Air India : The history of the aircraft fleet

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NOTE : The detailed fleet list in table form is available here.

In 1948, Air India International, then owned by Tata Sons Ltd., was granted status to operate international services from India as the designated flag carrier. The Government of India took a 49% stake in the company including an option to purchase a majority interest at their discretion and awarded a 10 year management contract to J.R.D. Tata to run the airline.

One of Air India's first acts under this new mandate was to order Lockheed L-749 Constellations in order to inaugurate international service. The first L-749 registered VT-CQS was delivered in March 1948, quickly followed by two others. In June 1948, the first international flight from Bombay to London was operated via Cairo and Geneva by an L-749 registered VT-CQP. In total, Air India received 3 L-749 base model aircraft.

VT-CQP : Malabar Princess
VT-CQR : Rajput Princess
VT-CQS : Mughal Princess

Later that year, Lockheed developed the L-749A which offered an additional 2000kg of payload and Air India decided to replace their existing fleet of brand new L-749s with this variant. Fortunately, Qantas was a willing customer for these older airframes. The first sale of "Mughal Princess" was completed in December 1949 and the sale of "Rajput Princess" in April 1951.

Alas, "Malabar Princess" was lost on 3 November 1950 while operating a flight between Cairo and Geneva. Commanded by Capt. Alan Saint, a veteran British pilot, she struck the face of Mont Blanc while on descent into Geneva killing all 40 passengers and 8 crewmembers aboard.

The replacement L-749A Constellations began service in November 1949 and served as the backbone of the fleet (supplemented by DC-3s and Vikings who remained un-named for the most part) for the first half of the next decade. In 1953, the Government exercised their right to purchase the remaining stake in Air India International and the Air Corporations Act was passed nationalizing the aviation industry. The fleet at this time consisted of 4 L-749A Constellations.

VT-DAR : Maratha Princess
VT-DAS : Himalayan Princess
VT-DEO : Bengal Princess
VT-DEP : Kashmir Princess

On 11 April 1955, "Kashmir Princess" departed Hong Kong en route to Jakarta on a charter flight carrying a delegation of 8 crew, 8 Chinese diplomats and 3 European journalists heading to the Bandung conference. The flight was originally supposed to be carrying Chinese premier Chou En Lai, but he changed his travel plans at the last moment. One hour prior to landing in Jakarta, a explosive device with a timer exploded in the starboard wheel bay, causing a fire in the #3 fuel tank. The pilot was able to successfully ditch the aircraft on the high seas near the Natuna Islands. Three crewmembers escaped the wreckage and were later rescued by the Indonesian Coast Guard. All 16 others aboard, including Captain D.K. Jatar, drowned at sea. Captain Jatar later became the first civilian to be posthumously awarded the Ashoka Chakra for "most conspicuous bravery, daring and self-sacrifice". The assassination attempt on Chou En Lai was discovered to have been the work of the Taiwanese KMT, possibly with the aid of the American CIA.

The surviving L-749As were removed from the fleet in January 1958 and sold to Aeronaves de Mexico.

In the meanwhile, the Air India fleet had continued to grow with the introduction of the larger and longer range Super Constellation, the first of which had entered the fleet in June 1954. A total of 10 L-1049 Super Constellations served Air India, a mix of L-1049C, L-1049E and L-1049G variants.

VT-DGL : Rani of Jhansi
VT-DGM : Rani of Ajanta

VT-DHL : Rani of Nilgiris
VT-DHM : Rani of Ellora
VT-DHN : Rani of Chittor

VT-DIL : Rani of Golconda (?)
VT-DIM : Rani of ???
VT-DIN : Rani of Aera
VT-DJW : Rani of Bijapur
VT-DJX : Rani of Madurai

The L-1049s formed the backbone of the fleet for almost a decade. Alas, the "Rani of Aera" was lost at Bombay airport on 19 July 1959 when she overshot the runway in a rainstorm. Thankfully there was no loss of life. 

Air India entered the jet age on 21 February 1960 when it took delivery of the first Boeing 707-437 registered VT-DJJ. The aircraft was initially named "Annapurna" upon delivery, but following a minor fire during a Bombay to Calcutta flight a few years later was re-christened as "Gaurishankar". VT-DJI, the second aircraft delivered and who had been originally named "Gaurishankar", was re-christened as "Nandadevi" at this time.

In total Air India operated 11 Boeing 707s, including 2 Combi variants. The 707s provided yeoman service to the airline until they were finally retired from service in October 1986.

VT-DJJ : (Annapurna) Gaurishankar
VT-DJI : (Gaurishankar) Nandadevi
VT-DJK : Everest
VT-DMN : Kanchenjunga
VT-DNY : Dhaulagiri
VT-DNZ : Nanga Parbat

VT-DPM : Makalu
VT-DSI : Lhotse
VT-DVA : Annapurna

VT-DVB : Kamet
VT-DXT : Trishul

On June 8, 1962 the airline’s name was officially truncated to Air India. Three days later, Air India became the world’s first all-jet airline with the retirement of the last L-1049A Super Constellation.

On 24 January 1966, "Kanchenjunga" was operating a flight from Beirut to Geneva when a miscommunication between Capt. J.T. D'Souza and Geneva Air Traffic Control caused the aircraft to crash into the face of Mont Blanc. All 11 crew and 106 passengers aboard were killed. Ironically, the crash site was only 200 meters from the very spot that "Malabar Princess" had made her final resting place 16 years earlier.

On 23 January 1971, "Nandadevi" (nee Gaurishankar mk.1) was being used for pilot training at Bombay airport. During one go-around, Capt. Hosali attempted to simulate a 3-engined takeoff with #4 engine out but Capt. Kapadia failed to compensate appropriately and the aircraft ran off the runway. #3 and #4 engine struck a fixed object and were torn off. The aircraft was destroyed by fire but all aboard escaped without injury.

On 22 June 1982, "Gaurishankar" (nee Annapurna mk.1) was attempting to land at Bombay airport in a rainstorm. The co-pilot flared the aircraft too early and she touched down hard, hydroplaning on a patch of water. When go-around thrust was applied by Capt. Goodwin there was insufficient runway left to take off. The aircraft ran off the runway into a drainage ditch. The tail empennage separated from the fuselage and collapsed onto the rear section of the plane. Cabin crew Sampat Kumar and Elizabeth Job as well as 15 passengers were killed. The remaining 10 crew and 84 passengers survived the accident.

The morning of 18 April 1971 represented the proudest moment in Air India's history as the first Boeing 747-237B registered VT-EBD touched down at Bombay, catapulting the airline into a select group of international carriers to operate this "747th wonder of the world". To commemorate this occasion, a new livery was introduced in a "Your Palace In The Sky" theme featuring Rajasthani arches individually painted around every window on the main deck.

Air India operated a total of 11 B747-237Bs, including 3 that remain with the airline today (2 in active service).

VT-EBD : Emperor Ashoka
VT-EBE : (Emperor) Shahjehan
VT-EBN : (Emperor) Rajendra Chola
VT-EBO : (Emperor) Vikramaditya
VT-EDU : (Emperor) Akbar
VT-EFJ : (Emperor) Chandragupta
VT-EFO : (Emperor) Kanishka
VT-EFU : Krishna Deva Raya
VT-EGA : Samudragupta
VT-EGB : Mahendra Verman
VT-EGC : Harsha Vardhan

On New Years Day of 1978, "Emperor Ashoka", the beloved flagship of the fleet and pride of India was lost on takeoff from Bombay en route to Dubai. The crash was attributed to the failure of the Attitude Director Indicator on the instrument panel and the inability of Capt. Kukar to respond appropriately. All 23 crew and 190 passengers on board were killed.

In August 1979, the Janata Party government of Charan Singh made one of their first acts in power an order to strike the word "Emperor" from the names of Air India's aircraft. A simultaneous order was given to replace English with Hindi titles on the port surface of the vertical fin. Prior to this, both surfaces of the vertical fin had English titles while the fuselage had Hindi titles on the starboard side and English on the port. "Krishna Deva Raya" was the first aircraft delivered under this new convention, while the other aircraft were repainted by the end of 1981.

24 June 1985 was another dark day in Air India’s history as (Emperor) "Kanishka” fell victim to a terrorist bombing while operating a flight from Canada to London. All 22 crew and 327 passengers aboard were killed.

In order to replace "Kanishka", a decision was made to acquire a single Boeing 747-212B that had previously been owned by Singapore Airlines. Accordingly, VT-ENQ was delivered to Air India in May 1987. Keeping with the tradition of naming Boeing 747s after Indian kings, it was proposed to name this aircraft as "Shivaji" after the 16th century king of the Marathas. Unfortunately the Shiv Sena, a local Bombay political party that considered Shivaji as their spiritual leader, took offense to this proposal. They believed that it was an insult to their leader that a previously owned aircraft would be named in his honor, whereas other leaders had brand new aircraft as their namesake. In the end, a compromise was reached to name the aircraft "Himalaya" after the mountain range in Northern India.

VT-ENQ : Himalaya

In October 1988, Air India took delivery of a pair of a brand new aircraft type, the Boeing 747-337M Combi. The first of these airframes was finally named "Shivaji" and it was proposed to name the second one after a Mughal king of the same period. Again the Shiv Sena raised objection, primarily because they felt it an affront to Shivaji that a Mughal king of the same era would have had the same type of aircraft named after him. Accordingly, the second aircraft was named "Narasimha Varman" after the Hindu Pallava king instead. It was also decided that the convention of naming Boeing 747s after kings would be abandoned.

VT-EPW : Shivaji
VT-EPX : Narasimha Varman

While this drama was ongoing with the Boeing 747s, a sizeable fleet of Airbus aircraft was quietly being built up. The first of these, an Airbus A300B4-203 registered VT-EHN had been delivered in August 1982. Three of these models were followed in April 1986 by the first of eight Airbus A310-304 registered VT-EJG. A decision was made to name all Airbus aircraft after rivers in India.

VT-EHN : Ganga (mk.1)
VT-EHO : Godavari (mk.1)
VT-EHQ : Cauvery (mk.1)

VT-EJG : Jamuna
VT-EJH : Teesta
VT-EJI : Saraswati
VT-EJJ : Beas
VT-EJK : Gomati
VT-EJL : Sabarmati
VT-EQS : Krishna
VT-EQT : Narmada

On 15 October 1989, Air India unveiled a new corporate identity that featured a sun positioned in metallic gold against a deep red sash. "Rajendra Chola" was the first aircraft painted in this new livery, but there was widespread employee disapproval of the change. "Shahjehan", "Akbar", "Himalaya", "Narasimha Varman", "Teesta" and "Gomati" were repainted into these new colors, while "Krishna" and "Narmada" were delivered in the livery. After two years of plummeting employee morale and widespread public condemnation of the new brand, it was decided to revert to the previous "Your Palace In The Sky" marketing identity.

In August 1993, Air India took delivery of the new flagship of its fleet when the first Boeing 747-437 registered VT-ESM made history by operating the first ever nonstop flight between New York and Delhi. The Boeing 747-400s were to be named after places of architectural or tourist interest in India.

VT-ESM : Konark
VT-ESN : Tanjore
VT-ESO : Khajuraho
VT-ESP : Ajanta
VT-EVA : Agra
VT-EVB : Velhagoa

Starting from December 2000, a number of additional Airbus A310-304 and Airbus A310-324 aircraft were taken on lease. These maintained the naming convention of the rivers in India. In the meanwhile, the three Airbus A300B4-203s were donated to the Government of Afghanistan to enable them to restart air service by Ariana Afghan Airlines in 2002.

VT-EVE : Periyar
VT-EVF : Mahanadi
VT-EVU : Godavari (mk.2)
VT-EVY : Ganga (mk.2)
VT-AIA : Tapti
VT-AIB : Pennar
VT-AIG : Kosi (mk.2)
VT-AIH : Tungabhadra (mk.2)
VT-AIN : Damodar
VT-AIO : Vaigai
VT-AIP : Pamda

VT-EVG : Kosi (mk.1)
VT-EVH : Tungabhadra (mk.1)
VT-EVI : Brahmaputra
VT-EVW : Cauvery (mk.2)
VT-EVX : Luni

In November 2002, Air India acquired the first Boeing 747-4B5 on lease from Korean Air. In the interest of maintaining the convention of naming the cities after places of architectural or tourist interest, it was proposed to name the first leased aircraft registered VT-EVJ as "Prayag" after the ancient holy city of the Hindus. Unfortunately, due to protests by an ultra-nationalist Hindu group that took offense to a previously owned aircraft being christened with the name of its holy city, the aircraft was finally named as "Fatehpur Sikri" after the world heritage site of sandstone buildings.

VT-EVJ : Fatehpur Sikri
VT-AIC : Sanchi (mk.1)
VT-AID : Kaziranga

VT-AIE : Mamallapuram
VT-AIF : Ellora
VT-AIQ : Elephanta

VT-AIS : Sanchi (mk.2)


VT-AIM : Sunderbans

In October 2004, Air India's board reached a decision to acquire 3 former United Airlines Boeing 777-200ERs and 1 Boeing 777-200A on lease to boost capacity. The first of these was delivered on December 25, 2004 and entered into revenue service the following month. The Boeing 777s are named after musical ragas.


VT-AIJ : Neelambari
VT-AIK : Megh Malhaar
VT-AIL : Kalyani


VT-AIR : Hamsadhwani

Commencing in 2007, Air India began to take delivery of Boeing 777-200LRs and Boeing 777-300ERs to replace leased Boeing 747s as well as to open up new non-stop routes to North America. These aircraft are named after the States of India.


VT-ALA : Andra Pradesh
VT-ALB : Arunachal Pradesh
VT-ALC : Assam
VT-ALD : Gujarat
VT-ALE : Haryana
VT-ALF : Jharkhand
VT-ALG : Kerala
VT-ALH : Maharashtra


VT-ALJ : Bihar
VT-ALK : Chattisgarh
VT-ALL : Goa
VT-ALM : Himachal Pradesh
VT-ALN : Jammu and Kashmir
VT-ALO : Karnataka
VT-ALP : Madhya Pradesh
VT-ALQ : Manipur
VT-ALR : Meghalaya

VT-ALS : Mizoram
VT-ALT : Nagaland
VT-ALU : Orissa


The Air India B787-8s are not given names, nor are the aircraft acquired via the merger with Indian Airlines.


The detailed fleet list table can be viewed by clicking here.

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