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Biju Patnaik & the Dakota DC3
Housed at the Biju Patnaik International Airport in Bhubaneswar, Odisha, lies a Dakota (DC3) aircraft.
Less than a km away stands the home of its late commander, former Odisha chief Minister Biju Patnaik. Born on 5 March, 1916, Patnaik was not only a freedom fighter and industrialist, he was also a legendary aviator.
At the start of the Second World War Patnaik joined the Royal Indian Air Force and eventually became the head of air transport command. While in service, he developed an interest in nationalist politics and used air force transports to deliver what was seen as subversive literature to Indian troops. He also helped Indonesian freedom fighters in 1946 by ferrying planeloads of medicines as well as humanitarian assistance, defying the Dutch who had put up land and sea blockades.
A young daredevil
But the young Patnaik’s most daring exploit came in July 1947.
On the 21st of that month, at Jawarhal Nehru’s behest, Patnaik, then aged 32, took off to Jakarta on a Dakota aircraft with his co-pilot and wife Gyan, leaving behind their 14 day old son.
However, as soon as he reached Singapore he received a warning message from the Dutch threatening to shoot down his aircraft if it entered Indonesian airspace.
“Resurgent India does not recognize Dutch colonial sovereignty over the Indonesian people,” replied an unfazed Patnaik. “If my aircraft is shot down, every Dutch plane flying across the Indian skies will be shot down in retaliation.”
In an amazing rescue act, Patnaik then landed on an improvised airstrip, refueled with leftover petrol from abandoned Japanese military dumps, and eluded the Dutch to land in Jakarta. On July 24, he successfully flew out Indonesian Vice-President Md Hatta and Prime Minister Sutan Sjahrir and landed in Delhi!
A romance with flying
Patnaik went on to found Kalinga airlines in 1947. In 1953, along with seven other independent airlines of the day, Kalinga was nationalized and merged into Indian Airlines Corporation. This aircraft was lying abandoned in Kolkata’s Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose International Airport before being brought back on lorries to Bhubaneswar. After a facelift it joined Kalinga airlines’ fleet of sixteen Dakotas which carried soldiers into Kashmir and dropped supplies in North Eastern India.
“This old plane is a symbol of Biju Babu’s romance with flying,” says researcher Anil Dhir.
According to Dhir, who is also a trained pilot, the DC-3 Dakota was, and still is, unique. No other aircraft has cruised every sky known to humankind. It has been admired, cherished, and glamorized. It has flown more miles, broken more records, and performed more “impossible” feats than any other plane in history.
A man of vision
Patnaik was a visionary leader and an able administrator. Aurobindo Behera, who was secretary to Patnaik during his second stint as chief minister of Odisha((1990-95), shares an incident.
One afternoon in 1993, Chief Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister, Dr. APJ Kalam (who later became the President of India) met with Patnaik and Behera. Kalam had been working with the Odisha government for a year to develop a missile testing facility at Wheeler Island, with little success. Finally, Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao gave Kalam a letter addressed to Patnaik. Dr. Kalam, armed with Rao’s letter, arrived at Patnaik’s office.
Patnaik said, “Tell me, what types of missiles you are going to make. I am not interested in firecrackers. I will give you the island if you promise me that your missiles can reach Beijing.”
A smiling Dr. Kalam replied, “One day, we will try to fulfill your dream, Sir.”
Immediately Patnaik penned the words ‘Allowed’ on the map of the island that Dr Kalam had spread on his table.
“He understood things very quickly. Once he was convinced, no power on earth could stop him from doing the job,” says Behera, of his boss.
A legacy of reforms
Patnaik was among the first to introduce reforms in the power sector. “He was convinced that the unbundling of generation, distribution and transmission of power was the way forward,” says Vivek Pattanayak, who was then the power secretary. The reforms paved the way for the private sector to play a role and brought in players like AES of the US and others.
“He also did a lot towards women’s empowerment,” says journalist Bighneswar Sahu. During his second stint as chief minister of Odisha Biju took the pioneering decision to reserve 33 percent of seats for women in Panchayat.
Patnaik passed away in 1997. Sahu says, “Even twenty-five years after his death, Biju Patnaik is admired by one and all.”