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‘PM Nehru would ask me to take a break’

Updated on: 21 May,2023 11:57 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Nidhi Lodaya |

Ahead of the diamond jubilee of Air India’s maiden international journey, its last surviving crew member speaks to mid-day from Connecticut

‘PM Nehru would ask me to take a break’

Thelma McCoy was one of only two hostesses on the flight serving 35 passengers

It was on June 8, 1948 when Malabar Princess, Air India’s first international flight took off and made Indian civil aviation history. From then Bombay, it left for London via Cairo and Geneva. 

Ahead of the airline’s 75th anniversary, Santa Cruz-based aviation enthusiast and historian Debasish Chakraverty introduced us to Thelma McCoy, the last surviving crew member, and one of two air-hostesses on board the Malabar Princess. “I became interested in the young flight attendant when I saw the photograph of the flight’s arrival at London airport on June 9,” says Chakraverty. He got in touch with her cousin, Carlton Ross, and  McCoy’s daughter, Rhonda Young, who then facilitated the interview with the nonagenarian.  

How did she get the job, we asked McCoy, who is currently in Connecticut. “I needed the job and they needed stewardesses,” she said matter of factly. McCoy, an Anglo-Indian, chose Air India because it was the “largest airline at the time”. 

Passengers boarding the Constellation VT-CQP Malabar Princess at London on June 11, 1948
Passengers boarding the Constellation VT-CQP Malabar Princess at London on June 11, 1948

The VT-CQP Lockheed Constellation was a 44-seater airplane with 35 passengers on board, as per the fan site Air India First Flight Covers (which quotes an article from the Air India website that was later taken down). In her belly, the Malabar Princess carried 164 passenger bags and 771 kilos of mail.

McCoy was excited to fly to London because she had family there and was “proud to be the first stewardess on that inaugural flight”. Given that it was the maiden international flight and that air voyage was an unheard luxury then, the guests were distinguished: Maharaja Shri Duleepsinhji of the Nawanagar state in Gujarat and cricketer representing England, Lt. Colonel W Grey (formerly in the colonial government’s Political department), and cyclists HB Malcolm and RR Noble who were on their way to represent India at the Olympic Games at Wembley. “They were all ladies and gentlemen,” recalls McCoy. “I enjoyed [dealing with] them and never had any trouble. Most were friendly and funny.”

The crew during the arrival in London on June 9, 1948: Capt Jatar, FO Dhuru, air-hostess Miss Thelma McCoy, RO Sule, chief hostess FE Desouza. PICS COURTESY/PRIVATE COLLECTION OF DEBASISH CHAKRAVERTYThe crew during the arrival in London on June 9, 1948: Capt Jatar, FO Dhuru, air-hostess Miss Thelma McCoy, RO Sule, chief hostess FE Desouza. PICS COURTESY/PRIVATE COLLECTION OF DEBASISH CHAKRAVERTY

She counts those years as “the best of my life.” “I was young and earning enough to support my mother and send my niece to school,” she says. “I had the best life and best times with Air India International. It was such a glamorous job, not like that of flight attendants now!” She also has fond memories of the crew. “Some captains were very strict and we had to obey all the rules. Others were comedic, with a very keen sense of humour. 

“Everyone looked out for each other.” McCoy admits being nervous as it was her first flight, but being busy helped. The flight took off from Santa Cruz airport at 12.05 am. “People came out to see the take-off; there was quite a crowd,” she says. “Everyone was clapping and cheering us on. We were all excited, [it was] such a jovial atmosphere.” Prior to the flight, a two column x 15 cm advertisement appeared in a leading broadsheet on June 3 with the famous mascot, the Maharaja, bowing to welcome passengers. “Fly with me to London via Cairo and Geneva every Tuesday in a beautiful Constellation for R1,720,” it read.

She worked in Air India for nine-and-a-half years before she moved to New York when she married an American. Of the era she says, “There is no comparison to the aviation of today. I flew during the golden age of flying when it was luxurious, glamorous and classy. People had manners and [showed] respect.”

Chakraverty tells us that just like today, flights back then had business (first) and economy class. “Later, even bunk beds were added to these types of airplanes [Lockheed Constellation],” he adds. He says that in-flight dining used to be grand and included alcohol, cigarettes and cigars until the late 1980s. “Food was served in fine China such as Royal Doulton and high quality silverware was part of the experience.” Even the food was class apart. “They had continental food and exquisite menus,” Chakraverty says. “Meals were not pre-packaged, but served hot on China dishes and in courses—appetiser, main course, dessert, aperitifs and cigarettes.”

McCoy is full of quaint stories, such as the time a female passenger suddenly realised that it was Friday the 13th, and screamed to get off the plane. “I flew with [PM Jawaharlal] Nehru as a passenger many times. He knew my name and would often ask me to sit down and take a break,” she recalls. “He was a very bright and beautiful man.” She also met Muhammad Ali Jinnah on a flight to and from Karachi. “So many people I flew with became lifelong friends and sadly some of them perished in air crashes. My close friend Gloria Berry was killed in a crash at Mont Blanc. Her body still remains there.” One of McCoy’s fondest memories is looking out of the window. “It was always so serene,” she says. “I remember seeing Mt Vesuvius in the distance; it was surreal”.

She was once caught in a severe storm with only 20 minutes of fuel left. “The captain had to turn the plane around and land somewhere on the North African coast,” she recalls. “Passengers were allowed to leave the plane to get something to eat. When they returned, the winds had subsided and we were able to resume the flight. Many of the women were in saris and hadn’t fastened seatbelts yet. When the plane took off, their sarees flew! There was screaming and they were quite upset! It was quite a spectacle.”

It is these stories that Chakraverty did not want to lose the opportunity to document. “She was a trailblazer,” he says of McCoy, “who inspired many young women, including my sister, to become flight attendants.” In the absence of aviation museums or public archives, he is a one-man resource painstakingly preserving photographs. “Amongst my 100 plus collections of Air India airplane models,” says Chakraverty, “The Malabar Princess—the same one that Thelma arrived on in London 75 years ago—is dedicated to her”.

The crew on board for the firstAir India flight

The flight had six crew members: a stewardess, navigator, flight engineer, purser, captain and co-pilot. Captain KR Guzdar piloted from Bombay to Cairo, and Captain DK Jatar commanded the second leg of the journey from Cairo to Geneva to London. He was assisted by Captain BB Dhuru, radio officer NR Sule, flight engineer Freddie D’Souza, and navigator RS Mani. There were only two air-hostesses on board: Thelma McCoy and Ray Salway. Ganesh was the flight purser.  

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