to relinquish his commission as they did not want colored people holding leadership posts. Krishna Chunda Welinkar, applied for a temporary commission in the RFC on 22 November 1916, and died in action in 1918. Erroll Suvo Chunder Sen was the third, but he was rejected as underage the first time and succeeded in 1917, was shot down and became a POW until 1918, He downed 9 enemy planes and was by far the most successful pilot. Laddie Indra Lal Roy joined in 1917, did well and was killed in 1918. The fifth was Hardit Singh Malik and he started flying in 1917. One more person has the right to join these pioneers. That was a onetime railway coolie who went to Britain, and joined the British forces fighting the WW1. Dattu - DL Patwardhan who called himself D Lacman Pat and was a British air force bomber pilot in the First World War and honored after. He served initially in the Kings Royal Rifle corps. I understood that in the latter part of the war, around 1918, he was transferred to the RFC.
Sarla Thakral was first Indian woman to fly (just imagine, she wore a sari while flying these planes!). Born in 1914, she earned an aviation pilot license in 1936 at the age of 21 and flew a Gypsy Moth, solo.

The first Indian Jumbo 747 pilot was KM Matt Mathen, from the Kandathil (Malayala Manorama) family. His story is reserved for another day, especially fascinating stuff like how he had to delay landing in Delhi so that Mrs Jacqueline Kennedy could get her coiffure set!!
Moorkoth Ramunni was perhaps the first pilot from Kerala in the Royal Air Force (later Indian Air Force).

And without doubt Govind Parameswaran Nair was the first Malayali pilot. If I am wrong, please let me know..

Comments

Rama Chandran said…
Murkot Ramunny,yes!
Rama Chandran said…
Two mistakes(?):Nair was sentenced to 5 months jail term 7 months ago,not 7 years ago,isnt it?I have The Canberra Times report with me.
Secondly,the caption of the photo you have printed clearly mentions Hari PARBAD Shastri,not Hari Prasad or Hari Parsad.
Maddy said…
Thanks Ramachandran..
The Sydney Morning Herald of Oct 30th 1937 stated - Nair was sentenced in London seven years ago to five months jail time for obtaining money and jewels by worthless cheques.
Though that might have been in reality 5-6 years, as the embezzlement case was in 1932, 1930 which corresponds to 7 years was when he just got into England..
The first two quotes were provided to show the flavor of the reporting exhibiting some amount of exaggeration. In fact many of the reports of the crash had erroneous information like 7 months, 7 years etc..
Yes, that particular picture states Hari Prabad, which could have been a typo. All other reports mentioned Hari Prasad.
Rama Chandran said…
You have done a wonderful job-we will try to find his family details.There are chances for lot of mistakes in that period-is it a male Shastri or female?I have a strong feeling it was Acharya Hari Prasad Shastri.I had read earlier that the Indians in London collected money to buy him an aircraft.
I AM G P NAIRS BROTHER G SHANKARAN NAIRS ELDEST GRANDSON AND LEGAL HEIR ,G P MNAIR WAS PARTLY FROM MALABAR IE HIS FATHER WAS FROM MALABAR AND HIS MOTHER FROM TRAVANCORE,THE LINEAGE GOES LIKE THIS SHANKARANATHA JOSHI/JOLSYAN FROM KARIVELLUR MOTHER UNNITHIRI [HINDU KSHATHRIYA AND FATHER NAMBUDIRI ,AFTER SERVING AS RANJIT SINGHS MINISTER IN LAHORE FOR 18 YRS HE WAS CALLED BACK TO TRAVANCORE AND THEN MARRIED FROM ATTUKAL FAMILY ,LAKSHMI,SON ATTUKAL SHANKARAPILLAI,ATTUKKAL SONS MUNSIF,MUNSIS DAUGHTER AMBIKA AMMACHI,AMBIKA AMMACHI ONE SON G P NAIR AND G P NAIRS BROTHER G SHANKARAN NAIR ,I AM G SHANKARANNAIRS ELDEST GRANDSON AND LEGAL HEIR TO PATHAYAPURA CHEMBOLLI HOUSE KANNIAMPURAM OTTAPALAM PALAKKAD,MY NAME IS DR T M SARATCHANDRAPRASAD ,I AM MENON-PANICKER,ON MY MATERNAL SIDE I AM PARUR T K NARAYANAPILLAIS NEICES SON AND BOTH MY MATERNAL GRANDFATHER ANFD GRANDMOTHERS FATHER WERE BRAHMINS RGDS
Maddy said…
Thanks Mr Nair
glad to hear from you
i am g shankaran nair grandson and legal heir to ambalakkat kumara menons and chembolli kunjiamma ,g p nair was one of the sons born to ambika ammachi ,ambika ammachi lineage is as follows ,shankarnathajolsyan of karivellur cannanore district married lakshmi of attukal family in trivandrum,their son was attukal shankarapillai,attukal shankarapillai son was munsif ,munsifs daughter was ambika ammachi,ambikaammachi one son was g p nair and others including g shankaran nairBA BL,all what you have wriiten about g p nair is true ,i am just back from england and i an attest to the same kindest rgds and wishing you a very happy navarathri and saraswathi puja ,rs 10000 is being sent everyyear to karivellut to the trust run in the name of jolsyan who was ranjit singhs minister in lahore for 18 yrs trust is managed by kamakshi ,kamalakshi and ramachandran nair,sincerely prof dr t m s prasad senior consultant physician and cardiologist s m memorial superspeciality centres and medical director on deputation from ministry of labour govtof I