Enter Vampires - The day jet planes first came to Ceylon
Eggie’s ‘Egg-cellent’ Adventures - ‘Eggie’ was a fellow trainee commercial pilot at the...
Watching history happen - There are three types of people...
Missing The Mark - During the 1970s Air Ceylon had a night flight from KKS...
The Price Of Love - Although I was recruited to Air Ceylon in 1975...
A 99% Chance of Being Killed - In 1970 the group of Ratmalana Flying School trainee pilots...
Cross country flying - January 15, 1973, was a most eventful day for me.
Air Force Flying with ‘Zak’ - In April 1971, Ceylon was hit by an island-wide insurrection.
Turn around, young man! - Rudolph and Julie were very happy.
Sudhila and the overturned Auster ‘Alpha Mike’

When San Michele save the day

Exciting travelogue takes off again - My Airway Home by J.P. Obeyesekera.
My First Command Flight Nearly Bombed Out - It was a milestone in my flying career.

Farewell to the TriStar - When Captain Wendell Kelaart parked the TriStar at Abu Dhabi...


Enter Vampires


The day jet planes first came to Ceylon

Roger Thiedeman 

Passengers, visitors and those who work at Katunayake airport would be accustomed to the sound of jetliners landing and taking-off. The shrill, piercing whine or deafening roar of jet engines is today a familiar backdrop to the bustling activity at Colombo's aerial gateway. But there was a time when Katunayake knew only the more genteel drone of piston engines and the hum of whirling propellers.

De Havilland Vampire

That all changed nearly 49 years ago, the day seven jet-powered fighter planes came screaming from the sky to touch down at the Royal Air Force (RAF) Negombo airbase (as Katunayake was then known). The five single-engine de Havilland Vampires and two Gloster Meteor twin-jets, created history as the first jet planes to land in Ceylon. Belonging to RAF 249 Squadron in Africa's Gold Coast (now Ghana), the jet planes were, in fact, based at Deversoir airfield in the Suez Canal Zone, some sixty miles from Cairo. They came to Ceylon to participate in an air display in celebration of the nation's third anniversary of Independence. 

Led by Group Captain W.S. Bowling, the seven jets left their home base on Saturday, January 27, 1951. Although breathtakingly fast, the fighters had limited range, so the journey to Ceylon was spread over several days. Overnight stops were made at Habaniyah, Sharjah, Mauripur (in Pakistan) and Poone, India. Finally, the RAF Vampires and Meteors reached their destination, Katunayake, on the afternoon of Wednesday, January 31, 1951 - a date that became a milestone in Lankan aviation history.

There were other reasons why the visit of the RAF jet planes was significant. At the time, Ceylon's own air arm, the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) was on the threshold of its formal inauguration, scheduled for March 2, 1951. Indeed, the RCyAF had been launched unofficially a few months earlier under the command of Group Captain G.C. Bladon of the RAF. Already, four de Havilland Chipmunk basic trainers had been purchased as an initial complement of aircraft.

So, the RAF sent their sleek jets to Ceylon not only to display their power and prowess at the Independence anniversary air pageant (which took place at Katunayake on Saturday, February 3). They also came on a flag-waving exercise, to create enthusiasm and interest in the embryonic air force that all Lankans could soon call their
And create enthusiasm and interest they did. When the seven jets taxied to a halt on the pierced-steel planking (PSP) that served as Negombo airfield's tarmac, the pilots were greeted by the Commander-in-Chief of the Far East Air Force, Air Marshal Sir Francis Fogarty. Also in the welcoming party were the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) Ceylon, Air Commodore F.L. Pearce and the Commanding Officer of RAF Negombo, Group Captain F.G. Worthington.Among the excited crowd of onlookers were several children of British officers stationed at Negombo airbase. Soon, with typical curiosity they were peering fearlessly into the intake and exhaust ducts of the now-silent turbojet engines.

But the Ceylon press took first prize for the greatest frenzy of excitement and adulation. The next day, the Ceylon Daily News headlined its story: "They Came Here With A Whistling Wail - First Jet Aircraft to Touch Down In Ceylon." The Ceylon Observer was no less exuberant. Readers learned how "the (arriving) aircraft sped over
Negombo airfield with the wail of a banshee and were soon tiny dots on the horizon during which time they did (sic) Colombo. Circling over the city the jets then came over the airfield once again and ... peeled off from tight-formation flying and came to earth with the whistling wail thinning out."

Gloster Meteor

The Observer reporter went on to say that "interviewed shortly afterwards, Group Captain Bowling said the flight had no trouble whatsoever in coming to Ceylon and the squadron were glad of the distinction of being the first jets to land in Ceylon".

However, the best piece of local reporting of the occasion came from Times of Ceylon staff writer R.L. Michael, who was privileged to be given a ride in one of the two-seater Meteor jets.

Extracts from his breathless prose are reproduced below:
"As I scrambled gingerly out of the cockpit of the silver plumed Gloster Meteor at 4.30 yesterday evening, Squadron Leader Cartridge of the RAF Katunayake grabbed my hand. 'Congratulations,' he said, 'you are the first Ceylonese ever to fly in a jet plane.' I mumbled a hasty 'thank you', but deep in the pit of my stomach a gnawing
sensation clutched painfully, and around my forehead my temples throbbed like a tattoo of drums.

"Being hurtled through space at 580 m.p.h. and touching a peak altitude of 10,000. for the first time in my life, was something more than my physique could take. At the end of that 15 frenzied minutes in the cloud world I felt just what an American pilot expressively said of his first jet flight: 'it was one helluva sensation and wonderful.' When I climbed into the cockpit at 4.10 p.m. yesterday ... there must have been a block of ice embedded in the pit of my stomach. I was ice-chilled. But the jauntiness fled as a young RAF Sergeant lashed me securely to my seat, with my legs straddled on either side of the control stick, fitted me with a crash helmet, strapped a parachute and oxygen mask and dinned a catalogue of "don'ts" into ears that hardly heard.

"Flight Lieutenant Michael Grey taxied swiftly down the runway and in the quickest twinkling of an eye took off. There was no heaving vibration, no uncanny roar as the Meteor ripped into space with a take-off speed of 150 m.p.h. A nausea of heaviness tugged at my chest and throat as the Meteor banked angularly. I slumped gazing through the canopy. I had the vague feeling that I was on the slope of some steep mountain.

"I glanced at the altimeter. It had jumped to 9,500 feet. I tried to yell into the intercom praying for a quick descent. But with precise efficiency, Flt. Lt. Grey cleaved through the clouds at 530 m.p.h. The feeling of futility fathered a desperate desire to wrench the mask off my face, to shout, to do anything to attract the sphinx at the controls.

"We circled over Colombo Harbour, saw the neatly lined-up ocean liners, like toy tugs, raced over the brick and mortar of the city where buses and cars appeared like so many ants crawling about. Suddenly without warning, the Meteor leapt into its world - the cloud world - 10,000 feet above the earth. Again the nausea and heaviness, a stabbing pain in the eyes, and a feeling of futility overcame me. I had been 12 minutes in the skies. 

"Once more the Meteor banked at a steeper tilt and through a hazy film that dangled, as it were before my eyes, I spied Negombo Lagoon ... Once more we skirted over a stretch of coconut palms and at 4.30 the Meteor touched down at 110 miles an hour."

Before long, these pioneering RAF aeroplanes were followed by other jet-powered aircraft, both military and commercial, that began arriving in Ceylon. Notable among them were the de Havilland Comets of British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), the world's first passenger jetliners, which commenced scheduled services to Colombo from London on August 11, 1952. 

But Vampire jets, just like the ones that came to Ceylon on January 31, 1951, provided an odd footnote to the story of Sri Lankan military aviation. In 1955, five Vampires were ordered for the RCyAF. Packed in individual crates, they were shipped from England to Ceylon. But after being unloaded at Colombo harbour, the still-crated planes were put back on board ship and returned to the manufacturer.

The decision was that of Air Force Chief Bladon, who had deemed that the Vampire jets were too fast and difficult for Ceylonese pilots to master, and ordered piston-engined, propeller-driven Boulton-Paul Balliols as advanced trainers instead. 

Not until 1959 did the Royal Ceylon Air Force begin receiving its first jet fighter/trainers, twelve Hunting (Percival) Jet Provosts, bought at the instigation of the then Air Force Commander, Air Vice-Marshal J.L. 'Bouncing' Barker.

30 01 2000 - Sunday Times


Eggie’s ‘Egg-cellent’ Adventures


Capt. G A Fernando

The year was 1969. ‘Eggie’ was a fellow trainee commercial pilot at the Flying Training School at Ratmalana. At first we thought that Eggie got his nickname because he liked eggs. But it was later discovered that it was derived from his frequent visits to the home of his uncle Egerton, who had a beautiful daughter. He was trained to fly the flying school’s Tiger Moth by veteran aviator Capt. Susantha (‘Sus’) Jayasekara. The de Havilland D.H.82 Tiger Moth, designed in 1936, made its mark as a reliable training aircraft during World War II. Powered by a 135hp in-line inverted Gypsy Major engine, it was an open-cockpit, ‘fabric-and-string’ biplane.

Before we were taught to fly this aeroplane, we had to obtain a custom-tailored cloth helmet, manufactured by a Captain George who lived on Havelock Road near the Thimbirigasyaya junction. The helmet was capable of being fitted with two Gosport tube earpieces. Because the Tiger Moth’s two occupants sat in tandem in two separate cockpits, one behind the other, the hollow Gosport tube-not unlike a doctor’s stethoscope, with a mouthpiece at one end-provided the means of communication between flight instructor and trainee. The system was quite effective, and pilots could hear each other loud and clear above the roar of the engine and sound of the wind in the wires that braced and held the wings together. Another vital piece of equipment was a pair of motor cycle goggles.

The aircraft, registered 4R-AAB, was the only Tiger Moth in the Flying Training School (and in Sri Lanka). This particular example was actually a combination of two Tiger Moths, one of which had been ‘cannibalised’ for parts to keep the other airworthy.

A few months after doing his first solo and subsequent flying within the confines of the training area south of Ratmalana, Eggie planned to carry out a cross-country flight, which involved flying a triangular course using two other distinct landmarks as turning points. It was necessary for trainee pilots to clock up a few cross-country hours as a pre-requisite for obtaining a Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL), before progressing toward a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL), if the latter’s ambition was to become a commercial or airline pilot.

So just after dawn one day, Eggie-wearing his helmet and goggles-took off from Ratmalana Airport, intending to head for Kurunegala, then Kandy, and back-all without landing anywhere until he reached Ratmalana. As a past pupil of Trinity College, Kandy, Eggie decided to include Kandy on the return leg of his triangular flight. This was the first time that the Tiger Moth was leaving the circuit area after a long lapse. Karu, the chief mechanic, wasn’t too happy as no proper endurance check had been done; and because the engine was old, no-one knew the proper fuel consumption. Trainee pilots were told that it was approximately five gallons per hour, and all Tiger Moth pilots were aware of that.

Unlike their air force counterparts, local civil pilots did not wear multi-pocketed overalls. And without a parachute, which the pilot would sit on during flight, a cushion was used instead. For quick reference, Eggie had to store his flight plan and map somewhere easily accessible in the cockpit. After flying for about half an hour he decided to get his map out to try ‘fixing’ his position, and to monitor his progress. For instance, a good place to watch out for was Alawwa, which had a river, railway track, and road running parallel to each other. Besides that there was the new Thulhiriya textile factory with a white roof, four acres in extent, which could be spotted from miles away. Our navigation instructor Roy de Niese used to call such objects ‘man made relief’.

Map reading in an open cockpit was not an easy affair. You had to hold the control column (or joystick) between your legs while opening the map, then look for ground features to correspond with the map in front of you. However, as Eggie took the map out, it caught the slipstream, flew out of his hand, and was blown out of the cockpit. Without a map as a navigation aid, he remembered what his instructor had taught him-if ever unsure of your position, just turn west and head for the coast. There he could follow the coastline south to Colombo and Ratmalana. After a few moments of concern and confusion, that is what Eggie did.

But his next worry was whether his new route back to base was going to be a longer triangle than the original route to Kurunegala, Kandy, and return. There was no way of knowing because he had lost the map. It was quite sometime before he reached the coast. Observing the parched terrain, he guessed that he was between Puttalam and Chilaw. He had drifted too far north. Obedient to his instructor’s advice, he now turned south and began to follow the coast. But in the back of his mind he was still concerned about the quantity of fuel remaining. His worry was not helped by the fact that there was no fuel gauge in the Tiger Moth. During flight, the only way to estimate the fuel level was by looking at a ‘stand pipe’ on top of the fuel tank on the upper wing. But engine and wind vibrations, and having to peer through goggles, made the pipe difficult to see. After some time, which felt like hours, right in front of the nose of the aircraft Eggie spotted the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) at Katunayake. It was now decision time. Should he land at Katunayake or continue to Ratmalana, unsure of how much fuel he had? Indeed, for how much longer could he safely remain airborne? In pilot jargon this is known as ‘endurance’. The small training aircraft was not radio-equipped, and would not generally be tolerated in the vicinity of a busy airport used by big jetliners. But Eggie had a problem. Deciding that prudence is the better part of valour, he chose the safer option-land at Katunayake, ASAP.

Taking his chances, Eggie flew over the airport and joined the downwind leg of the circuit pattern. Knowing that the Tiger Moth didn’t have a radio, the control tower gave him a steady green light signal. That meant he was cleared to land. All pilots must know how to interpret light signals which are used in case of radio failure. The Aldis lamp used in such instances usually hangs from the ceiling of the control tower. Using an attached handle, it could be pulled down as it was counter-balanced by a weight at the end of a system of cable and pulleys. The handle could also be rotated to give the controller a choice of three colours, red, green, and white, which were used appropriately. On top of the lamp was a telescopic sight, crosshairs and all. This was aimed at the aircraft and ‘fired’.

Further complicating matters for Eggie, the Tiger Moth had neither mechanical brakes nor a tail wheel. In lieu of the latter it had only a tail skid with a metal shoe, which was only effective on grass, and of only minimal use on a concrete runway. Somehow, after touching down on the concrete Eggie was able to slow down and, after a long landing roll, he turned off onto the parking apron to stop beside a BOAC VC10 jetliner. Beside what was then one of the world’s biggest and most modern passenger airplanes, the tiny, fragile-looking Tiger Moth would have looked like a small fly-probably to the amusement of the VC10’s pilots!

After securing the aircraft, Eggie was marched to the control tower by security personnel, to do some explaining. His explanation was accepted and presently, after refuelling the Tiger Moth with 70-octane Avgas, he was ready to depart. Because the aircraft didn’t have a starter motor, someone had to swing the propeller. Fortunately for Eggie, Neil Hewapathirana was one of the meteorological officers on duty at Katunayake. As he too was a trainee pilot at the Ratmalana Flying School, Neil had experience in swinging the Tiger Moth propeller for start up.

The subsequent departure from Katunayake and landing at Ratmalana were uneventful. A few days later, because Eggie’s first attempt at a cross-country flight had been aborted, the authorities cleared him to repeat the exercise, but with Kandy as his first turning point followed by Kurunegala.

Incredibly, this time the same thing happened, and again Eggie was forced to land at BIA. When the news of Eggie’s second unplanned detour to Katunayake trickled back to his fellow-trainees at Ratmalana Airport, they hid behind a parapet wall when he was about turn on his final approach to land. After landing safely, Eggie parked the airplane, and got out, relieved that there was no one around-only for his trainee pals to leap out from behind the wall and greet him like someone at a surprise birthday party. They promptly and bodily picked up Eggie (still wearing his flying helmet and goggles), then cheering loudly carried him to the Airport Club where he had to buy them all a round of beer.

Eggie now is a senior Captain in SriLankan Airlines, while Neil is a senior ground instructor at the Singapore Flying College. The Tiger Moth was one of several aircraft from the flying school hangar that were saved from destruction by Air Vice Marshall (Ret) G. Y. de Silva and Capt. Chira Fernando (then Sqdn. Ldr). It was restored to flying condition by the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Museum with a lot of advice from a Capt. Hawks of Air Lanka. After inactivity it has been re-rigged by Air Commodore Jayanath Kumarasiri and his team, and is now awaiting the touch of the old and bold pilots who flew it many years ago. Although the Tiger Moth was never included in the SLAF inventory but is classified as air force property, and even though no SLAF pilot is trained or qualified to fly it, civilian pilots who are qualified to do so have so far not been given the opportunity to return the Tiger Moth to its natural element. Whether that situation ever changes remains to be seen.

04 18 2009 - The Island



Watching History Happen

Capt. G A Fernando

There are three types of people; the one’s who make things happen, the one’s who watch things happen and the one’s who exclaim "what happened?" This is a story about someone who watched things happen.

In July 1985, I was appointed a Captain with Air Lanka, on the Boeing 737-200 twin-jet. The aircraft was leased from an Irish company called Air Tara, a subsidiary of Guinness Peat Aviation. In 1984, before it joined the Air Lanka fleet, this aircraft had flown through a severe thunderstorm in Kenya, during which its airframe was stressed way above the ‘g’ (force of gravity) limits for which it was designed. Consequently, it had to be flown back to Dublin for a comprehensive ‘D’ check whereby the aircraft was dismantled down to its smallest parts, inspected, repaired where necessary and reassembled with a new Certificate of Airworthiness (CofA). Working on the aircraft were 40 trainee engineers of Air Lanka, under the supervision of Jim Gunaratnam.

Squadron Leader Jim was a ‘high flyer’ from the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). Among other achievements, he was the engineer responsible for carrying out the ‘Riley conversion’ on two of the Air Force’s four de Havilland DH 114 Herons during the early 1970s. This involved replacing each of the airplanes four de Havilland Gipsy Queen piston engines with more modern and powerful Lycoming power plants. The conversion, patented by an American named Jack Riley, included installation of engine cowlings of entirely different shape, new three-blade propellers (instead of the original two-blade props) and other modifications. Adding to the challenge was the fact that Riley Aeronautics Corporation had ceased to exist by then, so some parts of the Heron Conversions had to be fabricated by Jim Gunaratnam himself.

After repairs in Dublin, the Boeing 737 was ready for leasing to Air Lanka. It was registered in Sri Lanka as 4R-ULH and named ‘City of Galle’. Although I was still a trainee Captain, I was one of the crew tasked with ferrying the aircraft to Colombo. The others were Capt. Tom Mcbennet, the Chief Pilot of Air Lanka, another Air Tara pilot whose name I forget and First Officer Mohan O. Gunaratne. Our passengers were the 40 men who had worked on the aircraft. But Jim Gunaratnam, carrying the airplane’s technical paperwork, took a scheduled airline flight instead - just in case!

By the time I was Captain, I knew this airplane well (in fact, I had performed its 66,000th landing). We were using it on AirLanka’s regional flights to Male (Maldive Islands), Bombay, Karachi, Madras, Tiruchirapolli (Tiruchinopoly, or Tiruchi/Trichy) and Trivandrum. By 1985, relationships between India and Sri Lanka were somewhat strained.

Although the B-737 was a second generation jet and quite advanced for its time, at least one of our Indian destinations, Trichy, was rather primitive. It did not have distance measuring equipment (DME) or an instrument landing system (ILS). Trichy airport also lacked Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPIs) to aid us in a visual approach and landing. Accordingly, we had formulated a unique arrival technique. We began our descent as we crossed the Indian coastline and when at 10,000ft, planned to be abeam a disused airport called Ramnad. Then at 6000ft, we expected to be over the south Indian town of Pudukkottai in the small state of the same name and not far from Trichy. (During British colonial times, in August 1915, the Rajah of Pudukkottai, Prince Matanda Bhairava Tondaiman, married an Australian, Molly Fink of Melbourne; but that’s another story for someone else to relate).

Pudukkottai could be identified by a square reservoir in the centre of the town. Overhead, the town we would turn on a heading of 360 degrees (Due North) and let down to the circuit height for Trichy airport while looking out for a small-arms factory and a big water tank. The aim was to fly between the tank and the building. We could usually see the parapet wall of the airport boundary reflected in the sunlight, even before spotting the runway. When it was cloudy and we could not see the ground, we had to descend to a safe altitude and perform an instrument let down, a procedure called a ‘non precision approach’. As I was quite friendly with the local Air Traffic Controllers, they would recognize my voice. After we landed, the conversation between the Air Traffic Controller and Captain, would usually go something like this.

Tower: "Good morning Capt. Fernando, would you like to come up for a ‘vadai’ and a cup of coffee?"

Capt. Fernando: "Good morning, I will see you in a while."

Tower: "When you come up would you get us a copy of the morning’s papers, but not the ‘Daily News." (Perhaps, even then they knew that it was a Government propaganda tabloid!)

Capt. Fernando: "Roger!"

I would then ask the First Officer (Co-pilot) to supervise the one hour ground turn around, freeing myself to pick up the newspapers from the aircraft cabin and walk up to the control tower to file the flight plan for the trip back to Colombo. While doing so we would speak of many things including the developing political situation. The conversation in the Tower would proceed along these lines.

Controller:" Do you know, Captain, although our Lady [Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India who had by then been assassinated] was denying that we were training your people, [LTTE Operatives], believe me, every day when coming to work I pass a camp in which your people are being trained." (One of the places mentioned was Pudukkottai).

Then at the end of May 1987 during the legendary Vadamarachchi battle operation, when Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Karunanidhi gathered his invasion Armada at the port of Rameshwaram, I was again flying to Trichy. Because my direct track wasn’t going right over the harbor, I requested permission to deviate a few miles left of track - claiming non existent bad weather as an excuse! - to be able to photograph the assembled boats with my old Konica. Then on June 3rd I operated another flight to Trichy and observed that one solitary Sri Lanka Navy Boat was stopping Karunanidhi’s fleet on its tracks. (I had requested permission from Colombo Control to cruise at a lower altitude). The following paraphrases my PA (Public Address) announcement to the passengers:

"Ladies and gentlemen this is your Captain speaking. Those of you on the right hand side of the aircraft can see history in the making. One solitary Sri Lanka Navy Boat has stopped Mr. Karunanidhi’s flotilla!"


On June 4th, the day of ‘Operation Poomalai’ - the infamous ‘Parippu Drop’ by India - I flew to Madras (Chennai) in the morning. By the time of our return trip to Colombo it was late morning. As was customary for some of us civil pilots, I tuned the air force radio frequency when overhead KKS to monitor the activity below. Those were the days before the LTTE acquired SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles), so we used to fly directly over KKS. In any case, flying above 30,000ft we would have been well beyond the range of a SAM. I suddenly heard someone, presumably from the SLAF base at KKS, saying there was an unidentified aircraft overhead, so I immediately got on the radio, identified ourselves and said that we were the ones overhead. But the replying voice said that it couldn’t be us as the unidentified airplane was a turboprop (the 737 was a ‘pure jet’). A few minutes later, needing to speak with Flight Operations at AirLanka in Colombo, we changed our frequencies and lost contact with our faceless radio ‘friend’.

Having landed in Colombo, we prepared for our next sector to Trivandrum after a brief rest. Upon reaching Trivandrum, we noticed that the entire airfield was chock-a-block with Hawker Hunter Jet Fighters of the Indian Air Force (IAF), plus three H S (Avro) 748 transports. In the light of what later became known, they were presumably all awaiting orders to fly to Colombo. It normally took us only 38 minutes to fly from Trivandrum to Colombo. The invasion force would have been in Colombo in a much shorter time, and it was easy to imagine a Cyprus style invasion of Sri Lanka. Mr. Naiar Air Lanka’s Indian Ground engineer, was deeply apologetic for what was happening around us. Naiyar had a daughter who had the ‘wheeze’, and I use to supply him with a popular brand of balm from Sri Lanka, to provide her with some relief. We also observed the worry on the face of our Airport Manager, Mr. Srinivasan. It was only when we got back to Colombo at about 5.15 pm that we were told that the Indians had just completed their so - called ‘humanitarian’ exercise code - name operation ‘Poomalai’.

IAF Mirage 2000

To briefly recap, the operation involved five Antonov An-32 twin - turboprop transports of the Indian Air Force carrying relief supplies for beleaguered Sri Lankans in the north of the island. The An-32s were escorted to and from Sri Lanka airspace by five Mirage 2000 jet fighters, each of which was equipped with two Matra Magic II AAMs (Air to Air Missiles), in case of aerial resistance from the SLAF. Also on board the Antonov was a contingent of Indian and international journalists. Allegedly failing in their attempts to contact Colombo Air Traffic Control, and totally unopposed by Sri Lankan forces either in the air or on the ground, the An-32s descended from 12,000ft to about 1500ft and paradropped the food supplies (including parripu or dhal) over a designated zone some 7 Km from Jaffna. Still without opposition, the aerial armada returned to their bases in India, where the crews were greeted with much jubilation.

It then occurred to me that the lone Turboprop aircraft that was observed by the SLAF during our return from Madras earlier that day was probably one of the IAF An-32s ‘testing the water’ before the main event.

On July 24th, when we were lining up for takeoff from the Western runway at Trichy, we were asked to hold position until two IAF Helicopters crossed the Airfield. LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran (aka Pirapaharan) and family were aboard one of the ‘choppers’. He was on his way to see the Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi before the infamous Indo - Sri Lanka Peace Accord was signed.

Then on July 29th, the day when Rajiv Gandhi arrived in Colombo aboard an Indian Airlines Corporation (IAC) Airbus A 300 for the signing of the Accord, the situation was very tense. I was due to land at Katunayake at almost the same time in my B-737. In normal circumstances, the Indian Prime Minister’s aircraft (being VIP) would be given priority to land, but the air traffic controller gave me clearance to approach before the IAC A300. I could sense the defiance in the controller’s voice. I believe he was doing his bit for Sri Lanka! Landing about three minutes ahead of Gandhi’s aircraft, it was very tempting to increase our runway occupancy time to force the VIP flight to go around. But professionalism prevailed and we vacated the runway in time to obtain a ringside view of Rajiv’s arrival. Later we discovered that the A300 was being flown by Rajiv Gandhi himself (who had been an India Airlines Captain before he reluctantly gave up his flying career to enter the turbulent political arena), as the flight plan received by the Colombo tower had his name as the ‘pilot in command’.

Then came the ‘invasion by invitation’. After dropping off the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) troops up north, the IAF aircraft picked up Sri Lankan soldiers and brought them south to Katunayake - BIA. On the way back to their home bases the Indians carried large (commercial) quantities of electronic and luxury goods from Colombo’s duty free shops. Again I had a ringside seat, watching all this happen from our flight deck of Air Lanka’s Boeing 737 4R-ULH, ‘City of Galle’.

08-07 2009 - The Island



Missing The Mark

Capt. G.A. Fernando

During the 1970s Air Ceylon had a night flight from KKS/Jaffna to cater to professionals, parliamentarians, and businessmen who had been there for the day and needed to return to Colombo that evening. The service was operated by the Hawker Siddeley (Avro) 748 twin-turboprop aircraft. On one of these flights, I was the first officer (co-pilot) to Capt. C. K. Pathy, our Manager Operations (Training). Capt. Pathy was one of the young men from Ceylon who had volunteered to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, and flew Bristol Beaufighters. After the war, he settled down in India and subsequently became a senior Boeing 707 captain with Air-India International.

After retirement at 60 he joined Air Ceylon. On the evening in question, after landing at Ratmalana we were told that there was a training flight scheduled that evening for another senior captain. It was to be conducted by Capt. Pathy. Today, training flights such as these (known as base checks) are conducted in a flight simulator.

But in those days we had to carry out the stipulated exercises in the actual aircraft. The Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL) is valid only for a period of six months. In addition to a medical examination you had to demonstrate to the licensing authority, the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), that you were capable of flying the aircraft under various conditions such as engine failures on takeoff. Because the DCA did not have any HS 748-qualified pilots in its cadre, it had delegated certain Air Ceylon pilots as approved instructors to carry out the check flights on its behalf. Capt. Pathy was one of them. This is a system that is still practiced today.

Because we were provided with transport by Air Ceylon to our homes, and the fact that I lived very close to Capt. Pathy’s home, I decided to fly with the crew as an observer without just kicking my heels on ground while the training flight was conducted. Besides making myself useful, there was always something to learn from the two veteran pilots. A few minutes after we had landed at the end of our flight from KKS, the candidate for the licence renewal test arrived, and shortly afterwards we got airborne.

It was a very dark night, and the runway was lit by kerosene gooseneck flares. The training was going to be carried out in the vicinity of Ratmalana Airport. To cut down on time, we would be carrying out ‘touch and go’ exercises - instead of a full stop after landing, we would continue to roll along the runway with some engine power on, while the instructor/examiner pilot set the flaps and the manual elevator trim in the takeoff configuration. When satisfied, he would call “Go” and the trainee would then push the engine throttles forward and carry out another takeoff. The elevator trim was a device that was controlled by a wheel on either side of the centre pedestal. Its purpose was to relieve the control column (‘joystick’) of heavy loads. The landing flap setting created drag and was different to the takeoff flap setting. The latter position had to be set accordingly before the engines were spooled up. As I was the third crewmember and seated in the jump seat (supernumerary seat) straddling the centre pedestal, I was assigned with the task of setting the elevator trim wheel to neutral, which is the setting in the HS 748 for takeoff.

When a series of touch and go’s are conducted, the crew gets into a rhythm of carrying out these repetitive tasks. The first few takeoffs and landings worked out well. Usually before touchdown, the control column is trimmed to a stick-back load (nose up); and soon after touchdown, I had to turn the trim wheel forward until it coincided with the neutral position mark on an index which would also be checked by the instructor/examiner before he called “Go”.

This night we kept our flight deck lights on with a red filter. The red ambient light made all the white-painted markings glow. After the third or fourth landing, I dutifully rolled the trim wheel forward to neutral. The aircraft, now on its takeoff roll with takeoff power set, suddenly swung to the left, then to the right, and got airborne very quickly (not unlike a toy aircraft under full power). The captain under check realised that the elevator trim was mis-set and quickly got the aircraft back in trim.

Until then it was all going like clockwork - and then this had to happen. Although Capt. Pathy kept quiet, the trainee captain was not amused. “You would have got us all killed, baba!” was his reaction. On investigation after getting airborne, we found that someone at engineering had tried to touch up an index mark in white paint with a thick brush, and created a mark similar to the zero (neutral) point. In the dim light, I had set the trim to that point assuming that it was the neutral mark, but actually it was a few units nose-up! Hence our erratic departure. A good lesson learnt to be more careful in the future. In today’s ‘high-tech’ aircraft the elevator trim is electrically operated, and has been responsible for many a fatal accident.

Early next morning, I was back in the Air Ceylon hangar at Ratmalana with former schoolmate and Maintenance Engineer Timothy (‘Timmy’) de Alwis, scraping the excess paint off the trim wheel mark so that others wouldn’t fall into the same trap.

21 04 2010 - The Island


The Price Of Love

Capt. G.A. Fernando

Although I was recruited to Air Ceylon in 1975 as a ‘Trainee First Officer’, it took two years for the authorities to train me as a First Officer on the Hawker Siddeley (Avro) 748. During that time I continued to fly single-engine light aircraft from the Flying Training School at Ratmalana, just to keep my hand in, and Air Ceylon paid the fees. At the time there were only two aircraft available at the flying school: a de Havilland D.H.82 Tiger Moth, and an Indian-built Hindustan (HAL) Pushpak. And even then at most times the Tiger Moth was unserviceable.

One day in 1977, I was conducting a preflight check before going on a local flight in the Pushpak when I received a phone call, to the hangar, from the Duty Air Traffic Controller, Mr. Barmadevan (Barma to us). He was in a bit of a predicament and needed help. Evidently he was flying abroad that night to take part in a training course, and required an important signature from an administrator at the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake, to get his documents in order for the trip.

By this time the Air Traffic Control administration had shifted from Ratmalana to Katunayake. Ever willing to oblige, I went looking for the Chief Engineer of the Flying School to inform him of my change of plan, but discovered that he was on ‘French Leave’. I guessed that he had probably gone to the ‘Midway House’ (Airport Club). There was no-one else waiting to fly the Pushpak that morning, so obtaining air traffic control clearance for the ‘hop’ to Katunayake was no problem. Furthermore, as an added incentive, my then girlfriend (later my wife) also worked at Katunayake Airport, so I needed no further persuasion to make the trip over from Ratmalana.

Thus, without wasting too much time, and knowing that the Pushpak had adequate fuel, Barma and I took off for Katunayake. Because we had no radio onboard, the standard operating procedure upon reaching Katunayake was to join the downwind leg of the circuit pattern southwest of the airfield and look for the green-and white rotating beacon – the alternating flashes of those colours, even in the daytime, denoting that it is a civil airport. If the beacon was ‘on’, it meant that the arrival of another aircraft was imminent. In such circumstances, the procedure was to stay south until the control tower switched the beacon ‘off.’

That day as we joined downwind, the rotating beacon was on. As I looked farther along the extended centerline of the runway, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 707 four-engine jetliner was coming in to land. We had to follow him in. Not unlike boats, the wings of aircraft, especially large ones, create what is known as ‘wake turbulence’, which is directly proportional to the airplane’s weight. Any following aircraft, especially a light airplane, can be severely affected and tossed around in the churned-up air - sometimes resulting in loss of control, with fatal results not unknown. Because the rotating wing tip vortices spiraling off the aircraft ahead spread outward and downward, the trick for the follower is to approach higher than the preceding aircraft.

Knowing that the landing 707 would cross the end of the runway at a height of about 60ft, I planned on crossing the runway threshold at about 200ft - which was extremely high for a light aircraft. The other advantage in coming in higher than usual and thus landing farther along the runway was that our taxi time to the terminal building would be less! My passenger, Barma, who was also a private pilot, was not too impressed with my landing approach, to say the least!

Eventually we taxied in and parked at a convenient place on the apron. While Barma was attending to his work, I was able get some ‘quality time’ with my girlfriend. I am sure that my flying visit would have made her day and earned me a few extra ‘Brownie points’! Within half an hour Barma’s work was complete and it was time for us to return to Ratmalana.

Because the Pushpak did not have a starter motor, I got Barma to sit in the pilot’s seat while I swung the propeller for the engine start. We did a short taxi to the runway and, taking off immediately, turned south toward Colombo. When we were over the city of Colombo I told Barma that I had always wanted to fly at low level over Galle Road. As he was still technically the duty air traffic controller - even though he was aloft in an airplane and not in his customary position at the Ratmalana control tower - without any hesitation he said, “Roger, you are cleared.” So I descended to 200ft over the Galle Road somewhere over Bambalapitiya and followed it all the way to Ratmalana!

However, the Flying School authorities were not too pleased with my trip to Katunayake at short notice, and without written permission, as they considered it a cross-country flight. Although no regulations were breached, I was nevertheless grounded for two weeks. That, incidentally, was also my last flight at the Ratmalana Flying School.

12 02 2010 – The Island


A 99% Chance of Being Killed

Capt. G.A. Fernando

Ray with 'Sootikka'.

In 1970 the group of Ratmalana Flying School trainee pilots, of which I was one, went to the airport seven days a week. We never missed a day, rain or shine. Even though the flying school and its hangar doors were closed on Mondays, there was the rest of the airport for us to potter around, to either satisfy our curiosity and passion for aviation, or just enjoy each other’s company and camaraderie. Among our usual hang-outs were the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) canteen run by Jayatissa Mudalali, Air Ceylon’s catering office with ‘Gunda’ in charge, the holding area for Air Ceylon flights, the airport restaurant under the control of the ‘General’ of Grosvenor Caterers, the air traffic control tower, parking apron, and the Airport Club, which was the domain of Sirisena. In short we were ‘airport bums’ and we knew all and sundry at the airport.

Happily, almost all members of our band of ‘regulars’ eventually ended up as airline pilots. One of our acquaintances was Gajaweera, a night watchman at the airport. He was addicted to opium, and whenever short of money for his daily fix, Gajaweera would indulge in a bit of palm reading to raise the wherewithal. And the flying school hangar was a good source of clientele, with its ever-present bunch of bright-eyed ‘wannabe’ pilots’. One day I had just completed my turn to fly and taxied into the parking apron, when I noticed a small crowd gathered around Gajaweera. Alighting from the aircraft with my ears still singing from their recent exposure to noise and vibration, I walked up to the group of fellow-trainees waiting to have their palms read. Deciding to take a peek into my future, thereby aiding and abetting Gajaweera’s destructive vice, I waited patiently to have my palm read. Eventually, Gajaweera took one look at the grid of random lines on the inside of my outstretched hand and said that before midday I would escape death by a hair. In his words, “Anoo namayeng beyrenawa!” Loosely translated this meant coming within a 99% chance of being killed.

But what could possibly go wrong? I had already had my share of exposure to potential danger, having just used up the flight time allocated to me for the day. So we all laughed it off and drifted off to the canteen for another cup of tea. When that ritual was over, and with time still hanging heavily on our hands, we observed a de Havilland Chipmunk of the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) taxiing in. Curious to find out who was flying it, we headed for the Air Ceylon hangar toward which the ‘Chippie’ was taxiing. It soon became apparent that its occupants were Squadron Leader ‘W’ and my brother Chira, who was then a Flying Officer in the air force. Their presence aboard the two-seat trainer aircraft was surprising because both were helicopter pilots. So what were they doing here in a Chipmunk?

We watched as they parked the aircraft close to the Air Ceylon hangar. A few yards away was Mr. Ray Wijewardene (later awarded a Doctorate of Science from the University of Moratuwa) with his tiny homebuilt Scorpion helicopter, one of several micro- and ultra-light aircraft he has constructed and flown himself. Apparently Sqdn. Ldr ‘W’, who was an experienced helicopter pilot, had flown in to give a few tips to Wijewardene on how to fly his own ‘chopper’.

Over the past few months we had observed the diminutive Scorpion inside the Air Ceylon hangar with Ray Wijewardene and Mr. G. V. Perera working on it (at the time Ray was a Director of Air Ceylon). The helicopter’s tail rotor was driven by a series of multiple belts. I remember my friend, the late Faizal Abdeen, asking Wijewardene about the wisdom of using such a system, only to receive a ten-minute lecture on stress-loading of belts, including fan belts in motor cars, and how reliable it was!

Later, almost daily we would watch with great interest how Ray Wijewardene would tether his helicopter to the ground using just enough rope to become airborne while he practised the skills necessary to fly this rotary-wing aircraft. He was already an accomplished pilot of light fixed-wing airplanes (like the ones we were learning to fly), and had also gained experience flying his Wallis WA.116 gyrocopter (or gyroplane), similar to the one used in the James Bond movie ‘You Only Live Twice’. With no instructor available to teach Wijewardene to fly his Scorpion helicopter, his ‘rope method’ was the safest way to ‘learn the ropes’ of hovering just above the ground before he could fly freely. Now, with a bit of hovering practice under his belt, Wijewardene had decided to seek more formal flying instruction in other aspects of flying a helicopter. Hence the arrival at Ratmalana that day of Sqdn. Ldr. ‘W’, who was a highly experienced helicopter pilot and instructor. Because there was radio contact between the Chipmunk, on the ground, and the airborne Scorpion, Sqdn. Ldr. ‘W’ proceeded to instruct Ray Wijewardene from the cockpit of the parked Chipmunk. We watched in awe as Wijewardene tentatively flew the helicopter, gaining practical experience in keeping his small Scorpion aloft, in controlled flight. The unorthodox instructional method and communication between the two pilots was obviously working well.

Presently the Scorpion landed - uneventfully. Wijewardene was intent on doing more flying while availing himself of the Squadron Leader’s quality instruction. But as Wijewardene had run out of high-octane fuel, I was sent with his driver to procure another supply from the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation depot adjacent to the flying school. After we returned the Scorpion was refueled, and now it was the turn of Sqdn. Ldr. ‘W’ to get a feel of flying the tiny helicopter. As he was strapping himself in, Ray asked him how long he had been flying ‘choppers’, and he replied, “Since 1956.” Nevertheless, my brother cautioned us spectators to stand back a bit as this pilot had not flown the Scorpion before.

Sqdn. Ldr. ‘W’ started up and lifted off. But suddenly the little helicopter started vibrating at high power, swinging wildly left and right. It soon became apparent that, with survival mode kicked in, Sqdn. Ldr. ‘W’ was attempting to fly by the ‘seat of his pants’, drawing on all his past experience. The oscillations were now increasing as the helicopter moved away from us. Then, with a mighty thud, the helicopter hit the ground, its main rotor taking the brunt of the initial impact. Both blades disintegrated and shot off at high speed. One flew a few inches over our heads, missing us by a whisker (anoonamayeng!) while the other careered upward. That blade went so high that when we reached the crash site it had only just reached its apex before returning to earth near the airport fire station - a considerable distance away.

Chira reached the wreck first, closely followed by the rest of us. “There is a fire!” Chira shouted as he leapt backward, causing us to also back away from the crashed Scorpion with Sqdn. Ldr. ‘W’ still strapped to his seat. Then someone brought a hand-held extinguisher and quickly doused the fire before Ray Wijewardene extricated the pilot.

Did the tail rotor drive belts slip at high power? Nobody knows. The Director of Civil Aviation’s accident investigation found that before Sqdn. Ldr. ‘W’ flew the Scorpion he too should have undergone a few hours of ‘tethered flying’ as the helicopter was quite different to the more conventional types he was used to flying. Even the main rotor turned in the opposite direction to that on the Bell 206 Jet Rangers on which he was most recently experienced.

And that is how, for me at least, opium-addicted Gajaweera’s prediction came true. If the blade that flew over our heads had a slightly lower trajectory, I may have come a cropper no thanks to the chopper.

31 03 2010 – The Island


Cross Country Flying


Capt. G.A. Fernando

January 15, 1973, was a most eventful day for me. After weeks of planning, I was off on a cross-country flight to China Bay (Trincomalee), KKS (Jaffna), and back to Ratmalana. In the course of becoming fully fledged and obtaining a Commercial Pilot’s Licence (CPL), a trainee aviator had to carry out a ‘triangular’ cross-country flight, which included two ‘outstation’ landings. Because I was going to KKS, my good friend Selvan volunteered to accompany me on this trip.

I had originally planned to fly to Anuradhapura and KKS, but a few days before the trip, another friend ‘JJ’ had done his cross-country requirement and used up all the 100-octane avgas (aviation gasoline) at the Anuradhapura airstrip. However, aware that the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) stocked 100-octane at China Bay for its Bell 47G helicopters and other propeller aircraft, I went to Air Force Headquarters at Parson’s Road, armed with a letter from the Ratmalana Flying School Commandant, Mr. Lionel Loos, requesting the ‘loan’ of a few gallons of the precious fluid from the SLAF base at China Bay.

I had recently been demobilized from the Volunteer Air Force - having joined up during the 1971 Insurgency - so I knew my way around. The best person to meet was the veteran helicopter pilot, Squadron Leader Manoharan, who was working for Helitours, the tourist wing of the SLAF.

While helping with the necessary approvals, ‘Mano’ had a special request for me. He was coaching Selvan with his CPL ground studies, and preferred that I didn’t take him along as there were only a few more days for the withdrawal tests and he wanted Selvan to stay home and study. Now I had to look for another companion to fly with. The next volunteer in line was ‘GG’, who was more than willing to join me. The plan was to get airborne at first light, when the air was smooth and clouds were few. The only hitch was that ‘GG’ lived in Battaramulla, while I lived near the General Hospital, Colombo. The first CTB bus from the Eye Hospital Junction to Ratmalana was at 4.45 am. But there was also another problem: in those days before operator-assisted alarm calls and cell phones, I had to rely on an alarm clock to get me out of bed at the right time. Because my commute would involve a 15-minute walk to the bus stop, I had to wake up at 3.45 am at least.

So, the previous night I borrowed my cousin, Nissanka’s alarm clock, set it for 3.45 am, and went to sleep. But excited by the prospect of doing the cross-country flight the next morning, I tossed and turned sleeplessly in bed. I could hear the ‘Bim Bam’ clock in the dining room strike 3 o’clock, then 3.30. I waited for the alarm to go off - but it didn’t. I woke up when the big clock struck four, switched on the light, and found that the alarm clock was missing. Someone had swiped it from its position by the open window!

Armed with my brother’s Olympus Pen camera, I got to Ratmalana by 5.50 am. After another 20-minute walk to the flying school from Galle Road, I met up with ‘GG’ and proceeded to get a meteorological report and prepared to file a flight plan for our intended trip. But we had to also obtain the signature of the mechanic and duty ‘Met’ officer before we filed our flight plan. I remember the duty air traffic controller was Joe Maurice. I also remember that while signing the approval form, he dropped my pen and broke it. It was past 0700hrs (7.00 am) when we got airborne in our Hindustan (HAL) Pushpak single-engine trainer. The sun was in our eyes as we lifted off. My navigation plan was to fly over Kurunegala and then follow the road to Trincomalee - provided, of course, that ground visibility was good.

After maintaining our calculated heading along a straight line drawn on a tattered World War II-vintage aeronautical map, we spotted our first fix, Alawwa. We could see the Thulhiriya textile factory from far away. After that came Kurunegala with its famous Elephant Rock. Next it was a case of following the road to Trinco. Well before arriving overhead the Kantalai Tank, we saw the intermittent flashes of reflected light from the canopies of the de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunks flying from SLAF Base China Bay, signifying to us that flying training there was in full swing. Because we didn’t have radio onboard the Pushpak, we had to adopt an unusual strategy.

The Air Force trainees were flying in the China Bay circuit at 1,000ft. Therefore we elected to arrive over the airfield at 3,000ft. As we came overhead, I pumped (opened and closed) the engine throttle a few times to attract the attention of the duty Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO). He would have received a telex from Joe Maurice at Ratmalana, giving our departure time and estimated time of arrival at China Bay. As expected, the ATCO walked out of his hut and fired a green Very signal (flare) into the air. The Very is similar to a Roman candle firework of a specific colour. In this case, to signify permission or safety to proceed, it was green. We acknowledged this with a waggle of our wings and descended to circuit level to join the downwind leg to land eastward.

Hindustan (HAL) Pushpak

Meanwhile, the radio-equipped Chipmunks were asked to stay on ground. One of the Air Force trainees at that time was G. Donald Perera, who later rose to become Air Chief Marshal and Commander of the SLAF (from 2002 to 2006). This was the first time that the Ratmalana flying school’s Pushpak had been seen at China Bay. After landing and taxiing to our designated parking spot, we were met at the air force training school apron by the Officer Commanding Flying Training, Squadron Leader Denzil Fernando, his instructors Flight Lieutenants Chandra Gunawardena, Chira Fernando (my brother), and Engineering Officer Flt. Lt. ‘Ana’ Samarakoon - along with a host of interested onlookers. They had all been alerted by my pumping of the throttle overhead!

As we stepped out of the Pushpak, Denzil Fernando spotted our tattered map and offered us a few new one from Air Force stock, as they had got the same outdated map reprinted by the Survey Department. While the aircraft was being refueled, Chira drove us to the ‘Sixty-Five’ building, where the SLAF officers lived, to have breakfast with his family. When we returned after a quick meal, Denzil was keen to show us the SLAF’s latest acquisition: two brand-new Cessna 150 single engine trainers with more modern tricycle landing gear, unlike our tail wheel equipped Pushpak and the Air Force Chipmunks. Chandra offered to take me on a short flight in one, which I was quite happy to accept. But ‘GG’ wasn’t too pleased that the invitation was only extended to me - perhaps because I was still a volunteer officer with the SLAF.

The Cessna 150 had many other nice features compared to the Pushpak, including a full ‘blind flying’ instrument panel, electric flaps, and a stall warning horn. A stall is a phenomenon that occurs at a speed when the smooth airflow over an airplane’s wing is disturbed and the wing refuses to fly (it has nothing to do with stalling of the engine, as when a car engine ‘conks’ out if the clutch is released too suddenly, or for other reasons).

Immediately after the second takeoff in the Cessna, still below an altitude of 1,000ft, Chandra demonstrated the stall warning horn by flying really slow. The horn blared out a continuous warning as we were flying at very low speed, when suddenly the aircraft shuddered and pitched down. We had actually stalled, aerodynamically, and were falling out of the sky! To recover from a stall, the pilot must ‘unstall’ the wings by diving down, to gain much-needed airspeed thanks to the law of gravity - and that is what Chandra did. At one moment we were in a nose-up attitude, flying slow; the next instant we were nose-down staring at the waters of Thampalagamam Bay! As expected, and with enough altitude (or breathing space) between our Cessna and the water below, the aircraft recovered from the stall. But it was Chandra’s skill that saved the day. It was past midday when we got back to our Pushpak. Thus far, ‘GG’ and I had completed only one leg of our three-sector flight. So, after hurried goodbyes we prepared to leave for KKS. It was only a short ‘taxi’ to our takeoff point, before we left the ground and did a low left turn over the ‘Sixty-Five’ building, then set course for KKS. By now the sun was quite high, so the next sector was extremely turbulent, to say the least. It took us almost the same time as it did from Ratmalana to China Bay, to fly from China Bay to KKS. The landing at Palaly/KKS was uneventful, but time was catching up with us. It was now past 3 pm.

Allowing for a half-hour turn-around time, it would still be dusk by the time we returned to Ratmalana. Besides, no-one had ever flown the Pushpak directly from KKS to Ratmalana. After meeting ATCO Nadarajah at KKS, we turned around in 20 minutes and headed for home. Somewhere abeam Devil’s Point - to the west of the Mannar-Pooneryn coastal road in the Kilinochchi district - we did a ground speed calculation and found that we were making good time. We had a good tail wind, and knew that if it held we would be back at Ratmalana before sundown. There was, however, another problem to overcome, namely our lack of a radio.

The only way we were allowed to transit the aerial vicinity of Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake, was to fly along the coast at treetop height – or below! Therefore, when we reached Puttalam, we descended to ‘deck level’ and maintained that altitude all the way to the Kelani River, and in sight of the State Flour Milling Corporation silos, the highest structure in the Colombo skyline, before climbing back to a more ‘respectable’ 1,000ft. On our low flight path near the Pegasus Reef Hotel, Hendala, was an old shipwreck. It was a great thrill for us to fly between the wreck and the tree line along the coast.

As ‘GG’ and I lived in the same vicinity (as the crow flies), we decided to maintain 500ft over the city of Colombo, and headed directly toward the General Hospital and over my home. Thence over Borella toward Battaramulla and a low flight over ‘GG’s home and on to Ratmalana. We chocked in at 1755hrs (5.55 pm) after a flying time of 2hours and 45 Minutes for the final sector. Lots of photos were taken by ‘GG’ with the borrowed Olympus Pen. Unfortunately, the wrong film speed (ASA/ISO) had been set in the camera’s ‘auto’ mode, and there was nothing worth processing. A clear case of finger trouble.

A few weeks later, another flying school trainee, Hewa, with the late Jayalak de Soysa, carried out the same cross-country flight route, because of the continuing fuel shortage at Anuradhapura. En route, they lost sight of the ground to navigate by and had to rely on ‘dead reckoning’. This is a procedure to assess the ground speed and actual track made good, then ‘reckoning’ where the aircraft would be for a given time. If you reckon wrong, you could end up dead! When they reached the east coast they did not know whether to turn left or right. After a moment of confusion they saw a railway line and followed it to a station. Then they descended to an extremely low altitude in order to read the station name board. It tuned out to be Valaichchenai. The Northeast monsoon winds had blown them south of their desired track. But once they pinpointed their position with a reliable fix they were able to set course for China Bay.

And all was well that ended well.

22 06 2009 - The Island


Air Force Flying with ‘Zak’


Capt. G.A. Fernando

In April 1971, Ceylon (as the country was then known) was hit by an island-wide insurrection launched by disaffected, mostly Sinhalese youth of the Marxist persuasion who had formed themselves into the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) with backing believed to have been provided by North Korea. A group of civil aviation pilots, of which I was one, volunteered to fly with the then Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) which had been placed into combat mode for the duration of the Insurgency.

We were initially posted to China Bay for our training. It was there that I met Zachariah (‘Zak’), a Sergeant-Pilot. He was barrel-shaped, and was grounded from flying duties because of a knee injury sustained while playing rugby (rugger) for the Air Force. Following a few months of uncertainty he was allowed to fly again. I remember that day well. After ‘Zak’ was cleared, he was so thrilled that he flew his Chipmunk to the west of the airfield and performed five or six consecutive loops for our benefit. He knew that we (the volunteer pilots) would be watching from the officers’ mess balcony, so he put on a show for our benefit!

Later, it was my good fortune to fly with ‘Zak’ for several months as his copilot (‘second dickie’) in a de Havilland D.H.104 Dove twin-engine airplane of the RCyAF. Although a Pilot Officer, I had only 80 hours in my log book, while ‘Zak’ had logged over 800. At one stage, the Air Force received reports that North Korean ships had infiltrated the shipping lane southeast of the island and were dropping off arms supplies to the rebels on the beaches off Yala and Kirinda. Our daily task was to fly south from China Bay (Trincomalee) to this shipping lane and descend to literally deck level to copy down the names of the ships in the lane. Then, climbing to a higher altitude we would deploy our trailing radio aerial and speak on long range HF (high-frequency) radio to Air Force Head Quarters in Colombo and relay the names of the ships for checking purposes. The trailing aerial was a steel cable wrapped around a wheel with a handle. At the end of the cable there were five or six lead balls to weigh the cable down. The balls and cable were wound down through a tube, ideally to a length equal to half the wave-length of the frequency you are working on.

Modern aircraft are so long that the HF antenna could be positioned along the fuselage of the aircraft. One drawback was to remember to reel the cable in, by means of the handle, after use. There was a story of a Royal Air Force (RAF) pilot who forgot to reel the aerial in, and was making his final approach for landing over the Base Commanding Officer’s home. It so happened that the CO was hosting some important guests to tea in the garden that evening, and the lead balls smashed the tea pot!

After our ship-spotting exercise, the return leg to China Bay was most exciting. We would fly low all the way back. Upon reaching Pottuvil we would turn inland and fly toward Lahugala to look for wild elephants. We chased the elephants and watched them run with trunks raised. Our regular low-flying in that region came to a halt when a RCyAF circular was issued stating that there were frequent reports of Air Force aircraft flying low and disturbing the birds at the Kumana Bird Sanctuary!

During the 1971 Insurgency, some members of the Air Force rugby team were accused of being JVP operatives. It was alleged that they had been assigned to poison the water tanks at the Katunayake Air Force base. Consequently, the airmen were arrested and incarcerated in an old Dutch fort called Hammenheil, which was situated on a tiny island between Karinagar and Kayts, at the entrance to the Jaffna Lagoon. Hammenheil was built by the Portuguese, who named it ‘Fortaleza do Cais dos Elefantes’. Later, when taken over by the Dutch in 1658, it acquired the name ‘Hammenheil’. At the time the RCyAF personnel were interned there, the fort was manned by 30 staff. In the 1960s Mr. and Mrs. Herbert Keuneman lived there.

When we were attached to the Task Force for Anti-Illicit Immigration (TFAII) to do air patrols over the Jaffna Peninsula, during the time of the Kachchathivu Festival ‘Zak’ and I would circle over Hammenheil. The ex-airmen prisoners incarcerated there, recognising the characteristic note of the Dove’s de Havilland Gipsy Queen engines, would come out of the prison building and wave to us. Sometimes we were so low that ‘Zak’ could even recognize his old rugby team members! I am sure it was quite an emotional moment for him although he didn’t show it. From there we would fly to Delft to chase the ponies at low level before flying toward Kachchathivu. Once, my flying school buddy Vaji, who was also an Air Force volunteer, joined us as the third pilot. After take off ‘Zak’ went to the back of the airplane for a rest, so Vaji and I-with not more than 300 hours between us-flew the whole patrol.

Eighteen years later, Vaji and I found ourselves sharing the flight deck of an Air Lanka TriStar to Bangkok and Hong Kong, when he had to check me out as proficient to operate to now-defunct Kai Tak Airport with its legendary and tricky, curved ‘Checkerboard’ IGS approach to Runway 13. We could not help but remember old ‘Zak’ who had placed such confidence in us during those early years of our respective flying careers.

One day, returning to China Bay from Katunayake at about 1730hrs (5.30 pm), we were over Sigiriya when ‘Zak’ decided to circle the rock. Those were the days before the frescoes were shielded with black netting. The evening sun was shining sideways into the fissure where the frescoes were, and we were at the same level, able to clearly see the fabled Sigiri apsaras (maidens)-and their ample, buxom charms!-from the air; it was a fantastic sight, and one of the more stirring of the many memories from my long flying career.

We once had to pick up a senior government official from Vavuniya and fly him to Ratmalana. It was during the time of the South West Monsoon, and one of those rare days when the whole island is covered with cloud and rain. Unlike modern, large jet aircraft, ours didn’t have weather radar. The China Bay to Vavuniya leg was fine. But on our second sector to Ratmalana we flew into cloud and became hopelessly unsure of our position. After a short while, there was a gap in the clouds through which we saw Puttalam. We quickly descended and hugged the coastline at low level, all the way to Colombo. Coming above Ratmalana, we found that the airport was obscured by rain.

So we flew down south and stayed in the clear until the rain ceased. During the South West monsoon, clouds materialise from the southwest in the form of cells, with usually rain beneath. ‘Zak’ was the first person to show me how it was possible to wait in the air for a cell to pass and, before the next cell reaches the airport, approach and land. In other words, land in-between the rain-laden cloud cells. I used this technique many years later when operating into airports like Malé in the Maldive Islands, slowing down or speeding up accordingly to come in and land between the storm cells.

After leaving the Air Force, ‘Zak’ flew in the Middle East. I often wonder where he is now.

22 06 2009 – The Island


Turn around, young man!


Capt. G. A. Fernando

Rudolph and Julie were very happy. Their eldest son, Nihal, had got his Private Pilot’s Licence (PPL) from the Department of Civil Aviation after training at the Ratmalana Flying Training School. He had invited his parents to go fly with him. Once a student obtained a PPL the school allowed him to carry passengers although not for hire or reward (i.e. payment). The couple had motored to Colombo from their Kurunegala estate, ‘Woodlands’, and stayed overnight in Colombo. Julie was looking forward to the event, but Rudolph was not too keen to fly in a flimsy canvas covered, single-engine aircraft.

The next morning Nihal was waiting for his parents at the flying school. He had already prepared the aircraft for the joy flight. Assigned for the ‘hop’ was the flying school’s Auster J/1 Autocrat, registered 4R-AAM, known to all in the flying school by the nickname ‘Auster Mike’. The airplane had just come out of the hangar after a major overhaul for renewal of its Certificate of Airworthiness (C of A). During this process the aircraft is literally stripped down to its smallest components, and after the airframe and engine are examined and worn or time-expired parts are replaced (or repaired, where permissible), everything is put back together again.

Because his father preferred to stay on ground, Nihal helped his mother to board the aircraft (she was dressed in her ‘Sunday best’); after a 360-degree walk-around inspection of the Auster, he completed his preflight checks inside the cockpit, and gave the signal for a helper standing outside to swing the propeller for engine start-up. (The aircraft didn’t have an electric self-starter motor.) The de Havilland Gypsy Major engine roared lustily into life. Next, Nihal performed a thorough engine run-up, opening the throttle and letting the engine run at high revs, to check for any misfires or other potential ‘ailments’. Finally, he carried out a magneto check before taxiing out for takeoff. Nihal had already obtained his Air Traffic Control (ATC) clearance by telephone as the aircraft didn’t have a radio. The plan was to fly over the city of Colombo, and with the wind blowing from the east, the Auster’s takeoff direction was towards Attidiya, in the direction of Runway 04. But, as was customary, the small trainer airplane didn’t use the sealed runway, and lined up on the adjacent grass strip instead. (It increased tire life they said).

When satisfied that all was working as it should, Nihal ‘gunned’ the engine - and he and his mother roared off into the wild blue yonder. The climb-out was normal, but at about 400ft the engine gave a momentary sputter - before it quit running completely. Calling on his training knowledge and practice, Nihal lost no time in immediately pointing the Auster’s nose down, so as not to lose valuable air speed, and initiated a turn back to the airfield, where he intended carrying out an emergency landing.

But when ‘Auster Mike’ was very close to the ground, the ‘windmilling’ propeller spun the engine back into sputtering life, and to everyone’s relief - not least that of Nihal and his mother - a normal landing was carried out. It must be noted here that it was drilled into all pilots of single-engine aircraft that in the unlikely event of an engine failure the pilot must put the nose down and land straight ahead - without attempting to turn the airplane around. In the brutally blunt words of the veteran flight instructor and Air Ceylon pilot, the late Capt. L. B. de Silva: “If you attempt to turn back and you lose air speed, you will spin and burn.” Certainly, the safer option was to land straight ahead. By some quirk of fate, the previous day Nihal had been flying with Capt. Dudley Ranabahu. As a maestro of the ‘stick-andrudder’ art, Capt. Ranabahu had demonstrated to Nihal how to turn back to the airfield from a safe height. He had also discussed the dangers of doing so from low level.

The in-flight turn-back drama was observed by Capt. Anil Rambukwella and Capt. Ranabahu, who were near the flying school hangar. As soon as Nihal landed, the two instructors ran up to the aircraft to ask what went wrong. When Nihal told them, the two veteran flyers decided to repeat Nihal’s actions for themselves. So, off they went aloft in a seemingly serviceable aircraft. Observers on the ground saw them climb out normally until, at about 400ft, the aircraft abruptly turned back toward the field. But the two pilots’ action was not deliberate; indeed, it was forced on them because of an engine failure, just as Nihal had experienced. Fortunately, the pair’s rapid turn-back and landing was also executed successfully. The aircraft was pushed into the hangar for trouble-shooting, and yet another substitute aircraft was provided for Nihal’s mother’s joy flight, that had been so rudely - and scarily - interrupted a little while earlier. This airplane was the school’s other Auster, a Mark 5 model registered 4RAAJ (‘Auster Juliet’).

Needless to say, Nihal’s mother Julie was rather worried, but for her son Nihal’s sake put up a brave front and decided to go up again. This time all went well, and Nihal achieved his ambition of showing his mother the sights of Colombo and its harbor from the air. However, it did not escape Nihal’s notice that throughout most of the flight Julie sat with her eyes closed! It was subsequently discovered that the problem with ‘Auster Mike’ was due to the fuel line being partially closed, resulting in the engine being starved of fuel at the take off (nose up) attitude at a high power setting.

Today, Nihal ‘flies a desk’ in the office of the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) after a long career as an Air Traffic Control Officer (ATCO). Unfortunately, unlike in Nihal’s case, there are no longer any pilots who also work as Air Traffic Controllers (or vice versa), nor is there a scheme to train ATCOs as pilots. Sadly, officialdom seems to be either ignorant or uncaring of the fact that practical experience of the art and science of flying is invaluable to any fledgling ATCO. But that may be a discussion for another time and place.

02 02 2009 – The Island


Sudhila and the overturned Auster ‘Alpha Mike’

Capt. G. A. Fernando

Early on Saturday, October 18, 1969, my pilot-trainee colleague, Sudhila, and I borrowed a bicycle from Jinadasa, the mechanic at the Ratmalana Flying School, and rode to the home of Capt. Anil Rambukwella, not far from the airport. We needed his authorisation to carry out a flight in the local area.

It was a standing rule at the time that all such flights must be sanctioned by an instructor who is physically present at the airport. Therefore, it was quite normal for us trainees to arrive at Ratmalana Airport in the early hours of the morning and disturb the slumbers of one of our instructors residing in the vicinity of the airport to obtain his permission. When we knocked on Capt. Rambukwella’s door, his wife Mumtaz opened it and told us that the captain was still asleep.

However, he soon awoke and with a customary “Be careful, boys” signed off Sudhila for the flight. I was going along for the ride because a ‘card attack’ (insufficient funds in my flying school ‘credit card’) had temporarily prevented me from taking the controls. Therefore, I had to content myself with going aloft as a passenger on Sudhila’s training exercise. Only when a trainee had obtained his Private Pilot’s Licence (as in Sudhila’s case) was he was allowed to carry passengers.

Returning to the airport, we started to prepare our airplane for the flight. Just for the record, the Auster J/1 Autocrat, registered 4R-AAM (Four Romeo Alpha Alpha Mike), was the same aircraft that, in October/November 1946, wearing its original registration VPCAO, was flown by the late J. P. Obeyesekere from England to Ceylon. Taking nearly 40 days for the epic journey, ‘JPO’ was closely accompanied by Royal Air Force (RAF) Squadron Leader R.A.F. Farquharson in an identical Auster - registered VP-CAP - for all but a few hours of the aerial odyssey (when a sandstorm separated the two flyers). Earlier in the trip, for eight consecutive days Obeyesekere had carried another RAF Squadron Leader, named Sleigh, as passenger in his Auster from England to Castel Benito in Libya. But that’s another story…

Just before we started up the Auster’s de Havilland Gipsy Major engine (which had replaced its original Blackburn Cirrus Minor), Sudhila and I were informed by the flying school authorities that a German man who was visiting the school wanted to go on a joy flight. It was not unusual for strangers and visitors to be taken on such rides, so I volunteered to forego my jaunt with Sudhila and give the German the opportunity instead. It soon became apparent that the German, who was introduced to us as Reine Franck, didn’t speak much English. After I strapped him securely into the passenger seat, I watched the Auster take off, and then went home. Another wasted day at the flying school…

The next morning I was greatly surprised to see, in the morning newspaper, a photograph of Sudhila’s Auster upside down in a paddy field near Mirigama. A few minutes later Sudhila himself phoned me, and we decided to visit the scene of his recent accident. On the way there by train, he told me what had happened.It was the time of the south west monsoon, and, taking off from the Attidiya end of the airport, along what is known as the Runway 22 direction, Sudhila had proceeded north of Ratmalana, on a sightseeing trip over the city of Colombo. After overflying the usual landmarks and areas of interest such as the Colombo Town Hall and the harbour, he attempted to head back to Ratmalana but found that cloud and rain were engulfing his return track. Our instructors had cautioned us never to fly beneath heavy rain in our light aircraft as there is always a possibility of encountering severe down draughts. Although the aircraft was equipped to be flown with reference to its instruments, Sudhila had only five hours of instrument flying time—the absolute minimum for a private pilot. Therefore, he was forced to remain clear of cloud (and rain), and always in sight of land or water.

His immediate alternative was to proceed to the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake. However, as he approached Katunayake, that airport also became obscured by rain. Next, Sudhila decided to continue farther along the coast to Puttalam. But there too heavy rain showers were encountered. Now literally between a ‘rock and a hard place’, Sudhila and his German passenger were trapped between the central hills and the approaching rain, while fast running out of fuel. Worse still, the Auster wasn’t equipped with a radio, so Sudhila was unable to inform anyone on the ground of his plight. By now, the aircraft was being buffeted by strong winds and shaking like a leaf. The previous day, with me on board, Sudhila had carried out a practice force-landing (emergency landing) at Ratmalana, and it went off perfectly. We were able to touch down at the Attidiya end and stop at the first intersecting road. Therefore, Sudhila was confident of his ability to safely carry out an emergency landing—but this time ‘for real’—and he decided to put the aircraft down in a paddy field immediately below, at Pallewela, near Mirigama. He saw it as his safest option. Now, before an emergency landing a pilot should do a precautionary approach to check for any obvious impediments on the chosen landing site. So he flew low and slow over the paddy field on which he intended to land. In doing so, the Auster attracted the attention of the people living along ‘Malaria Road’, so named because it had been cut during a malaria prevention campaign.

Deciding that the makeshift ‘landing ground’ was suitable, Sudhila then executed a perfect touchdown in the mud, pulled the joy stick all the way back to his stomach, stood on his heels and slid along (the heel brakes were ineffective) until, now moving at very slow speed, the airplane struck a bund at the far end of the field. Its progress thus arrested, the Auster stood on its nose for a few seconds before tipping over onto its back (upper surface) in slow motion. As a result, the perspex windscreen cracked while Sudhila and the hapless Herr Franck hung by their safety belts with mud pouring in through a gaping hole in the broken windshield. Sudhila didn’t speak any German. The only German he knew was what he had gleaned from the Air Ace Picture Library war adventure comic books. So he shouted “Schnell! Schnell!” (“Quick! Quick!”), released his safety belt, and promptly fell on his head into the mud. The German passenger did the same and suffered the same consequences as Sudhila, but was immersed in mud to a lesser degree as he was taller. The pair then pushed open the doors, wriggled out, and got away from the aircraft. By now, curious onlookers had begun approaching the inverted Auster. With a strong smell of high-octane fuel making its presence felt, Sudhila shouted to the villagers to stay away from the aircraft, but to no avail. All he got in response was a hearty “Hoooooo!” Because Sudhila, a recent school-leaver, was smaller in stature and a ‘local’, the onlookers assumed that he was the passenger and that the ‘suddha’ was the pilot, so they directed their jeers at what they perceived was the foreigner’s comedy of errors.

Sudhila soon learned that they had landed in the vicinity of the road to Kukulnape, with the Mirigama railway station close by. After commandeering a rider and bicycle, he proceeded to the railway station intending to call the Ratmalana flying school and inform them of the forced landing. When he entered the Station Master’s office, explained about the crash, and requested the use of the station telephone, the SM flatly refused, stating that people often come there with all kinds of “cock-and-bull stories” to obtain free calls. After a short silence, the SM asked Sudhila whether he knew Capt. ‘Punch’ (Panchalingam) Nadarajah; to which Sudhila replied in the affirmative, adding that he was an Air Ceylon captain. The Station Master’s face immediately lit up and he said, “He is a relative of mine, you may take a call.”

Meanwhile, the authorities at the Ratmalana flying school had pressed the ‘panic button’ and informed police stations to look out for a cream-coloured light aircraft. Capt. J. A. (Ossie) Jayawardene, our night flying instructor, who happened to be at the flying school, looked at his watch at almost the time Sudhila was landing in the mud, and declared that the aircraft should be running out of fuel about then.

Returning from the Mirigama railway station to the crash site, Sudhila awaited the arrival of the recovery team led by the flying school’s commandant Lionel A. Loos. After handing over the aircraft to them, he took a train to Colombo, and by evening he was back home. Without telling his parents about the incident, Sudhila went to bed early. Perhaps he was still suffering from shock. The next morning he was woken by his excited father who told him that the morning newspaper carried a report and photo of a light aircraft crash at Mirigama. It had even mentioned the name of the pilot. The cat was out of the bag. After a brief explanation, Sudhila left quickly for Ratmalana Airport— from where he had phoned me. An inquiry was subsequently held as to how an aircraft that was authorized for a ‘local flight’ ended up, upside down no less, in a paddy field in Mirigama. Sudhila was grounded for three months.

Surprisingly, the sturdy British-built Auster aircraft had suffered only minor damage, (mainly resulting from the recovery action) and was brought back to Ratmalana by lorry. After repairs, a few months later it was back in the air, helping more young fledgling pilots to learn the art and craft of aviating.

Sudhila now flies for the national carrier. The whereabouts of Reine Franck are unknown. Sadly, however, on March 11, 1971, Auster 4R-AAM was destroyed by fire in a takeoff accident at Ratmalana, with both occupants losing their lives. But that also is another story…

28 04 2008 – The Island



When San Michele save the day


Capt. G. A. Fernando

"The month of June brings copious rainfall to the southwest of the island, boy", our Ground Instructor, Navigator Roy de Niese would say. We all knew it. But in those days, we fledgling, low-time pilots were over-confident to a fault, believing ourselves to be 'aces'. Thus, we didn't bother to obtain a formal meteorological report whenever we flew. The 'modus operandi' was to take a quick glance toward the southwest, then to fly off into the wide blue yonder.

It was on such a day in June that 'JJ' and I started up our HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) Pushpak single-engine trainer airplane for half-an-hour of flying in the practice area south of Ratmalana Airport. The Indian-built aircraft was certified for visual flying only and did not have any sophisticated blind-flying instruments. (Visual flying meant that you had to always fly clear of cloud, and in sight of land or water.) There were patches of rain everywhere in the southwest when we taxied out for takeoff. But the northeast was clear, so we decided to take off downwind, toward the northeast. Because there were no other aircraft in the immediate vicinity of the airport, the rules were 'flexible' and we did not conform to any specific traffic pattern.

There was, however, a variation in the operation that day as we had on board an experimental VHF (Very High Frequency) valve-type radio in the luggage compartment of the Pushpak. Produced locally by Ivor Le Mercier of the Communications section of the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), the radio had been installed by Cecil Cooray of the same department. As the passenger on this flight, I opted to operate the radio.

When we became airborne and turned right, we got a nasty shock. The sky was very dark in the southwest, and there were signs of heavy, widespread rain. We turned further right to glance at our departure point, that little patch of grass between the parking apron and the taxiway and observed that since the brief period of our takeoff, it too was being swept by rain. Therefore, a rapid return to base (Ratmalana) was out of the question. The aircraft did not possess windscreen wipers, which prevented us from landing in the rain, and although we were still flying in the clear, it was only a matter of time before rain would engulf us and deprive us of sight of the natural horizon - a vital and indispensable cue for visual flight. The danger of losing the natural horizon as a reference was that a pilot could easily become disorientated and end up in a 'graveyard spiral' all the way to the ground. It was also known as 'The Deadly Spiral' (TDS), a well-known phenomenon since the inception of aviation.

Over to the south, we could see buildings of the University of Moratuwa, at Katubedda, and beyond that San Michele, the little resort island in the Bolgoda Lake, near Dampe, Piliyandala. So we headed in that direction while descending about 800 feet to commence circling overhead the island. By now it was a race against the rain. The contrast between the tiny island and surrounding water provided us with just enough visual reference to fly level - without ending up in a potentially fatal spiral. When the rain finally caught up with us, we had just got into position. The descent helped to keep us clear of low cloud. We had visions of downdraughts and high winds that usually accompany advancing rain. Fortunately, that day there were none.

After about 20 minutes of intense concentration, JJ was feeling the strain and tending to spiral down; but because we were in sight of San Michele, he was able to correct himself quickly. Then we took turns to fly, so that the workload was shared. While battling poor weather and low visibility, I called the Ratmalana Air Traffic Control Tower and told them that we were over San Michele, just in case they were concerned about our location. But in the heavy rain, our newly-installed VHF radio stopped working.

Consequently, we had to remain over San Michele for over half an hour - which seemed like an eternity to us novices. But our strategy worked, and we were able to save the day. Almost as soon as the rain had appeared, clear skies took over, and looking across we could see Ratmalana bathed in sunlight! Wasting no time, we headed there, relieved that we had been able to survive a potential threat which could have had us 'harping in the high attitudes'.

Turning over Ratmalana airfield, we looked for the green and white rotating beacon which would have signalled that there was air traffic in the vicinity. Beacon 'on' meant there was traffic and we would have to remain south of the airfield. But the beacon was off, so we were able to join the circuit pattern and land safely. After landing, we were asked to report to the control tower. There, we were told that San Michele was not an approved reporting point. When we explained to the officers on duty that we had experienced bad weather, they were surprised as there had been only a light passing shower over Ratmalana Airport, nowhere near as intense as what we experienced over San Michele and described to them. Besides, they couldn't see south of the airport anyway! In lieu of 'punishment', we had to buy them a round of tea from the DCA canteen.

That day, both 'JJ' and I got the message loud and clear: Never, never fly in bad weather in an aircraft not equipped with proper instruments. Know the limitations of man and machine. As a wise old aviator once said, "It is better to be on the ground and wish you were in the air than be in the air and wish you were on the ground." In our case, if not for that place of pleasure, San Michele, the story would have been different.

Today 'JJ' is a senior captain in India, while I fly for a Southeast Asian carrier. San Michele is closed.

Graveyard spirals still occur. In fact, it is suspected that John Kennedy Jr. and his passengers died on their way to Martha's Vineyard in such a situation, when they lost sight of the natural horizon in fading daylight. Perhaps, as Oscar Wilde said: "Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes".

05 07 2008 - The Island



Exciting Travelogue Takes off Again


Book Facts: My Airway Home by J.P. Obeyesekera.

First published in 1997. Reprinted with important addenda 2009 by Lakpahana. Reviewed by Michael Abeyaratne.

Available at Vijitha Yapa Bookshop

The aircraft that made history

This is an account of an epic flight of 7000 miles from Cambridge to Colombo in 1946 by a young gentleman in a small single engined aircraft taking 70 hours of flying time.

Mother greeting James while father J.P.0. tries to take a photograph.

The pilot, a graduate of Trinity College, was a member of the Cambridge University Air Squadron.

 A pilot of Air Transport Auxiliary and a member of the Royal Observer Corps, he was also a keen motor sportsman, the owner of several mouth watering sports cars including a 41/2 litre Blower and a 3 litre Bentley, a brace of Frazer Nash, and an SS airline saloon. He was a member of the Cambridge University Automobile Club and an organizer of the first ever motor races to be held in England after the war at Gransden Lodge airfield.

James was the son of the Maha Mudaliyar, had a very privileged upbringing but in reality was a very modest person. In his application to the Air Ministry for registration of his aircraft he had entered his nationality as 'Singhalese'. This had been scored out and replaced with the word British in the same pen and same hand as had signed the permit. James went on to win the Attanagalle seat with a huge majority and served the country as Deputy Minister of Health and later of Finance.

His trip was no silly undergraduate prank but carefully planned and executed as the meticulously maintained logs and notes included in the book will show. He did not carry a radio, depending on his navigational skills and he very nearly came a cropper only once and that due to faulty information given him by the airport of departure. The aircraft he flew was a single engined two seater with a 90 HP aircooled engine. These types of aircraft were designated 'army cooperation' and used for spotter duties. Due to their short take off and landing capabilities (STOL) they were used to deliver and collect top army brass operating from roads and fields near the front. Better known craft of this genre would be the Feiseler Storch and the Westland Lysander whose duties are now served by helicopters.

The faithful little plane brought him safely home except for an emergency landing at Santa Cruz airport in Bombay due to sand in his oil filters. James had foreseen such an eventuality before he left but this had been discounted by the manufacturer.

A trip of a third of the way round the world in such an aircraft would be like an overland journey of this length driving solo in a VW Beetle. Incidentally in the 1950s James used to drive Beetles in the Monsoon Reliability Trials with great distinction.VP CAO was then given on permanent loan to the Air Academy where it served to train many pilots before it unfortunately crashed and burned killing both its occupants. The wreckage after lying forlorn in a hanger at Ratmalana has now been restored to its former glory by the staff of the SLAF museum but for the moment only as a static exhibit.

VP-CAO over France

The route James had planned had of necessity to cross three seas but in spite of a request from the Maha Mudaliyar he could not cross the Alps because the Auster could not fly that high.

Being just after the war however all the airfields on his route were under British control where his CUAC blazer with the RAF buttons got him VIP treatment. His refuelling stops were on airfields which any person who followed World War 2 would have recognized, Castel Benito, Marble Arch, El Adem, Mersa Matruh, and Cairo.

The later part of this trip took him across an Arabian peninsula still unsoiled by lines in the sand where the hot inhospitable desert did not even have smooth areas for an emergency landing.

He noted that Bahrain and Sharjah were little better than a few tin huts. Then on to an undivided India and home.

The book is highly recommended. It is not the story of an adventurer suffering against terrible odds but rather a good humoured account of a hazardous journey undertaken with excellent planning so that the travelogue unfolds smoothly.

The fact that it was a tremendous feat in the history of aviation in this country makes it very special.


26 09 2010 – Sunday Times


My First Command Flight Nearly Bombed Out


Capt. G.A. Fernando


July 10, 1985, was a milestone in my flying career. For the first time, I was to fly in command of a jet airliner. It was a Boeing 737- 200, registered 4R-ULH and named ‘City of Galle’. This aircraft was bigger than the Hawker Siddeley 121 Trident, my senior captains in Air Ceylon had flown. Because it was my first command flight, my first officer was a veteran ex-Air Force pilot and my schoolmate, Mohan O. Goonaratne (‘Moggy’), who had lots of experience’ on the 737.

That day, our first two sectors were to Trichinopoly (Tiruchirapalli, or ‘Trichy’) and back. The next two sectors were to Malé, in the Maldives, and back. Our outbound trip was uneventful. However, on the way back from Malé, (when we landed toward the southwest on Katunayake’s Runway 22), we were instructed by the air traffic controller to “Keep on rolling to the end of the runway and at the end turn right towards the Air Force side” (where a new runway was being constructed). While rolling along the runway, ‘Moggy’ queried as to why we had to carry out this unusual manoeuvre. It was then that D. N. Ramachandra, who was the duty air traffic controller - and also a former fellow-pupil but senior to me at the Ratmalana Flying School - advised us that they had information that a bomb was onboard our aircraft. Our next question was the location of the mobile steps to help our passengers disembark. ‘Rama’ informed us that the mobile steps and passenger buses were following us along the runway.

In those days there was no one qualified to evaluate the validity of a bomb threat and assess the risks to a specific flight. Therefore, every warning had to be assumed to be genuine. Besides that, on the night of August 2, 1984, my friend ‘Vaji’ had operated the same aircraft to the Meenambakkam Airport, Madras, where he refused to carry two unaccompanied bags to Colombo. A few moments after he took off, the bags he left behind exploded, killing 30 people and destroying a part of the Madras Airport terminal building.

As soon as we had shut the engines down, and the steps and buses were in place, I made a public address announcement to the passengers telling them not to be alarmed but that we had information that there was an explosive device on board, and requesting them to disembark as quickly as possible, in an orderly fashion, with their hand luggage. Soon after the announcement was made, we felt a strong vibration though the floor boards of the flight deck for about a minute or two. When I looked out of my left hand side window I could see that everyone, including the cabin crew were inside the buses, hence the sound of their stampede! Moggy and I were the last to get off. The way the aircraft was parked, with its tail projecting onto the runway, effectively made the runway unusable.

At that time, even bomb search procedures were not in place. Because we were out of the aircraft and not in communication with the control tower, in that pre-cellphone era, I had to walk across to the fire engine that was parked about a hundred yards away and use their radio. The airport authorities were clueless as to what they should do next. Therefore, I suggested that we get the Sri Lanka Air Force sniffer dogs to check the aircraft out. When the dogs were brought in, the Air Force did not know how to conduct an aircraft search. Fortunately, after the Avro 748 bombing at Ratmalana in September 1978, and based on recommendations from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA), we, the pilots, had some knowledge of how things should be carried out.

Once the all-clear was given, we were towed back to the BIA terminal building. I was able to telephone ‘Rama’ and thank him for his warning. He told me that the bomb threat message was received quite early, just as we started our descent into Colombo, but that he had decided not to inform us until we were safely on the ground as he knew that it was my first day as a captain and didn’t want to excite us. The early warning gave him adequate time to get things organised for a quick disembarkation of the passengers. I was glad I was flying with ‘Moggy’ who ably supported me.

07 12 2009 – The Island


Farewell to the TriStar


Roger Thiedeman 

A few weeks ago, a TriStar jetliner of SriLankan Airlines, still wearing the old, familiar Air Lanka colours, departed Katunayake for Abu Dhabi. That flight represented a significant milestone in Sri Lankan commercial aviation history. It was the last time a Lockheed L-1011 TriStar operated in the service of Sri Lanka's national carrier.

When Captain Wendell Kelaart parked the TriStar at Abu Dhabi and shut down its three Rolls-Royce engines for the last time, he ended a 19-year relationship between TriStars and Sri Lankan air travel. And, like many other relationships, it was a bitter-sweet one. 

Over a period spanning nearly two decades, Air Lanka's TriStars have been the flagships of the fleet, the airline's most recognisable asset (that famous 'Monara' logo aside!). For the most part, it was an airplane popular with pilots, engineers and passengers alike. Aircrew enjoyed its easy, vice-free handling. It was a 'pilot-friendly' aircraft, they said. Passengers welcomed the wide-body spaciousness and comfort.

Occasionally, however, things went wrong. Air Lanka was an airline with a vast route network but a numerically small fleet of aging aircraft. So, when inevitable mechanical malfunctions occurred, schedules and punctuality were thrown into chaos. The TriStars were blamed, the "Taste of Paradise" suddenly turned sour, and local wags dubbed the airline "Usually Late" — in a cynical twist of its two-letter code 'UL'! To Air Lanka's credit, however, they always placed a premium on safety over punctuality.

It all began in late 1980 when Air Lanka, barely one-year-old, was facing competition from other international carriers with modern airplanes. Tourist arrivals to Sri Lanka were also booming, generating demand for more long-haul capacity than the company's two Boeing 707s provided. Focusing their attention on wide-body aircraft, Air Lanka chose the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar.

Built at the Lockheed complex in Palmdale, California, the TriStar already had a 'family connection' with Sri Lankan aviation. Between 1956 and 1961, Air Ceylon operated three other Lockheed products successively: a 749 Constellation, a 1049G Super Constellation and an Electra turboprop — all leased from, and flown on behalf of Air Ceylon by, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.

The first L-1011 (pronounced "Ten-Eleven") to wear Air Lanka livery was leased from Air Canada in November 1980. It was a TriStar 1 model, followed in May 1981 by another of the same type, from the same source. They were the first of 16 TriStars to serve Air Lanka over the next 19-plus years, although the airline rarely operated more than five or six at one time. Some L-1011s — like the two long-range, short-fuselage TriStar 500s — were bought outright. Others were obtained on long-term leases (notably from Air Canada and Royal Jordanian Airlines), and yet others leased for brief periods, subject to the demands of maintenance schedules and passenger traffic. One such TriStar, leased by Air Lanka from Air Canada for only two weeks in 1982, later went on to a spectacular new career. After a period of semi-retirement in the Arizona desert, it was modified as an aerial platform for launching small satellites into orbit from the fringes of outer space.

Right from its inception, even before Lockheed's prototype L-1011 could fly, the TriStar was causing headaches. Excessive, unforeseen development costs dragged both Lockheed and engine supplier Rolls-Royce to the brink of bankruptcy. Only last-minute intervention by the American and British governments respectively, with huge injections of funds, saved these two industrial giants from extinction.

When the first TriStar eventually took off on its maiden flight on November 16, 1970, all problems were forgotten. Here, it seemed, was another good Lockheed airplane, with potential for commercial success in airlines around the world. As it turned out, only 250 TriStars were built between 1970 and 1983, a relatively small number compared to outputs of rival manufacturers Boeing and McDonnell-Douglas. Significantly, however, the TriStar has proved to be one of the safest jetliners ever, with only seven examples (less than 3% of total production) destroyed in accidents or acts of terrorism. 

On May 3, 1986, Air Lanka experienced its greatest setback when a TriStar 100 at Katunayake, preparing for a delayed departure to Male (Maldive Islands), was torn apart by a bomb concealed in a tool kit by LTTE saboteurs. Sixteen passengers and crew were killed, and another 41 seriously injured, on that sad Saturday morning.

Another of Air Lanka's TriStars took centre stage in a bizarre episode that, fortunately, had a happier ending. A charter flight from Colombo to Nagoya in May 1992 returned to Katunayake after passengers threatened violence towards the captain and crew. Members of the infamous Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo cult, the passengers vehemently objected to the presence in the economy cabin of two off-duty flight attendants, and demanded that they sit in the galley instead.

Emerging from the cockpit to reason with the cult members and their leader Shoko Asahara, Captain David Hawkes was immediately surrounded, then noisily and incessantly abused in a threatening manner. Back on the flight deck, First Officer Errol Cramer sensed something was amiss and unobtrusively turned the TriStar back towards Colombo. When the aircraft finally touched down at Katunayake, the show of military muscle awaiting them ensured that the cult members disembarked meekly without further fuss.

My most memorable flight in an Air Lanka TriStar occurred in December 1991 whilst travelling from Australia to Sri Lanka on holiday with my family. The commander of our TriStar 500 was Captain Gihan 'GAF' Fernando, my good friend and former schoolmate. In fact, 'GAF' had specially rostered himself for this flight so that he could be our "personal pilot", as he put it! 

Nearing the end of our nine-hour nonstop journey from Melbourne, 'GAF' invited my two sons and me to the cockpit for the late-night approach and landing at Katunayake. But this was an approach with a difference. As a special treat, 'GAF' obtained permission from Air Traffic Control to deviate from his usual descent path into Colombo. From the vantage point of our jump seats, we watched in fascination as clusters of lights, like pinpricks against the inky blackness, turned out to be Hambantota, Matara and Galle. A rapidly growing blur of illumination on the horizon soon became identifiable as the city of Colombo. Presently, we were roaring directly above Galle Road, picking out landmarks like Ratmalana airport, Mt. Lavinia Hotel, and the Parliamentary complex reposing in floodlit splendour on the Diyawanna Oya. 

As our low-flying TriStar thundered across the suburbs of Colombo a mere 1,500 feet below us, I noted the time (11.30 p.m.) and spared a thought for all those citizens whose slumbers we were disturbing!

Just like that flight, Sri Lankan-operated TriStars are now just a memory. The passage of time and the inexorable march of progress combined to ensure that their days as frontline passenger jets were numbered. That was even before new owners took over Air Lanka, bringing a new name, new logo, new livery, new image and an ever- increasing fleet of ultramodern Airbus jetliners with their

computerised, 'glass-cockpit' sophistication. Recent newspaper reports said that the final four SriLankan Airlines/Air Lanka TriStars have been sold to a Canadian charter operator. Yet others in the industry suspect that they are due to be scrapped. The Abu Dhabi location to which Capt. Kelaart flew the last L-1011 is known among the aviation fraternity as the 'Gulf Air graveyard', a place where old TriStars and other 'jumbo jets' go to die. Like the legendary elephant ('jumbo') graveyards of the animal kingdom!

Perhaps the reality lies somewhere in between. Could it be that at least a couple of the former Air Lanka TriStars will be given a new lease of life somewhere else? That will be a just reward for an airplane that brought fame and recognition to the tiny nation of Sri Lanka by cementing its place on the aviation route maps of the world.

09 04 2000 - Sunday Times




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"Well boys, we got three engines out, we got more holes in us than a horse trader's mule, the radio is gone and we're leaking fuel and if we was flying any lower why we'd need sleigh bells on this thing. But we got one little budge on those Russkies. At this height why they might harpoon us, but they dang sure ain't gonna spot us on no radar screen!"

- Major T. J. "King" Kong, in the 1964 movie Dr. Strangelove -










©alkva 2011