Air Ceylon




A Foundation In The Sky - Air Ceylon was born 50 years ago

The Story of "Sunethra Devi" - Brush with death over Singapore

The Story of "Sunethra Devi": Part 2 - Never to fly again

Those Soaring Memories - Ratmalana airfield: days gone by
Conquering the skies - Aviation buff Roger Thiedeman looks back on the pioneering days
When Mahadevi ruled the skies - Ratmalana airport on a warm day in March 1956...
Sixty Years of Sri Lankan Air Mail - The carriage of mail by air is so common place today
The day the Air Ceylon Avro was bombed - The day will stand out as a milestone...
"Juliet is no more!" - It happened on Thursday, September 7, 1978.
AIR CEYLON 1948 – 1978




A Foundation In The Sky


Air Ceylon was born 50 years ago

Roger Thiedeman

Traditionally, a priority of nearly every newly independent country is the foundation of a national airline. Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was known) was no exception in this regard. Even before independence from Britain was declared in February 1948, the wheels were in motion to equip Ceylon with its own flag-carrying airline.

At the helm was the dynamic Mr. (later Sir) John Kotelawala, then Minister for Transport and Works. Keenly air-minded, Mr. Kotelawala did much to foster private flying through the Aero Club of Ceylon in the 1930s, even finding time to qualify for a Student Pilot's Licence. When war clouds loomed, he took an active role in recruiting young Ceylonese men as pilots with the Royal Air Force.
In 1947, with Independence a foregone conclusion, Kotelawala sought to raise the profile of the soon-to-be-independent nation by endowing it with its very own commercial air service. First, he appointed L. S. B. (Leslie) Perera to head the newly-created Department of Civil Aviation, and M. Chandrasoma, an experienced civil servant, as Perera's Secretary.

Next, three war-surplus Douglas DC–3 Dakota aeroplanes were purchased. The DC-3s were all named after queens – Sita Devi, Viharamaha Devi and Sunethra Devi – a tradition which continued for some years.

But the birth of the new airline was still a few months in the future. So the three aircraft, under the aegis of the Civil Aviation Department, were extensively used for pilot training and route proving duties. Joy flights promoted the notion of aviation as a viable means of local transport. The Dakotas also demonstrated their worth by operating emergency relief flights during the floods of August 1947.

In June 1947, at the suggestion of John Kotelawala, Viharamaha Devi flew to London to collect a valuable cargo of electoral registers for the coming elections. The historic, nine-day flight supplied further proof of what Ceylonese aviators, and the trusty DC–3, could accomplish.

On Wednesday 10 December, 1947, all this preparatory flying climaxed with the inaugural scheduled flight of the new airline, Air Ceylon. With Capt. Peter Fernando at the controls and a complement of 16 passengers, Sita Devi rose gracefully from Ratmalana's runway soon after 8 a.m. and headed for Kankesanturai (Jaffna). After a brief stop there, the Dakota proceeded to Madras, returning to Colombo by the same route later that day.

Assisting Capt. Fernando on the flight deck were Capt. C.H.S. Amarasekera, First Officer Emile Jayawardena and Radio Officer John Vethavanam. The honour of becoming Air Ceylon's first air hostess fell to Miss. Mavis Wijeratne. But this occurred through a twist of fate, as Miss. Wijeratne was employed by Air Ceylon solely as a receptionist at the time.

The air hostess designated to crew the inaugural flight took ill suddenly so Miss. Wijeratne was quickly substituted. After that single, inaugural flight, for which she earned a place in Sri Lankan aviation history, Mavis Wijeratne returned to her receptionist job, never to work as an air hostess again!
So began a proud tradition of commercial aviation in Sri Lanka which saw Air Ceylon achieve the distinction of one of the world's safest airlines, never recording a single passenger fatality throughout its 32-year history.

Before long another DC-3, Sri Lanka Devi, was added to the fleet. Scheduled services aside, the fledgling airline also operated a variety of charter flights to far-flung parts of the globe. In 1948 history was created again when the first aircraft with an all Ceylonese crew to land in Australia arrived in Sydney with a party of Ceylon Navy personnel.

The same year Capt. Rex de Silva commanded a special flight to Burma (now Myanmar) taking the sacred Sanchi Buddha relics for exposition in Rangoon, Mandalay and Akyab.

A series of Air Ceylon charters were also organised for Muslim pilgrims travelling to and from Mecca for the Haj season.

Soon, the regular route network extended to Trincomalee (China Bay), Trichinopoly, Bombay and Karachi. Flights to the latter three cities and Madras were, technically, international services, although described as regional routes.

But Air Ceylon achieved genuine international, long-haul status when it entered into a partnership with Australian National Airways (ANA) in 1949. With technical and managerial support from ANA, Air Ceylon began operating a pair of Douglas DC-4 Skymasters from Colombo to London via Bombay, Karachi, Tel Aviv and Rome. Later the service was extended to Sydney, calling at Singapore and Jakarta.

 The DC–4 Skymasters, big brothers of the DC–3, were christened Laxapana and Ratmalana, taking their names from Ceylon's first hydro-electric scheme and the birthplace of Lankan aviation respectively.

After the association with ANA ceased in 1953, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines took over the Australian airline's share in Air Ceylon. In 1956, with a Lockheed Constellation leased from KLM, Air Ceylon resumed international flights on what became known as the "Sapphire Service", with Amsterdam a new destination.

The Constellation was dubbed Mahadevi, reviving the tradition of regal names. KLM updated the aircraft in 1958 with a larger version, the Super Constellation, which was named Soma Devi.

In November 1960, Soma Devi in turn gave way to a more modern Electra propjet, also supplied by KLM. The Constellation, Super Constellation and Electra all came from the Lockheed stable in Burbank, California-the same manufacturer that later produced the TriStar jetliners which formed the backbone of Air Lanka operations for many years.

ln 1962 Air Ceylon parted company with the Dutch airline and turned to the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) for support on its overseas operations.

Using BOAC Comet 4 jetliners, Air Ceylon commenced international services to London via Karachi, Cairo and Rome, and to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur. Later, BOAC replaced the Comet 4s with Vickers VC-10s on Air Ceylon's international run.

In 1964, Air Ceylon took delivery of its first, very own turboprop, a Hawker Siddeley (Avro) HS 748. There was much excitement and fanfare at Ratmalana airport when the brand-new Avro arrived with Captains P.B. Mawalagedera and George Ferdinand in charge. It was followed in 1967 by another turboprop, a Nord 262 from France. Unfortunately, the Nord proved unsuitable for local conditions, and was disposed of two years later.

Air Ceylon made an even bolder leap into the aeronautical big time in 1969, purchasing a Hawker Siddeley Trident jetliner. The Trident served an expanded regional network which ultimately stretched to Sharjah in the Persian Gulf.

In 1972 Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. That year also marked the termination of the Air Ceylon/BOAC liaison. Late in 1971 the Lankan carrier had already joined forces with French airline UTA.

Becoming Air Ceylon's fourth international partner in 25 years, UTA provided a Douglas DC-8 jet for the long-haul services. Originally operated by UTA pilots with Sri Lankan cabin attendants, the DC-8 was subsequently bought outright by Air Ceylon and flown with a 100 percent Air Ceylon crew.

 This purchase was applauded as a breakthrough in Air Ceylon's struggle to shed the shackles of foreign influence. Air Ceylon had, at last, come of age. As the last of the airline's faithful DC-3s were phased out, a second Avro 748 was bought.

Sadly, around this time, the first signs began emerging that all was not well with the national carrier. Whispers of mismanagement, corruption and financial instability were rife. Authorities in Europe impounded a DC-8 for non-payment of fuel bills, and staff morale plummeted when internationalservices were suspended towards the end of 1977. A reduced domestic and regional operation soldiered on valiantly with the Trident and two Avros.

Then, one morning in September 1978, Air Ceylon suffered a cruel blow. One of the Avros, just back from a trip to Jaffna, was parked at Ratmalana when a bomb ripped the aircraft apart, reducing it to a charred, twisted hulk. Miraculously no lives were lost.

 The surviving Avro and Trident struggled to maintain a semblance of an operation. Those two aeroplanes kept Air Ceylon alive even after Air Lanka had taken wing on 1 September, 1979. But only just. The malady was terminal, and a once-proud Air Ceylon quietly faded into oblivion before 1979 had ended.

On a positive note, it would be fair to say that the heritage established by the men, women and machines of Air Ceylon, over a period lasting more than three decades, laid the foundation for the new carrier, Air Lanka, which took Sri Lankan commercial aviation to newer, more exciting and technologically-advanced heights. But that's another story.

Sunday Times - 07 12 1997


The Story of "Sunethra Devi"


Brush with death over Singapore

Roger Thiedeman

Sri Lanka's first national airline, Air Ceylon, began life in December 1947 with a small fleet comprising three Douglas DC-3 Dakota aircraft. When Air Ceylon was disbanded 32 years later, it boasted a fatality-free record, a distinction few airlines could claim then or now. But one of Air Ceylon's original trio of DC-3s came close to ruining that record - not once but twice - by the time the fledgling airline was scarcely two years old.

This is the story of that airplane, a Dakota named Sunethra Devi. Manufactured at the Douglas Aircraft Company's Oklahoma plant as a C-47A in wartime 1943, it was commissioned by the United States Air Force. After just three months with the Americans, the C-47 was assigned to a Middle East squadron of Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) in December 1943. It acquired the RAF serial number FL566 and the type-name 'Dakota', as British-owned Douglas C-47s were called.

By April 1944, Dakota FL566 had moved to another RAF squadron, this time in India. When the war ended just over a year later, like thousands of other Douglas C-47/Dakotas scattered across the world, it was placed on the surplus list. True enough, these were war-weary airplanes, but they had demonstrated their ruggedness and reliability in the cut-and-thrust of military operations. With not much required in the way of repair and renovation, the C-47s were ripe for picking by the multitude of new airlines taking wing in a global, post-war, commercial aviation boom.
And Air Ceylon was no exception. In early 1947, the former RAF Dakota identified as FL566 joined two other Douglas Dakotas, also sourced from surplus stocks in India, to form the nucleus of Ceylon's new national carrier. Re-designated as a DC-3 Dakota ('DC' stands for 'Douglas Commercial'), the airplane received the Ceylonese civil registration VP-CAT and was given the fleet name Sunethra Devi. For the record, the other two Air Ceylon Dakotas were named Sita Devi (VP-CAR) and Viharamaha Devi (VP-CAS). Later, in 1948, a DC-3 from Scotland boosted the fleet to four, and became Sri Lanka Devi (VP-CBA).

After Air Ceylon's inaugural flight by Sita Devi on December 10, 1947, its three DC-3s commenced duty on the new domestic and regional network. On December 26, making a change from scheduled services, Sunethra Devi left Ratmalana on a charter flight to the Indian subcontinent commanded by Capt. Peter Fernando and with Olga de Silva as stewardess. On board were Ceylon's Prime Minster-elect, D.S. Senanayake and the Minister for Transport and Works, John Kotelawala. Spanning several days, the flight called in at Madras (now Chennai), Bombay (now Mumbai), Bhopal, Delhi and Karachi (in the newly-created Pakistan), for talks between Mr. Senanayake and Mr. Kotelawala and their Indian and Pakistani counterparts concerning air traffic rights between the respective countries.

Soon, 1947 gave way to 1948. On February 4 of the new year, just two months after giving birth to a new national airline, Ceylon was itself reborn as an independent nation. Prosperity and progress were uppermost in the nation's consciousness. In early 1948, the Fisheries Department purchased a 75-foot, 55-ton fishing trawler, the M.V. Halpha, from a company in Australia. But how would they get the boat from Australia to Ceylon?
Lanka's new-found confidence and optimism provided the answer. The country now had a small but growing naval force, the Ceylon Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (CRNVR), derived from men who had served during the war with Britain's Royal Navy, the Fleet Air Arm and the Ceylon Naval Volunteer Force. And didn't Ceylon also possess its own national airline? So why not use Air Ceylon to fly out a group of Ceylonese naval officers and other ranks to Sydney, where they would take over the trawler and sail it back on an 8,000-mile voyage to Colombo?

The prospect seemed daunting at first. For its part, Air Ceylon was just a small domestic and regional carrier. The airline was still at least nine months away from commencing long-haul international services using larger DC-4 Skymasters in collaboration with Australian National Airways (ANA). The naval personnel too had little experience of navigating vessels over vast expanses of ocean. But typical Ceylonese guts and determination won the day, and a decision to proceed was taken by the parties concerned.

The complement of naval passengers comprised Lt. Cmdr. Carl Ohlmus (in overall command of the team), Lt. Raja Proctor, Lt. Alan Caldera, Petty Officer (P/O) A.J. Fernando, P/O A.H. Poulier, Leading Seaman (L/S) A.A. Wise, Leading Telegraphist (L/Tel) H.P. Paulusz, Able Bodied Seaman (A/B) V.A.C. Fernando, Signalman (S/M) R.M.P.A. Ratnayake, and Cook Jinoris. A few civilians, euphemistically described as 'guests', would also go along for the ride.
Sunethra Devi was chosen for the Australian flight, its aircrew some of Air Ceylon's most experienced flyers of that time. oThe crew compsised captain Peter Fernando; First Officer (co-pilot) P.B. Mawalagedera; Radio Officer John Vethavanam; Flight Engineer W.A.E "Bunny" Molamure and relief Radio Officer/ Purser D.L Srimanne.

And so, the morning of Sunday May 30, 1948 saw Sunethra Devi being readied for departure on a flight that would prove longer, more adventurous and infinitely more arduous than anything it or its crew had previously undertaken. The Air Ceylon DC-3 would create history by becoming the first flight to land in Australia with an all-Asian crew in charge. Also, the first non-scheduled flight of any overseas airline to land at an Australian airport other than Darwin. However, that flight by Sunethra Devi nearly created history for the wrong reasons. But for the grace of God, it would have ended in disaster with the loss of all lives on board.

At 0745 hours on that historic May morning Sunethra Devi lifted off from Ratmalana and headed for her first stop, Madras. Reaching Madras at 1030, the DC-3 took on fuel and departed at 1115 on its next sector, a five-hour-plus flight to Calcutta. Here, aircraft, crew and passengers rested overnight ahead of an early take-off scheduled for 3.10 a.m. the next day. When Sunethra Devi left Calcutta's Dum Dum airport at that ungodly hour, its passengers and crew were probably none too thrilled at being roused from comfortable beds for a pre-dawn departure. But at least the passengers could curl up in their seats and go back to sleep, lulled by the drone of the DC-3's twin engines. There was no such respite, however, for the Air Ceylon flight crew.

Sunethra Devi flew on to Rangoon (now Yangon) in Burma (now Myanmar). Arriving there at 0725 on May 31, the passengers and crew had their breakfast, while the DC-3 was refuelled and prepared for what would be the longest sector of the trip. It was also the sector that almost ended in disaster for Sunethra Devi and her human cargo.

At 0910 the DC-3 departed Rangoon, her fourth take-off for the trip so far. The next destination was Singapore, with an estimated arrival time of 1730 hours. But as the airplane flew on, conditions began deteriorating unexpectedly. Rangoon authorities had not forewarned Capt. Fernando of what he later described as "real dirty weather". With dense clouds and rain reducing visibility to zero, Fernando and Mawalagedera could now rely only on their instrument flying skills to keep the DC-3 on course. Strong headwinds and air currents, alternating between updrafts and downdrafts, made that task even harder as Sunethra Devi was buffeted and tossed around like a leaf.

Singapore had sent up an RAF aircraft to find and help the hapless DC-3. The unseen 'angel of mercy' told the Air Ceylon crew to tune their radio compass to another frequency.

Then, lightning-induced static began interfering with radio communications to and from the aircraft. Worse still, it played havoc with the plane's navigation (direction-finding) equipment. Lacking reliable information, the pilots could no longer determine whether Singapore still lay ahead, or whether they had in fact over flown the 'Lion City'. To put it bluntly, they were hopelessly lost.

As the DC-3 floundered around in the stormy skies, tension mounted in the cockpit and filtered through to the passengers too. The prospect of death loomed large. Sunethra Devi was in imminent danger of flying into a rain-shrouded hill, or crashing to earth after running out of fuel.

But at least one person on board could see a lighter side to the situation. Radio Officer Sirimanne, who was resting in the passenger cabin while Vethavanam manned the radio on the flight deck, takes up the story: Raja Proctor began handing out meals to the passengers, telling them: "This is your last supper. Enjoy it!" Then, at Vethavanam's request, I too entered the cockpit to lend assistance. We tried tuning various radio stations without success. Meanwhile, Peter Fernando was calling up Calcutta and Singapore, but their signals were very weak. Finally, he made contact with Singapore stating that our position was unknown. Occasionally, through a break in the clouds, we could glimpse the sea below, and hills to the left of the aircraft. Singapore air traffic control asked us to tune into a certain frequency and await instructions.

Then, like a godsend, they heard the voice of another pilot over the radio. Singapore had sent up an RAF aircraft to find and help the hapless DC-3. The unseen 'angel of mercy' told the Air Ceylon crew to tune their radio compass to another frequency. Guided by their instruments, and carefully following their invisible saviour's instructions, the pilots finally brought Sunethra Devi to a safe landing at Singapore's Changi airport in the gathering dusk and gloom. The time was 6.25 p.m., signifying that the plane had been airborne for a staggering 9 hours and 15 minutes. To further compound everyone's sense of relief, it was discovered that Sunethra Devi's gasoline tanks held sufficient fuel for only another 30 minutes of flying time.

Two days later, a chastened crew resumed their journey to Australia. They staged through Batavia (now Jakarta), Surabaya and Koepang, finally touching down on Australian soil, in Darwin, on Thursday, June 3. Onwards again the following morning, across the harsh, endless Australian landscape, stopping at the Northern Territory outpost of Daly Waters. Then to Cloncurry and Charleville in Queensland before an overnight stop at Brisbane. Their final destination, Sydney, was reached on June 5 at 1240 hours.

No doubt the navy men disembarked with great relief. They were probably looking forward to returning to the sea, an element that was, to them, far more familiar and reassuring than the dangerous skies they had flown through over the past six days.

As for the intrepid crew of Sunethra Devi, they commenced their return journey on the night of June 10. The homeward route more or less mirrored the outbound one, except for a 36-hour pause (for rest and recreation?) on the idyllic island of Bali, and a night-stop at Bangkok instead of Rangoon. There was only one noteworthy event on the return flight. Sunethra Devi was compelled to circle Dum Dum airport, Calcutta for over an hour while an unserviceable aircraft was cleared off the runway. The delay extended their sector time (from Bangkok) to nearly 8 hours.

When Sunethra Devi landed back at Ratmalana on the wet and windy afternoon of Thursday, June 17, her crew were hailed as heroes. Their brush with death in the stormy skies over Singapore was now little more than a dim memory. For the ill-fated DC-3, however, another appointment with danger was not all that far away.


The Story of "Sunethra Devi" - Part 2


Never to fly again

Roger Thiedeman

Fifty years ago, the then national airline Air Ceylon was a thriving, buoyant outfit. After a quiet start in December 1947, two years later it was making steady progress not only as a domestic and regional carrier but on overseas routes too. In February 1949, Air Ceylon's fleet of four Douglas DC-3 Dakota aircraft had been augmented with the purchase of two large four-engine Douglas DC-4 Skymasters. Carrying the names Laxapana and Ratmalana, the pair of Skymasters began international services between Ceylon and Britain, a first for Lanka's fledgling airline.

These services were flown in partnership with Australian National Airways (ANA), a company with a sizeable DC-4 fleet of its own. In an agreement struck between the government of Ceylon and ANA, the Australian company promised technical and managerial assistance, and importantly, training of Ceylonese flight crew on its international services. History shows, however, that the Australians did not fulfill their agreement in its entirety. Even after Air Ceylon's international flights extended eastwards to Singapore, Jakarta and Australia in January 1950, only one Ceylonese pilot, Capt. Peter Fernando, was licenced on the DC-4; and that too in a supernumerary capacity as Second Officer.

ANA's influence in Air Ceylon was not confined to overseas operations. From early 1949 onwards, a few Australians occupied senior positions in the Lankan airline's hierarchy. Based in Colombo, W.W. Doyle served as Chairman, while Operations Manager was Capt. Peter Gibbes, a pilot with great skill and vast experience. Even today, Gibbes is fondly spoken of by former Air Ceylon pilots who flew DC-3s on domestic and regional services under his watchful supervision. They remember him as a stickler for operational correctness while remaining an amiable colleague.

But 1949, the year that began so optimistically for Air Ceylon, ended on an unhappy note. A few days before Christmas, one of the airline's quartet of Douglas DC-3 Dakotas crashed in controversial circumstances while landing at the south Indian city of Trichinopoly (alternatively 'Trichy' or Tiruchirapalli). The airplane in question was none other than Sunethra Devi. Wearing registration letters VP-CAT, it was the same DC-3 that, in May of the previous year, lost its way in stormy skies over Singapore, endangering the lives of all on board (see part 1, last week).

In this latest misfortune to befall Sunethra Devi there was no loss of life. Miraculously, the most serious injuries sustained were a fractured skull and some broken bones. But for the ill-fated DC-3, it was the end of the line. Its fuselage shattered and scattered, six-year-old Sunethra Devi would never fly again, her remnants destined for the scrapheap.

Sunethra Devi's last flight began routinely enough. A cool, refreshing pre-Christmas breeze caressed the airfield as the DC-3 took off from Ratmalana on the morning of Wednesday December 21, nearly 50 years ago to the day. The plane's first destination was Kankesanturai (KKS), aerial gateway to Sri Lanka's northern city of Jaffna.

The crew consisted of Capt. Dixon Kotelawala, First Officer (co-pilot) Simon Rasiah, Radio Officer Hector Fernando and air hostess Ranee Ranawake (later Mrs. Ranee Raymond). Dixon Kotelawala began his aviation career as an Assistant Aerodromes Officer at Ratmalana. He later joined Air Ceylon as a First Officer on DC-3s, and not long before this fateful flight had been appointed as Captain.

But back to that flight aboard Sunethra Devi... KKS was reached without incident in just under 90 minutes. Here, while the DC-3 rested, the crew breakfasted at the airport cafeteria. One imagines that typically northern fare such as stringhoppers, thosai and vadai would have featured on the menu. Then, with plane, passengers and crew suitably revitalised, Sunethra Devi's doors were shut, engines started and brakes released for the next leg to Trichy, 55 minutes away.

Somewhere between KKS and Trichy, the hitherto even tenor of Sunethra Devi's flight seemingly began to go amiss. According to press reports following the crash, a passenger claimed that one of the engines "gave trouble soon after the plane took off from Jaffna". This seemed to corroborate Capt. Kotelawala's subsequent statement that "the engine stalled just before the plane was to land".

Whatever the cause, as Sunethra Devi commenced its descent into Trichy around 1.30 p.m., it was obvious that all was not right with the DC-3. Another passenger, Dr. G. Wignarajah, a regular traveller on that route, noticed that the plane was being flown erratically. He watched in consternation as the aircraft narrowly escaped collision with Trichy Rock, a landmark some 7 miles from the airport.

At Trichy airfield itself, some observers said the DC-3 appeared to come in too fast. Others noted that the left wing was tilted downwards, and not in a level altitude. But all eyewitnesses agreed that the plane touched down heavily, then bounced before crashing nose first onto the grass surrounding the runway. The left landing gear also slammed into the ground with a fearsome thud, the wheel collapsing under the force of impact.

Missing one of its two main wheels, the lopsided Dakota careered along the grass until the drooping left wing dug in and spun the plane around in a sharp left-hand turn through 180 degrees. Meanwhile, the left propeller had broken away. Now, as the crippled aircraft swung around, the right wheel and engine too were wrenched off and flung some distance from the fuselage. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, a battered and broken Sunethra Devi slowed to a halt. A small fire broke out but was quickly extinguished by the airport fire brigade.

The second heavy impact had inflicted horrendous damage on the nose section and cockpit area. Rescuers rushing up to the wreck expected the worst. But, mercifully, the crew were alive. Dixon Kotelawala had superficial injuries to his head, chin and ribs, although Simon Rasiah, the co-pilot, was not so lucky. He had suffered a fractured skull and broken a forearm. Back in the passenger cabin, stewardess Ranee Ranawake sustained a broken collarbone when she unwisely unbuckled her seatbelt after the first bounce to look out at what was happening, and was thrown on her side. Also injured was passenger C.V. Ramaswamy Reddiar, who fractured his nasal bone.

As often happens in such circumstances, there were tales of heroism as human courage triumphed over adversity.

When firefighters reached the wreck, they liberally sprayed Hector Fernando from outside with a mixture of water and foam as he still sat stunned in his seat.

One report told how Capt. Kotelawala had leapt out of his seat as soon as the plane stopped, then raced back into the passenger cabin to open the main door. This was not before three passengers had broken open a window, crawled through the gap, and were trying to open the door from the outside so that others could evacuate the stricken plane.

When news of the crash reached Colombo, another DC-3 was hurriedly despatched from Ratmalana to Trichy. At the controls were Air Ceylon's 'Aussie' Operations Manager Capt. Peter Gibbes and First Officer George Ferdinand. Also on board were several investigators headed by the Department of Civil Aviation's Chief Inspector of Accidents, Ron Godlieb. Returning to Colombo the next day, the relief plane brought back Sunethra Devi's injured crew members (except co-pilot Rasiah, who was admitted to the Trichy hospital), passengers from the crashed aircraft, and others who were booked to fly back to Colombo on Sunethra Devi.

Describing the crash scene many years later, George Ferdinand recalled that a fuselage panel adjacent to the Radio Officer's position had been tornoff, exposing a gaping hole in the side of the plane. When fire fighters reached the wreck, they liberally sprayed Hector Fernando from outside with a mixture of water and foam as he still sat stunned in his seat.

The official inquiry considered the suggestion that Sunethra Devi had engine trouble that day. Significantly, however, it found that the aircraft was being flown, and the landing attempted, by co-pilot Simon Rasiah.

Nothing unusual about that, except that the recently-promoted Kotelawala, although now a Captain, was not yet permitted to let his co-pilots carry out take-offs and landings. Only senior Captains were authorised to conduct in-flight training of co-pilots.

And that, it seems, is how Air Ceylon lost the first of two aircraft during its 32-year existence (the second, an Avro 748, was destroyed by a bomb in 1978 but again with no loss of lives). For Sunethra Devi it was the end of a colourful military and commercial career that began just six years before.

Footnote 1: Dixon Kotelawala was later appointed Director of Civil Aviation. His cousin, Sir John Kotelawala, was Prime Minister of Ceylon at the time.

Sunday Times - 19 12 1999


Those Soaring Memories


Thought back to peaceful times of Ratmalana

Roger Thiedeman

In August this year I stood outside the Ratmalana airbase and watched a Sri Lanka Air Force Antonov An-32 take off. As the transport plane soared aloft in a climbing turn towards the north, my memories and imagination also took flight.

I thought back to more peaceful times when Ratmalana was just a civil aerodrome, and the many happy hours I spent there as a boy and young adult. A smile creased my face when I remembered the first time I flew in an aeroplane. A Christmas present from my parents in 1962, that nocturnal joy flight from Ratmalana in an Air Ceylon DC-3 piloted by Captain Harry Hatharasinghe remains one of my happiest memories. Also happy to relate, that selfsame Dakota is still at Ratmalana, on static display at the SLAF Museum.

Then there was an equally pleasant jaunt one Sunday (or was it Poya day?) morning in the early 1970s, aboard a vintage Dragon Rapide wood-and-fabric biplane flown by Nihal Jayawickrema. Joining me in the air that day were my sister Rosanne and girlfriend Ingrid (who later became my wife).

Another Ratmalana memory was the time Dad took me to see the aftermath of the Indian Airlines Viscount crash in November 1961. Landing in pelting rain, the plane slid off the runway and across Airport Road, demolishing fences as it went. The Viscount ended up on its belly, on the manicured lawns and flower beds of the Bata Shoe Company, never to fly again. Fortunately, there were no fatalities or serious injuries, only one passenger suffering a mild heart attack.

Gazing at the diminishing smoke trails of the An-32, now merely a speck in the sky, other memories of Ratmalana came flooding back. Like the day in 1964 when Air Ceylon received its first, very own jet-prop aircraft - an Avro 748. I still recall, vividly, the festive atmosphere as the Avro touched down at Ratmalana at the end of its delivery flight from Manchester, with Captains P.B. Mawalagedera and George Ferdinand in charge.

Fourteen years elapsed before I got the opportunity to travel on board that Avro. Less than three weeks after I flew in it to Jaffna and back, I heard the chilling news that the aircraft was destroyed by a bomb while parked at Ratmalana. Again, miraculously, no lives were lost.

Bristol Britannia of British Eagle Airlines, en route from Katunayake to Singapore, that was requested to make a slight detour for the benefit of spectators at Ratmalana.

How could I forget an air display staged by the Ratmalana Flying School sometime in the mid-to-late 1960s?

Two memorable highlights capped off the day. The first, a masterful exhibition in a Tiger Moth by Captain Dudley Ranabahu, who still serves as Upali Aviation's Chief Flying Instructor at Ratmalana.

His breath-taking routine of stunts and aerobatics, choreographed into a comedy act belying the skill involved, was titled Ranabahu-ge Naaki Kotiya (Ranabahu's Old Tiger) - much to everyone's delight.

The other highlight that day was a Bristol Britannia of British Eagle Airlines, en route from Katunayake to Singapore, that was requested to make a slight detour for the benefit of spectators at Ratmalana. The large, four-engine turboprop whistled overhead in near-silence, just a few hundred feet above the runway, making it easy to understand why BOAC used to call their Britannias 'Whispering Giants'.

Although not there when it happened, I remembered the night in February 1964 when a carrier-based Alize aircraft of the Indian Navy landed at Ratmalana without permission, triggering an international incident. I did, however, see the Alize fly low over our home in Wellawatte just a few minutes before it touched down. The aircraft was totally unlit, having lost all its electrical power. With inoperative radio and navigational equipment, the pilot could not find his way back to the aircraft carrier, so decided to make for the safety of Ratmalana instead.

My memories of Ratmalana all but exhausted, my imagination now took over. I tried to visualise the 'glory days' of Ratmalana, when it was Ceylon's international airport. The days of the 1950s and early 1960s, when Skymasters, Constellations, Viscounts, Comets and Electras brought passengers from, and took them to, far corners of the globe.

In my mind's eye I saw another time when, like today, Ratmalana was given over to less peaceful pursuits. My mental calendar rewound to Easter Sunday 1942, imagining Hurricanes and Fulmars of the Royal Air Force scrambling from Ratmalana to intercept and repulse Japanese planes coming to drop their lethal loads over Ceylon.


Yet another image swam into view. The date was November 13, 1946. A large crowd had thronged Ratmalana to greet a young Cambridge graduate named J. P. Obeyesekere. He was expected at any moment in his tiny Auster aeroplane, having left England at the start of a marathon journey home over a month before. Soon after Obeyesekere landed he was followed down by an Englishman named Farquharson, who had closely accompanied the Ceylonese flyer all the way in an identical Auster.

I mentally pictured the 10th day of December 1947, a Wednesday, when the Air Ceylon DC-3 Sita Devi, with Captain Peter Fernando in command, operated the airline's inaugural flight from Ratmalana to Kankesanturai (Jaffna) and Madras. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of Air Ceylon, the airline that never recorded a single passenger fatality throughout its 32 years of existence.

The SLAF Antonov had disappeared into the distance. Dusk began to cast its mantle over Ratmalana on that August evening. My imagination conjured up one last scene. November 27, 1935, nearly 62 years ago today, when Mr. H. Tyndale-Biscoe of the Madras Flying Club piloted the first aeroplane to land at Ratmalana. Accompanying him from Madras in the 3-seater De Havilland Puss Moth were Mr. W.B. Schleiter and Mr. C.B. Darius, a Ceylonese.

That night, back in bed at Borella, I slept soundly. Peace had returned to Sri Lanka. Ratmalana was once again a civil airport. Gone were the security barriers, gun emplacements, watch towers and other trappings of a wartime military airfield. Then I woke up and realised with a sigh ... yes, it was only a dream.

Sunday Times - 23 11 1997



Conquering the skies


Aviation buff Roger Thiedeman looks back on the pioneering days

The aviation age in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) dawned only a decade after this century began and a mere eight years since the Wright brothers did their thing at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. It all started here when a Bleriot monoplane was imported in 1911 by an Englishman, Colin Browne. Not until 1943, however, did Ceylon take a giant step onto international aviation route maps. When Japan invaded Singapore in 1942, the vital aerial lifeline linking Britain and Australia was suddenly severed. The next year, a bold solution to this setback restored wartime travel and communications between both countries over the shorter Asian route.

Flying nonstop across the Indian Ocean, Catalina flying boats of Qantas Empire Airways began connecting Perth, Western Australia and Koggala Lake, Ceylon. Following their then-record 26-hour flight, passengers and mail were transferred from Koggala to Ratmalana to resume their journey to England by conventional landplanes.

The country's wartime rise to prominence as an aerial crossroads at the expense of Singapore is not without irony. Later, Colombo's centuries-old importance as a seaport was eroded when Singapore harbor became a by-product of one of the most dynamic economies in South-East Asia, if not the world.

Similarly, adverse political and other factors saw Colombo lose the strategic advantage it briefly enjoyed on global air routes that had proliferated in the postwar aviation boom. Today, renewed exploitation of Colombo's geographic potential as an air transport hub is a vital part of the business plan of SriLankan Airlines, the new incarnation of the former Air Lanka.

Now, back to the first plane to arrive in Ceylon. When the flimsy craft was unloaded at Colombo harbor on September 12, 1911, newspapers waxed enthusiastic over this new-fangled mode of transport. One journalist heralded "an epoch in the history of the island", proclaiming that "Ceylon is not going to lag behind in the attempt to conquer the air".

However, that conquest took time. First, Browne's aeroplane was exhibited at the Colombo Racquet Court during November. Throughout the display the Bleriot remained on the ground, although Browne regularly started the engine and revved it up to the delight of spectators.

Meanwhile, another aeroplane was brought to Ceylon by a German known only as Herr Oster. There soon ensued a race between Oster and Browne to become the first to fly in the skies above Ceylon. But, to qualify, both landing and take-off had to be controlled successfully. A discounted attempt resulted when Oster took off from the Colombo Racecourse, made a careful circuit, but lost control of the aircraft when descending to land. Clipping bamboo scaffolding at the Royal College building site, the plane plunged earthwards narrowly missing racehorse stables as it crashed. While its pilot recuperated from minor injuries, the airplane was repaired by a local wadu-baas (carpenter).

The identification of who actually made Ceylon's first successful aeroplane flight appears lost in the mists of time. There is evidence to suggest that Frenchman Marc Pourpe may have achieved that honour on December 10, 1911 (if correct, the date is significant: exactly 36 years later, the first national airline, Air Ceylon, made its inaugural flight from Ratmalana to Kankesanturai and Madras).

Over the next few years, aeroplanes remained the playthings of wealthy British planters, businessmen and the like. With no purpose-built airfields available, the racecourse and fairways of golf links were popular sites for aerial activity.

World War One vividly demonstrated the value of flying machines as vehicles of transport, communication and warfare. In the aftermath of the 1914-1918 war, Ceylon too recognised that aviation must be embraced if the country were to develop and progress.

As more Ceylonese became air-minded, it was decided to establish the country's first aerodrome on a site at Ratmalana. That plan reached fruition on November 27, 1935 when a de Havilland Puss Moth piloted by Mr. Harold Tyndale-Biscoe of the Madras Flying Club became the first plane to land at the new airfield.

With the importation of more aeroplanes into the island, a civil aircraft register was instituted in 1936. Soon, the Aero Club of Ceylon was formed, catering to accredited and fledgling pilots alike. The Aero Club's Chief Flying Instructor was a former WW1 Flight Lieutenant, a popular Englishman named Robert Duncanson. Ceylonese women Daisy Croning and Janet Vairakiam also joined the growing band of private pilots.

Another milestone in Lankan aviation history occurred at Ratmalana on February 28, 1938 when a WACO biplane of India's Tata Airlines launched the Empire Air Mail service between Ceylon and the United Kingdom.

But before commercial aviation in Ceylon could proceed, a second world war provided an unhappy, inconvenient interruption. World War Two wrought death, destruction and human suffering on an unprecedented scale. Ceylon's "most dangerous moment" in the conflict came on Easter Sunday 1942, its events well documented here and abroad.Of necessity, the war spurred rapid advances in aeronautical technology. It also provided the opportunity for many young Ceylonese men to take to the air. After serving the Royal Air Force (RAF) in overseas theatres of battle, they distinguished themselves in airline and airforce careers in Ceylon and elsewhere when the war ended.Based in England, a Ceylonese woman also performed sterling service during the war. As a military pilot with the Air Transport Auxiliary, it was Aimee Jonklaas's job to single-handedly deliver new aircraft - Spitfire fighter planes one day, heavy Lancaster bombers the next - from factories to RAF squadrons all over Britain. In 1947, with Independence for Ceylon around the corner, a national airline was mooted. Three war-surplus Douglas DC-3 Dakota aircraft were purchased for the new carrier, Air Ceylon. But even before the airline's first scheduled flight took place, its aircrew were accumulating valuable experience.

In its formative years Air Ceylon was a busy little outfit, despite a small fleet and limited route network. Charter flights went to Jeddah with Hajj pilgrims, to Burma with sacred Buddhist relics, and to Australia with a group of Ceylon Navy personnel. The latter flight, in 1948, very nearly ended in tragedy during bad weather over Singapore.

Misfortune struck Air Ceylon for the first time in December 1949. The DC-3 Sunethra Devi was destroyed in a landing accident at Trichinopoly, India but, fortunately, nobody was killed. Earlier in 1949, Air Ceylon spread its wings on scheduled international flights with a pair of Douglas DC-4 Skymasters, operated in collaboration with Australian National Airways (ANA). As international partners of Air Ceylon, ANA were later followed, successively, by KLM, BOAC, and French airline UTA.

Life aboard Air Ceylon had its lighter moments too. One day, during a flight to Jaffna, an elderly passenger asked Capt. Dion Bennett to turn off one of the Dakota's engines because the draught from the "fan" was making him cold!

Over the years, the Lankan carrier tentatively moved into the jet age, initially with Avro 748 and Nord 262 jet- props. Then, in 1969, Air Ceylon got its first, very own taste of pure-jet power when it bought a Hawker Siddeley Trident jetliner.

In the late 1970s, just when it seemed that Air Ceylon had shed the shackles of foreign influence, the airline appeared to be struggling. The government of the day dismissed Chairman "Paddy" Mendis, while the terrorist bombing of an Avro at Ratmalana didn't help matters either. Sadly, it all came to an end in 1979 as the nation's new carrier, Air Lanka, rose phoenix-like from the ashes of Air Ceylon.

In April 1998, Air Lanka was partially privatised, with Dubai-based airline Emirates taking over management rights and buying a 40 percent stake in the company. Earlier this year, Air Lanka's 20th anniversary celebrations were highlighted by a new image, logo, colour scheme and name: SriLankan Airlines.

Love it or hate it, SriLankan Airlines has the responsibility of ushering Sri Lankan commercial aviation into a new century, a new millennium and a new future. What that future holds, only time will tell.

02 01 2000 - Sunday Times




When 'Mahadevi' Ruled The Skies


Roger Thiedeman

Picture the scene. Ratmalana airport on a warm day in March 1956. Noon nears as a sizzling sun blazes down. On the tarmac, basking in the midday heat, sits a large, unfamiliar aircraft. At least its colours are familiar: the red and yellow of Air Ceylon. But the airplane, gigantic for its time, is a magnet for the attention of inquisitive onlookers.

All curves, sinuous and sensuous, this winged machine is almost dolphin-like in appearance. Dominating the unusual shape are three tail fins, each proudly emblazoned with the Air Ceylon capital 'C' logo. Harking back to seafaring tradition, the name Mahadevi (Sinhala for 'great goddess' or 'great queen') adorns both sides of the nose, beneath the cockpit windows. Two large elliptical wings, and four powerful engines each driving a three- bladed propeller, complete the ensemble.

This sleek airliner is a Lockheed 749 Constellation. Built in America, it has been leased by Air Ceylon from its owner, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, for use on overseas services under the banner of Ceylon's national airline. Along with the Constellation, KLM are providing their own pilots and technical crew. But a few Ceylonese stewards and stewardesses will share cabin duties with their Dutch counterparts.

It was in Bombay, on another occasion, this photo was taken. Posing in front of the Constellation are its Dutch and Ceylonese crew. At extreme right is saree-clad stewardess Sheila Mudannayake; at extreme left, Valerie Wickremesinghe; and the steward next to her is the recently-deceased Gregory Gunasekera.

Today will see the Constellation's inaugural flight, but it is not Air Ceylon's first international foray. After foundation in 1947 as a domestic and regional carrier, scheduled overseas services commenced in 1949. Using two Douglas DC-4 Skymasters in collaboration with Australian National Airways (ANA), the Ceylon flag was flown as far afield as Bombay, Karachi, Tel Aviv, Rome and London. Later Singapore, Jakarta, Darwin and Sydney joined the international network. But it ended in 1953, when Air Ceylon and ANA parted company, with the Skymasters going to the Australian airline.

After a three-year hiatus, KLM stepped in with an agreement to provide technical and managerial support enabling Air Ceylon to resume international services. Now the day has arrived for the first Air Ceylon/KLM overseas flight. There is a buzz of excitement in the departure lounge at Ratmalana. Well-dressed men and women - paying passengers (a return Economy Class ticket to London costs Rs. 3,410, or just under Rs. 5,000 in First Class), VIPs, airline officials, and a few fortunate media personnel - are agog at the prospect of a historic aerial adventure.

Finally, the departure time of 11.30 a.m. is here. Passengers enter the Constellation and take their seats in its luxurious cabin. Boarding steps are withdrawn, doors are shut, and engines started one by one, accompanied by billows of blue, oily smoke. Slowly, gracefully, Mahadevi taxies to the end of the runway. Then, in a crescendo of roaring engines and whirling propellers, she accelerates and soars skyward. Ahead stretches a journey over 24 hours in duration, above and through exotic locations, to its destination in Amsterdam.

While passengers grow accustomed to their comfortable cocoon, a sumptuous lunch is served. A BBC representative aboard said it was the best food he had ever had on a plane. Air travel in the Fifties was a more leisurely and expensive affair, enjoyed only by the affluent and the important. Back then airline meals were fine repasts, eaten off the best crockery with real cutlery. Not the mass-produced, insipid mush masquerading as food in many of today's economy class cabins.

At no stage during the Constellation's journey are passengers neglected. Pilots and cabin crew work hard to make the trip enjoyable and informative. Landmarks are pointed out and competitions organised to keep boredom at bay. At 3.45 p.m. Mahadevi touches down at Santa Cruz airport, Bombay.

After exactly an hour in Bombay, Mahadevi takes off again, on its next leg to Karachi. Darkness has fallen by the time the Constellation reaches Pakistan, on time at 6.50 p.m., some seven hours after departing Ratmalana. There is ample time before the scheduled take-off from Karachi, so passengers are transported to the nearby KLM resthouse. Here - again reflective of how times have changed for international air travellers - they freshen up, with even a bath if desired, and a proper sit-down dinner.

One of the newspaper reporters aboard Mahadevi's inaugural flight was a special correspondent from the Ceylon Daily News. Here is an extract from that unnamed writer's report: "Miss Valerie Wickremesinghe, air hostess, alighted at Karachi, earning her rest. She was radiant for the seven hours she was with us but the Dutch air
hostess who was equally winsome disembarked at Cairo, where the first crew stopped, Captain Geerling having done a fine job. Thereafter, charming Prinsen Geerligs, the sole hostess, said in reply to a question why there was only one girl now: 'We Dutch girls are stronger'."

Back in the air at 8.35 p.m., Mahadevi leaves Karachi behind and points her nose towards Bahrain. As the four engines drone a lullaby, cabin lights are turned off and passengers sleep. Unlike their counterparts in today's cramped 'cattle-class' seats, they recline and repose in spacious comfort.

Bahrain is reached at the unearthly hour of 12.45 a.m., local time. One wonders how many passengers stayed on board the Constellation and slumbered on during the one-hour transit stop. Then, at 1.45 a.m., Mahadevi picks up her skirts and sweeps away into the dark, desert skies. Next stop: the magical, mysterious Egyptian capital of Cairo.

Touchdown is on schedule at 5.15 a.m. Again, passengers disembark for a wash-up and breakfast at a Cairo resthouse. When Mahadevi leaves Cairo at 6.45 a.m., the sun's rays have already crept above the horizon, illuminating the earth beneath. According to the Daily News correspondent, "Two huge pyramids could be seen in the distance, and the great Nile and its fertile green valley, so well irrigated and cultivated."

The new day brings the first inkling of possible disruption to Mahadevi's hitherto successful inaugural flight. Weather over Europe looks unfriendly, and there are fears of having to bypass Rome and land instead at Nice, France, owing to forecast snowstorms. However, Captain Hurdmann perseveres, and descending through a layer of cloud, finds Rome, guiding the Constellation to a landing just before noon.

A minor technical hitch detains Mahadevi in Rome for 20 minutes longer than planned. But at 1.00 p.m. the Constellation is airborne again, this time headed for London. The Daily News tells of "...the sheet of snow from the heel of Italy to the glistening Alps, out of which rose majestic Mont Blanc. I saw it approach me from the cockpit and the Mahadevi almost rubbed shoulders with her in trying to show us closely such a spectacle."

Landing in cold but sunlit London around 4.00 p.m., ten passengers leave the airplane, before its final leg to KLM's home base in Amsterdam. Once more, the Daily News takes up the narrative: "And now the Mahadevi is approaching Amsterdam ... We have covered 5,505 nautical miles, with six halts of 71/4 hours and 241/2 hours' flying in (sic) Mahadevi's memorable and enjoyable maiden voyage for Air Ceylon from Colombo to Amsterdam, where we stepped out on snow."

So began a two-year period of service by the Constellation of Air Ceylon. In November 1958, it was replaced by a larger, faster, more modern Lockheed 1049 Super Constellation, also leased from KLM, and given the name Somadevi. But in 1962, after the 'Super Connie' had been, in turn, supplanted by a Lockheed Electra jet-prop, the Air Ceylon-KLM 'marriage' was dissolved. Like most divorces, it was controversial and bitter. But that's another story ...

25 06 2000 - Sunday Times



Sixty Years of Sri Lankan Air Mail


On that faraway February day ...

Roger Thiedeman

The carriage of mail by air is so common place today we easily take it for granted. So, it would be appropriate to recognise that yesterday (February 28) was the 60th anniversary of the inauguration of a formal Air Mail service for Sri Lanka.

In 1938, Ceylon was still a small but important constituent of the then-mighty British Empire. Another ten years would elapse before Independence from its colonial rulers was attained.

At the time, telegraph and radio transmissions were still relatively unsophisticated and often erratic. The ordinary letter was, therefore, the principal method by which people in distant Ceylon communicated with Great Britain, and vice versa.

Since 1842, mail between the United Kingdom and Ceylon had gone by sea. Until the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, the journey from England to Ceylon via the Cape of Good Hope used to take 90 days.

The period between the two World Wars saw aviation in Great Britain develop by leaps and bounds. A thriving British aircraft industry produced large passenger aeroplanes, both land planes and seaplanes, to open up newer, quicker avenues of transport between the seat of British government and her colonial outposts in the east. Those huge and commodious (for their time) airliners were operated on overseas routes by Imperial Airways, precursor of BOAC and today's British Airways. Successful as their land planes were, Imperial Airways became synonymous with seaplanes or, more correctly, flying boats.

Fostered by British seafaring tradition, flying boats exploited the proximity of most major cities to sea coasts, rivers, even estuaries and lagoons. Not requiring the complex infrastructure of airports, runways and other paraphernalia, flying boats could land and take off literally at the doorstep of the metropolis. In time, along with passenger transportation, Imperial Airways began using their flying boats to supplement the sea mail service, in what became known as the Empire Air Mail Scheme.

But even in the early-to-mid-1930s, air mail service to the Indian subcontinent was somewhat limited. Imperial Airways flying boats took the mail only as far as Karachi. Remember, Karachi was then a part of India, the birth of Pakistan to which it now belongs being several years in the future. From Karachi, mails destined for other parts of India, Burma (now Myanmar) and Ceylon would take a tedious, circuitous route by road, rail and ferry
boat. Of course, the reverse would apply to mails westbound from those countries to the U.K.

All that began to change in 1932 thanks to an enterprising and wealthy young Parsee named J.R.D. Tata. An enthusiastic aviator and scion of India's powerful Tata industrial empire, 'JRD' obtained from the British colonial government a licence to extend the Empire Air Mail Scheme beyond Karachi to other major cities in India. His pioneering service, using small single-engine de Havilland Puss Moth and Fox Moth aircraft, linked Karachi with Madras (now Chennai) in the south, via Ahmedabad, Bombay (now Mumbai), Bellary and, later, Hyderabad. It also signalled the humble birth of Tata Sons Ltd. (later Tata Air Lines) which subsequently blossomed into Air India, under J.R.D. Tata's chairmanship one of the most respected airlines of its day. But that's another story......

By 1936, the air age in Ceylon had well and truly arrived after a faltering start back in 1911. Colombo now had a proper aerodrome, at Ratmalana, even if only a simple grass paddock. In fact, on Christmas Day, 1936 an 'unofficial', ad hoc Tata flight took mails from Ceylon to India and thence by Imperial Airways to the UK and the Continent.

Soon, in 1938, with the lines on Tata's Indian route map stretching ever southwards it seemed logical therefore, to both 'JRD' and the British government, to officially continue the aerial mail link across Palk Strait to Ceylon. This extension of the Empire Air Mail Scheme would also coincide with the elimination of a surcharge for carriage of letters by air. How times have changed!

Preparations began late in January 1938 with a series of trial flights between India and Ceylon. Carrying the occasional passenger, Tata's operated a service on Tuesdays and Thursdays connecting Ratmalana with Trichinopoly (Trichy), Madras, Hyderabad (where a night stop was made), Bombay and Karachi. The type of airplane chosen was the American-built WACO (rhymes with "Marco"), and the opportunity was taken to familiarise as many as fifteen Indian pilots with the new route.

In less than a month, all was in readiness for Ceylon to join the Empire Air Mail Scheme, concurrent with an increase in frequency to four flights a week. An expectant air hung over Ratmalana aerodrome as it awaited the first outbound air mail service from Ceylon. According to contemporary newspaper reports, February 28, 1938, a Monday, dawned in a blaze of sunshine with a few fleecy white clouds to keep the blue sky company. Adam's Peak, however, disappeared from view in a shroud of mist. Sixty years later, is it still possible to glimpse Sri Pada from Ratmalana airport?

Guest of honour on that festive occasion was His Excellency The Governor of Ceylon, Sir Andrew Caldecott, accompanied by Lady Caldecott and their daughter Joan. Also present were VIPs from the government, military forces, diplomatic corps and the large business houses.

Soon the time for departure drew near. The Governor cut a ribbon stretched between two posts of a pandal, before stamping three small silk bags conveying greetings to his counterparts in Madras and Bombay and the 'Big Chief' in Whitehall, London. When these symbolic mailbags joined the real ones in the waiting WACO, its door was shut and the biplane's single engine and propeller spun into life.

With Tata's Air Superintendent B.W. Figgins at the controls, the aircraft taxied slowly to the far end of the aerodrome. Then, under full throttle and using only half the length of the grass strip, the WACO climbed gracefully away from Ratmalana. Performing an aerial salute to the excited crowds below, Figgins circled the aerodrome briefly before finally heading off in the direction of India.

After making the usual stops on its Indian route, the Tata WACO reached Karachi's Drigh Road aerodrome the next day. From here the mailbags were quickly transferred by road to Karachi harbour and into an Imperial Airways Short S.23 flying boat named Centurion, ready to leave on a historic mission. When Centurion alighted on Southampton Water a few days later (air travel was more leisurely then!), for the first time ever mails from Ceylon to the United Kingdom had travelled all the way by air under the auspices of the Empire Air Mail Scheme. So, the next time you stick an Air Mail label on a letter, or receive an aerogramme from a friend or loved one overseas, spare a thought for the flight which officially launched Sri Lanka's Air Mail service on that faraway February day in 1938.

Footnote: The Tata Sons' flight that day was also, effectively, the beginning of scheduled passenger services to and from Ceylon, albeit by a foreign carrier. The commencement of true Sri Lankan commercial aviation, with a locally owned and operated airline, did not occur until December 10, 1947 when Air Ceylon made its inaugural flight. That milestone has been well documented in the Sri Lankan press over the past few months.

01 03 1998 - Sunday Times


The Day the Air Ceylon Avro was Bombed


Roger Thiedeman

Some day someone will write the definitive history of Sri Lanka's tragic Eelam conflict. But before that happens the war must end. And when that story is written, September 7, 1978 will stand out as a milestone. It was the day when one of the earliest blows in the separatist struggle was struck, the day when aviation terrorism first reared its ugly head in Sri Lanka.

But first, let's go back to a happier day in 1964. On Friday October 30, a large crowd of VIPs, officials and well-wishers gathered at Ratmalana airport to greet the arrival of Air Ceylon's newest acquisition. The brand-new Hawker-Siddeley (Avro) 748 turboprop aircraft, registered 4R-ACJ, symbolised Air Ceylon's new-found status as an independent operator of jet-powered equipment.

And when Capt. P.B. Mawalagedera and Capt. George Ferdinand emerged from the gleaming 48-seat Avro at the end of its delivery flight from Manchester to Colombo, they were accorded a heroes' welcome by the waiting crowd.
Over the next few weeks the Avro, or 'ACJ' to use its registration identity, was kept busy operating demonstration flights. While providing the opportunity to train more pilots on the new aircraft, these joy flights enabled all strata of Air Ceylon staff, government officials, representatives of the press and travel industry, and even a few delighted members of the Maha Sangha, to sample the smoothness of turbine flight high above the scenic splendour of Ceylon.

Monday November 9, 1964 soon arrived. This was the day when Air Ceylon's new turboprop would operate its first revenue service to Bombay. Again, a large crowd of airline officials and politicians had gathered outside the Air Ceylon hangar to witness the momentous departure.

Inside the hangar, a tractor and tow bar were coupled up to the Avro. An engineer in the cockpit steered the plane's nose wheel as the aircraft began to be slowly towed outside. Suddenly, disaster struck. One of those involved in the towing operation misjudged the height of the aircraft, and its tail fin came into sickening contact with the arched hangar roof: In full view of the assembled VlPs, the fin and rudder assembly were all but wrenched off, crippling the still-new airplane that had yet to contribute a cent to Air Ceylon's coffers.

The so-called 'inaugural' flight eventually went ahead after one of the airline's old faithful DC-3s was hurriedly pressed into service. Replacement parts for the damaged Avro were ordered from the United Kingdom, and not until several weeks later did it take to the air again, to start earning its keep. Although the memory of the accident gradually receded, one wonders whether it was a portent of things to come for Avro 748 4R-ACJ.

Over the next decade and more, the Avro proved a reliable, rugged performer, popular with pilots, engineers and passengers alike. It flew tirelessly all over Air Ceylon's domestic and regional network, from Ratmalana to places like Kankesanturai (Jaffna/Palaly), Trincomalee (China Bay), Anuradhapura, to the Indian cities of Trichinopoly, Madras and Bombay, and even to Male in the Maldives Islands. But nearly fourteen years after 'ACJ' first landed at Ratmalana amidst adulation and national pride, it entered the history books for the wrong reasons.

Thursday September 7, 1978 was a day like any other. It certainly started out in routine fashion for Capt. Errol Cramer who flew 'ACJ' from Ratmalana to Jaffna on the early morning Air Ceylon service. Assisting him in the cockpit was First Officer Trevor Vanderstraaten. After an uneventful turn-around at Sri Lanka's northernmost airport, the Avro returned to Ratmalana, landing at approximately 8.30 am.

Their duty over, the two pilots prepared to leave the aircraft. They noticed the cabin not quite empty of passengers — two male 'stragglers' yet to disembark appeared to be retrieving items of luggage from beneath their seats.

Cramer and Vanderstraaten may have finished their flying for the day, but no such respite was planned for Avro 'ACJ'. It was scheduled to leave soon on a ferry, or positioning, flight (without passengers) to Katunayake airport, where it would collect a load of tourists destined for the Maldives. A new crew comprising Capt. Ronnie Perera and First Officer Ranjit Pedris were ready to take over for the flight to Male via Katunayake.

But when Capt. Perera entered the Avro he noticed that the passenger cabin was in an untidy state, with rubbish strewn everywhere. He ordered that the cabin be cleaned before the ferry flight, rejecting co-pilot Pedris's suggestion to have the cleaning performed at Katunayake instead. That decision, delaying take-off, would save both their lives.

Minutes ticked by as Ranjit Pedris carried out his pre-flight checks in the cockpit. Capt. Perera remained in the cabin supervising the cleaner. And then it happened. A deafening blast from near the middle of the aircraft shook the confines of the cabin. As a shock wave assailed his ears, Pedris looked back from his pilot's seat to find the cabin engulfed in flames. Noticing that the fire was in the vicinity of the Avro's fuel tanks, he wasted no time in leaping up and running out through the open front door.

Meanwhile, Capt. Ronnie Perera and the cleaner, miraculously uninjured by the explosion or fire, also made a hasty exit via the rear passenger door. Fortunately that door had not been shut, because the rapidly spreading flames would have blocked their access to the only other door, the front one that Pedris had used.
Having heard and seen the explosion, the control tower staff promptly sounded the fire alarm. But, according to an eyewitness, what occurred next resembled a scene from a Keystone Kops or Charlie Chaplin comedy film. Although the sight of the burning Avro was no laughing matter.

A fire engine arrived soon enough, but the crew then had difficulty locating the fire hydrants. When hoses were finally connected to the water supply, they found that water pressure was inadequate, a situation not helped by leaks in the hose pipes. Worse still, the fire-fighters could not get close enough to the fire because their protective asbestos suits and masks were locked away in a cupboard, the key to which had been removed by the senior airport fire officer who was under interdiction orders at the time! Then, an ambulance racing from Colombo to Ratmalana airport caught fire at Kollupitiya.

While this farcical drama played itself out, the raging inferno quickly gained the upper hand. The fire spread relentlessly and the Avro began to writhe in its death throes, literally melting away before the incredulous, helpless onlookers. While the middle section, where the fire had originated, was reduced to almost nothing, the tail sagged to the ground; simultaneously, the nose of the aircraft, including cockpit and front wheels, twisted sideways through 90 degrees before it too sank onto the tarmac. The sight almost brought tears to the eyes of Timothy de Alwis, now a senior Air Lanka engineer, who was then working in a similar capacity for Air Ceylon.

Luckily, the flames did not reach the Avro's fuel tanks, or an even greater calamity would have resulted. When the fire was finally extinguished, it was all too late. No human lives were lost but the Avro was dead, a twisted, charred hulk, only the two wings and engines remaining substantially intact. Investigators found that the explosion was caused not by any mechanical failure or fault of the aircraft but, in all likelihood, by a bomb or similar explosive device. They believed that damage from the explosion may have been repairable if only the fire had not been allowed to take hold.

If only the firemen had the appropriate fire fighting equipment. If only the keys to the cupboard had not been taken away by the interdicted officer. If only the water pressure was stronger. If only the hoses didn't leak.

But there was another more important 'if'. If Capt. Ronnie Perera had not delayed his departure by having the interior cleaned at Ratmalana, and not at Katunayake as had been suggested, the bomb would have exploded while the Avro was in mid-air en route from Ratmalana to Katunayake. Not only the two pilots, but people on the ground too might have been killed as pieces of the flaming Avro fell to earth.

Now there were questions demanding answers. Who placed the bomb on board the plane? Was the bomb linked to those two passengers seen loitering in the cabin by Capt. Errol Cramer? Already, a cordon had been placed around Ratmalana airport to detain passengers who had just arrived from Jaffna aboard the Avro, but no suspects were apprehended at that stage. Much later, two men who had travelled on the Avro's final flight were arrested, tried and sentenced for their crime of placing a bomb under a seat before they de-planed. They were found to be activists in an embryonic terrorist movement which later grew into the organisation known today as the LTTE.

Their plan to destroy government property and innocent lives had only partly succeeded. But these agents of evil had managed to introduce the spectre of aircraft bombing and terrorism into hitherto untroubled Sri Lankan aviation.

And they also helped to seal the fate of Sri Lanka's first national carrier, already crippled by impoverished finances, inept management and insufficient aircraft. The loss of Avro 4R-ACJ was almost the last nail in the coffin of Air Ceylon, which struggled to survive but faded into oblivion less than a year later.

06 09 1998 - Sunday Times



"Juliet is no more!"


Capt. G.A. Fernando

It happened on Thursday, September 7, 1978, the day of the official opening of the Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. That morning I was spending some quality time at home with my wife and two-week-old firstborn son when our peace was disturbed by the urgent tooting of a car horn outside our house. Upon investigating, I discovered my Air Ceylon pilot colleague, Capt. Herby Wanigatunga, behind the wheel of his white Holden, obviously trying to attract my attention. I rushed out to meet Herby who, still seated in the car, exclaimed, "Putha, Juliet is no more!" For a fleeting moment I thought he was referring to some lady of our mutual acquaintance who had might have met an untimely and unfortunate demise; but I couldn’t recall anyone with that name. I then wondered if, perhaps, Herby had suddenly become a fan of William Shakespeare and, having just read the Bard of Avon’s legendary story of star-crossed lovers, discovered - for the first time in his life - the tragic ending to that tale.

No, this was a different Juliet entirely. It was our beloved Air Ceylon aircraft whose recent and tragic demise he had come to tell me about. ‘Juliet’ was the name by which we referred to one of two Hawker Siddeley (Avro) 748s then operated by Air Ceylon. It was registered 4R-ACJ, or ‘Four Romeo Alpha Charlie Juliet’ according to the international phonetic alphabet, with the last word ‘Juliet’ used by pilots and ground crew to abbreviate the airplane’s identity for the sake of convenience.

(Ironically, Air Ceylon’s other Avro, 4R-ACR, was, for the same reason, known by us as ‘Romeo’!) Indeed, 4R-ACJ, or ‘Juliet’, was Air Ceylon’s first, wholly-owned turbine-powered aircraft. As a brand-new aeroplane it arrived at Ratmalana Airport on Friday, October 30, 1964, on its delivery flight from Manchester, England, with Air Ceylon’s famous duo, Capt. P.B. Mawalagedera (‘Captain Ma ‘) and Capt. George Ferdinand (‘Captain Ferdy’), at the controls. Herby, my friend and neighbour, was President of the Air Ceylon Pilots’ Guild while I was its Secretary.

He had just received information that a bomb had been placed aboard Avro ‘Juliet’ and it had been destroyed on the ground at Ratmalana Airport. I immediately boarded a bus and went to the airport. When I got to the holding area/restaurant (run by Grosvenor Caterers), I saw Capt. Errol Cramer and First Officer (FO) Trevor Vander Straaten being interviewed by members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Apparently, earlier that morning Cramer and Vander Straaten had flown the airplane to Jaffna (KKS) and back.

When I exited the door which opened to the parking apron, I was shocked by the sad sight of the now-destroyed aircraft. The centre section of the fuselage was practically non-existent, leaving only the nose and tail area relatively unscathed. The wings and two Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop engines had also survived.

As I spoke to some of the eyewitnesses to this great tragedy, pieces of the story emerged. Capt. Cramer and FO Vander Straaten had completed an uneventful return flight to KKS, but after they had performed their shut-down checks, they noticed two stragglers still onboard. But they didn’t give them much thought as this was quite a common occurrence on domestic flights.

The Avro was soon to take off on a ferry flight from Ratmalana to Katunayake - ahead of another flight from Colombo’s international airport to Malé in the Maldives Islands. The crew assigned to operate those next flights comprised Capt. Ronnie Perera and FO Ranjit Pedris.

When Perera and Pedris boarded the Avro to prepare for the ferry flight, they found the aircraft cabin in disarray and untidy with litter from the earlier KKS flight. Although the crew had the option of flying the aircraft in that condition to Katunayake and getting it cleaned there before departure for Malé, Captain Ronnie Perera opted to have the cleaning of the cabin carried out at Ratmalana instead. It would turn out to be probably the most fortuitous decision he ever made. Capt. Ronnie Perera was known for always being ‘on the go’ when it came to flying. A common expression you would hear when flying with him would be, "Young man, let’s go!" So it was very strange that he decided to delay the ferry flight so that the cabin could be cleaned then and there rather than at Katunayake. In fact it was FO Pedris, knowing Ronnie’s impatience to get the show on the road, who had first suggested that they get the aircraft cleaned in Katunayake - only to be overruled by Capt. Perera.

As luck would have it, FO Pedris was doing his pre-flight check while Capt. Perera was in the back of the airplane supervising the cleaning. The electrical power fed to the aircraft when the engines were not running was Direct Current (DC) from a battery pack on ground.

As some of the equipment onboard required Alternating Current (AC), the airplane was equipped with alternators to convert DC to AC. Pedris had just switched on the alternators when there was loud explosion. For a moment he thought that he had done something wrong! Looking back toward the cabin, he saw that the rear of the aircraft was on fire. Not wasting any time, Ranjit Pedris got out of his seat and ran.

To this day he cannot remember whether he used the boarding steps at the front entry door or just jumped from the door directly onto the tarmac. Miraculously, Captain Perera happened to be standing close to the rear passenger entry door when the explosion occurred, so he made a hasty exit from there, along with the cleaner.

What followed can only be described as a comedy of errors. As soon as the control tower staff heard and saw the explosion, they activated the crash alarm at the airport fire station. But when the fire tender arrived at the burning aircraft, the firemen lost valuable time searching frantically for the fire hydrants. Then it was discovered that the water pressure was inadequate, while leaks in the hoses didn’t help either.

Above all, the heat of the resulting fire was so intense that the fire fighters could not get close to the aircraft. Their heat-resistant asbestos suits were locked inside a cupboard at the airport fire station and the key was with a senior officer under interdiction! Meanwhile, an ambulance rushing to Ratmalana Airport from Colombo caught fire at Kollupitiya! What started as a relatively small fire ended up destroying the whole aircraft. While the fire was raging out of control, serious thought was given to evacuating the terminal building, but this proved to be unnecessary. As later investigations revealed, the bomb had been placed under a seat above the main spar of the Avro’s wing assembly.

If it had exploded in mid-air, the wings would have failed, leaving no chance, however slim, of the pilots returning for an emergency landing. This was the first time that Tamil separatist militants had destroyed an aircraft on ground. It was believed that the bomb was timed to detonate over Colombo, for maximum effect. Fortunately, the Avro was still on ground and no-one was injured or killed. Probably because there was, miraculously, no loss of life, the incident was soon forgotten by the general populace of Sri Lanka.

Even to this day, it is often confused with the much more serious action by Tamil Tiger terrorists, when a bomb placed onboard an Air Lanka Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, 4R-ULD, on ground at Katunayake Airport - ironically also being prepared for a flight to Malé - killed 14 persons on May 3, 1986. But back in September 1978, the day after the sad demise of ‘Juliet’, Herby Wanigatunga and I, in our respective capacities as office-bearers of the Air Ceylon Pilots’ Guild, forwarded security recommendations from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) to Mr. Keble de Silva, the then General Manager of Air Ceylon. Some of the recommendations such as baggage screening and reconciliation of passengers with checked bags onboard were adopted with immediate effect.

09 09 2009 - The Island



AIR CEYLON LTD. (ACL) 1948 – 1978



Douglas DC-3

During August 1948, the former British crown colony of Ceylon is granted dominion status. Consequently, in August, Ceylon Airways, Ltd. is renamed ACL; however, it continues as the marketing name for the Air Transport Branch of the government’s Directorate of Civil Aviation. Revenue flights around the island and to southern India are provided by four Douglas DC-3s acquired from Air India, Ltd. They are named Viharamaha Devi, Sita Devi, Sri Lanka Devi and Sunethra Devi. Service is inaugurated to Bombay (now Mumbai), Karachi, and Trincomalee. One of the DC-3s transports significant Buddhist relics to Burma (now Myanmar) where they are placed on display.

In early 1949, the government initiates a contract with Ivan Holyman’s ANA (Australian National Airlines) to fly Colombo to London and Singapore services. Australian W. W. Doyale becomes ACL’s board chairman while ANA’s Capt. Peter Gibbes moves to Colombo to become the carrier’s operations manager. Christened Ratmadana and Laxapana, two leased DC-4s painted in AC livery are delivered and offer flights from Colombo to Trichinopoly and from Colombo to Bombay and Karachi. The orders placed for two Lockheed L-749A Constellations are cancelled. The DC-3 Sunethra Devi is involved in a landing accident at Trichinopoly in December; damages to the aircraft are so bad as to require that the aircraft be written off.

DH 89A Dragon Rapide

Douglas DC-4

The two chartered ANA DC-4s commence London to Sydney flights on January 28, 1950 via Rome, Lydda (Tel Aviv), Karachi, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, and Jakarta. ANA also undertakes to train Ceylonese aircrew. On May 1, 1951, ACL is reformed and official incorporated; the Ceylonese government assumes 51% shareholding and ANA 49%. A de Havilland DH 89A Dragon Rapide is acquired during the fall and inaugurates domestic flights from Colombo to Trincomalee via Minneriya and Amparai.

Due to financial difficulties and technologically advanced—and unanswerable—competition from British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and Trans World Airlines (TWA), services to London and Sydney are suspended in October 1953. Other flights continue through 1954 and 1955 and, in November of the latter year, the shareholding for failing ANA is purchased by KLM. Several KLM officials now join the ACL board as the ANA members depart.

Lockheed L-749A

On February 11, 1956, a Lockheed L-749A is wet-leased from the Dutch flag line and christened Mahadevi. Flown by a Dutch crew, but painted in ACL livery, the Constellation inaugurates weekly Colombo– Amsterdam Sapphire service on February 17 via Bombay, Karachi, Bahrain, Cairo, Rome, and London. The Mahadevi begins weekly Colombo to Bangkok flights on April 26.

Lockheed L-1049G

The Colombo to Bangkok route is suspended on April 18, 1957 and replaced with a weekly L-749A frequency to Singapore. Four-times-per week Colombo-Ampari/Jaffna DC-3 services are started on November 1. In November 1958, the Mahadevi is returned to the Dutch and is replaced by a leased Dutch L-1049G, the Isotoop. KLM reduces its stake in ACL to 24% in January 1959. The Super Constellation is given Ceylonese registration during the same month and is christened Soma Devi.

On November 1, 1960 a Lockheed L-188 Electra, acquired via the Dutch airline, replaces the Super Constellation on the Colombo– Amsterdam Sapphire run and is the carrier’s first turboprop airliner. Operations continue apace in 1961. The relationship with KLM ends on March 30, 1962, when ACL signs a technical and commercial contract with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC). The Dutch Electra returns to Amsterdam and the Ceylonese routes are flown under charter by the British line’s de Havilland Comet 4s.

DH Comet 4

The route is from Katunayake Airport at Colombo to London via Karachi, Cairo, and Rome, and to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur. The jetliners are not, however, painted in ACL colors, but wear peel off AC stickers, which can be removed as each aircraft is required for BOAC services. The crews of the wet-leased Comet 4s do include one Ceylonese stewardess each.

In August, a pool agreement is signed with Indian Airlines Corporation (IAC) for joint operational services to regional destinations; IAC promises to provide maintenance and support services. Domestic routes are expanded in 1963 as service is started to Batticaloa, Amparai, and Anuradhapura. A DC-3 survey flight is conducted to and from the Maldive Islands.

HS 748

In 1964, the carrier reduces fares on its domestic routes, thereby generating a substantial traffic boost. A Hawker Siddeley HS 748 is received during October and placed into IAC joint-service on November 7 over routes from Colombo to Bombay and Madras. Extensions to other Oriental destinations are considered by management. The workforce totals 244 and enplanements are 42,000.

A Nord 262 turboprop is ordered in 1965 and a year later, in 1966, the workforce totals 584 and enplanements are 71,223. A Nord 262A is delivered from France in 1967 and replaces the DC-3 Viharamaha Devi on domestic routes. Almost from its first revenue flight, the Turbomeca Bastan engines of the French turboprop proves unreliable.

Nord 262A

An order is placed for a Hawker Siddeley Trident 1E and arrangements are made for Pakistan International Airlines Corporation (PIA) to maintain it at Karachi. The fleet now comprises the Nord, plus two DC-3s and the HS 748. Passenger boardings accelerate 13.2% to 82,053 while revenues are reported to be up a full 10%.

A total of 87,068 passengers are originated in 1968 as airline employment reaches 596. The company’s first jetliner, the Trident 1E, is received on July 19, 1969. The following month it is used in association with BOAC to develop tourist flights connecting its base with Madras, Bombay, New Delhi, Karachi, Bangkok, and Singapore. During the year, a new headquarters is occupied at Katunayake Airport and the Nord 262 is sold. Enplanements for the year total 78,474.

Trident 1E

The workforce in 1970 is 676. A new board of management is seated, headed by Chairman Sam H. Silva with members V. Karalasingham and I. P. C. Mendis. In November, the carrier announces its decision to terminate its commercial relationship with British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and to enter into a new affiliation with UTA French Airlines, S.A. Passenger boardings this year climb 25% to 104,631 and freight is level.

The BOAC commercial pact is officially terminated on March 31, 1971, although technical arrangements continue. The British line’s contract allows it to put wet-leased Vickers Armstrong VC10s onto ACL’s trunk routes. In April during an insurrection by armed Sinhalese youth, the government requisitions the Trident 1E to fly in munitions from Cairo and Singapore. The new commercial pact with UTA. begins on September 27.

Vickers VC10

Employing a Douglas DC-8-33 painted in ACL colors, UTA on April 6, 1972, inaugurates service on behalf of AC on its own new route Paris to Jakarta via Colombo, begun the previous November 1. Although the cockpit crew is French, the aircraft utilizes a completely Sri Lankan cabin crew.

On May 22, 1972, Ceylon becomes the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. Operations continue apace in 1973–1974. A used Canadian Avro 748 is purchased in 1975.

In February 1976, an agreement is signed with UTA French Airlines under which AC will come to own the Douglas jetliner. When it arrives at Colombo’s Katunayake Airport, the aircraft has been flown for the first time by an all ACL crew; principals involved include Capt. George Ferdinand and First Officer K. Don Freeman.

Boeing 720B

On March 20, the Trident 1E charter route from Colombo to the Persian Gulf destination of Sharjah becomes regularly scheduled. The remaining DC-3s are now given to the Air Force, while the French Douglas jetliner is actually turned over on September 30.

On October 30, ACL agrees to take over operation of failing Air Siam, Ltd.’s DC-10-30 services to Europe, using the Douglas wide body it had leased from KLM. The Air Force’s Padman “Paddy” Mendis is named chairman on December 15.

The British, Indian, and French relationships are ended. When KLM repossesses its DC- 10-30 from Air Siam, Ltd. on January 17, 1977, the ACL arrangement ends and Air Siam, Ltd. is permanently grounded. In February, ACL leases a Boeing 720B from the U.S. and a DC-8-41 from Air Canada, Ltd.

A new service to Paris is inaugurated in July, but traffic is insufficient to justify continuing it beyond September. Meanwhile, as the Tamil Eelam separatist struggle begins in August, Capt. Ferdinand takes a planeload of refugees aboard the DC-8-33 and flies them from Colombo to Palaly Airport, Kankesanturai (Jaffna).

Douglas DC-8

The Canadian charter is terminated and, on December 7, all services to Europe are suspended. The B-720B is also returned and the DC-8-33 is temporarily impounded in Europe for non-payment of fuel bills. In November, the government contracts with British Airways, Ltd. to operate a Vickers VC10, leased from Gulf Air, over a route from Colombo to London.

At the beginning of 1978, the Trident 1E continues flying from Colombo to Bombay and Madras, while the two Avro 748s continue domestic services. The government now undertakes an investigation into charges of corruption at the airline and places blame for deficiencies upon Chairman Mendis. To succeed ACL, which ceases trading at government request on March 31, and to spur tourism, President J. R. Jayawardene specifically orders the creation of a national airline. Without official status, ACL will be allowed to operate its Trident and Avros until the new entity actually begins services during the fourth quarter of the following year. While the pilot and first officer are inspecting their HS 748-2A on the ground at Colombo on September 7, a loud explosion rips through the center of the fuselage causing a fire that destroys the aircraft. No injuries are reported to the two men going through the pre-departure checklist, but the aircraft is completely destroyed. Terrorism is suspected.

With seven-year tax free status, Air Lanka, Ltd. is formed at Colombo on January 10, 1979 by combining the assets of Sri Lanka Airways, Ltd. and Sri Lanka International, Ltd., which had been formed the previous January and had begun operations in April.

The Airline Encyclopedia 1909-2000



A Foundation In The Sky - Air Ceylon was born 50 years ago

The Story of "Sunethra Devi" - Brush with death over Singapore

The Story of "Sunethra Devi": Part 2 - Never to fly again

Those Soaring Memories - Ratmalana airfield: days gone by
Conquering the skies - Aviation buff Roger Thiedeman looks back on the pioneering days
When Mahadevi ruled the skies - Ratmalana airport on a warm day in March 1956...
Sixty Years of Sri Lankan Air Mail - The carriage of mail by air is so common place today
The day the Air Ceylon Avro was bombed - The day will stand out as a milestone...
"Juliet is no more!" - It happened on Thursday, September 7, 1978.
AIR CEYLON 1948 – 1978


Both optimists and pessimists contribute to the society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.

- George Bernard Shaw -









©alkva 2011