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 CURRENT ISSUE NOVEMBER 11, 2002 

HERITAGE: VINTAGE AIRCRAFT

Soaring Again
Western aero enthusiasts pay anything to scoop up antique aircraft from India

By Sandeep UnnithanThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

A 1941 newspaper ad inviting visitor to view a downed Messerschmitt 109; the plane in its derelict state today; India has been a happy hunting-ground for Black
 
B-24 LIBERATOR: Two B-24 Liberators were sold to buyers abroad. Three more were donated.
TIGERMOTH: More than 10 Tigermoths have been sold or auctioned off in the past three decades
BDH-9 BIPLANE: Two De Hevilland-9 biplanes were bought by Guy Black a few years ago.
SPITFIRE: Enthusiasts have bought 17 prized Spitfires in the past three decades
HURRICANE: Banaras Hindu Unversity sold a Hurricane to a collector last year

It's hard to believe the origins of the battered aircraft fuselage, engine and wings lying amid a clump of discarded chairs and tables in the backyard of the Pujya Doddappa Appa College of Engineering in Gulbarga, Karnataka.

Over 60 years ago, this Messerschmitt 109, a magnificent single-seat fighter aircraft, was part of Hitler's Luftwaffe that roared over British skies to subdue the island before being shot down during the Battle of Britain. The faded black cross and swastika on its pale-green fuselage are today the only indicators of its origins.

A few months ago, the aircraft was rediscovered by Hyderabad-based aviation hobbyist P.V.S. Jagan Mohan whose website, warbirdsofindia.com, keeps tabs on such vintage war machines. Mohan dug up the aircraft's history-it was presented by a grateful Royal Air Force (RAF) to the Nizam of Hyderabad as a war trophy in 1941 in return for his funding of two RAF squadrons. Newspapers of the day went delirious exhorting the people of Secunderabad to come and see this "masterpiece of devilish Nazi ingenuity, this fighter manned by cultured barbarians, this King Kong of Germany gone criminally insane". After the war it was gifted to the college, which promptly forgot about it.

It turns out, Mohan wasn't alone in his rediscovery. Guy Black, millionaire British aircraft collector, has also spotted the machine and now plans to ship it out to the UK. The aircraft has left the college's backyard and the principal says it has been sold to a Bangalore-based individual whose name he "does not remember".

In the stratospheric heights of millionaire aircraft collectors, World War aircraft like the Messerschmitt and the Hurricane form a separate pantheon. Over the years, hawk-eyed collectors have swooped on them as derelict wartime aircraft emerging out of deserts, jungles and the Siberian wastelands. Especially since their numbers in the West have been virtually exhausted. "For the restorers, even the undercarriage of an original wartime aircraft will do-they can rebuild an entire aircraft around it," says Mohan.

For such aircraft collectors over the years-for better or for worse-India has become a rich hunting ground. They often rely on the legacy of eccentric rulers-the Maharaja of Faridkot's garages still hold three rusting World War II vintage aircraft-the ignorance of numerous flying clubs and engineering colleges where such aircraft lie in junk heaps or the munificence of the Indian Air Force (IAF) which has auctioned off several vintage Spitfires and Liberators in the past.

Last year, British publisher and car collector Peter Vacher bought an RAF Hawker Hurricane, a single-seat World War II Allied fighter. The aircraft, which is being restored to flight-worthy condition by Hawker Restorations, was gifted to the Banaras Hindu University by the IAF over half a century ago. It was studied by the Aero-engineering Department and later abandoned in an open college compound. Vacher paid £27,000 (Rs 20 lakh) for the rare fighter aircraft, less than a tenth of what it would have cost him to buy in the West.

Nazi aircraft in original paint and markings are the Holy Grail. One with a history, like Gulbarga's near-intact downed-in-combat Messerschmitt, is priceless. Considering there are only two such aircraft flying in the world today, this aircraft can easily fetch upwards of $1.5 million (Rs 7.2 crore)-as much as some of the Nizam's jewels-once restored to flight-worthy state. Not to mention a lifetime of paid appearances in air shows and war films (Black's vintage aircraft have appeared in Hollywood films Pearl Harbour and Saving Private Ryan).

Some years ago, Black snapped up one of two De Havilland DH-9s, British World War I twin-seat bomber biplanes that flew at the dawn of air combat. The intact aircraft, worth over $2 million (Rs 9.6 crore) each, were imperial gifts displayed at the Karn Mahal in Bikaner, Rajasthan. They now sit in his workshop in the UK where a five-year restoration-estimated at $1.5 million-will see them flying in air shows.

A spokesperson for the Royal Palace of Bikaner says they sold the termite-eaten DH-9 airframes to Black because time was running out. "There were no facilities in India to undertake their specialist conservation work," he adds. Money may have been a great persuasion-they were paid between £15,000 and £20,000 per aircraft.

Few can hold out in the face of such temptation. There are rare exceptions, however, like the Aeronautical Department of the Punjab Engineering College, Chandigarh, which has refused to part with its World War II vintage British-built Spitfire. Dismantled and kept in the aeronautical engineering department, the aircraft, one of Asia's last intact Spitfires, has attracted at least four offers in the past few years from British and American collectors. "The aircraft has the pride of place in our inventory not only because of its vintage value but as an important education kit," says a stoic department head S.C. Sharma who has so far resisted pressures from foreign collectors, their Indian agents and even the college authorities.

But such exceptions are as rare as the aircraft in question. For the moment, there is little legislation to prevent the 200-odd vintage aircraft that are on display in the country or the dozens lying in obscure junk yards from joining the 30 aircraft which have left the country over the years. Vintage aircraft fall outside the purview of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1971 which outlaws the export of artifacts older than a century. The only exception are vintage automobiles older than 1960. Old aircraft are fair game.

Black frankly admits to bribing officials in both India and Russia to ease his precious finds out of the country. "Corruption in the system hikes up the total cost incurred. Most of the money goes in greasing palms."(Webmasters Note: India Today Magazine subsequently published a retraction in April 2003 in which it stated that Mr. Guy Black may not have made the statement on 'Greasing Palms' )

The war museum culture, where such aircraft can find a permanent home, is taking off only now, thanks to sustained efforts made by the armed forces, particularly the navy and the IAF. But there are no vintage aircraft hobbyists who, like the car collectors, could successfully lobby the Government to ban the export of vintage craft.

"We neither have many aviation museums in India nor value aviation artifacts," says industrialist and aviator Vijaypath Singhania. "Nor the aircraft lovers who would want to restore them. Hence I feel we do not value their significance." Last year, Singhania's vintage Dakota parked at his Thane hospital was damaged by rampaging Shiv Sainiks protesting the death of their leader.

Lack of a sense of heritage is the reason, a lot of aviation enthusiasts feel, why these machines are better off flying in foreign skies than parked in India. "Unlike westerners, we don't know how to look after our vintage aircraft. Even the ones we keep in museums like the Air Force Museum, Palam, are deteriorating," says hobby aviator Mukund Murthy who remembers seeing a Liberator of IAF-origin while flight-training in the US.

In the next few years, vintage Indian aircraft could become an increasing sight in foreign skies.

-with Ishara Bhasi and Ramesh Vinayak

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