Tracking City's aviation history from a hydrogen plant

Glorious past

Tracking City's aviation history from a hydrogen plant

Unassuming, commonplace and deceptively functional, the vegetarian restaurant inside the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) campus would not elicit a second look.

But probe deeper, and you would be right inside a building designed in the early 1940’s for a hydrogen plant that supplied the gas to the United States Army Air Forces. Yes, the Americans needed it because they had just taken over Hindustan Aircraft (which later morphed into HAL) to service its World War II airplanes headed to South Eas Asia!

Now, that is a lot of history but forgotten and dumped. It took an Scottish researcher, Rachel Lee, this year to ferret out the building design from photographs and piece together a remarkable chapter in Bangalore’s aviation timeline.

She had stumbled upon the images, as she dug deep inside IISc to track down structures designed by the unheralded German architect Otto Koenigsberger. Rachel found many, but none were as tricky and mysterious as the Hydrogen Plant.

Travelling across India and Germany, Rachel had a big collection of pictures that showed the distinct architectural style of Koenigsberger, who had served as the Government architect of the erstwhile Mysore State. The hydrogen plant building carried the same stamp. But the black and white image’s quality was poor, and she could make no sense of the grey, undulating patch that lay outside the structure.

She opted for an image correction that eventually cleared the mystery: They were hydrogen cylinders ready to be transported to the Hindustan Aircraft factory. Originally set up in 1940 for automobiles by Walchand Hirachand, the factory had taken a dramatic shift to assemble and repair of aircraft. The British Royal Air Force had to boost its military hardware supplies in Asia. The threat posed by Imperial Japan during World War II loomed large.

But it was the 1943 take over of the factory by the US Army Air Forces that triggered its rapid expansion, eventually becoming the 84th Air Depot for major overhaul and repair of American aircraft involved in the WWII. The IISc hydrogen plant fitted perfectly into the scheme of things.

Here’s how: Hindustan Aircraft required huge manpower trained in aeronautics. Funded by the British and the Mysore state, IISc set up a separate Department of Aeronautical Engineering. Koenigsberger eventually designed the Wind Tunnel for the Department and the hydrogen plant that followed.

Yet, all this wouldn’t have fallen in place had there been no twist in the tale: HAL founder Hirachand’s chance meeting with William D Pawley, the American he befriended while on a ship to China.

Pawley, who was attached to the Intercontinental Aircraft Corporation of New York – an exporter of American aircraft to the region – would soon set up the equipment for the factory and bring in a big chunk of the required tools from the US.

The factory, with all that back up from IISc, would eventually produce the first aircraft made in the country: A Harlow PC-5. But that is another story!

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