In the undivided India of 1930, Karachi was the ‘aerial gateway of India’, boasting the first flying club in the country. One early morning in March two young men started up a small plane and, shrouded in secrecy, started on the journey of their lives. Seventeen-year-old Aspy Engineer and his friend R.N. Chawla, older by a few years, were attempting to fly to London in Aspy’s little single-engine aircraft. From there Aspy would return solo to compete in the race for the Agha Khan Cup. This pioneering event ushered in the era of civil aviation in India.
||A young Aspy Engineer, in May 1930 with his DeHavilland Gypsy Moth. Aspy had embarked on the UK-India flight to win the Agha Khan Cup.
It was a heady period for young fliers. Lindbergh had flown solo trans-Atlantic and the likes of Amelia Earhart, Jim Morrison and Amy Johnson were making exciting headlines. To encourage aviation in India, the Agha Khan announced a trophy and a prize for the first Indian to fly solo between England and India within a period of 30 days. Aspy’s father had encouraged his children to ‘dare to dream’ and now he somehow put together enough resources to buy his son a DeHavilland Gypsy Moth.
Aspy won the race, and in so doing inspired his younger brothers to take flight on amazing Life journeys of their own. On hearing the news of Aspy’s winning the Agha Khan cup, half the population of Karachi turned out to greet him on his return. Asked by a reporter what he saw in his future, the youngster said “I would love the chance to serve my country in the Air Force”. A wish that came true for not one, but four of the brothers, with three of them receiving the coveted Distinguished Flying Cross. Aspy reached the highest position, Jangoo served in the Air force during the critical war years and then went on to make his mark in civil aviation, Minoo became the highest decorated officer in the armed forces, and the youngest, brilliant, enigmatic Ronnie charted a distinguished path of his own.
|Minoo, Aspy and Ronnie Engineer, all awarded the D F C. Jangoo Engineer, who is not in this photograph made his mark in civil aviation as well
Four years apart in age, the boys were four out of eight siblings who grew up in Karachi where their father was the Divisional Engineer for the Northwestern Railway. Their mother was gentle, talented, very spiritual and a great moral force in their lives. Both parents groomed the children to be good Zoroastrians, with a great emphasis on honesty, high thinking and hard-work. One day around the year 1919, Alcock and Brown landed a small aircraft on the racecourse just below their spacious Railway bungalow, which was on a rise. Seven-year-old Aspy watched in fascination and an obsession was born. Ten years later, Aspy joined the newly formed Karachi Aero club and got his flying license within a year.
Promoters of the ‘nature vs. nurture’ theory would have a field day with the growing Engineer brothers as subjects. Being the eldest, Aspy developed strong leadership qualities. At times he had to be quite harsh on the boisterous younger ones. A free-spirited, euphoric spirit of adventure was never curbed by the adoring parents, but rather given free reign. However, perfection was made a goal, and the boys did not disappoint. A streak of extreme academic brilliance also ran in the family and the two brothers who didn’t take to flying excelled in other spheres, one topping the Civil Service exam and the other finishing school at the age of fourteen. Believing in ‘a healthy mind in a healthy body’, a Japanese gym instructor named Yamaki was put in charge of the brood’s fitness regimen. In later years, Aspy was to record with humour: “ My problem was that Yamaki wanted me also to become a ‘champion swimmer’ like my brother Jangoo, although swimming was anything but my strong point or budding love. As it happened, I could barely keep myself afloat and avoided entering deep waters in the same way as some so-called hunting dogs do, who prefer other pastimes to entering the cold waters of a duck ‘jheel’ early on a February morning!”
Aspy in the IAF
Aspy trained at RAF Cranwell, U.K. where he was adjudged the best all round cadet. On commissioning from Cranwell, he joined ‘A’ Flight of the IAF, flying Wapitis in the North Western Frontier Province. He helped nurse the newly formed Indian Air force into a self-sufficient, high-morale fighting force and led several missions which resulted in the training of pilots and technicians for other developing countries.
A constructive period followed as M.D. of Hindustan Aircraft Ltd. (HAL), when the Marut flew its first sortie during his tenure. In 1960, on the sudden demise of the first Indian Chief of Air Force, his close friend Subrato Mukherjee, Aspy was appointed his successor. The Goa Operations and action in the Congo kept his forces busy.
Throughout his tenure there were ominous signs that Pakistan was preparing for war and that China was encroaching from Tibet. He ably guided his force through the 1962 aggression by the Chinese. After retirement from the Indian Air Force in 1964, he served as India’s ambassador to Iran. He passed away in 2002.
Jangoo, the third Engineer brother, was the next to take up flying. In core areas like love of flying, patriotism, honesty and courage he was a lot like Aspy. However, while leadership came naturally to him too, he was kind and generous to a fault, with heart ruling head. He exulted in competition, and with fair-play as his standard, won in everything he set his sights on. Bridge and chess found him competing on a national level just as did swimming and squash. A brilliant science graduate, he had started his Medical studies while at the same time getting his flying license, when financial straits in the family led him to join Tata Air Lines as a pilot. He had flown for two years when the call went out for volunteers for an Emergency Commission in the R.I.A.F. in 1939. His response was unhesitating. On being recruited he immediately set about topping the armament exercises and building a formidable reputation. His first posting was with No. 1 Squadron at Miranshah.
In 1941 he was with the Madras Coast Defence Flight. He shadowed a Japanese fleet off the Madras coast and was in turn shadowed by a couple of Japanese planes 30 miles inland. Ironically, though his life was spared then, Jangoo was to meet his end tragically at the hands of two other fighter pilots in Pakistani Sabre jets during a cowardly attack on his unarmed civilian ‘plane in the 1965 War. Strangely, against all odds, he had also survived a fall from the sky when, during an aerobatics display in 1941 in Bangalore, his plane hit a vulture and plummeted to earth. Though his body was thoroughly shattered, his spirit was indomitable.
After a near-miraculous recovery, nothing could prevent him from taking to the skies once more. At the end of 1942 he was in Calcutta as personal pilot to the Air Officer commanding, 221 group. He also spent 11 months as Group Training Officer at the G.H.Q. board for Permanent Selection. At the end of the war he made the difficult decision to return to Civil Aviation, where the uncharted skies called for his kind of dedication and expertise. He rose to be Director of Operations, Planning and Training of Indian Airlines (a combined post created especially for him, and split in three after he left the Airline).
In 1964, after a distinguished career with the Airline, he resigned on principle over differences with the Pilots’ Union, and made the fateful move to fly for the Maharashtra Government. When his life came to an abrupt end at the age of 49, time stood still for his brothers, so loved was he. “Too beautiful for this world”, grieved Aspy.
Minoo Engineer remains to date the most decorated officer in the IAF. The sixth of the siblings and the third brother to join the Air Force, Minoo seemed to be born with the proverbial twinkle in his eye. Low down in the sibling ‘food-chain’ so to speak, he had a tough time keeping up with his brothers who grew rapidly stronger and taller than he. Even younger brother, Ronnie, was to become the college boxing champion, when both were in Elphinstone College, Bombay.
However, Minoo was to prove the ‘eternal warrior’ of the group. Below a jovial, genial exterior, he hid a steely resolve. He joined the Air force in 1940 and retired after 33 years of distinguished service. A grateful nation was to bestow on him the highest awards ever given to anyone in the history of the armed forces.
He was awarded the DFC when, in frontline combat duty in World War II, he commanded the first Spitfire Squadron in Burma and later the only Indian Squadron in Japan in 1946. In 1947 he formed the first operational air base in Jammu and Kashmir. Controlling all air operations there, he was awarded the Maha Vir Chakra for conspicuous gallantry. In 1962 he was specially selected as S.A.S.O. of new Operational Command in Eastern Sector, where the Chinese threat was developing. Coping remarkably with all the air support requirements projected by the Army within the meager resources of men and material then available, he was awarded the Param Vishisht Seva Medal. In 1965 he was appointed the Deputy Chief of Air Staff at Air Head Quarters, and in 1969 was selected as Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Air Command. His retalliatory air strikes on 3rd and 4th December 1971 took the air war deep into enemy territory and his leadership contributed greatly to an Indian victory, winning him the Padma Bhushan.
In 1990 the Maharashtra government honoured him with the prestigious ‘Gaurav Puraskar.’ On retirement, he plunged into a vastly different challenge. As CEO of an advertising agency, he found himself in unfamiliar waters, but despite rapidly failing health did a remarkable job. If one were to run one’s finger down a portrait of the Engineer clan looking for ‘Mr. Dependable’ it would come to rest on Minoo Engineer, to whom any friend, family member or even stranger could always turn for help and genuine advice.
Ronnie Engineer was the youngest child. Bearing a striking physical resemblance to Jangoo, the youngster soon grew to hero-worshiping this gentle giant of an elder brother. Both brothers got used to winning at various sports and while Jangoo excelled at swimming, Ronnie was a boxing supremo. His charismatic personality and winning ways won him a legion of friends and admirers. But it was his superb skill at flying and his fearlessness in battle that put him in a category of his own. The RIAF quickly spotted the handsome flyer and featured him in films and posters for their recruitment campaign, He readily admitted to idolising Jangoo, and on the latter’s death was so grief-stricken that he could never speak of him again. But it was Ronnie who led his Canberra squadron to wipe out the Pakistani radar that had picked up Jangoo’s plane in 1965. And a year later when a son was born to Ronnie he proudly named him Jehangir after his adored sibling, and started him on flying training as soon as he came of age. In a cruel twist of fate, this young Jehangir was killed in a mid-air collision in Canada when just 25 years old.
Being the youngest in a string of illustrious siblings had both advantages and disadvantages. Struggling not to be over-shadowed, Ronnie had superb role models right within the family. With unique charisma and exceptional flying talent, Ronnie always looked skywards. He was deeply loved by all levels of the men he worked with. Always leading from the front, he would often gallantly take the rap to protect his juniors. His zest for life was infectious, and whether as leader of squadron 2 or as Commanding Officer, he suffused his crew with an amazing spirit of ‘bon homie ‘.
In the fledgling Air force of WW II, it seemed that whichever way one turned one came across one of the Engineer brothers. So it was inevitable that they came across each other. Ronnie was to record that seeing his eldest brother, he rushed up to him with an ebullient “Hello Aspy”, only to be dressed down with “ It’s ‘Sir’ and a salute from you, young man. You are in uniform”. A few days later, Ronnie spotted Jangoo and clicked to a smart salute, when Jangoo with an arm around his shoulders says, “Hey, when did I stop being your brother?” Coming across Minoo still later, a wary Ronnie queried “ which way should I go”?
Ronnie’s spectacular career in the Air force came to an abrupt end in 1966, when events drove him to leave and make a new life in Canada, shocking many and leaving a lasting void. In spirit he remained a son of Indian soil, and of its skies, carrying his Air Force within him till his heart failed in his 60th year.
||Ronnie, centre, standing tall with his trophy. Minoo fourth from right, last row.
So, in 1930, as the young aviator, Aspy winged his way in his little Gypsy Moth across unknown skies to a world record, little could he foresee what was to come. The country and the Air Force were ready for the brothers. They, in turn , exulted in the Times and embraced the challenges; triumph and tragedy equal stowaways on their powerful, unforgettable formation in the sky.