Man Mohan Singh
The First Sikh Aviator and the First Indian to Fly from England to India. (1906-1942)
Was born at Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan, in September 1906, the son of Dr Makkhan Singh, a recipient of the Kaisar-i-Hind medal from the government for his distinguished public service as a medical practitioner. Man Mohan Singh was educated at Denny’s High School and at Gordon College, both in Rawalpindi. In 1923, he went to England to train as a civil engineer, receiving his B.Sc degree four years later at the University of Bristol. In England he also completed a two-year course in flying and aeronautical engineering for which he had been given a scholarship by the Government of India. Competing for the prize of 1500 (or 500 pounds) the Aga Khan (18871957), leader of the Isma’ili sect of Muslims, had announced for an Indian accomplishing a solo flight between England and India, Man Mohan Singh made two attempts during January-February 1930 which proved abortive. His first flight was on 24 January 1930 when he took off from Croydon near London in a single-engined light aircraft, reaching Rome on 30 January. From Rome he flew to Naples, but was thereafter forced to land in thick fog on a mountain road in southern Italy. His machine was badly damaged and he himself suffered injury on the left eye. His second attempt too had to be abandoned midway. Another competitor, R.N. Chawla, taking off from Karachi on 3 March 1930, succeeded in reaching England in 17 days, but he was not considered eligible for the prize, for he had carried with him a companion, A.M. Engineer, another flier. This gave Man Mohan Singh his third chance. He took off from Croydon on 8 April 1930 and reached Karachi, but not within the stipulated period of one month, losing time owing to a forced landing he had to make in a swamp at St. Rambert, near Marseilles (southern France). The Aga Khan prize went to A.M. Engineer, who taking off from England on 25 April 1930 reached Karachi on 11 May. Another competitor for the Aga Khan prize on this occasion was J.R.D. Tata who later became famous as an industrialist. Man Mohan Singh missed the prize, but he was the first Sikh to complete a solo flight from England to India. Appreciating his spirit of enterprise, Maharaja Bhupinder Singh, ruler of Patiala state, compensated him for the lost prize and gave him employment as his personal pilot. In 1933-34, Man Mohan Singh accomplished another solo journey in a light aircraft, again the first by an Indian, from England to South Africa.
At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Man Mohan Singh joined the Indian Air Force Vounteer Reserve as a pilot officer. He was selected leader of an Indian Air Force batch of officers sent to England for training and active duty. He was later promoted flying officer and deputed for operations in the Philippines and Indonesia and given the command of a Catalina aircraft. Man Mohan Singh was killed in action in West Australia on 3 March 1942.
Man Mohan Singh was a man of strong character and determination. While in England he was known to have a cold shower in the morning and not to eat anything before reciting the Sikh prayer of Japuji.
In the history of Indian aviation, Man Mohan Singh will always be remembered as a pioneer. He was passionately devoted to flying. He never married, but was fond of children, and loved to give them joy-rides in the aircraft. According to contemporary news reports, he, while in Africa, gave free lifts to more than 20,000 persons in Kenya in the first quarter of 1936. For an example of his extraordinary concentration and stamina, it is quoted that he once took his aircraft up into the air and landed it 150 times in a single day.