For a taste of air travel, Indians board flights to nowhere
It's 10am on a Monday morning and I'm standing on a patch of dusty asphalt in the far reaches of south-west Delhi. Just ahead, a towering aluminium stairway leads up to the entrance of an orange and white passenger jet. For myself and a large number of domestic travellers, it's a familiar scene. Rising levels of tourism and a booming national economy have combined over the past 10 years to make India the world's fastest-growing commercial aviation market.
However, I am not queuing for a normal departure. This particular aircraft has one wing, no tail, no engines and is wedged inside an open-faced concrete building. Along with about 100 excitable eight-year-olds who are now running circles around three harried teachers, I am waiting for an altogether different experience: the Center for Civil Aviation's introduction to the world of aeroplanes - better known as "the flight to nowhere".
Odd as it may seem, the fact that we won't even be taking off is doing nothing to dull the enthusiasm of my little companions. When the door finally opens, the children - here on a class trip from the nearby Arvind Gupta DAV Centenary School - race, two-by-two, up the creaking steps. The noise is deafening, and it only gets louder when we are safely inside the cabin. Still, such eagerness is hardly surprising. Few, if any, of these kids have ever been near a plane before.
As established carriers compete for custom with a host of newer low-cost operators, roughly 35 million Indian citizens now take domestic flights every year. However, large-scale expansion of the industry and fares that rank among the cheapest in the world notwithstanding, air travel remains far out of reach for the overwhelming majority of the nation's 1.2 billion population.
That's precisely why, back in 2003, the retired aircraft engineer Bahadur Chand Gupta had the bright idea of purchasing a decommissioned Airbus A300, parking it on a vacant lot close the city's domestic airport and offering virtual "flights" to the general public for 150 rupees each.
"I come from a small village in Haryana state called Kasan," Gupta explains over cups of hot, sweet chai in his office. "I was the first person from there to qualify as an engineer. When I went to work for India Airlines in Delhi it was a very big thing. Whenever I went home or when people came to the city they wanted to talk to me about my work. None of them had ever flown and many of them used to ask if I could take them inside a plane. For security reasons that was never possible, but saying no always made me feel very uncomfortable and disappointed. After some time I began to think that I should do something outside of the airport. Then this plane came up for sale and I bought it."
Gupta, now aged 55, bats away questions about exactly how much the plane cost him, offering only a loud chuckle in reply. Yet he is happy to talk about the massive amount of work involved in making his dream a reality. Enlisting the help of past colleagues, he set about dismantling his new acquisition, stripping out the high-tech inner workings and then reassembling it, piece by piece, as a static shell on a plot of land in the city's Dwarka area.
"It took 10 months altogether," he says. "I could have made money if I had broken up the plane and sold off all the parts, but I didn't want to do that. When I had finished putting it back together, I told all the people from my village, 'OK, now you can come and see what it is like to sit on a plane.'" Needless to say, this proved a big hit with Gupta's former neighbours. At first news of the attraction spread by word of mouth alone, then, inevitably, the local media came calling. "In the early days some journalists heard about what I was doing and published a few stories," he adds. "After that we very quickly started to see a lot more people ... It all began with me wanting to make something for people who have never had the chance to travel on an aircraft before ... I started off with adults, but later it just grew and grew, especially when we began to take groups of schoolchildren."
The centre gradually evolved into a full-time concern. It now employs several staff and offers a number of fee-paying courses, including air hospitality and aircraft radio navigation systems. While these study programmes bring in much-needed revenue, special rates are offered to visiting schools and charities, and the very poorest visitors are granted free entry. Gupta admits that the plane is "not a viable business," adding that "you lose every day - but it is my passion and it feels like home to me now".
Given these pressures and the extraordinary nature of his pet project, one cannot help but wonder what his wife, Dr Nirmal Jindal, makes of it all. "She is very happy with what I am doing and has always been a big support to me," he says. "In the beginning she used to work with me looking after the schoolchildren when they came to visit. She still does, but is also a professor of political science at Delhi University, which keeps her very busy. I am lucky, really. Before I always thought that if I was not working, our bread and butter would not come, but now I am just happy here playing with my time and resources and doing something that I love."
Chatting with Gupta, who cheerfully dons his captain's hat midway through our conversation, it rapidly becomes clear that this ramshackle plane is a true vocation - one man's idiosyncratic way of giving something back.
"The aim was always to make people comfortable and to do something that is enjoyable for them," he explains. Accordingly, this morning's itinerary includes a faux airline lunch of sandwiches, juice and glucose biscuits, delivered by ersatz air hostesses and punctuated by commentary from a fake pilot - complete with details of expected weather conditions for the passengers' make-believe journey.
Hearing and seeing it all happen is profoundly surreal. It is also a huge amount of fun - there's even a short break for a magic show halfway through the schedule. However, Gupta is keen to stress the plane's educational potential. In addition to an entertaining day out, every group of visitors is given a thorough briefing on safety procedures, from seat-belt fastening to the location of emergency exits, life jackets and oxygen masks.
"We do have a lot of school parties coming to visit," Gupta says, "and while it is good for children to learn about these things, adults also need to be taught. When we started I realised that giving people a tour and lunch was not enough. They were excited when they first got to their seats, but after 20 minutes they were all bored, so I decided that I wanted to do more. First I began by telling people how much a new plane would cost, explaining how it worked and offering instructions about how to behave when you are a passenger on a real flight. Then I did some research and found that, relative to other places in the world, far more people are injured or killed in emergency situations in India than anywhere else. That's because people are not used to flying and have no idea what to do. I thought if I could teach people that, then it would be very helpful."
Perhaps unexpectedly, these sobering findings came with an added bonus, giving Gupta the most crowd-pleasing of grand finales. Although it might sound like the worst possible introduction to Indian aviation, every flight now ends with a simulated crash landing. As an alarm issues around the cabin, passengers are told to strap themselves in, assume the brace position and to wait for the plane to hit the ground.
Of course, no one is in any real danger, but the effect is still strangely unnerving. Then comes the moment everyone has been waiting for: a stewardess pops open the middle door and evacuates the aircraft via its emergency exit. Standing outside with the teacher Jeewan Jyoti, watching a stream of her smiling pupils bouncing down the red and white striped slide, I can't help but agree with Gupta's very first words to me: "This plane is unique. You won't see anything like it anywhere else in the world."
Dave Stelfox is a freelance journalist and photographer based in London. He is a regular contributor to The Review.
Updated: June 30, 2012 04:00 AM