The crazy story behind a rickety Boeing 720 parked at an Indian airport for 24 years

Flights of fancy.
Flights of fancy.
Image: REUTERS/Krishnendu Halder (INDIA)
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“A normal dad might have an old muscle car he tinkers with on the weekend, but my dad had a Boeing 720.”

Fathers can be like that. They tell the best of stories of their own heroics. Sometimes these turn out to be true, sometimes not. Twitter user Chris Croy, quoted above, is stuck somewhere midway.

He believes that, in the early 1990s, his airplane mechanic dad, Kevin Paul Croy, fixed an abandoned Boeing 720 and flew it to India, only for it to be abandoned again—this time for the next 24 years.

In a Twitter thread posted on Oct. 12, Croy, based in St Louis, Missouri, narrated his version of what happened, based on “news reports, public records, or my mom.”

I just found out that

1. For 24 years every pilot who landed at the airport in Nagpur, India had to be warned about the Boeing 720 sitting next to the runway.

2. That it was my dad’s fault.

This is the story of my dad’s junkyard jet.

— Chris Croy (@ChrisCroy) October 12, 2021

What unfolded in Croy’s tweets was an almost bizarre turn of events involving the 160-seater plane, his father, and an Indian-American flying enthusiast now leading a retired life in a small town in the south Asian country.

No surprise then that the thread got retweeted 8,300 times by the time this article was published.

“Sometime in 1990 my dad, an airplane mechanic at Brown Field Municipal airport, saw a guy circling the abandoned Boeing 720. It had been resting in the dry desert air ever since the previous owner, Kenneth Copeland, had ditched it a couple (of) years back for reasons unknown,” Croy posted.

“The guy…named Sam Veder asked my dad if it could fly again. My dad said yes, he could get it flying. The 29-year-old plane wasn’t commercially viable in the US, but India’s another story. All they had to do was get it there.”

Croy said that his father, against common counsel, then spent a year turning the plane airworthy, while his mother worked on the documentation required for the US Federal Aviation Administration’s permission to take off.

The “junkyard jet” then embarked for India with “my dad and Sam Veder on board”.

“If Sam was going to die, then mick mechanic who ‘fixed’ it was going to die with him,” Croy, whose Twitter bio describes him as “decent, but only in moderation,” wrote.

While the plane made it to its destination, engine trouble during its maiden flight from New Delhi enforced an emergency landing at the Nagpur airport in the state of Maharashtra. There it lay for the next 24 years owing to a dispute over payments and dues.

Regardless of why, it was. Time passed. Sam retired, built Balaji Puram temple to honor Lord Balaji, and the plane remained. In 2011 the government told the airport to move the damn plane or they would strip the airport’s license, so they dragged it a little farther away.

— Chris Croy (@ChrisCroy) October 12, 2021

“There’s no moral here. Hail Lord Balaji,” Croy tweeted, adding that, “My dad lied and told my mom that the plane was still flying around India carrying ‘people and chickens’.”

In his late 60s now, Croy senior probably lives in “somewhere southern California…the Los Angeles metro area,” according to his son.

Like all legends, though, his, too, is wobbly in its origin.

“I am Sam”

Croy was almost immediately corrected by Twitter users about the name of the Indian-American who supposedly flew on the aircraft from the US to India. It wasn’t Sam Veder, but Sam Verma.

Quartz reached out to Verma, now 81 years old, retired, and living in the small Indian town of Betul, Madhya Pradesh, around 175 kilometres northwest of Nagpur.

He confirmed only parts of Croy’s story, including bits about the temple.

A US citizen, Verma did fly on the Boeing 720 to India, but the plane was piloted by one Captain Mehta, a former Air India pilot. Verma couldn’t recall the pilot’s first name. The other crew members were a flight engineer and a co-pilot, all former employees of India’s national carrier.

“There was no American in the crew. We took off from the San Diego airport in California. The plane was purchased from a Trust by Electra Tech Corporation and leased to Continental Aviation,” Verma, who used to work for Electra Tech Corporation back then, told Quartz.

Continental Aviation was a private carrier, reportedly one of India’s first, and founded by a group belonging to the category widely referred to in the country as non-resident Indians or NRIs. These are persons of Indian origin living abroad.

While several media reports referred to Verma as “owner” or “promoter” of Continental Aviation, the mechanical engineer from Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology said he was only responsible for maintenance of aircraft and their flight operations.

Three other planes, according to him, were purchased by the company and these flew between several cities in India, including Mumbai, New Delhi, and Thiruvananthapuram, in the early 1990s.

The aircraft were then grounded only because unprofessional behaviour on the part of the technicians and pilots—all from the Air India stable—hired by Continental rendered the airline financially unviable.

“The attitude of retired engineers from Air India was untenable for the airline. No proper maintenance was done. Some of them would report late to duty citing reasons like the non-availability of paan,” Verma said. Chewing paan refers to the south Asian practice of chomping a juicy package of betel leaves, lime paste, areca nut, and tobacco.

“Madhavrao Scindia was the aviation minister then. But what could he do with this culture? The company got into financial trouble. Finally, I got tired and gave up.”

Continental Aviation, according to Verma, abandoned one plane each in the cities of Bhopal, Mumbai, and Nagpur. Verma himself bought one small plane from the company for around $100,000 and flew it as a hobby till old age grounded him.

In September 2015, after decades of lying forlornly at the Nagpur Airport, the Boeing 720 was removed from there “in only 30 minutes” to the adjacent Nagpur Flying Club, according to a report by News18.

“Completely possible I’m wrong and I would assume that Mr. Verma is right, everything I tweeted is either from news reports, public records, or my mom,” Croy, who is learning to code nowadays, said in response to queries posed by Quartz.

Dads aren’t always right. But then the heroics they conjure up are always so narratable.