POLITICIANS AND THEIR PLANE TRUTHS
Rajiv Gandhi’s smooth landing into politics from a career as a pilot—like Orissa’s late chief minister Biju Patnaik’s before him—led many politicians of different shades take to the skies to hone their flying skills as a hobby, launch their own airline service or even make forays into commercial flying.
BJP MP from Saran, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, 51, did the opposite of Gandhi by starting out as a politician and then venturing into flying. “I began flying in 2010 when I got a private pilot license. Then I got a Commercial Pilot License from the Patna Flying Club. I fly A-320 commercial planes for an airline as an honorary pilot,” Rudy, who was civil aviation minister in the NDA government, told ET.
Other than Gandhi- who was an Indian Airlines pilot before he entered politics— Rudy is the only politician who has flown a commercial plane on a regular basis. He made it to the Limca Book of Records as the only parliamentarian who flies a commercial A-320 plane. His passion for flying led him to do a two month course in Miami, Florida where he learnt to fly the big bird. Not surprisingly, he has logged in more than 1,000 hours of flying since then.
“The difference between Rajiv Gandhi and me is that he was a pilot who entered politics while I was a politician who became a commercial pilot,” Rudy said.
Rahul Gandhi is also said to have learnt flying skills, according to sources, but chose his father’s second profession.
Several of the young Turks in politics have flown planes and choppers as a hobby. Former union minister Sachin Pilot, a part of the Rahul Gandhi circle, once said that he learnt flying as he was often teased by friends that he had “pilot” as a surname but could not fly a plane.
Jay Panda, 50, BJD MP from Kendrapara, flies his own chopper. He would hop from one place to another in his helicopter during the just concluded Lok Sabha election campaign.
However, it is Biju Patnaik, father of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who is the most famous Oriya in the field of flying. He saved Indonesian rebel (who later became president) Sukarno’s daughter Megawati by flying her out of the trouble-torn country. Patnaik was even involved with the erstwhile Kalinga Airlines.
TMC leader and former railway minister Dinesh Trivedi also flies planes as a hobby, according to sources.
Rudy is not the only former civil aviation minister who took to the skies. NCP leader Praful Patel also flies planes- though not the big commercial ones. He opened a flying school in Gondia-Bhandara, the constituency in Maharashtra that he represented in the last Lok Sabha but faced a crushing defeat this time. Rajiv Chandrasekhar, the business tycoon turned MP from Karnataka, also flies his own plane. The tribe of politicians who own planes, choppers or even flying clubs that provide chartered services has increased over the years. Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s family owns Orbit, a group which has a chopper- a Bell-49- and a Cessna plane. These birds have PSB- the initials of the CM- engraved on them. Badal’s predecessor Captain Amarinder Singh, who defeated BJP’s Arun Jaitley in Amritsar, also knows how to fly planes, according to sources. The Majithia family, deputy Punjab chief minister Sukhbir Badal’s in-laws, own an airline called Saraya Aviation Pvt Ltd.
The Lok Sabha elections saw several of these operators providing planes to politicians for campaigning.
Captain Gulab Singh, owner of Saarthi Airways Pvt Ltd, supplies planes to the BJP and a few other parties. He also has the onerous task of ensuring that the BJP brass get their planes and choppers at the right time and place.
“Ever since the security of BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi was upgraded, we had to coordinate with Gandhinagar on a daily basis during the election campaign,” he told ET.
Two planes were kept for Modi during the election campaign as he used to return to Gandhinagar late night every day and fly out the next morning. The pilots had to be given adequate rest as per DGCA rules and Modi used to leave Gandhinagar in the morning for his grueling schedule of five rallies across two states in a day. He would use the plane—and choppers that would be sent in advance from different locations—to reach the venue of the public meetings, according to Singh.
Both planes—Embraers— used by Modi belong to Adani Group-owned Karnavati Aviation.
Gulab Singh’s job was not just to provide his own planes but to arrange the flying machines from other operators as well as handle the pilots, fuel and other logistics.
Interestingly, Singh does not provide air services to BJP’s rival Congress.
“Trust between the politicians and the operators is very important. Even in the US, you will find that the Republicans and Democrats do not use the services of the same operators and aviation companies,” Singh explains.
His company used to provide planes and choppers to NDA ally JD (U) but stopped after the party walked out of the NDA last year. However, Saarthi Airways counts RJ and LJP among its clients. Captain Singh has been handling th and choppers for BJP for more than a now and enjoys the trust of BJP chief Singh and veteran LK Advani, among Congress leader Kamal Nath has a