K Sankaran Nair – The legendary spymaster of RAW

Shanks - The sleuth from Ottapalam

This is another name most of you may not have come across, Sankaran Nair was the man who headed RAW some time ago, the very man who left the unit in a huff after a tiff with Morarji Desai. Today you can switch on Hotstar and watch a debonair Kay Kay Menon play the role of the sleuth named Himmat Singh (Tele Series – Special Op’s), a RAW section head with a large overdraft account, totally at home with the latest technology and taking on the Pakistan ISI. Should you ask KayKay if he knew KS Nair, he might even be flummoxed. Anyway, I will try to fill you in on some background about Nair as we go through interesting high-profile cases involving him such as the Kahuta affair (which Morarji botched up during his loose and indiscrete chat with Zia) and the liberation of Bangladesh. It would be fitting, for this is the 50th year anniversary of Bangladesh’s liberation.

Nair, never mincing words or wanting to paint a picture of his larger-than-life, had this to say about himself (after Dryden) – I have been a cop, a spook, and ambassador, but mostly a buffoon, I guess!

Kinattinkara Sankaran Nair, the man who so desperately wanted to join the ICS, but could not clear the exams even after two attempts, later went on to excel working for the police and win a Medal for Meritorious Service. Why on earth would he use the operational cover name Col Menon? All of these present an interesting story, the story of a proud and self-righteous man who served many bureaucrats, but on his terms while sleuthing in the IB and later for the Indian Research and analysis wing - R&AW.

Born on 20th Dec 1920, (101 years ago to the day, as I post this) to Lakshmikutty Amma and Narayanan Nair, Sankaran Nair schooled in Convent schools at Trichy, Vizag, Cannanore, and Madras, but had to abandon plans of getting into the merchant navy through HMS Dufferin (negated by parents), before joining for higher studies at the Loyola college Madras, and later graduating from the Law college, around 1942. Many luminaries like Bobby Mugaseth, the Calicut Parsi, and Manek Cashu Dadabhoy, later Bobby’s brother-in-law (their story is beautifully narrated by Raghu Karnad in his fascinating book - Farthest field), Lambert Franklin, P Mukundan, and so on were his batch mates. Meanwhile, Sankaran Nair’s fleeting mind tried to take him to different vocations - a pilot (was negated by his mother), then an engineer which he himself gave up due to its math requirements. Not a bookish youngster, Nair was a keen cricket player, captaining Loyola.

Nair joined the Imperial police at Vellore, after failing to secure an ICS spot despite multiple attempts, moving on to become an Assistant superintendent in 1942. Pretty soon this tough cop was serving in Andhra, as the DSP for East Godavari and earning a ‘tough cop’ name after the capture of a number of criminals and Maoists using unique and sometimes very direct methods, instilling fear in a hitherto lawless territory.

By 1950, he was bound for Delhi, to serve under Bhola Nath Mullick in the IB – Intelligence Bureau (it was previously the Thugee office!), having been promised a post in Paris. That was not to happen and Mullick tried to move him to Burma which Nair refused demanding that he be sent back to the police cadre at Madras. After some years, he was deputed to create an intelligence agency in Ghana, when his predecessor and confidante Ramji N Kao had given him the required fillip. Returning to Delhi in 1963, he took over the Pakistani desk at the IB and was soon an authority on the ways and happenings across the borders, working through a network of informers.

During the 1965 war, Nair informed the army about the extra armored division Pakistan had secreted (without US knowledge) as well as other details of the impending assault, but the top brass refused to believe the IB report (commenting that Patton tanks can’t operate in sandy areas). According to Yadav’s book, it was only due to the bravery of other officers who defied the general, that a debacle like 1962 did not occur, when the tanks appeared. After the 1965 war, when an attempt was made to discredit him, but Nair was not cowed (or flattened like VK Krishna Menon had been), he sent copies of the 65 reports he had provided, to the PMO, disproving them.

In 1968, the R&AW was formed and he moved along with Kao as his deputy there. His work in RAW has been chronicled by his peers and successors, in many an article and a few books. Nair’s involvement in uncovering Pakistan’s nuclear research at Kahuta, obtaining the advance information of Pakistan’s bombing plans in Dec 71, the training and arming of the Mukti Bahni as a prequel to the 1971 war of liberation, are just some of the feathers in his cap. Nevertheless, due to personal differences with Sanjay Gandhi, he was not chosen as the successor of Kao and one Shive Mathur took his place.

But when Morarji Desai managed to finally plant himself in the PM’s chair, Nair faced a multitude of problems. First, he, Kao and the RAW was accused of being the hammers for Indira Gandhi during the emergency. Furthermore, Morarji was hell bent on finding dirt on Indira, digging deep to uncover apparent mismanagement of funds, if only for political purposes. The very same Morarji who had scuttled any chance of strengthening the Indian army by denying them the required financial budget before the 1962 China war, was back with a vengeance against the Congress.

Nair headed the RAW for just 3 months in 1977 after Kao’s retirement, before Morarji hounded him out and decimated the rank and lines of the RAW. Nair’s involvement in ‘Operation Casino’ identifying the kickbacks, so also his refusal to close down operations abroad including Pakistan as ordered by Morarji, resulted in the furious PM demoting Nair. That was the last straw and the illustrious spymaster left RAW for good, in 1978. However, Nair did play a smaller role in restructuring R&AW after the return of Indira Gandhi to power in 1980.

A number of lesser posts followed, but at each juncture, he refused to tread established lines and support sycophancy. He worked with the minorities commission, and finally with the organization of the Asian games 1981-82 skillfully and received a Padma Bhushan for it. His last posting was as the high commissioner of Singapore. By 1988 he had retired and moved first to London and thence to Bangalore, and after a lonely period and undergoing two bypass surgeries, Nair passed away in 2015, aged 96.  Seeing Kashmir getting manipulated to become a hotbed for insurgents, the Kargil conflict in 1999, followed by the 2002 parliament attack, and later the 2008 Mumbai attacks, were all events that would have got this aging snoop, furious.

Many of his action-filled days are fleetingly mentioned in his own memoirs, bereft of any details, so also in the book on Kao and in the few on the RAW itself by others. In almost all of them, Nair is a shadow, Col Menon, behind the curtain. So many interesting personnel passed by through those pages as I perused them, one being the senior police officer Eric Stracey whom I had mentioned in a previous article (the article about Cyril Stracey). Other interesting events dot his memoirs,  his attempts at learning how to glide, his fondness for Siamese cats, and how golfing became a passion.

Let’s now see how he and his team engineered some of the more famous intelligence coups of his life, though one must note these things are never individual exploits and that one’s actual role is in later accounts is always quite diffused. But as Raman introduces him, this suave, blunt in words and ‘hard-hitting in action’ RAW officer, was well respected and considered a master of HUMINT. As the years rolled by, as TECHINT and ELINT took over, technology exchanged places with brave humans out in the field, though wisely not replacing them entirely. It was no longer Nair’s domain, and his move out, perhaps a wise choice.

The arming of the Mukti Bahni and the Agartala Case

The role of Indian intelligence in the Agartala case which was a prelude to the 1971 war and the liberation of Bangladesh is briefly known, though not necessarily the R&AW machinations behind the scenes. The key person who worked behind the scenes in 1967, before the uncovering of the case, the elusive Colonel Menon, was none other than Sankaran Nair. A meeting was convened in Agartala sometime in 1962-63, between the IB foreign desk operatives and the Mujib faction. The Bangla group indicated to ‘Col Menon that the ‘group’ was eager to escalate their movement. Nair and his team thus became involved with organizing the arming and training of the Mukti Bahni.  Working under the cover of Col. Menon, he succeeded in creating a group comprising a few Bangladeshi Navy employees as well as other activists of the Awami League. Nair was planning the next step of arming them, but these agents in a moment of unnecessary haste tried to raid the Pakistan Army armory on their own. They were arrested and a sedition case named the Agartala Case was registered. Directly implicating Mujibur Rehman later in 1968 was a ploy engineered by Ayub Khan the Pakistani PM. This was later dubbed as the Agartala Conspiracy Case. The case was later withdrawn on 22 February 1969, after one of the accused, Sgt. Zahurul Haq of the air force was shot dead in prison. Nair admitted to handling various agents during the Bangladesh freedom struggle but reconfirmed that he never met Sheikh Mujib, famously known as Bangabandhu.

The case had huge repercussions. Some 1,500 Bengalis were arrested in this connection. The West Pakistani government’s keenness to prove that Sheikh Mujib was an Indian agent and a separatist backfired and a mass movement erupted demanding immediate withdrawal of the case and the release of all prisoners. The news of the killing of air force officer Sgt. Zahurul Haq led to riots and eventually, the government withdrew the case.

R Yadav in his book states - Sankaran Nair was working undercover as Col. Menon. Nair confirmed that P.N.Ojha, a Deputy Central Intelligence Officer of IB was his junior who was interacting with these East Pakistanis which included some Navy employees, Police officers and some political activists of Awami League party. Nair met these agents on border near Agartala few months prior to their arrest in East Pakistan. These agents were warned by Nair not to raid the armory to capture arms from the Pakistan Army, which they did after some time. Rather, Nair suggested to them that IB would send arms to them on a barge down the river from Agartala and they could collect these arms at suitable destinations for the insurgency against Pakistan Army. Nair also suggested them some separate ideas for their insurgent activities but they were aggressive and wanted some immediate action against the Pakistan Army. They ignored the warning of Nair and raided the armory which resulted in their subsequent arrest and this sedition case named as Agartala Conspiracy case was filed against them by the Pakistan Government.

Yahya Khan took over, became the dictator of Pakistan, and surprisingly held open elections only to find the rebel Mujibur Rehman winning most of the seats, 141 of them and talking about secession from West Pakistan.  Not something they or friends from the Western world wanted. Yahya ordered the terrible operations - Blitz and later Searchlight in East Pakistan, to suppress dissent using the army, which led to many atrocities, massacres, and a massive exodus of some 10 million refugees into India.

At that point in time, the R&AW team again provided intelligence to the insurgency’s policymakers, training the freedom fighters and creating training camps, also publicizing the Pakistani massacres and the plight of the refugees and supplying rebels the Mukti Bahni, with small and medium weapons. All-out war between India and Pakistan, to liberate Bangladesh, then took place in 1971.

Incidentally, the involvement of MKB Nair in Bangladesh is sometimes confused with SK Nair’s (both were RAW officers) role. Brigadier MBK Nair was the head of RAW’s technical division. According to Yadav - Brig. Nair opened many monitoring stations of R&AW at these check-posts and inside the Pakistani territory also to provide speedy information to the Calcutta office of R&AW and to its headquarters in New Delhi about the training of Mukti Bahini cadres and movement and action of the Pakistan Army. R&AW prepared a technical network and encircled East Pakistan on all vantage points which proved of strategic importance for the phase one action, to train the insurgents, of the Indian Government and ultimately in the decisive liberation war of December 1971.

Pakistani Mole handler – The Dec 1st SNAFU

Nair, as we read before, was in charge of the Pakistan desk while at the IB. He had built up a network of moles and informers within Pakistan and during the tense situation in 1971, he received word from a mole in the last week of November 1971, that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) intended to launch a pre-emptive strike on Indian airbases during the evening of December 1st. Nair sent the words to the high command but nothing untoward happened on the 1st nor the 2nd. An irritated IAF, having kept the pilots on high alert for 48 hours wanted to call it off, but Nair asked them to hold on since he was quite sure that the attack was coming.

The Pakistani’s launched their attack on the evening of December 3rd, which was quickly thwarted by the IAF who had been waiting. It was later discovered that the coded message from the mole had stated the date as December 3rd, but the decoders in the R&AW headquarters had incorrectly decoded it as December 1st!

The Kahuta affair

Kahuta in Rawalpindi was where Project 706 i.e., the Khan laboratories were set up to develop Pakistan’s enrichment units between 1972-1983. When Pakistan started to stockpile Uranium, the US responded with sanctions, but with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the US needed Pakistani support to reduce any communist insurgency. Even though Pakistan crossed the enrichment threshold with Chinese assistance in 1980, it was not until much later in the 90’s, i.e., after the Russian withdrawal, that the US reimposed wide-ranging sanctions.

As the story goes, RAW operatives in Pakistan obtained leads about the Kahuta facility and were surveilling scientists. They collected hair samples from local barbershops which were frequented by these scientists and got the samples across the border to India. Test results proved that these samples exhibited radiation making it clear that Pakistan was operating centrifuges.

Tragically this coincided with the fall of the Indira Gandhi government and the arrival of Morarji on the scene. Kao was gone, and soon Nair followed his steps, leaving the R&AW for good. The new government did not support further steps. Morarji did not want any interference in Pakistani internal affairs and denied support. Also, in an unguarded moment when talking to Zia ul Haq, Morarji Desai revealed that India was aware of the enrichment happening at the Kahuta facility. This had disastrous effects, Nair’s highly placed agents were captured, and created a huge setback for RAW operations.

Operation Casino

During the Indira government, the responsibility to hand courier a 6 million dollar check to be deposited in a numbered account in Geneva, was entrusted to KS Nair. Originally, he was asked to carry five suitcases of $100 currency notes, but he refused, fearing its and his safety. This was organized by the ministry of external affairs after clearance by the finance ministry and the PM.  Nair flew to Geneva and had the check deposited, but had no clue what it was for, until much later, at which point it had become a scandal. Morarji had become the PM and he was hunting for the skeletons in the many closets around Delhi. Assuming that Nair was Indira’s henchman, sent out to deposit Sanjay’s ill-gotten wealth, Morarji launched an investigation after Luther of the RBI hinted to him that it was Sanjay Gandhi’s money.

Nair (as stated in his memoirs) got to know the reason at this juncture, and found out from his finance ministry counterpart that the deposit was actually a kickback to an Iranian financier who had with the help of the sister of the Shah of Iran, brokered for India a 250M$ soft loan (India was facing sanctions after the Pokhran test), and had it tagged it together with the loan for the Kudremukh iron ore plant, to tide over India’s foreign exchange crisis.  Anyway, the case was closed in parliament, without further inquiries being made into the matter

I am sure there are many more stories that have not been told, but I think we can conclude with all this that Nair was an upright administrator, a keen intelligence agent, and a splendid complement to Ramji Kao during their years. As Hormis Tharakan who later headed the R&AW stated in an interview with ‘The Week’ - Kao and Nair were two personalities totally different from each other. However, they got along splendidly and complemented each other. Kao was suave, perfectly turned out, highly religious, soft-spoken, a teetotaler and an introvert. Nair was tough and rough, and did not mince words. Though he had a great sense of humor, he did put the fear of God into his subordinates. The planner and the implementer together built up a great organization in no time, overcoming apparently insurmountable difficulties.

On the day we completed our training, Nair came to address us. He asked us if we had assimilated all the dirty tricks we had been taught. We said yes. Then he told us, with the gravitas that he summoned whenever needed: “You shall never use these tricks in pursuance of your personal needs. These are meant solely to be employed in the service of the nation.” Operationally, there was no one to match Nair in the organization. He commanded much respect internationally, too, in the shadowy world of spooks.

Nair after his posting as the Indian High commissioner to Singapore spent his last days after 1988 in London and later at Bangalore. Nair who called himself with dry sense of humor and self-deprecating style - ‘the idiot I am, the rolling stone which gathered moss’, passed away aged 96, in 2015.

As for the people of Ottapalam, I doubt if any of its youngsters today have the slightest idea of who Shanks, the master spook was. Maybe this little article will tell them.

Inside IB and RAW – K Sankaran Nair
Mission R&AW – RK Yadav
R.N. Kao: Gentleman Spymaster – Nitin Anant Gokhale
Inside RAW: The Story of India's Secret Service – Asoka Raina
The Kaoboys of R&AW – B Raman


Pic – Courtesy @maverikmusafir - Twitter, Dec2020


Ganesha’s curse

The tragic tale of Harriet Quimby, America’s pioneer aviatrix

This is yet another incredible story, and the latter part will be better understood by an Indian. Now you may wonder how Ganesha the elephant-headed God, so revered by Indians, could have anything to do with a woman named Harriet Quimby in America, that too, early in the 20th century. Well, I am gliding into the flying arena again, if you recall my article on Mohan Singh. Harriet Quimby was the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States in 1911, the first to fly a monoplane, the first to do a night flight, and was the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912. Starting out as a journalist, she evolved into writing for magazines, doing critiques for dramas, and screenplays, even acting in Hollywood. Quimby then took to flying in 1911 but lost her life a few months later. This is the story of those few months, and of her misadventure with the Hindu God, recounted in her own words.

Most Indian Hindus adore and worship the mischievous, elephant-headed, potbellied god Ganesha. Connected with good luck, chanting of the Ganesha Mantara (Vakratunda mahakaya, surya koti samasthutha – nirvighnam Kurume deva, sarava karyesu sarvada - O Lord with Curved Trunk, one with the huge body, one with the radiance of a million suns, please ensure my actions face no trouble) is a must before doing anything of importance. We seek his blessings before entering a new home, or before commencing any major event or performance. Now how would this aviator be connected to Lord Ganesha, that too as early as 1910, when Americans had little idea about India? That is the incredible story we will get to, but before all that let’s get to know fearless, independent, beautiful, and confident personality - Harriet Quimby.

At a time when the western world lived under Victorian morals, where women stayed at home, cooked and looked after children, Quimby drove a car, wielded a camera, and flew an airplane, much to the consternation of frowning men, who simply disapproved it and resented her actions as well as her entry into an all-male domain. Sadly, for 80 years after she left us, nobody bothered about her exploits and it was only in 1991 that a postage stamp was issued in her honor. While some loved her, many feared her liberated outlook, and a lot ignored this fascinating lady, during her heydays.

In the late 18th century, a few Frenchwomen had taken to ballooning and, in the 19th, we see a few instances of American women doing likewise. But the concept of flight became a reality when the Wright brothers proved its feasibility in 1903 and in March 1910, Raymonde de LaRoche of France became the first lady pilot to get a flying license. Those were the pioneering days of flight, which Quimby was exposed to.

Born to William Quimby and Ursula Cook at Michigan in 1875, Harriet found herself with her parents at Arroyo Grande in California, where they labored on a farm. The 1890s were bad years and William was in and out of jobs, the farm never prospered and her mother, took over the family reins, starting a little herbal potion business and molding Harriet into becoming a journalist. She did become a successful one at that, caricaturing San Francisco and its sights and sounds into very readable articles! Readers took note of the beautiful journalist and even had her portrait hung in the Bohemian club. As the 20th century beckoned, Harriet shunned marriage and drifted Eastwards, to New York, which was the go-to place with its bright lights and its cosmopolitism.

Arriving at the Penn Station in New York in Jan 1903, Harriet quickly got her bearings, and found accommodation in a boarding house, simultaneously figuring out that one had to be street smart to survive in that teeming city. She found gainful employment at the Leslie’s illustrated weekly as a part-time freelance writer and learned to use the typewriter, a device used only by men, in those days! Six months later, after writing theatre reviews and other stories, she had moved into better lodging and had her aging mother move in with her.

Footloose and fiercely independent, she wrote initially about the immigrant communities, the Chinese, the Italians, Germans and Irish, and soon started to travel and become the magazine’s travel correspondent. Visiting Cuba, Europe, the Caribbean, Egypt, South America and Africa, she started to add photographs taken with her camera, to her reports (one photo report of the Hindu coolies in the Caribbean is quite arresting!). It was her experience riding a racing car with a male driver that took her to the edge as one could term it from a risk perspective. In 1906, she then convinced somebody to give her driving lessons, and purchased a car (in those days called a runabout), and drove to work, all unimaginable things for a working girl. The reader should now note that it was a time in history when unladylike acts such as smoking in public, could lead to fines and arrests.

Always on the lookout for newsworthy and unique stories, Harriet Quimby befriended a small group of pioneering aviators at Belmont Park in Long Island NY, in 1910, with the help of her friend Matilde Moisant. At an air show event, she saw a frail wooden plane being flown about, so also dirigibles, monoplanes and biplanes piloted by 24 of the world’s greatest pilots, American, British and French included. Glen Curtiss, whom I had introduced in the Mohan Singh article, was there as well.

At a later airshow, she was introduced to Matilde’s brother John Bevins who happened to be a daredevil pilot. Seeing and writing about his incredible antics convinced her that she too could pilot a plane. John had in the meantime opened an aviation school and both Harriet and Matilde were allowed to join in Spring 1911. Tragically John died in a Dec 1910 air crash, but the two thirty-something ladies did not give up and started classes in May 1911. They had to be disguised as men and trained early in the morning.

But one nosy reporter did espy this intrepid trainee and wrote of a “willowy brunette Dresden China aviatrix with blue eyes” who was learning how to fly, an incredibly controversial topic of that time. A woman trying to fly? Unimaginable! Well, the girls put in the $500-$1,000 fees, a deposit of $1,000-1,500 towards any damages, and spent five weeks learning how to fly the rickety wooden framework plane. No helmets or protective gear were available those days and castor and engine oil spray drenched their faces and dress as they flew along in the cold air, wearing a man’s leather suit and goggles. Her first test in July 1911 went well, but her landing was 100’ off the takeoff location (planes then did not have brakes, to stop motion), and the Aero Club officials were relieved they did not have to pass her.

Determined to succeed, she went at dawn the next day for a retest, undeterred by the low fog on the ground. After a long wait, the fog lifted, but the winds had picked up. Eventually, she took off and completed the various elements of the test admirably. A license had to be issued to this woman, and well, they did, on August 11th, 1911, the first American woman to become a licensed pilot and the 37th pilot in the world. But it must also be mentioned here that there were some women who did fly planes, such as Blanche Scott (later a test pilot for Glen Curtiss) flying since Oct 1910, but who had never applied for licenses. 12 days later Matilde Moisant also got her license, going on to become an equally proficient and daredevil pilot.

I took up flying, " Quimby told reporters, “Because I thought I'd like the sensation. I haven't regretted it. I like motoring but after seeing monoplanes in the air, I could not resist the challenge. The airlanes have neither speed laws or traffic policemen and one need not go all the way around Central Park to get across to Times Square.  Then too, it’s good to be the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license!

Even though it proved difficult, she managed to acquire her own plane from the Moisant factory and in Sept 1911 started flying for a fee, at professional meets, also flying her first night flight, but mind you these were all pretty short flights lasting a few minutes since those early monoplanes were quite difficult to control. In October she became the first person to land a plane in Mexico! But they had to return to the US quickly as a revolution took root and Zapata was gunning for Madero.

It was in Mexico that Harriet decided to try the English Channel crossing, but in secret, as a Miss Craig, lest somebody beat her to the draw. She sailed for Britain with Leo Stevens, a friend and her new manager, in March 2012 and convinced the London Daily mirror sponsor and cover the event in return ($5,000 was offered by a private sponsor) for exclusive rights over the story. A 50HP Louis Breliot XI monoplane would be used for the crossing and she would order and take a 70HP machine back to the states. If the plane was lost, Stevens was to pay Bleriot the cost for the spindly, rickety contraption, considered a fast plane and with many innovations, such as an enclosed fuselage, engine in front of the pilot, assembly in 30 minutes, and so on, rivaling the only other design, the Curtiss monoplane.

As she waited for the weather to clear, Eleanor Trehawke Davis flew across the channel, but as a passenger, taking out some of the novelty. Davis became the first woman to cross the channel in a plane, literally. Quimby, disappointed, was certain that somebody in the Mirror had ratter her out.

Meanwhile, Matilde retired and fortunately for her, the last flight ended with her narrowly escaping death as the plane caught fire after a heavy landing. When WW1 started and her request to fly for the US air force was negated, she joined up with the Red Cross, as a nurse in France. For some reason, Harriet and Matilde till then very thick friends drifted apart.

On April 16th 1912, Harriet took off from Dover and climbed up. Down below in the sea, a tugboat with the Mirror’s reporters followed. In the plane which was by now enveloped in fog, Harriet struggled to read the compass held between her knees, which she was using for the very first time. As she rose to 6000’, the hot water bag around her waist, placed under two layers of silk and woolen suits, hardly helped, but the excitement made her disregard the icy cold. After a harrowing flight of an hour and nine minutes, the plane crossed the 22-mile stretch! Missing Calais, she landed at the village of Hardelot. Hot tea and food were served by the excited fishermen rushing to the spot and a telegram was sent to London. Soon the reporters from the Mirror arrived and a champagne bottle was popped. The English Channel had been conquered.

But it was all not to be. As the reports were being compiled, heralding Quimby and her feat, the press was still busy reporting the mega-disaster - the April 14th tragedy when the ‘unsinkable‘ ocean liner Titanic stuck an iceberg and sank, and 1573 lives were lost. There was no front-page space for Harriet Quimby’s feat! No welcome parade awaited her in London, and she quietly came back to the states. The American press was not too enthusiastic stating that her feat was second to men who had already done it before. Nevertheless Harriet got some press and later became the spokeswoman for Vin Fiz grape soda, and was depicted in articles wearing her trademark purple satin flying suit.

The next event she participated in, was the Boston air meet in July 1912. Blanche Scott had registered too, so also many others, but the top draw was Harriet, the queen of the Channel crossing, flying her new 70HP Bleriot. It was a tricky plane to fly, with a heavy engine up front, and equilibrium was key. Sandbags behind the pilot kept it on even keel. During practice flights, Quimby did have some dangerous movements, but she seemed to have managed to learn the machine’s quirkiness. She was confident and believed also that her many lucky talismans would ward off any ill luck. As you can imagine, flying in those days was a very risky business and the planes were very frail and cumbersome. Aviators, therefore, tended to be quite superstitious and Quimby too wore a number of bracelets and necklaces to protect her from mishaps.

As usual, that July, she fingered her good luck charms nervously when she came in, but there was one object which had not accompanied her this time. In fact, she had penned a lengthy article about that object, a little brass idol of Lord Ganesha, just a few weeks ago. She had picked it up at London, before the Channel crossing, it had previously been owned by a French pilot, who had bad luck with it, who then gave it to another man, who too had ill luck and finally, it was sent off to the Daily Mirror’s office, for disposal.

So, let’s see what she had to say about the idol. Quoting Harriet Quimby….

It is a curious thing but all women flyers are superstitious. And again, it isn’t so curious either. All people who follow a calling in which chance enters largely are superstitious. My superstition is Ganesha, a little ancient brass idol. He brought me such bad luck and was such a misbehaved person that I simply had to kill him. So, he had his little brass head sawed off and he's been wonderfully behaved ever since. You must not laugh when I tell you that I think there is something to the little beast. He looked so grumpy and so eerie that he used to give me the shivers, although the beast was quite likeable at first. The idol had an elephant head, on a man-like body, with two legs crossed and a third leg very conveniently stuck out of his elbow. He also had three arms, all busy, and a very fat stomach. Unlike Buddha, who sits and broods over the earth, Ganesha showed his potential for a lively disposition. One hand held an axe, another a hook, and the third a stone. The free foot looked as if it might kick out from the shoulder at any moment

When first I saw him, it was in the office of the London Daily Mirror. He was in with other talismans and idols who had brought their owner’s bad luck. The Daily Mirror decided to round up these misbegotten omens of ill-luck. Thousands poured in from all over the city. This Saturday afternoon when I retrieved the little brass idol, he was ready for the funeral pyre. At the time I did not know of his unsavory past.

I tied him to my Bleriot on my Channel crossing. As I said he was so likable at first, I wished him to be my good luck charm, but I also wore my jewelry. Perhaps he was the cause of the foul weather over the Channel and my difficulty with the engine. Thinking back my lucky jewelry probably neutralized his power during my flight.

Harriet then goes on to explain the reverses - The Ganesha idol had been tied to the 50 HP Bleriot. She thought that her problems handling the plane initially, as well as the foggy weather, were due to the idol. She also assumed that the matter of Davis beating her to the draw as well as the fact that the man who offered her $5,000 for the crossing had also gone back on his word, were all due to Ganesha. Later on, she had problems clearing the new 70HP Bleriot at US customs and that was when she really started to suspect Ganesha.

"I believe he meant to do things I accused him of, it seemed to me that way, So I spanked him and set him out as a paperweight, a humiliating position for one so ancient. It was no use. He simply would not behave, His tricks were just as mean and unfriendly, Then I took a hammer to him, but your true aristocrat is tenacious of life and I couldn't dent him anywhere." Quimby then took strong and irrevocable action, "I decided he should die after holding court over him and rehearsing his evil actions, in this Court of convenience, he did not even have the benefit of counsel or a Jury trial. He had to die. Afterward I was sorry for him, but law is law, and the sentence had to be carried out. But how?"

Obviously, he could not be electrocuted or hanged, nor poisoned nor shot for his misbehaved soul was solid brass. In the midst of my problem a reporter suggested that Ganesha should have his head cut off. That is a fitting end for any gentleman, and according to ancient custom quite the proper thing. In the engraving room of the newspaper are some glittering circular saws that go through brass like a knife through cheese.

So, I took Ganesha into the darkened engraving room that was to be his death chamber and had a worker hold him in front of the saw. Nervously I noted him lying on the steel table as the saw's sharp teeth tried to do their work. Suddenly the saw stopped cutting. Ganesha was not willing to die. The workman examined Ganesha, he demanded to know what kind of brass went into this stubborn little aristocrat. I could not tell except that it must be very tough, quite appropriate to Ganesha’s disposition. It took two saw blades before the shrieking stooped and his head flew off. He was too hot to touch for a while, but when I cooled him off in water, he seemed a sorry sight. Now I still have him on my desk as a paperweight. When he behaves he can have his head back, but the minute he starts any of his old tricks, I‘ll take his head away from him.

Since he lost his head a week ago, things have gone splendidly, now maybe it is, and maybe it isn't, his former influence, but just the same, things are going better. I am going to let him wear his head a full day, sometime soon, to see if I have cured him of his unsavory ways.

July 12th - 1912 – Boston – Harriet Quimby emerged from the hangar in her plum outfit, talked to reporters, grandly stating that she had no plans to crash the plane into the icy waters.  The mechanic and her manager gave the thumbs up on the plane, all seemed OK. William Willard, the manager of the Boston air meet decided to ride pillion behind her. Soon the plane was off, for a 27-mile ride. After the circuit around Boston light, she looped back, gliding sharply from 5000’ to 2000’. Suddenly the plane’s tail rose sharply and Willard was tossed out of the aircraft. The plane was quickly unbalanced, and Quimby, fighting for control, tried to get the nose back up. The nose did rise up and for the onlookers below, it seemed Quimby had regained control. A split second later, the tail again kicked up, the plane went into a nosedive, and Quimby was thrown out of her aircraft. The two bodies continued their death plunge into the shallow waters, while the Bleriot righted itself and quietly glided itself to a stop in the mud. Blanche Scott, the other woman pilot who was in the air, witnessed the tragedy from above.

Had there been seat belts, the accident could have been avoided. Onlookers, including Stevens, opined that the impulsive 190lbs Willard had leaned forward to speak to Quimby, unbalancing the plane. But that was just theory, like others who said it was due to too steep a glide, a gust of wind, broken rudder wires, lifting tailplanes and what not.  Anyway, Harriet Quimby, the pioneering pilot, the bird woman, the bluebird (her costume was actually purple and designed by herself) the typewriter lady, the one who could repair her car herself, was no more. A terrible newspaper headline, echoing the times and showing an incredible lack of respect, stated - Little Miss Dresden China Broken at Last!

Tragically, the pioneering pilot’s life was snuffed out in this accident, and most people forgot her, till the stamp was released in 1991. As Joshua Stoff of the Air and Space Museum stated - Harriet Quimby was clearly a risk taker in all aspects of her life and career, a gutsy, passionate, beautiful woman with fire in her eye and a backbone of steel-living in a man's world and loving every minute of it-but always keeping her striking femininity firmly intact.

Matilde Moisant never flew again and died in 1964. Blanche Scott retired from flying in 1916 and worked in the films as a scriptwriter and later did radio shows. On September 6, 1948, Scott became the first American woman to fly in a jet when she was the passenger in a TF-80C piloted by Chuck Yeager. She died in Jan 1970. Stevens went back to creating and patenting safety equipment for pilots including the parachute, became an army instructor. He passed away in 1944.


The article Harriet Quimby wrote about her Ganesha and excerpted verbatim was published in the World magazine two weeks after her death, with one of her later biographers opining that it was perhaps originally written so, for publicity. Some believe that the Ganesha Hoodoo story was concocted later.

Quimby had apparently placed Ganesha’s head back on the damaged idol before she left for that fated Boston flight, for the Ganesha was found sitting, head restored, on her desk at Leslie's Weekly, after Quimby had fallen to her death. It is not clear what happened to the idol after that, but most likely it found its way to a local trash heap.  

While those who do not believe in such things might say that her ill-luck returned after she replaced the head on Ganesha’s severed neck, detractors would say that she should never have disrespected the holy idol. However much admirable her story and character are, any Hindu would affirm without any doubt, that her callous attitude to the idol, resulted in misfortune.

Then again, this is what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Hard to believe, isn’t it?

References and inputs from...Acknowledged with many thanks.

Her mentor was an Albatross – The autobiography of pioneer pilot Harriet Quimby – Henry M Holden
The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook – Giacinta Bradley Koontz

Mohan Singh – The enigma