I remember reaching the FED hangar early on 23 November 1993. It was going to be a very big day because the first ever aircraft designed and built by NAL (HANSA-2) was to have its maiden flight that morning. As the leader of the HANSA programme, it was also Rustom Damania’s big day. I looked around for Damania but couldn’t immediately find him. “Has Dr Damania come in yet?”, I asked one of his colleagues. “Sir is already here”, I was told, “he didn’t go home last night!”.
Damania was hidden by the HANSA wings as he squatted to make his final pre-flight checks. “I have personally checked the whole aircraft”, he told me, “can’t take any risks. Wg Cdr Ashoka has to fly this plane .. I must be doubly certain that everything is in order ..”.
The plane flew as planned that morning in spite of moderately turbulent conditions. In fact a confident Wg Cdr Ashoka even “pulled 2g’s” in some of the flying manoeuvres before he landed the HANSA safely. There was warm applause for the HANSA team, but the loudest ovation was for Rustom Damania.
If I wasn’t already Damania’s fan, I became one that morning. Together with his loyal and hardworking team, he had helped NAL build India’s first all-composite trainer aircraft! Damania worked tirelessly for almost three years: he was with the design team, the fabrication team, the integration team .. and, given half a chance, he would even have flown the aircraft himself!
What a remarkable gentleman he was! Smiling, energetic, confident — even to the point of being labelled a daredevil — and with such wonderful personal charm. Damania was also always a gentleman in a great hurry. He walked fast, he drove incredibly fast and, to no one’s surprise, even built the HANSA-2 very fast. His old friends from the IISc days say that flying with Damania from the Jakkur aerodrome was always doubly thrilling: first driving from the IISc campus to Jakkur at break-neck speed on his two-wheeler, and then actually taking off with him (fast!) on a trainer. It therefore saddens me that death didn’t come equally swiftly to him. Damania suffered immeasurably before the end came.
I was privileged to spend many wonderful hours in his company. We used to sit together in the NAL bus, on our way to work, and talk about cars, his daughter’s BE project, smoked salmon, aircraft, pilots, horizons .. but most of all about the joys and frustrations of aircraft development projects. It is my impression that Damania’s professional career “peaked” at NAL; first with the LCRA, and then the HANSA. Damania always acknowledged that NAL had been very kind to him; what he never said was how much he contributed to NAL! Rustom Damania’s contribution to NAL has been phenomenal. It wasn’t just everything that he did for the LCRA or the HANSA; Damania brought to NAL a work ethic model of passionate commitment, deep involvement and great energy and urgency. It is a model which works very well at NAL as some of my other colleagues have discovered.
Damania’s passing away has deeply saddened us. Even when he was unwell, he soldiered on bravely. Planes fascinated him and he was greatly excited about a recent project to define a new flying role for the LCRA. I remember too Damania’s excitement when the great JRD chatted with him at Mumbai a decade ago and congratulated him on the LCRA success. We will miss Rustom Damania. He shouldn’t have flown away from us so soon.