Usha Sundaram flew rescue missions during partition and piloted VIPs later

Abhijit Sen Gupta
Abhijit Sen Gupta

After the dissolution of the British Raj and the partition of India in 1947, it has been estimated that the total loss of lives was about 20 million. When the fires of unfortunate communal violence ripped apart the provinces of Punjab and Bengal, efforts were made to rescue people who were stranded on the wrong side of the border. Among those involved in trying to save people was a brave young woman pilot named Usha Sundaram.

Recently, a woman pilot named Mahasweta Chakraborty took part in Operation Ganga and brought home 800 Indians from Ukraine’s borders. Usha Sundaram did a similar job but under riskier circumstances because she flew into the heart of the violence hit regions.

Usha was among the first woman pilots to have served independent India but her courageous deeds are largely unknown and unsung. About two years ago, the Times of India had carried a report detailing how this woman based in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), braved a hostile environment and flew rescue missions into unfamiliar terrain to save innocent lives. Several families in India owe their existence to the fearlessness of this lady pilot and her willingness to fly into the midst of the conflict, risking her own life to help those who were in dire need.

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After the carnage had ended and things returned to normal, she became famous as the woman who was entrusted with the task of flying newly independent India’s VIPs to their destinations. These VIPs included India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Maharaja of Mysore, India’s first President Dr. Rajendra Prasad and Minister for Education, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

Again she showed her courage because now she had to fly her airplane to far flung regions of India which did not have well maintained airfields and runways. Many of the VIPs whom she flew, were highly impressed with her flying skills and she always guided the aircraft safely to its destination without any mishaps to the VIPs.

Her husband Captain V. Sundaram had been a pilot from the age of 19 and became an instructor at the Madras Flying Club. After Usha married him in 1941, she took an interest in flying aircrafts of different types. Her natural aptitude helped her to pick up the skills quickly and she became her husband’s co-pilot on airmail trips from Madras (Chennai) to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and back. Thus she was one of the pioneers among women pilots in India. According to a report in The Better India, now women pilots in the aviation industry in India comprise 15 percent of the workforce while the world average is only 5 percent.

In 1946 Usha and her husband Captain Sundaram settled in Bangalore where the latter became Director of Civil Aviation in the state of Mysore. The duo was chosen as the personal pilots of the Maharaja of Mysore’s aircraft and took him to different destinations across the country. The same aircraft was also often used by other VIPs of the time and both husband and wife were kept busy with their office duties as well as flying assignments. The VIPs preferred this private jet with its all Indian crew to those of other carriers of the time which was manned mainly by British crew.

In 1950 the Government of Madras (now Tamil Nadu) wanted to purchase an aircraft. For this they enlisted the help of the couple who by now were renowned as the topmost experts in the field of aviation. The duo travelled to England and purchased a De Havilland Dove airplane which they felt would best suit the requirements of the state government. Then they returned by flying this airplane from London to India in a time span of 27 hours which became a world record.

Usha’s husband Captain V. Sundaram was no less accomplished. He became a pilot and then a flying instructor and was the first pilot to take a photograph of the Taj Mahal from an airplane. Captain Sundaram had a completely accident free record for 35 years till he retired from flying. He wrote about his experiences in a book titled An Airman’s Saga.

He was also a great animal lover. Captain Sundaram, his wife Usha and their three children founded the Blue Cross of India which they started as a small rescue home for animals within their own house. From there the organisation grew into one of the best known animal welfare institutions in all Asia. The organisation has received several national and international honours.

After a long and dedicated life, Captain Sundaram passed away in 1997 and his wife Usha followed him several years later. But the work that this couple did and the service that they rendered to India is worthy of being remembered for all time.

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