Ratan was in his late seventies when he remarked, ‘You know my passion is cars, and my passion is also right now looking at what plane I can buy—or, rather, what helicopter I can buy that would give me freedom to go short distances. So, I’ve been looking at the Robinson.’ Robinson Helicopter Company of Torrance, California, is a maker of three models of small corporate rotary-wing aircraft.
Ratan, like JRD before him, is an enthusiastic fixed-wing pilot. Ratan who is a type-rated licensed pilot, often personally flies the company’s Dassault Falcon 2000 business jet. But his interest in helicopters had apparently recently resurfaced, despite some prior harrowing flying experiences.
He tells the story of losing an engine while flying a helicopter in college:
‘I lost an engine on a helicopter—a single-engine helicopter,’ he responds calmly, ‘and I’m still here . . .’
‘And I was over water.’
‘I made it just to the tip of the land.’
When asked if that was closest he had come to death, he replied, ‘No, I actually didn’t think it was close to death at all,’ he answered like a true pilot, the kind who defines a ‘good landing’ as any you walk away from. ‘I can’t say I lost an engine. What I think happened was that water got into the fuel tank, and the engine quit but then it kind of like surged, and then I lost it again and it came alive again and surged. So, I was powering back the engine because I was concerned we were just going to go uncontrolled. And so I was able to make it to landfall, which I could see, and so I landed.’
But Ratan had not run out of flying stories.
‘I’ve been in a plane twice where I lost an engine—a single engine plane. So, I had to glide in.’
‘The first time I was just doing circuits and landings, so that was easy. But the second time, I was with three classmates flying around Cornell and about 9 miles from the airport and made it back to the airport and landed.’
Fortunately for us, this near-catastrophe has been preserved for posterity in a video-recorded interview with Ratan and two of his passengers. It tells a lot about the character of the man.
Ratan’s Cornell classmate Moises Benchoam begins:
I remember that day, and we were in the drafting room working on our architectural project. And Ratan asked if anybody wanted to take a break and go fly with him. Charlie Green, Nan Otteson, and myself took his offer. And pretty soon, we were high above Cayuga’s waters, enjoying beautiful scenery from a rented [Piper] Tri-Pacer single-engine plane.
Nannette Otteson: Mo [Moises] and I were in the rear seats, and Charlie was in the co-pilot position. When we got up over Sibley [Hall], Tata said, ‘Oh, look at the dome.’ There’s Sibley’s dome, where we all should have been.
Ratan Tata: And the next moment, it seemed like the whole plane was shaking itself apart, and then the prop stopped, and I realized we had no engine. There was dead silence outside the plane. Inside the plane, too.
Moises Benchoam: I didn’t know what was going on. I just saw Ratan moving levers and trying to control the plane. And when I leaned forward to see what was going on, I saw the propeller, that it was frozen.
Ratan Tata: I decided that I would try to land on the first place I saw, which was the practice field next to the stadium. And then I realized that all these people were practising for the football game, and I’d come in and kill them all because there was no sound. So, then I decided I’d try to make the airport.
Moises Benchoam: And I remember Ratan turning back to us and saying that we were high enough to make a forced landing at the runway in the airport. I turned towards Nan, and I saw her sinking as far as she could into her seat. And I didn’t get scared. I just wanted to see what Ratan was going to do.
Nanette Otteson: And then I heard him make the mayday call, and then I knew we were really in trouble. And then all of a sudden, I saw the tree-line coming up, and I looked over at Mo Benchoam, and he looked at me. We didn’t say a word. Neither did Charlie Green. But I was sure we were going to end up in the trees. And then all of a sudden, we came down, and we were at the airport. It was a miracle.
Ratan Tata: And I made the airport—but the wrong side of the airport. And I know there’s a Mohawk airlines plane coming in the other way, so I flicked on my landing lights and landed.
He went around, and I made probably the best landing I’ve ever made, and rolled on to the taxiway, turned off the runway, and then got everybody to get out and push the plane. Because there was no engine. And we had this big Mohawk plane behind us, sort of bearing down on us, trying to get us out of the way— because he had to go around and come back.
Moises Benchoam: Ratan asked the guy in the control tower why he hadn’t answered his calls. And the guy said that he had gone out for a Coke. So, then he went to the guy he rented the airplane from, and he said that if he wanted his plane back, he had to get it at the end of the runway. And the guy just said, ‘Well, that’s better than fishing it out of Cayuga Lake.’
‘For many years I had this piston with a hole in it sitting on my desk,’ Ratan recalls. ‘It was a treasured souvenir.’
Passenger Nan Otteson remarked, ‘I was very grateful for Tata’s calmness in the situation, and his skill in getting us all down. And I thanked him very much for this.’
Ratan was not anxious to give up the freedom he found in America, but he did want to get out of the cold, which he ‘never did get used to’, complaining that he ‘couldn’t ever feel warm enough’. Vowing that he ‘would never live in a cold climate again’, he left Ithaca as soon as his coursework was completed, but instead of returning to India, he headed out to Los Angeles, where he moved to an apartment complex, complete with swimming pool. He intended to use his architecture degree to get a job in the area and, eventually, to set up as an American architect. He had no intention of returning to India. However, his grandmother, Lady Navajbai, fell critically ill and called for him. He could not resist flying back to India to be with her. He had an American girlfriend at that time who was to follow him to India but never did. Lady Navajbai survived the crisis, but her health continued to deteriorate, and Ratan found himself extending his stay in India.
In later life, Ratan spoke of having four serious girlfriends in his life and ‘once even got engaged, but broke it off before the cards could be printed’. But he never married, and the absence of a spouse and children has, over the years, caused some to speculate about what motivates this incredibly motivated man. The bond he felt with Lady Navajbai was strong enough to pull him out of Los Angeles and back to India, and after a short period of time, he got drawn into working in the Tata organization. It was one of those emotionally driven decisions. As for avoiding marriage, it could well be that the example of his parents’ unhappy union made him gun-shy.
What had moved Ratan to leave America and return to India to begin a career in the Tata organization? It was certainly not what he had trained for at Cornell. Nor, he once said, was it the money. ‘Perhaps,’ he offered, ‘the challenge’ was sufficient to have motivated his career. Yet, he mused, ‘If I had an ideological choice, I would probably want to do something more for the uplift of the people of India. I have a strong desire not to make money but to see happiness created in a place where there isn’t.’
This excerpt from The Story of Tata: 1868 to 2021 by Peter Casey has been published with permission of Penguin Random House India.