Being the global citizens that Malayalis are, with a large diaspora in different parts of the world, it’s no surprise that a small state like Kerala has four international airports. The aviation sector in the state has grown to the present level from the humblest of beginnings.
The journey commenced in the 1920s when British officials and Indian aristocrats wanted to cut the travel time from what was then Madras to the Travancore and Cochin princely states as well as cities like Calicut. It was apt that the authorities chose Quilon (now Kollam) as the first city in the Malayalam-speaking parts of India to host an airport. The city, which has a long international history as the port of call of people from East and West, was at that time the industrial capital of the Travancore state. Its proximity to Trivandrum and Cochin also made the city an ideal candidate.
Records are hard to come by as to when exactly the airport became functional.
A KSRTC blog post mentions the arrival of the first British-operated Avro aircraft to the airport. According to this report, people from all parts of Central Travancore came to witness this spectacle. The arrival and departure of a plane continued to be an event for locals to witness as it was a relatively rare occurrence. Public records indicate that a flight would land at the aerodrome once in two months.
The facilities at the aerodrome were as basic as one could possibly imagine. The airstrip did not have the ideal soil for a plane to land on, so red laterite soil was taken from nearby hills. It neither possessed any buildings nor a shed. Although a barbed wire fence sealed the airport and left it with just two entry points, people would enter the territory and loiter around the runway. There was no real danger given how infrequent flights were to the airport. Locals knew a plane was expected to land when the PWD hoisted a windsock on a tall wooden mast.
Incoming aircraft used to stop at a concreted area in the shape of a ring, from where the wealthy passengers alighted, before getting into a car for their final destination.
According to the KSRTC blog post, a one-way trip in the 1920s set a traveller back by a handsome sum of five rupees. Given the exceptionally high rates of poverty in India at that time, flying was a privilege reserved for the wealthiest of people. One would still be inclined to believe that the cost for a one-way ticket may have been higher than five rupees in the 1920s.
The airport continued to be used by small aircraft right until 1932 when the Royal Flying Club of the Travancore state established what is now the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport. Three years later, a Tata Airlines aircraft landed at the airport and thus began the era of commercial flights to Kerala.
From airport to Asramam Maidan
After the airport came up in Trivandrum, the Quilon Aerodrome lost its prominence. Even those travellers heading further north preferred to land at the more modern airport in the capital.
The Quilon Aerodrome continued to be used for training flights, but an accident where a training aircraft crashed into a tree and claimed the lives of both the pilot and the trainee put an end to such sessions.
The 72-acre area, which hosted the airport, is now called the Asramam Maidan and is the largest open space in the state within municipal limits. The area, which once hosted pilot training sessions, is now used by driving school operators! It is most famous for the Kollam Pooram, the annual festival of the Asramam Sri Krishnaswamy Temple. In fact, when the Kerala authorities pondered over establishing a mini-airport at the former aerodrome, the first group to object was the temple authorities. They were joined by political outfits who use the ground for regular rallies.
Also coming in the way of flight operations are mobile towers and high-rises that are now a trademark of just about every medium-sized to large city in Kerala.
Given the large size of the area, maybe the authorities can think of building an aviation museum? The areas that now make up the state of Kerala entered the aviation age almost a hundred years ago. Air travel has been an essential part of the Malayali cultural ethos over the last several decades, as millions have flown to wealthier lands in search of a livelihood. Taking cue from some of the world’s best new museums, an aviation museum in Kollam could make the best use of both indoor and outdoor space.
While protecting the maidan, a rare large open area in a public space-starved state, a new modern museum would be a fitting tribute to this historical space and to those in the erstwhile Travancore state who brought air travel to Malayalis.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of ‘A Week in the Life of Svitlana’ and ‘Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island’)