NEW DELHI: From being one of the most powerful bodies in civil aviation, the Aero Club of India (ACI) now has been rendered “homeless”. Last month, ACI—an apex body of all flying clubs and other aero sports organisations in the country—was evicted from its office near the Safdarjung Airport, and now has no office.
ACI was evicted following an order of the Delhi High Court, which ruled that the club was in unauthorised occupation of a land it was granted 30 years ago. The land was allotted by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1984 for a period of 30 years at a fee of `1 per annum. The licence expired in September 2013 after which the club made a request for renewal and sent a cheque for `30 as licence fee for the period of 30 years. However, it was not granted.
ACI Vice-President Captain Pankul Mathur said, “India is making its presence felt in almost all kinds of sports, from cricket to gymnastics. This is happening because the government is supporting different forms of sports by providing infrastructure etc. It is important that ACI also be supported by the government through infrastructure and other means to bring India on the world map in aero sports.”
The institution’s history is as old as the history of civil aviation in the country. It was from here that India’s first pilot JRD Tata got his flying licence.
The Aero Club of India (ACI) came into being in 1927 and before Independence, it used to function as a branch of Royal Aero Club of Great Britain. Its legacy was such that then Viceroy of India was the club’s patron-in-chief. First Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru continued the legacy by heading the club from 1948 to 1957. The fact that Nehru had a penchant for flying propelled ACI’s growth. An ACI official, who has a long association with the club, recalled that it was during Nehru’s tenure that ACI saw its most glorious days, and air races were a common phenomenon then.
The baton of ACI was again passed on to the Nehru-Gandhi family in 1984 when Nehru’s grandson Rajiv Gandhi became its president. However, Rajiv was at the helm of affairs of ACI for a brief period only; in the same year, he became the Prime Minister and gave up the post.
ACI, which once had the authority to issue licences for arms and wireless facilities to foreign aviators, lost these powers soon after Independence. And eventually with the formulation of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), ACI lost its regulatory powers of issuing flying licenses to pilots and giving approvals to flight instructors. Industry experts say the actual downfall of ACI began in the 90s when commercial airlines started gaining popularity as governments chose to focus only on commercial flying.
The club is now primarily responsible for handling aero sports in the country and is also head of the apex body of private and government flying clubs, which provides initial training to become commercial pilots.
ACI also has many firsts to its credit. Not only did it issue India’s first flying licence to JRD Tata in 1929 but it is also deeply linked with the history of India’s first commercial flight. On October 15, 1932, JRD famously piloted the first-ever flight of the Tata Air Services from Karachi’s Drigh Road Aerodrome to Mumbai’s Juhu Airstrip via Ahmedabad, carrying 25kg of 4-anna airmail letters. This landmark journey was the brainchild of Tata Airlines, which later went on to become Air India, the country’s national carrier. In 1985, JRD gifted the same aircraft to ACI—it is still suspended from the ceiling of the building, from where ACI has been evicted now.
Officials associated with ACI cite various conspiracy theories and say the government has been misled to believe that ACI is a private company, which has no right to use government land. They insist that ACI is a heritage organisation and is registered under Section 8 of the Companies Act, which makes it a non-profit, non-commercial body. Sources said ACI officials are in touch with the Ministry of Civil Aviation for new space for their office.
ACI Secretary General Aneesha Suresh said, “It is a heritage organisation, which should not be locked out as it continues to serve the nation in aero sports despite its limited resources. For promotion of aero sports in the country, ACI needs to be nurtured and supported by all governments.”