The Storied Career Of India's Oldest Fighter Pilot, Who Turns 100 Tomorrow

Tomorrow, Dalip Singh Majithia, who retired as a Squadron Leader in the Indian Air Force in August 1947, the year of our independence, turns 100.

The Storied Career Of India's Oldest Fighter Pilot, Who Turns 100 Tomorrow

Dalip Singh Majithia retired as a Squadron Leader in the Indian Air Force in August 1947.

New Delhi:

On August 5, 1940, a young Sikh pilot took off on his first training flight in a Tiger Moth aircraft from the Walton airfield in Lahore with his two British instructors.

17 days later, Dalip Singh Majithia, then just 20, flew his first solo flight, a flight that paved the way for a lifetime in aviation - first in the Air Force and then as a private pilot.

Along the way, Majithia had his share of adventures as a fighter pilot flying the legendary Hawker Hurricane on the Burma front during the Second World War to becoming the first person to land a plane in the Kathmandu Valley several decades later.

Tomorrow, Dalip Singh Majithia, who retired as a Squadron Leader in the Indian Air Force in August 1947, the year of our independence, turns 100.

He is India's oldest living fighter pilot.

"I still feel that I'm in it, when I meet [Indian Air Force] officers," says Squadron Leader Majithia (retd.). "My batch people aren't there anymore, we used to have our meetings on the first of August every year for some time."

6bi4k1s8

Squadron Leader Majithia (retd.) made his last recorded flight on January 16, 1979.

His story has been described as "a story of faith, courage and adventure" by Pushpinder Singh Chopra, India's foremost aerospace historian. By the time he graduated as a pilot, he was good enough to be adjudged the best pilot of his course.

Squadron Leader Majithia (retd.) went on to fly several aircraft with the Indian Air Force during the pre-independence period including the Westland Wapiti IIA, the Hawker Audax and Hart which equipped No. 1 Squadron, the IAF's sole squadron at the time. 

After initially being assigned to Coast Defence Flights where he flew maritime patrols over the Bay of Bengal, he was re-assigned to No.6 Squadron, Indian Air Force, which was shortlisted to operate one of the most advanced aircraft in the world at the time, the legendary Hawker Hurricane.

"It was a lovely aircraft. The Hurricane is very well known as it won the Battle of Britain and we had great respect for them as it had a great engine," says Squadron Leader Majithia. "I used to love this aircraft. It was very tough. They used to say, 'you can hit a tree' and still come back."

gbtqpdgg

On 23 April, 1949, Squadron Leader Majithia landed in Kathmandu, Nepal. This was the first landing of an aircraft in the Kathmandu Valley.

The Hurricane was the first combat aircraft to go beyond 300 mph in level flight and was extremely versatile. More than 300 variants of the Hurricane were supplied to the IAF between 1942 and 1944. The fighter went on to become the backbone of operations in the Assam and Burma campaigns.

Dalip Singh Majithia would go on to serve in East India and fly over the Burma front under the command of the legendary Baba Meher Singh, who was honoured with a Distinguished Service Order during the Second World War and went on to get a Maha Vir Chakra for his role in the 1947-48 war with Pakistan. 

"Every mission [on the Burma front] was very difficult but we just had to find the Japanese but their use of camouflage was very good." Flying missions over some of the densest jungles on Earth was an incredible challenge for the Squadron. "The jungle was very thick and we had to locate where they were. The Japanese army was moving forward towards India and we had to detect them."

Newsbeep

The Hurricanes of No.6 Squadron were assigned to take vertical and oblique photos. They would fly in two aircraft formations. In each sortie, "the 'Leader' took photos and did the recce work and his No.2, the 'Weaver', protected the leader's tail" from enemy interceptors and ground fire. 

With the surrender of the Japanese and the Second World War winding down, Dalip Singh Majithia was selected to be a part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces and moved to BCOF Headquarters in Melbourne, where he met Joan Sanders (whose father was with the British Indian Army). On 18 February, 1947, he married Joan at his family home in Gorakhpur where the family had considerable land holdings and business interests.

He was persuaded to leave the Indian Air Force but clearly, his love for flying never waned.

nsartg3

Dalip Singh Majithia retired as a Squadron Leader in the Indian Air Force in August 1947, the year of our independence.

"Just before the end of the war, the Americans sold all their aircraft in India and my uncle bought these two L5 light aircraft." But making these aircraft flight-worthy was no easy task. "We had no mechanic," says the Squadron Leader. "I had an auto mechanic looking after the garage. My uncle and he were in charge and he used to come and check the magnetos of the aircraft." Miraculously, the aircraft were repaired successfully. "I flew these two aircrafts all over the place and luckily, I had a pilot's license earlier, so I had no problem."

The family went on to acquire two Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft. These were four-seater aircraft, one of which went on to make aviation history with Dalip Singh Majithia at the controls.

On 23 April, 1949, Dalip Singh Majithia landed in Kathmandu, Nepal. This was the first landing of an aircraft in the Kathmandu Valley and followed a request from the Prime Minister, Mohan Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana. In a letter to the Indian Ambassador, the Prime Minister of Nepal asked, "I have been wondering if it would be possible to make use of small transport planes to carry paddy to Kathmandu Valley after the rains, knowing that Dakotas require a landing ground which would be difficult to get ready."

"My uncle (Surjit Singh Majithia) was the Ambassador and he was very keen for me to meet the PM." The conversation moved to flights into Nepal with permission being granted in quick time.

"I had a good look before [landing] and didn't have any aid on the ground whatsoever," says Majithia, describing his first approach into Kathmandu. "My uncle put a windsock for me. That is all I had." Dalip Singh Majithia made two attempts to land. "The first one was not so good because it was late April with a lot of clouds. But the second time, I circled around Kathmandu and made it." This was an unprepared strip. "Luckily, there was nobody on the ground. My uncle came and picked me up." Today, the area where Squadron Leader Majithia made his first landing is the site of the present Tribhuvan International Airport at Kathmandu.

4bt9d5

On 18 February, 1947, Squadron Leader Dalip Singh Majithia (retd.) married Joan Sanders at his family home in Gorakhpur where the family had considerable land holdings and business interests.

Majithia's passion for aviation continued for several decades. He made his last recorded flight on January 16, 1979, again in a Beechcraft Bonanza. Over a period of time, the family came to acquire several aircraft. Some of these still active on air charter duties with Saraya Air Charters, some of the others are now retired.

Asked what its like to score a century in life, the Squadron Leader says, "Well God is great and I'm very thankful for every help I have gotten from my family."

Fitness has been a key part of Dalip Singh Majithia's life, Golf a lasting passion. "I'm very thankful to God for letting me play a lot of golf. I got a hole in one a number of times, and my last hole in one was last year in the golf course in Nainital."