How Ceylon was part of a vital aerial lifeline during the dark days of world war II

The Catalinas - daring plan to re-establish the Australia-England air link

The Secret Order of the Double Sun Rise - Qantas and its Wartime Secret

Flight of the Double Sunrise
Air raid 1942: No one was asked to resign
A chance in a million? - It was the late 1980s
How Ramasamy caught the Tiger by the Tail...
The Day the World Changed - On September 11, 2001
SLAF Museum, a nostalgic memory - It is a magnificent spectacle

In The Eyes Of The Beholder

The Genesis of Airmail Service in Ceylon (1928-1938)

Aviation milestones of Sri Lanka


How Ceylon was part of a vital aerial lifeline during the dark days of world war II
Koggala, Catalinas, and the double sunrise


Roger Thiedeman

Mention Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the context of the Second World War and most people would think of the Japanese air raids of Easter Sunday April 5, 1942. Ceylon's "most dangerous moment" of the war would have been much more horrific were it not for the heroic deeds of a Canadian pilot, Squadron-Leader Leonard Birchall, and the crew of his Catalina flying boat (seaplane). On April 4, patrolling the Indian Ocean from their base at Koggala Lake, they spotted a fleet of Japanese warships in the distance and radioed a warning back to base, a warning that would prepare Ceylon for the inevitable aerial onslaught by the enemy.

His fateful message despatched, Birchall's next priority was to turn and head for Koggala with the greatest of haste. But his slow-flying Catalina was no match for Japanese fighter planes. Six Zero fighters launched from an aircraft carrier shot down the lumbering flying boat like a sitting duck. Birchall and five of his crew survived the attack, only to be fished out of the water and taken captive by the Japanese. Freed when the war ended, their endurance of torture, malnutrition, deprivation of medical supplies and other atrocities at the hands of their captors, was further testament to the courage and fortitude of Birchall and his men.

But Koggala Lake and Catalina flying boats had another significant role to play in World War Two. Today, few would be aware that they combined to help maintain vital links between two far-flung nations in the face of further ravages by the Japanese.

When Singapore was invaded by Japan on February 15, 1942, among the many dire consequences was a sudden stoppage of aerial services between Britain and Australia. The 'Horseshoe Route', as it was known, had hitherto been flown with Short Empire flying boats from two airlines. Qantas Empire Airways operated the Australia-Singapore leg, linking up with Imperial Airways (precursor to BOAC and British Airways) for the longer haul to the United Kingdom.

Now, with Singapore in Japanese hands, alternatives to the route were hastily sought, but these options proved tedious and time-consuming. Things began to look grim until Capt. W. H. Crowther, a Qantas flying boat commander, came up with a suggestion that appeared workable.

His idea was for Qantas to operate flying boats nonstop across the Indian Ocean, carrying passengers, freight and mail from Western Australia to Ceylon, and continuing onwards to Karachi (then still a part of pre-Partition India). From Karachi, a BOAC aircraft would complete the flight to Britain.

But the plan was not as straightforward as first seemed. Until then, no aerial sector existed which even approached the nonstop duration of 28 hours estimated for the Indian Ocean crossing between Australia and Ceylon.

However, after a series of successful route-proving flights, Qantas decided to purchase five Catalina flying boats from the Royal Air Force (RAF). To maximise their range and endurance, the aircraft were stripped of all non-essential equipment, and auxiliary fuel tanks were installed.

Trincomalee was first mooted as the Ceylonese terminal point for the trans oceanic service. However, the necessity for special take-off techniques with a heavily-laden flying boat saw the sheltered waters of Koggala Lake selected in preference to the open seas of China Bay (Trinco). Also in Koggala's favour was the availability of technical support from RAF Catalina and Sunderland flying boat units already stationed there. 

The inaugural service took off from Koggala Lake on July 10, 1943. Despite all but two crew members suffering food poisoning, and the added inconvenience of unfavourable headwinds, the Catalina alighted on the Swan River in Perth, Western Australia just over 28 hours later.

So began a regular air service that was not only unusual but dangerous too. The ever-present threat of detection by Japanese warplanes demanded that flights operated in strict radio silence throughout almost the entire duration of the long Indian Ocean crossing. The crew could only listen out for any weather reports they might be fortunate to intercept.

For eastbound passengers, the most curious aspect of the 28-hour flight was to see the sun rising twice between take-off and touchdown. To commemorate this rare encounter, Qantas presented them with a certificate proclaiming their membership of "The Order of the Double Sunrise".

In 1944, the Catalina flying boats were augmented with Liberator landplanes. Ratmalana aerodrome became the Ceylonese terminus for the latter, but with some limitations. While Liberators inbound from Australia could land at Ratmalana without difficulty, insufficient runway length prevented Perth-bound flights from taking off with a full load of fuel for the long trip eastward. 

Koggala RAF Base

To overcome this, the Liberators first headed for the RAF base at Minneriya after leaving Ratmalana. Here, their fuel tanks were filled to capacity before departing from the longer runway at Minneriya on their marathon journey to Australia. Not until 1945, when runway extensions were carried out (aided by a team of elephants!), did Ratmalana become the departure point for Qantas services to Australia. Later still, the RAF airbase at Negombo (now Katunayake) supplanted Ratmalana as the landplane terminal.

Towards the closing stages of the Qantas Indian Ocean operation another landplane type, the Avro Lancastrian (derived from the Lancaster bomber), was used on the route. Indeed, the only fatalities during the three-year history of the service involved a Lancastrian which disappeared without trace during a flight between Negombo and Perth in March 1946.

On August 6, 1945, when a Boeing B-29 Superfortress dropped an atomic bomb over Hiroshima to effectively end the Pacific war, the writing was on the wall for Qantas Indian Ocean flights. Singapore, once more under British control, re-established its value and convenience as a staging point on the Britain-Australia aerial route.

So, on April 5, 1946, the departure from Perth of a Liberator bound for Colombo rang down the curtain on what was the world's longest regular airline sector. In fact, the Qantas Perth-to-Ceylon nonstop service of 1943-1946 remains the longest in terms of flying time for airline operations, a record that will probably stand unbroken until regular inter-planetary travel becomes a reality!

And not to be underestimated or forgotten is how the tiny island of Ceylon, by virtue of its geographically strategic location, ensured the success of that important aerial lifeline during the dark days of World War Two.

(With acknowledgments to Barry Pattison, co-author with Geoff Goodall, of "Qantas Empire Airways Indian Ocean Service, 1943-1946", published 1979)

27 02 2000 -  Sunday Times



The Catalinas



In 1943 Qantas, the British Air Ministry and BOAC (formerly Imperial Airways) agreed to a daring plan to re-establish the Australia-England air link that had been cut by advancing Japanese forces.

The plan called for regular flights between the Swan River, Perth, and Koggala Lake, in southern Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

Qantas crews had gained experience with long over-water flights while ferrying 19 Catalina flying boats to Australia from San Diego, California.

The single Indian Ocean hop of 5,652km would be the longest non-stop regular passenger flight ever attempted in the world. Celestial navigation had to be used to maintain radio silence over waters patrolled by enemy aircraft. The weight of fuel limited the Catalina's load to only three passengers and 69kg of diplomatic and armed forces mail.

The first flight took place on 29 June 1943 under the command of Captain Russell Tapp. The flying boats, travelling at about 200km/h, would take an average of 28 hours to complete the journey, but up to 32 hours nine minutes when winds were unfavourable.

By the time the operation ended on 18 July 1945, 271 crossings of the Indian Ocean had been completed using the Catalinas. They had carried 648 passengers and flown more than 1.5 million kilometres. Converted Liberators and Lancastrians later supported services on the route.

The five Qantas Catalinas, supplied by the British Air Ministry, took their names from the stars used for navigation - 'Rigel Star', 'Spica Star', 'Altair Star', 'Vega Star' and 'Antares Star'.

They were so heavy with fuel on take-off that the failure of one engine in the first 10 hours of flight would have made a ditching inevitable. This never happened.

Meteorological information was confined to forecasts on local weather conditions at either end, but a meteorological office was later set up at Cocos Island for use in extreme need. Each passenger was given an illustrated certificate entitling them to membership in 'The Rare and Secret Order of the Double Sunrise', to attest that they had been airborne more than 24 hours.

At the end of the war the five Indian Ocean Catalinas were scuttled at sea under the lend-lease agreement with the US Government. It was, in the words of Hudson Fysh "a dismal fate for these splendid boats which for two long years saw us through our most hazardous operation ever without accident or mishap of any kind."

When the war was over Qantas acquired seven former RAAF Catalinas and used them for services to New Caledonia, New Hebrides, Fiji and Lord Howe Island.

Within New Guinea the Catalinas operated to remote, crocodile-infested lakes and rivers where tribesmen paddling log canoes would transfer passengers and cargo.

One Catalina was destroyed by sabotage while moored at Rose Bay, Sydney, on 27 August 1949.
Catalinas remained in service with Qantas until the last two were sold in November 1958.


These blokes really were heroes, in the true sense of the word. As compared to blokes with weapons, who took major risks such as attacking enemy positions... which was usually over in minutes, or even seconds... these Double Sunrise blokes were on the absolute limits of everything, for extended periods... and also had to endure cold, noise, storms, and possible enemy attack, without weapons, for those extended periods.

The P&W R1830's of the PBY's never suffered a single engine failure of any kind, in over 2 years of the Double Sunrise operations, and around 1,000,000 miles of operation. With the massive takeoff weight of over 35,000lbs (raised by Qantas from the manufacturers original 27,500lbs), the PBY's were unable to gain any serious amount of height, for the first few hours into the flight.

This apparently didn't concern the crews, as they often flew at 500' to avoid Jap air patrols! I guess they didn't consider the possibility of German sea raiders sighting them! Apparently an engine failure within 10 hrs of flight commencement would have meant a ditching... and the PBY's did not gain single-engine performance until after 16 hrs of flight!  Wonder how many of these certificates were issued, and how many remain in existence? There were apparently about 650 passengers in total, over the 2 years of operation.



The Secret Order of the Double Sun Rise


Qantas and its Wartime Secret Indian Ocean Air Service


The Catalina was the very last type of flying boat type operated by Qantas. Most importantly, through its Catalina flying boat operations across the Indian Ocean between 1943 and 1945 Qantas created, and still holds, a world air service duration record that has never been broken - and probably never will!

In mid 1943, at a time when the war was being bitterly fought and Japan had complete domination over much of South East Asia, including the Indian Ocean, Qantas took delivery of five unarmed Catalinas.

In June, Qantas engineers Norm Roberts and Colin Sigley began setting up a base at Nedlands on the Swan River but they had few facilities and received almost no support from the Department of Civil Aviation which did not support the establishment of this new air service even though the Australian Government required it. Facilities remained crude for much of the war and had it not been for the generous but informal support of an American Navy Catalina Patrol Wing nearby, the service would have been in serious trouble.

The only protection these 'Cats' had was their camouflage paint. These flying boats - their brave crews and skilled maintenance staff - were to operate a highly secret air service between Lake Koggala, Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) and Perth, Western Australia.

A distance of 8,780 kilometres had to be flown some of it over Japanese dominated oceans to re-establish an air link - broken in 1942 - with the United Kingdom. The Catalina's flew in complete radio silence lest their radio signals allow Japanese fighter aircraft to be homed onto them, with virtually no navigation aids and so heavily overloaded with fuel that, if they suffered an engine failure in the first seventeen hours of flight they would either crash or would be forced down onto a Japanese dominated ocean. If that occurred and they were captured, Qantas crews faced death as the Japanese routinely tortured and murdered any allied aircrews they captured in World War II. Where possible, the crews attempted to fly over Japanese territory in the hours of darkness.

Captain Russell Tapp, First Officer Rex Senior, Flight Engineer Frank Furniss and Radio Officer Glen Mumford flew the first service. With a fuel overload of nearly four tons they took off from Nedlands at 4.30am on 29 June 1943. Their aircraft was 'Altair Star'. First officer Senior remembered: 

Captain Tapp and his crew completed the flight without incident in a time of twenty-eight hours and nine minutes.

At night, the uninsulated Catalina's became very cold and the crews flying them often wore RAAF flying suits in an attempt to keep warm.

First Officer Rex Senior remembered that 'There was a lot of beauty to be enjoyed on these long flights, with the clearness of the atmosphere far out in the Indian Ocean creating a clarity of the stars, far unlike that seen from the land, and I vividly recall watching Venus one night as it rose from the horizon, when its light rivalled that of the moon'.

Captain Tapp and his crew had broken Japan's Indian Ocean blockade of Australia.

To conserve fuel and make the most of the prevailing wind the aircraft flew north from Perth was flown at low level - after a climb to 1000 feet a further slow climb as fuel was burnt took the aircraft to two thousand feet. On the return trip from Sri Lanka, the aircraft flew at between 10000 and 12000 feet again to make use of the prevailing wind.

These Indian Ocean flights in the slow 'Cats' that travelled at around 100 miles per hour were made non-stop - no landings and the average duration was twenty-eight hours - the very longest flight took thirty-one hours and forty-five minutes! How would you like to be in the air that long today in a modern properly fitted out passenger aircraft let alone in an unpressurised, noisy and cramped aircraft subject to surprise enemy attack for much of the distance? This achievement still stands and it is a record created by an airline that played an important role in helping Australia win the war against Japan.

The service was so secret that Qantas crews could not tell anyone what they were doing and the service was never publicised during the war. This had some unfortunate consequences for the Qantas crews who wore civilian clothes when off duty. First Officer Rex Senior - who had earlier flown Sunderland flying boats on combat operations with the RAAF in Europe before transferring to Qantas, when trying to buy cigarettes in a shop was told to "go and join up, there are no cigarettes for bludgers" while on another occasion he received a white feather (denoting cowardice) from a passer-by. Due to the secret nature of their work, aircrew like Rex could say nothing to those who humiliated them in this manner. To have said anything at all about their service could have imperilled the lives of those who flew the service and their passengers. Even when Qantas crews contracted tropical illnesses overseas they were unable to tell their doctors where they had been so the matter could be effectively treated. Nothing could be allowed to compromise the secrecy of these flights!

Even through Qantas was able to avoid contact with the Japanese on these services, one Qantas Catalina crew were attacked by the Japanese. On 15 March 1944, Captain Russell Tapp and his crew flew one of the Catalina's to Cocos Island to collect a naval officer and then deliver them to Lake Koggala. While on the water refuelling with four gallon tins at Cocos Island the crew heard an aircraft approaching. A Japanese 'Betty' bomber, saw the Catalina and dived to attacked, dropping several bombs. Luckily neither flying boat or its crew suffered damage or injury and the Japanese bomber left without making a second attack.

In November 1943 it was decided to extend the Qantas service up the east coast of India to meet the British Overseas Airways Corporation service at Karachi. This second leg of the route added a further 1490 nautical miles to the service.

These 'Cats' made 271 safe crossings of the Indian Ocean right through to the end of the war in the process delivered 860 high priority government and military passengers microfilmed mail and urgent war related freight. The very last Catalina service departed from Sri Lanka for Perth on 17 July 1945.

Passengers who flew on these flights were given a commemorative certificate signed by their aircraft's captain. The 'Secret Order of the Double Sunrise' was a remarkable souvenir and treasured possession for passenger who had the opportunity of seeing two sunrises appear on their secret flight!

Sadly, when the war ended, these five remarkable aircraft, lent to Australia under the provisions of the 'lend lease' scheme had to be destroyed as part of that agreement. Four of them were towed out to sea and scuttled off Perth. The fifth met the same fate outside Sydney Harbour. As he had previously tried to do, Hudson Fysh again recommended official awards for the Qantas crews who flew this important wartime service. The government again refused to acknowledge the courage and skills of Qantas crews.

As Qantas operated this vital air service as part of the allied war effort, it was only paid a token profit of 100 Sterling per year for its efforts. No one could accuse Qantas of profiteering from its wartime role! In fact, Qantas was almost destroyed as a result of its participation in the war. With all but one of its pre-war Empire flying boats destroyed, some of its crews killed and no modern aircraft left, it took a number of years for the airline to recover and to re-establish itself.

Air Graph Letter

In July 1943 Qantas began a highly secret high priority mail and passenger service from Lake Koggala, Ceylon across the Indian Ocean to Perth, Western Australia.

As weight reduction was critical, all mail carried on these flying boats was microfilmed as 'air graph' letters. Only after arrival at their destinations were the microfilms converted to paper. This 'air graph' was carried on the first Qantas Indian Ocean crossing and sent to Lester Brain from Captain Bill Crowther, who was responsible for managing the new service from Perth.


Flight of the Double Sunrise


Capt. Elmo Jayawardena

"One more wild goose chase," that’s what Dil, my boss said when she reluctantly agreed to accompany me to the southern fringe of Sri Lanka, in search of Justin and his memories of aeroplanes that flew to break records. It was time in the forties, the story happened so many years ago. The meat of the matter lay in Koggala, the little hamlet nestled between the palm fringed sea and the bucolic Koggala Lake two hours drive from Colombo. That’s where I headed this time to chase wild geese.
We stayed a night in Galle, at The Light House Hotel, service par excellence, pampered and petalled with food fit to feed gods. In the morning we drove south, along the Matara road, looking for the turn off to Ahangama where Katuluwa Walauwa is, that’s where Justin held fort. Justin’s family had been the Lords of Katuluwa for centuries, the usual father to son and grandson heritage, the change of role could be traced back to the Portuguese times when the vice royal in Goa gifted this land to Justin’s ancestors. Well, that’s another story, I’ll come back to it some other day.

Catalina airborne for over 28hrs approaching Koggala

As for now, it is long forgotten aeroplanes and Koggala Lake and what Justin remembered to tell me to tell the world.

On one side as we drove was the sea, cobalt blue with white form crested waves, rushing and gushing to break on the granite boulders that stood like sentinels. On the other side we passed the Koggala airfield where I had landed "Tiger-moths" in my fledgling days as a sky tramp. Years before this small airstrip came, the lake had been a hallmark in aviation history. There were grand ancient aviators who took-off and landed from Koggala Lake. Most of them are now dead and buried, and so are their aeroplanes, all scuttled at sea after the war. Only one replica is embalmed in a museum in New Zealand. What is left of the story now are scant reminders, scratches of aviation history that prop up now and then when clowns like me scuttle back down memory lane chasing moonbeams to bring forgotten fairy tales to light.


The boat was a ramshackle relic that had seen better days. It had faithfully served some fishermen in the by gone years and now having suffered its share of the sea’s battering and bashing had been pastured to strut up and down the mellow lake. The once colourful paint job has peeled and burnt with time and has now become a faded mix between blue and green. Even the planks showed signs of rot where the wood cracked and grinned from above the waterline. The fifteen hp engine coughed and cried as we crawled our way across the Koggala Lake under the scorching noonday sun.

Justin directed the boatman and did finger pointing navigation whilst rattling to us the forgotten sagas of the lake. "That’s where they made Gam Peraliya," he announced with glee showing a house where they filmed Lester James’ immortalized movie. "That’s Madol Duuwa," the island lay to windward, green and silent in its pastoral beauty, known well among school children who read Martin Wickremesinghe’s literary classic. Diagonally opposite Madol Duuwa was the little airfield I mentioned before, located on one corner of the lake, the black serpent like tarred runway dividing the lush green and a national flag fluttering from a tall white mast advertising the Air Force ownership. Far away on the North side was Madin Duuwa, now renamed Bird Island to give a touristic twang to benefit the dollar donors. The Koggala Lake lay in its vast splendour, sleepy and silent, as beautiful as it has ever been.

The boat spluttered to pass a small island of rocks, "This is where the windsock was," Justin explained. We rounded the rocks and faced the longest stretch of the lake extending beyond two miles. "This is where they started the takeoff run," said Justin who as a thirteen year old kid has seen them all. "We spent our holidays in the Bird Island and watched the aeroplanes take off," he drew from memory and gave his eyewitness testimony. "They raced on the water a long distance and lifted off and climbed away barely skimming the tree-line at the far end," Justin reminisced.

I stood on the boat and stared. This here then was the water runway of the Koggala Lake. The exact place where some Captain synchronised his gyros, tested controls, pushed his thrust levers and revved his engines to go. I’ve done the same a thousand times in thousand runways. But that is nothing. This would have been all so different. The sheer romanticism alone was something the pilot in me could barely imagine in my wildest dreams. What are modern heavy jets and neon lighted runways? This here was the "real-deal," the incomparable beauty of flight transformed into reality by men who dared to buck the odds and perhaps became half birds themselves in the execution of their indomitable task. The water here was where they took off in their cumbersome seaplane on its long journey from Koggala Lake to Swan River Perth on the West Australian coast. 28 hours of non-stop flying on a Catalina Flying boat, flown by Qantas Imperial Airways pilots, the longest leg of Qantas’ link flight between London and Sydney, in the war torn years of the forties. The flight was so long that the passengers saw the sun rise twice whilst being strapped to their seats. That is how the name "flight of the double sunrise," came about and entered Koggala to the record books in the world of aeroplanes.

Justin remembers everything, event and detail of a forgotten saga. "It was war time," he recalled. "My father was the Mudlier, the highest local official for the Koggala area in the British Colonial administration. The orders came from his superiors, all the villagers residing within a radius of five miles from the Koggala Lake were ordered to evacuate their homes and leave within 24 hours," Justine detailed.

No one could protest, this was "Rule Britannia," time. Justin’s father was to see that no one remained in the vicinity of the Koggala Lake. By noon the next day no one remained. The lake went silent; the fishermen packed their measly mote and went away to the unknown. Justin’s father was allowed to remain; he was the big boss representing his bigger White bosses. It was just to make sure no one returned.

That’s when the Royal Air Force came to take over the Koggala Lake, to demarcate the water runway, fix the windsock and prepare it to accept the long flying seaplanes.


It was 1942; the Japanese were occupying the Malayan peninsula. The Qantas Imperial flight, London to Sydney had lost its refuelling point of Singapore between Calcutta and Perth. The flight had to be kept, the link maintained at any cost. An alternate route had to be found. Sri Lanka was the best bet and that too if possible the southern most tip to take maximum advantage to minimise the distance to the Australian coast. Hence the mapmakers took their protractors and their slide rulers out and made their calculations, Koggala to Perth — long and dangerous, but possible, that’s when Justin’s father got his orders to evacuate the fishermen.

There were five Qantas aeroplanes that flew this route. They were all named after the stars; Antares, Rigel, Spica, Vega and Altair, magnificent luminaries of the Milky Way. The names were apt as these were the main stars by which the aeroplanes deduced their celestial navigation. That was the only form of directions available as radio silence had to be maintained from Koggala to Perth. Japanese fighters were dominating the skies over the Indian Ocean. The Qantas machines were 16000 kg Catalina Flying boats with two Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp piston engines of 1200 hp. They cruised at 98 knots per hour and were fitted with extra fuel tanks to last the impossibly long leg. The 5652 km journey lasted an average of 28 hours and when winds were unfavourable it dragged to more than 30 hours, the longest being an astounding 32 hours and 9 minutes. This is the longest non-stop regular passenger flight ever attempted.

The first flight came from Perth and landed in Koggala on the 30th of June 1943 under the command of Captain Russell Tapp. The last flight was on 18th July 1945. The aeroplanes carried 3 passengers and 69 kg of mail. 271 crossings were made carrying 648 passengers; each passenger was given a certificate illustrating their membership to "The Rare and Secret Order of the double Sunrise". In all its two-years of operation, the star named Catalinas flew the Indian Ocean facing every possible aviation hazard. Yet they had the unequalled proud record of ending the enormous episode without a single mishap or accident.

In aviation terms it was a phenomenal feat of absolute skill and meticulous preparation performed by pure professionals who obviously knew what they were doing.

Out there to Swan River, that’s where our wild goose chase next took us. The memories of these unique flights are better kept on the Australian shore. There is a plaque inserted in a granite boulder, placed there by Qantas, on the east bank of the river, in loving memory of their historic flights flown during the war years. People stop by, grandfathers pointing fingers and explaining to grandsons what they knew or heard about the long record breaking aeroplanes that took off and headed to a little known lake in an unknown place called Koggala.

As to our end, there is no written evidence for the interested to read nor plaques inserted to granite to stand beside and take photographs. The Grandfathers here are dead and the Grandsons may have no interest. Years have rolled and time has reduced the once renowned water airfield from magical to the mundane. Only the fishermen are there, in their dugout canoes baiting their fish and they know nothing of star named aeroplanes that landed and took off on their beloved lake.
But then what are Qantas plaques on granite boulders compared to Justin?

The expert sits there at Katuluwa Walauwa, his ancestral home from where his father ruled the hamlet. Here is the verbal evidence, honest and accurate, Justin’s unvarnished sentiments recited by recall, exactly as it happened. Stories of Bird Island and how he stood and watched the cumbersome Catalinas skim the water in their two mile run to lift off, clearing the trees by whiskers as they made their way over the ocean to the far away Swan River in Perth.

The memories are all there, very much in tact, to be described in fine detail. Maybe to answer a question or two, maybe to re-live a moment or a few, about a time when Koggala Lake entered aviation history as part participant of the record-breaking flights of the double sunrise.

Note: Elmo Jayawardena is an Instructor Captain with Singapore Airlines on their 747 fleet. He is also the Founder/President of AFLAC International, a humanitarian organisation working to help the poor in Sri Lanka.

16 03 2003 - The Island


Air Raid 1942: No One Was Asked to Resign


Janaka Perera

"Colombo and the suburbs were attacked yesterday at 8 o'clock in the morning by 75 enemy aircraft which came in waves from the sea. Twenty-five of the raiders were shot down, while 25 more were damaged. Dive-bombing and low-flying  machine-gun attacks were made in the Harbour and Ratmalana areas. A medical establishment in the suburbs was also bombed."
This was how the Ceylon Daily News reported the Japanese air raid over Colombo 65 years ago today (April 5).

Japanese bombs hit shipping in Colombo harbour, the Ratmalana airport and railway workshops and the Kolonnawa oil installations. The `medical establishment' referred to in the news story was the Angoda mental hospital, which was a short distance away from the oil tanks. Owing to an oversight on the part of the authorities no Red Cross had been painted on the roofs of the asylum. As result the air raiders had mistaken it for part of the oil storage facility. Several patients were killed or injured in the attack.
At the harbour, the raiders bombed and strafed merchant and supply ships. One of them, the Hector received a direct hit. A bomb went down its funnel and exploded in the hold, killing all abroad. The ship burnt steadily for a fortnight. A few miles outside the harbour, the Japanese aircraft found two British Royal Navy cruisers, the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire. The defences of the cruisers proved hopelessly inadequate against the dive bombers and after a gallant struggle lasting nearly an hour the two warships sank. Nearly 440 officers and men went down with the vessels while 1,100 were saved. They included the two skippers, Capt. Augustus Agar and P.C.W . Mainwaring.
The air raid over the city and suburbs lasted about 20 minutes and the number of civilian casualties was 85 dead and 77 injured. The National (then General) Hospital staff worked round-the-clock attending on the injured. A medical team was rushed to supplement the staff at the Angoda mental hospital.
By evening that day entire Colombo city was virtually deserted. Most of the terrified civilian population – including dock workers -fled to the provinces by whatever transport they could find. These included buses, trains, cars, bicycles, rickshaws and bullock carts. Private cars were then far less than now and petrol was rationed under wartime conditions.
During the raid there were spectacular `dog fights' between British and Japanese fighter aircraft. One British plane crashed into the Bellanwila-Attidiya paddy field while another was shot down over the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara.
A bhikku dragged the pilot to safety when a Japanese Zero swooped down to machine gun the RAF pilot who had bailed out. To the civilians these `dog fights' were a thrilling spectacle for they had never seen anything like it before.
One Japanese plane crashed into S. Thomas' College grounds, Mount Lavinia, killing both the pilot and rear gunner. Another raider crashed in Pita Kotte.
Like in the case of last week's LTTE air attack on Katunayake there was much controversy over the why the RAF Fighter Operations did not learn until the last minute that the air raiders had almost reached the city. This was despite Squadron Leader - later Air Commodore - Leonard Birchall of the Royal Canadian Air Force (413 Squadron) having radioed the Defence Authorities here of the approaching Japanese naval fleet, before the enemy captured him and his crew after shooting down his Catalina flying boat, which was on a routine patrol from the sea plane base at Koggala, the previous day.

Ceylon airfields - 1940

According to Michael Tomlinson (author of The Most Dangerous Moment)who was RAF Station Intelligence Officer at Ratmalana and later at China Bay , the carrier-based Japanese planes were over Galle by 7.15 a.m. and flew on up the coast for more than half an hour at a height of some 8,000 feet. Whether radar picked up the enemy or not was immaterial, for the RAF Hurricane fighter aircraft could have been given an half an hour's adequate warning with merely visual aids.
"It was said that watches were being changed at the crucial moment and the radar had gone unmanned for sometime. Furthermore, since no one realized the great range of the Japanese aircraft, the radar men seem to have clung to the view that their carriers would need to approach much closer and the attack would most likely develop much later in the day. With standby at the aerodromes at the early hour of 4 a.m. such a situation is scarcely credible. The Air Officer Commanding, Air Vice-Marshal d' Albiac, was aghast at the situation. `I shall never get over this,' he was to say later." (The Most Dangerous Moment)
In fact, the first attack wave of Japanese planes took off in pre-dawn darkness (30 minutes before sunrise) from the aircraft carriers, Akagi, Hiryu and Soryu, moving about 200 miles South of Sri Lanka. The first attack wave comprising of 36 fighter planes, 54 dive bombers and 90 level bombers were led by Captain Mitsuo Fuchida of the Imperial Japanese Naval Air Force. He was the same officer who led the surprise air attack on the American Fleet in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941, heralding Japan's entry into the world war.
After Fuchida and his aircrews returned to the flagship Akagi a second-wave dive bomber group led by Lieutenant Commander Egusa took off to attack the two British cruisers, the ill-fated Cornwall and the Dorsetshire.
The Jap dive bombers scored hits with close upon 90 percent of their bombs – an enviable rate of accuracy when considering the windless conditions, according to Fuchida (Midway: The Battle that doomed Japan in Five Fateful minutes)
Four days later, on April 9, the Japanese struck again - this time at Trincomalee, home base of the British Eastern Fleet. According to Tomlinson, 125 Japanese bomber planes and fighter aircraft took part in the attack. He says that the thunder of their engines were audible for miles. Responding to a radar warning, 15 RAF Hurricanes took off from China Bay aerodrome and its satellite at Kokkilai to meet the enemy. The battle raged from 22,000 feet down to 8,000 feet. It was an unequal battle with a total of 21 British planes (Hurricanes and Fulmars) versus 125 Japanese aircraft. Ten Hurricanes and one Fulmar were lost in the dog fights.
As the attackers came over the Trinco Naval Base, the Ceylon Garrison Artillery immediately put up a heavy ack ack barrage but many of the raiders flew through the flak.

Referring to the Trinco attack Capt. Fuchida says: "Despite this opposition (defensive action) our dive bombers found numerous carrier-type aircraft lined up on the apron of the field and quickly set them ablaze. Low level bombers carrying 800 kilogram bombs concentrated on airfield installations and naval base facilities. One of the targets, a munitions depot, went up in a spectacular display of fireworks."
During the Trinco raid a Japanese reconnaissance plane reported the sighting of two British Naval vessels – one an aircraft carrier ( Hermes) and the other a destroyer (Vampire) – heading south, some 80 miles off Trincomalee. In response Japanese dive bombers plummeted from the sky in devastatingly accurate attacks leaving no chances for the two ships. Hit after hit wrecked the vessels, which were unable to retaliate because the planes from the Hermes had been dispersed for Sri Lanka's defence. Both warships went to the bottom.
Tomlinson describes how one Japanese flyer deliberately crashed his plane into one of the British Navy's giant fuel tanks just north of China Bay aerodrome.
Inside the aircraft were three Japanese – Shigenori Watanabe, Tokya Goto and Sutomu Toshira. After carefully circling the area they plunged unerringly into the tank igniting their own funeral pyre. The resulting fire lasted seven days. Parts of the aircraft's engine and the flattened remains of the fuel storage tank have been placed in a barbed wire enclosure 1 ˝ km from the turn off at the 4 th mile post on the Trincomalee-Habarana Road.
Over 700 lives were lost in the Trinco attack.
When the Japanese finally withdrew from the Indian Ocean they left behind 35 aircraft and their crews (from both the Colombo and Trincomalee operations), none of whom survived.
But the difference between then and now was that there were no political clowns here or in Britain to make absurd demands that the defence top brass resign promptly over the air raids. Instead the focus was on Birchall's alertness and bravery. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called him the `Savior of Ceylon.' He survived the war and visited Sri Lanka on several occasions. I had the privilege of meeting him at a reception held in his honour at the Canadian High Commissioner's residence in 1999.
 Asian Tribune


A Chance in a Million?


Capt. G.A. Fernando

It was the late 1980s, and we were flying an Air Lanka L-1011 TriStar from Dubai to London. In those days the London flights left Dubai early in the morning. Because of the USA’S Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft flying in the Bahrain Flight Information Region (FIR), we were cleared to a relatively lower altitude of 28,000ft in the Persian Gulf area. It was only when changing over to Kuwait FIR that a higher level could be requested.

This morning’s flight to London was no different to any other. Dawn was breaking over the Gulf and our passage was smooth. Just before we reached the Bahrain/Kuwait border, the Chief Stewardess entered the flightdeck to mention that a schoolmate of mine was onboard, and asked for permission to bring him up to have a look at the cockpit. Nothing much was happening, so I gave her the OK.This was in the pre 9/11 days and Air Lanka being a friendly airline all visitors to the flightdeck were welcome.

After Ravi, my former schoolmate and I exchanged a few pleasantries, we were catching up with the progress of our relative careers. Because our flight’s radio communications were now with Kuwait, my First Officer (co-pilot) proceeded to request a higher altitude from Kuwait Air Traffic Control (ATC). Kuwait then cleared us to an altitude of 35,000ft. While commencing the climb, the subject of conversation between my friend and I strayed to his neighbourhood at Moratuwa, and he mentioned that another pilot, Capt. Elmo Jayawardene, lived close to his home in Dharmaratna Avenue. Elmo had by then left Air Lanka to live in Singapore and fly for Singapore Airlines.

Our old Lockheed TriStar habitually did not climb well after 29,000ft. It could only do about 200ft per minute at heavy weights. We were now attempting to climb to 35,000ft and struggling along. At this point Kuwait ATC called and urged us to expedite our climb through 33,000ft as there was an aircraft on a reciprocal (opposite) heading at 33,000ft. We told them that we were doing our best to clear that altitude as quickly as possible. About a minute after we passed through 33,000ft, a Singapore Airlines Boeing 747 passed barely 200ft below us.

Suddenly an unmistakable voice came through the air (we were operating on the same radio frequency), asking: "Who is that?"

I replied cautiously, "Who wants to know?"

The voice answered: "Elmo here."

By now I had the cockpit overhead speakers switched on, so Elmo’s friend and neighbour marvelled at the happy coincidence which had us crossing each other at over 1,000 miles per hour, so far away from home, in Kuwaiti air space.

Surely, this must be a chance in a million?

04 11 2004 - The Island



How Ramasamy caught the Tiger by the Tail

 G. A. Fernando

The following story starts with time-honoured aviation tradition and practice:

"Throttle set."

"Switches on."


Jinadasa, the mechanic, swung the propeller of the aging biplane and its engine sputtered into life. The D.H. 82 Tiger Moth, manufactured by the legendary de Havilland company in the UK, was a two-seat, fabric covered aircraft, powered by a four-cylinder, inverted in-line de Havilland Gipsy Major engine. It had no starter motor. Our aircraft was registered 4R-AAB. In the open cockpit was Ramasamy ('Ramsay' to all and sundry) wearing flying helmet and goggles. He was ready to depart on a solo flight, clocking time to obtain his Private Pilot's Licence (PPL). With joystick (control column) right back resulting in an elevator-up position, Ramsay proceeded to do a quick engine run-up. The elevator is the horizontal flight control in the tail of the aircraft, its use helping the airplane to climb (pitch up) and descend (pitch down). Holding the elevator 'up' on the ground helps keep the tail down, especially when the engine's throttle is opened, thus deflecting airflow from the propeller (prop wash) upward.

After satisfying himself that all was well, Ramsay waved off the chocks and taxied out to the grass patch between parking apron and runway. The chocks are two wedges of wood to prevent the aircraft moving forward. The Tiger Moth didn't have brakes. Its tires lacked treads too. In lieu of a tail wheel there was a metal tailskid, which provided some resistance when taxiing. This was quite common in pre-World War II airplanes such as the Tiger Moth. While on the macadamized ramp there was minimum braking action until the airplane reached the grass, where the tailskid dug in and provided sufficient resistance while the engine worked against this, thus providing some degree of speed control. In other words, if the engine was then throttled back to idle power the Tiger Moth would stop. If the pilot wanted to turn left or right on the ground, he applied rudder (the vertical part of the flight controls on the tail) to the left or right, using the rudder bar with his feet, opened the throttle, and prop wash did the rest to effect the turn.

The other trainee pilots of the Flying Training School, seated in front of the hangar, watched the aircraft taxi out for takeoff. This was the usual routine, as there was a maximum of two or three aircraft available for training purposes, and with the training sequence conducted strictly on a 'first come first served basis', there was a lot of idle waiting around for a turn to fly, lolling in cane chairs, swapping flying stories, and drinking tea. Some of us who had our own transport would be the 'early birds', enabling us to enter our names in an authorization book ahead of those who were at the mercy of the Ceylon Transport Board bus services before facing a long walk along New Airport Road to reach the hangar, only to receive a later flying slot.

Soon, Ramsay and his Tiger Moth disappeared from sight, behind the terminal building. He would now have to taxi farther past the control tower toward the Air Ceylon hangar, then turn around and, after a quick Before Takeoff check, open full power, trundle down the turf, and take off in front of us. We watched him go and, with critical eyes, observed his takeoff and initial climb technique. It would be at least another half-hour before the next of us could take our turn in the Tiger Moth. So, what better way to kill time than to adjourn to the 'CAD's Canteen' for a cup of tea and a slice of kalu dodol? For the curious, 'CAD's' was the Civil Aviation Department's canteen run by Jayatissa Mudalali.

It was while we were sipping our tea that we heard the Tiger Moth fly overhead. But its engine throttle was being pumped back and forth, the power being alternately opened and reduced to idle revs. This is usually done to attract the attention of someone on the ground. Sure enough, when we rushed out of the canteen, he was doing right-hand turns, overhead the airfield, indicating that there was an emergency. So we hurried back to the Flying Training School hangar to try discovering what this was all about.

We could see Ramsay turning on to final approach to attempt a landing on the grass. He touched down nicely on the two main wheels, but when he tried to lower the tail the Tiger got airborne again as the angle of attack of the wing increased without sufficient airspeed having been washed off. The spectators also noticed that the engine was ticking over at faster than idle speed. In fact, the power was low enough for Ramsay to 'wheel' the aircraft with its tail parallel to the ground, but he was unable to stop, as he could not get the tailskid back on the grass. So, he traversed the entire length of the turf, ballooning up and down like a yo-yo, and when he eventually ran out of grass, he opened the throttle and climbed away.

This happened about two or three times. By now the 'cane chair experts' realized that something was preventing Ramsay from closing the throttle completely. But because he could get his wheels on the ground, all Ramsay had to do was to 'wheel' the Tiger in and cut the engine by switching off the two impulse magnetos. Thus, when the engine stopped, the tail would come down when it ran out of airspeed and the airplane would gradually come to a halt. But there was no way of communicating this to Ramsay as the training aircraft were not radio-equipped.

The flying school's Duty Instructor for the day was Capt. S. Baskaran Raju, who was also the Duty Air Traffic Controller. He too had come out on to the control tower balcony to investigate Ramsay's strange flying behavior. By now the flying school trainees had also walked over to the control tower. Someone had told us long ago how 'Papa' Duncanson (Flt. Lt. Robert 'Dunkie' Duncanson), the late and legendary Chief Instructor of the Ceylon Aero Club, had once got trainees to grab hold of a Tiger Moth that was unstoppable and going in circles under similar circumstances. But each time Ramsay touched down he was travelling too fast for that.

Suddenly it occurred to someone that another pilot could get airborne in a second aircraft and signal to Ramsay that he should switch off the mags. Upali and Vaji yelled across to Capt. Raju, on the balcony, for verbal permission, which he readily granted. The second aircraft, a Hindustan Pushpak high-wing monoplane, was also in the circuit area, being flown by a young Englishman who was carrying out takeoff and landing practice while blissfully oblivious to the drama that was unfolding around him both in the air and on the ground. The next time the English chap landed, Upali and Vaji ran toward the Pushpak, literally dragged the bemused pilot out-leaving us to do the explaining-and got airborne as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Ramsay was south of the airport, somewhere over Borupana Road, and, when he realized that the Pushpak was coming after him, began slowing down with a nose-up attitude. Normally, the Tiger Moth flew about 15 MPH faster than the Pushpak. Not surprisingly to the observers on the ground, the Pushpak was thus seen climbing to a level higher than the Tiger and then diving toward it to gain more speed. As the Indian-built trainer dived past the de Havilland biplane, Upali opened a window and, sticking his hand out of the cockpit, waved it frantically in a downward motion, to indicate to Ramsay to use his mag switches. The two impulse magneto switches are situated prominently on the fuselage of the Tiger Moth, just outside the cockpit, to indicate to the 'prop swinger' helping to start the engine the status of the switches at start-up. Switches up were 'on' and down were 'off'. Ramsay immediately seemed to 'get' the message and gave a thumbs-up from his open cockpit.

Once an aircraft had an engine failure on the runway it became a reportable incident and was not allowed to be restarted.

By now the 'cane chair captains' were seated on the Air Ceylon mobile passenger steps (used for the Dakota and Avro 748), waiting for Ramsay to bring the Tiger Moth in and cut its engine. But they were puzzled to observe Ramsay climbing to about 3,000ft while proceeding to the Attidiya (North Eastern) end of the airfield. Suddenly Ramsay decided to cut the engine and commenced gliding to carry out a dead-stick (power-off) landing from high altitude instead of wheeling the airplane in and cutting the engine at ground level. Everyone was dumbfounded. This was not what was expected of him. What if Ramsay undershot or overshot the patch of grass? Although he was doing 'S' turns to rapidly lose height while traversing minimal 'real estate' below-as taught by his instructor Capt. 'Sus' Jayasekara-he was still quite high when he crossed the start of the grass patch. There was no way he could land on the grass without 'pranging'. Our instructors had told us that a good landing is one that you can walk away from, but could our friend and colleague walk away from this one? The unspoken question was answered for us when, at the last moment, he turned on to the much longer sealed runway to his right and made a safe landing there.

Well done, old boy! Now it was time for recovery action. The old Tiger could not be started single-handedly. In any case, once an aircraft had an engine failure on the runway it became a reportable incident and was not allowed to be restarted. So now the armchair aviators, again with permission from Capt. Raju, started running across the wet and muddy grass to reach Ramsay and his airplane. It was then that we spotted the Pushpak on final approach for its landing. On seeing us, Upali and Vaji could not resist the temptation to fly low over our heads and 'buzz' us. So low that some of us were literally floored. The scene was reminiscent of an enemy fighter aircraft strafing hapless people on the ground!

When we got to the Tiger Moth, Ramsay was still in the cockpit, shivering from the adrenaline rush. We acted quickly to remove the Tiger Moth from the runway to allow airplanes from Air Ceylon and the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) to operate safely. Two of us lifted the Tiger's tail off the ground, above shoulder height, while others pushed. It certainly seemed a long way back to the Flying Training School hangar.

So, where are all those protagonists now? Jinadasa is working somewhere in the Middle East. Captain Raju has passed on; Capt. Sus is enjoying quiet retirement. Ramsay is flying somewhere in India. Upali is a Captain with a carrier in the Far East. Vaji is a Captain with the national carrier. And the beloved Tiger Moth survives in "airworthy" condition in the Sri Lanka Air Force Museum at Ratmalana, the same airfield that was the scene of its escapade with Ramsay.

04 08 2007 - The Island


The Day the World Changed


Capt. G.A. Fernando


On September 11, 2001 I was in command of an Airbus A340-300, flying from Seoul, South Korea, to San Francisco, USA. My First Officer (FO) was of Indian origin, while my relief captain was Australian.

Our departure from Seoul was delayed by about one hour because of a mechanical problem. We eventually dispatched ourselves with just one non-vital defect, which was the direct communication link with our company’s base in another Southeast Asian country. We were perfectly justified and ‘legal’ in taking off despite this defect because the ‘glitch’ was deemed acceptable in accordance with the Minimum Equipment List (MEL), a published listing of equipment faults which, depending on their severity, either permitted us to continue flying or, in the case of more serious defects, demanded that we remain grounded until the problem is fixed. We were scheduled to arrive in San Francisco on the same day that we left South Korea, because we were crossing the International Date Line en route.

Our flight was quite routine to begin with. About four hours into the flight it was my turn to take a break. The augmenting captain sat in my seat and I went to the passenger cabin to rest for a while. As I was dozing off, I was interrupted by a message from the relief captain asking me to return to the flight deck (cockpit) as there was a problem.

The pilots had been told by San Francisco that there had been a crash at one of the Twin Towers of New York’ s World Trade Center and that US air traffic controllers were only accepting flights inbound to the USA, while all outbound flights had been grounded. As the pilot-in-command, I sat in the cockpit auxiliary jump seat. After a short while, we received another message on our High Frequency (HF) Selective Calling System (SELCAL) from San Francisco stating that a second aircraft had crashed into the other tower, and that the whole of US airspace was now closed to all air traffic.

They also wanted to know what are our intentions were under the circumstances. On long flights over the surface of the earth, for example over the Pacific Ocean, we fly what are known as Great Circle tracks, i.e. the shortest distance between two points on a sphere. Pilots must fly a series of headings to achieve this track because of the ever-changing convergence of the lines of longitude. When it is projected onto a flat map, the Great Circle track is shown as a curve and concave towards the equator. So our direct flight to San Francisco would take us close to Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada.

After a short discussion with the other crewmembers, there was no doubt of our preferred destination in this suddenly changed situation. It would be Vancouver. Meanwhile, our company was unable to contact us because of our unserviceable communications system. So we were left to our own devices. By now we had passed our Point of No Return (PNR).

This is a point in time and on our flight path where we have no option but to proceed without turning back to our departure point as we don’t have enough fuel to return. When we communicated our intentions to San Francisco, they wanted to know whether we needed to call anyone to facilitate our arrival at Vancouver, and gave us a discreet frequency to speak on. My first officer was now looking for all the telephone numbers we had to call.

When we called the person at the new frequency we were given, even before we could give her the relevant numbers, she would say "Stand by" and patch us on in next to no time. Apparently they had all the important telephone numbers we required on file - for just such a contingency! The next step for us was what were we going to tell the 300 or so passengers? They were still sleeping, blissfully oblivious to the drama taking place on the flight deck - and in New York, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania.

Eventually we decided to tell our passengers that we were informed that US airspace was closed, but without giving them a reason. We arrived over Vancouver after about ten hours of flying time. We were the last to land. Soon after we landed, Canadian airspace was also closed to all traffic.

The entire airport area was clogged with airliners from the USA. The procedure was for us to disembark our passengers at the terminal building and then the aircraft would be towed to an isolated spot where baggage would be carefully unloaded, in case there were explosive devices within. We were number 34 in sequence. It eventually took us eight hours to reach the terminal building and disembark our passengers.

Throughout, we had to keep our engines running to provide electricity to our galleys so that at least tea and coffee could be prepared for the passengers. But another problem manifested itself. Our generators, which supply electrical power to the airplane, are cooled by the fuel in the wings, and after about seven hours of taxiing, although the ambient temperature was 16 degrees Celsius, the fuel temperature in our wing tanks reached an unacceptable 48 degrees Celsius! So we had to shut down one or more of the engines.

Meanwhile the Vancouver Airport manager was going from aircraft to aircraft; without boarding the airplanes lined up in a taxiing queue, he plugged a headset into the socket normally used by ground engineers to communicate with the pilots before and after departure, and asked if we needed any additional supplies such as water.

To relieve the boredom and tension, the control tower passed us a frequency of a local radio station which gave us a running commentery of the unfortunate events that had transpired on that fateful day. The news of the actual events unfolding was broken to our cabin crewmembers and passengers only during the last hour, when use of cell phones was also permitted.

But even our crew did not realise the gravity of the situation until we finally reached the sanctuary of the terminal building and  saw the footage on TV screens. Naturally, many of the crewmembers were visibly upset. The Canadian Air Line Pilots’ Association (CALPA) had organised a room with tea, coffee, and biscuits, and free call facilities for all aircrews.

After a two-day wait in Vancouver we were asked to fly our passengers out to San Francisco. We were the first foreign airline to land in San Francisco after the airspace closure. Another day’s wait in San Francisco and then back to Seoul. While waiting for our transport at the hotel in San Francisco, a middle-aged lady approached us and said, "You must be afraid to fly now". I couldn’t help but tell her that I came from a country called Sri Lanka, and that the USA never gave a damn about the separatist war that had been raging in Sri Lanka for over two decades, and that in a way I was glad that the USA would now realise that no country is immune to the spectre of terrorism.

Later, my Australian colleague told me that I had voiced my point of view rather too strongly. But I countered by ‘educating’ him about Adele Balasingham (nee Wilby) and her rôle in promoting terrorism against the people of Sri Lanka. He was shocked to learn about the evil deeds of his fellow-Australian!

11 09 2009 - The Island



SLAF Museum, a Nostalgic Memory
It is a magnificent spectacle:


Dhaneshi Yatawara

The ‘Pucara’ - still holding its valour

LTTE missile launchers used against the SLAF.

From the ‘Tiger Moth’ to the ‘Balliol’ and the ‘Auster’, from the ‘SIAI Machetti’ to ‘Pucaras’ and to jets - the wings of the Sri Lanka Air Force that protected our skies since early ‘50s stand with solemn pride, carrying distinctive stories representing different chapters of the Sri Lankan aviation history at the newly opened Sri Lanka Air Force Museum at the Ratmalana SLAF base.

Novel experience

The museum is receiving a large crowd of enthusiastic spectators daily and on the day of our visit over 500 schoolchildren from different schools in outstations as well as in Colombo were present. Most of the children were from primary classes and were peeping into the cockpits, running under the wings thoroughly enjoying and sizzling in excitement in their marvellous world of flying machines!

Year 3 and 4 students of Dharmasena Attygala Balika Vidyalaya, Kesbewa had visited the museum last Thursday and over 500 spectators were visiting the museum during the morning hours alone. “Our children may not be able to understand all that is technical but the museum is a novel experience for them giving a different exposure as many have not closely seen an aircraft,” an English Teacher, A.T.C. Kumari who accompanied the little girls, told us. Another group of primary students from the Yoshida International School in Sapugaskanda were also visiting the museum. “My husband is an Air Force Officer and as he told me I found it very interesting to the students,” said Hansika Perera, the Teacher-in-Charge of the Primary section.

The legendary Auster and the map of its return route

The magnificent Dakota Pix - Iresha Waduge

It is a gigantic source of knowledge to those who aspire to become experts in aviation and aeronautical engineering. It is a source of enjoyment and enthusiasm for all age groups!

The Air Force is willing to share the technical know-how in aviation with students in the higher education stream. “We can arrange lectures with all details, especially for students in aviation if they contact us before hand,” Squadron Leader Rashika Jinadasa said.

Enduring airworthiness

Most of the aircraft are not just artifacts, said Commanding Officer, Squadron Leader Malinda Perera. “They are in perfect airworthy condition. And some aircraft are there in their original condition,” he said. In fact, two Chipmunks, a Tiger Moth, SIAI Machetti and the Centenary-X flew at the grand opening of the refurbished SLAF museum on November 5.

The Bell 47 G-2

The two De Havilland Chipmunk T Marks - fondly known as the Chipmunks - were flown by Wing Commander Shehan Fernando, Commanding Officer of the SLAF No.10 Squadron (Kfirs) and Wing Commander Dhammika Welikadapola, a well-versed pilot of the No. 2 squadron. These aircraft, built by the De Havilland Aircraft Company in England, were designed to succeed the De Havilland ‘Tiger Moth’ powered by a single De Havilland Gipsy Major series 10 MK2 engine. The Chipmunk DBH T Mark 10s were the first aircraft purchased by the Air Force in 1951 and a total of 12 Chipmunks were inducted.

A few of the oldest uniforms worn in 1947 and early 1950s

The single engine De Havilland DH 82, A ‘Tiger Moth’, the great oldie of the Sri Lankan aviation history was introduced to the world in 1937. The SLAF flew the great ‘oldie’, which is in fully airworthy condition at the grand opening day, since her last flight in 1993. Squadron Leader Prasanna Kuruwita, a well experienced pilot of the No. 2 Squadron flew the Great Oldie successfully.

Flying the ‘Tiger Moth’, one of the two existing in the world in original and airworthy condition, was a great challenge to the Air Force. There wasn’t a single experienced pilot in the Air Force to fly the ‘Tiger Moth’. Squadron Leader Kuruwita, who is flying the AN 32 transporting aircraft at present, found it a great challenge, yet he studied the aircraft on his own with downloaded manuals and self experience. “This was a very basic type of an aircraft with a limited number of instruments, no brakes and no rear wheels, just a glider is available to stop the moving aircraft on ground,” Sqn. Ldr. Kuruwita said. Yet, their efforts eventually succeeded due to commitment and dedication. “The aircraft was in perfect condition and the engine operated smoothly,” the pilot said with great satisfaction over his success.

Sqaudron Leader Kuruwita thrilled over his flight on the Great Oldie

Children from Suriyawewa School Embilipitiya, climbing down the Dakota

The SIAI Machetti was flown by Sqn. Ldr. Tharindu Senasinghe and Sqd. Ldr. Chandana Rathnayake at the inauguration ceremony. The SIAI Machetti SF 260 TP is a trainer aircraft which was also used as an attack aircraft. “This is the first aircraft to be used with armaments in the Sri Lanka Air Force,” Sqn.Ldr. Malinda Perera, Commanding Officer of the Museum said, referring to the history of the SLAF. They played a vital role in providing close air support to the ground forces during the first Eelam war. Powered by a 313 kW ‘Allison 250 - B 17 D’ Turboprop engine, the SF 260 TPs were manufactured by SIAI Machetti and first flown in July 1980.

The experimental ultralight aircraft, Centenary X, designed by a team of engineering experts of the SLAF was an eye-catcher at the opening day of the museum when Wing Commander Waruna Senaratne flew it over the Ratmalana SLAF base. He is the pilot who flew the aircraft for the first time in 2003.

The museum not only holds historical records of the SLAF but preserves the golden moments of the Sri Lankan aviation history. The Auster Mk V J/I ‘Autocrat’, a light aircraft built in England, now at this museum made history due to the courage and determination of the great Sri Lankan the Late James Peter Obeysekara! His flight from Marshalls in Cambridge to Ceylon created history as the first solo flight. Young Obeysekara faced difficulties in returning home and his solution was to buy an aircraft and fly home.

 A Chipmunk on display

It was soon after the end of World War II and no air or sea passage was available for civilians to travel. Starting its journey on October 5, 1946 the Auster reached Ceylon on November 13 and had 30 stopovers in its 103 hour and 30 minute flying time including Eastleigh in Southampton, Deanville, Le Buorget in Paris, Lyons, Nice, Tunis, Castel Arch, Mersa Matruh, Cairo, Baghdad, Basra, Sharjah, Karachi, and Ahmedabad to name a few.


In later years, the Auster was handed over to the Ceylon Air Academy and got completely destroyed on March 11, 1971 when it caught fire upon crashing after taking off from Ratmalana airport. The SLAF accepted the challenge in rebuilding it as a static exhibit.

From the SIAI Machettis to Pucaras and to MiGs, Kfirs and F7 - the great warriors of our skies stand in line! The Pucaras were introduced into the SLAF fleet in 1992 at a time when the war was at a peak.

The Balliol with its ‘V’ type engine

Named after the ancient South American ‘Inca’ Fortress by its manufacturers, the Pucara still holds its magnificent strength and power that dealt a severe blow to LTTE terrorism before it gained the Surface to Air missile power.

The significance of Kfirs, MiGs and F7s in the strategy to eliminate terrorism from this island nation forever is inestimable.

The hanger in which the aircraft are exhibited is one of the two first built during Royal Ceylon Air Force era. They had to be removed as the new Bandaranaike International Airprot runway was planned.

After dismantling the two, one hanger was brought to Ratmalana. The importance of having a permanent museum as seen by the Air Force Commander Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetilake was realised when the museum was modernized after closing the old one in 2008.

The strength and the courage of our brave pilots, coupled with the expertise and creativity of the technical and engineering staff of the SLAF are visible in every corner of this fascinating place! Bringing honour and pride to the motherland these ‘giants’ continue to be a living memory to our lost warriors and the wounded.

15 11 2009 - Sunday Observer



In The Eyes Of The Beholder


Capt. Elmo Jayawardena

Come December 2012, there is a centenary celebration of a little known event that set off a stellar trail of aviation in Sri Lanka. The old Race Course was the venue; limited records indicate that a German aviator did the maiden flight in our paradise isle. It was the second plane that arrived on our shore by ship. The first one owned by an Englishman was only for display where people bought tickets to see the flying machine. On record is that Von Hester owned the second plane, whether he flew or someone else did is an unanswered question. The plane took off, glided and crashed, thus recording Lanka’s first flight. It was in 1912 and that makes our nation’s aviation history a hundred years old in 2012.

Celebrations are being planned and celebrations will be held to commemorate the event. Aviation in Sri Lanka is moving. Two million plus tourists by 2016 are not going to parachute down to beach resorts or come paddling out-trigger canoes. They need aeroplanes to bring them in and ferry them out to places of choice. Planes need airports manned by competent people and regulated procedures to meet international standards of safety. This may herald a situation that will demand dedicated professional efforts and certainly not dream-world aspirations and unrealistic boardroom talk. I have also read of the planned aviation hub and the centre for aeronautical training that is being talked about in high circles. Mattala Airport comes in flashing neon while dimmer bulbs light-up the many runways that are scattered around the island for smaller craft to operate to and fro. The lakes too open up; landing platforms for the amphibians that open a whole new dimension of ‘fly to’ probabilities.

All that is good, as long as the skies are safe.

The commercial aspect of aviation is a matter of profit where everyone aims for a piece of the pie. Engineering is a vital link, directly connected to flight safety. Training people to be professionals matter most and should certainly be the aim of the fraternity. Many meaningful methods are minted and placed in classrooms where trainers propel trainees to fit into different roles that oil the operation. These aspects are the prerogative of the individuals and the companies that do aviation business. They run a show that is based on rupees and cents, rightly so.

The question then is who minds the store? What about safe practices, qualification approvals, periodical evaluations and audits that keep the system ticking in the ‘safe mode?’

There lies the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ as without professional monitoring to separate the villains of aviation from the venerated we will only be making a fervent plea for a catastrophic result. No proper regulations, no proper monitoring and no properly qualified personnel will brew a sure recipe for disaster which in simpler terms is called tempting providence.

Let’s look at how we have travelled in this long road of aviation from 1912 to now? The path did have its share of pitfalls and cobblestones. The sheet at times has not been laundered clean in our annals of aviation. Godfathers with political connections saw to it, adding their unqualified expertise to the script. Let’s not take the ‘holier than thou’ label and profess we are perfect. I do know a few scintillating fairy tales; some things are best left unsaid. I have been romancing with aviation here for four plus decades and I sure have seen enough of the ‘seenibola system’ that acted against professionalism. But Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has survived, scarred and dented but survived and will survive, thanks to some people who ride the parasitic tide of interference and stand tall (sometimes injured and in crutches) to ensure the truth remains the truth and regulations are respected. Of course there is always a Judas or two who may nod to the thirty pieces of silver, but the fact is CAA survived and today has achieved a very commendable position in ICAO’s (International Civil Aviation Organisation) ratings of safety compliance.

The last reckoning by the respected ICAO placed Sri Lanka 4th in Asia and 19th in the world ranking in a comprehensive audit carried out to ascertain the safety standards of worldwide civil aviation authorities. It is ICAO Safety Management Systems (SMS) that need to be adhered to which are in annexes that came out of the Montreal Conference where 180 countries became signatories. To give an idea to a layman, Annex 1 for Personal Licensing, Annex 6 for Operation of Aircraft and Annex 8 for Airworthiness of Aircraft spell out some of the stringent checks CAA have to comply with in the eyes of ICAO before they rate. We managed well and reached a high echelon. If at all the CAA lagged a little behind, it was in TRAINING. We are not Singapore, nor are we Japan or Korea. The Civil Aviation authorities of those countries have multiple budgets giving extensive privileges to plan and spend in their quest to train personnel and achieve the best possible results. Ours is a different story; limited funding to compete in international platforms. It takes money.

Training sure is expensive, but if you think it is costly, go try an accident? Finally it all boils down to accountability, airline operators to the CAA, the CAA in turn to ICAO. That is how the skies become safe. We have done well, so says not me, but ICAO.

Recently I visited the CAA complex at Hunupitiya. The new premise is a far cry from what it was before. My recollections go way back to the sixties when I was a fledgling aviator proudly clinging on to a Student Pilot’s Licence. The CAA office that time was located on Lotus Road; ramshackle tables and rusted fans and looked more like the Kachcheri in Kurunegala. The next I remember was the one in front of Cinnamon Grand, far superior to Lotus Road, but the grandness ended there. It was way below the norms of a prestigious aviation authority dealing with international tentacles. The lift alone took a million minutes to arrive and when it came it was filled to the brim. The ‘would be’ passenger had to wait another million minutes for the next lift door to open. Better climb the stairs, if one had perfect vision to see the steps in the dim ascending corridor. That itself was a vision test for a ‘wanna be’ pilot. The rooms were like a pigeon coop, doors leading everywhere and nowhere and some just for show, just like Topol sang in "If I were a rich man." In this building the staff plodded and pondered and worked their best to safeguard the skies of Sri Lanka. Uncomfortable working environment, but job done well.

The new Civil Aviation Office is so very different. Of course it would have cost money. The Southern Highway too did cost a colossal sum. The daily newspapers run a poll on the highway and today 53.3% says it is a waste of money. I wonder how many of the 53.3% opponents drive cars and have reasons to go to Galle? If they don’t, the highway certainly is a white elephant to them and their vote on the poll is sure to be negative to make the tally 53.3%. 1 wonder how many of the people who criticise the opulence of the Civil Aviation Authority Building know what international aviation representation is all about and how important it is to come out of the Kachcheri look and make it appear professional? If we are the 4th in Asia, let’s look that way too.

Stones will be cast and mud will be slung; to laugh at men of sense has always been a privilege of fools. Like in most places ‘three bags full’ stooges connected to political demigods do exist in aviation high places and nod heads till their necks break. Civil Aviation Authority I am sure also have their class acts that need correction. But amidst all this tomfoolery of power games, aeroplanes fly and safety has to be maintained. 100 years of aviation in Sri Lanka saw the survival of the Sri Lankan sky. In 1997, we were black marked so badly by the ICAO that we were found guilty of 197 faults in the totality of aviation safety. Today in 2012, we have climbed an almost impossible ladder of achievement and stand proud on the 4th rung of Asia and the 19th rung of the world.

Over to you Sir, The Director General of Civil Aviation Authority. You have the qualification, you have professionally competent people, an opulent office and a hard earned Asia’s number four reputation to maintain. Better buy a few brooms too Sir, there could be a Brutus or two loitering around and a few dead-wood pedestrians masquerading in expert clothes. You need to sweep them off your floor to keep the premises clean.

Let’s celebrate 100 years of aviation that began in the Race Course in the December of 1912. Let us ensure the traditions of safety and regulations are respected and adhered to. Let that be so in spite of interfering winds that blow on CAA from ‘who knows where.’ Let them not back and veer and become monsoons to ruin everything.

Two million plus visitors need the Sri Lanka’s skies to be safe.

19 08 2012 - Sunday Island




The Genesis of Airmail Service in Ceylon (1928-1938)

Dr. Srilal Fernando

The latter half of the nineteenth century saw a rapid development of sea mail services to cater for the ever growing need of the colonies. This continued into the first part of the twentieth century. In the 20s and 30s the golden era of steamship travel, sea mail still continued as the preferred mode for carriage of mail to and from Ceylon.

Thereafter, developments in aviation provided a more rapid medium for the transfer of mail.

It is interesting to note that the first carriage of mail by air occurred in India. Sir Walter Wyndham R.N. was invited by the Government of India to show airplanes at an exhibition in Allahabad. Wyndham was approached by the clergyman in charge of the Holy Trinity Church, Allahabad, to carry mail as a fund raiser for a church project. The Post Master General approved the idea and on the 20th February, 1911 the first consignment of letters was flown by the pilot, a Frenchman Mons. Pecquet from Allahabad to Aligah, across the Ganges. A surcharge of 6 annas was made and a special postmark was applied.

When Wyndham returned to England he set about organising an Airmail Service in the United Kingdom. The first ever Airmail Service in England was on the 9th September, 1911 which coincided with the coronation of King George V.

In Ceylon a pigeon post was commenced on the 24th September, 1850 by the Ceylon Observer from Galle to Colombo. Steam ships called in at the port of Galle bringing the London newspapers. Commercial & Political news was printed on flimsies and attached to the leg of the pigeon. These were received in Colombo in time for publication in the newspapers.

The earliest Airmail services to and from Ceylon made use of the connections with overseas airways. Mail was carried by sea mail to various ports to connect with the respective Air Service.

In 1928 letters were sent to Fremantle in Australia to connect with the Perth to Derby and the Charleville to Camooweal air routes. A special prepaid letter rate was applied in addition to a 3d per half ounce special air fee collected on delivery. Letters to the US connected with the New York to San Francisco and New York to Dallas air routes. In 1929 letters to Central Europe and South America were accepted connecting to the service provided by Air France.

The main route however was to London. Imperial Airways had established an air route from Marseilles to London in the summer. In the winter, mail reaching Marseilles was sent by air to Paris and then to London by rail. This route was in operation for a very short time and collectors consider covers carried on this route as a rarity.

In April, 1929 Imperial Airways established the London-Karachi route. Mail from Ceylon utilised this service with the first acceptance being on 22nd June, 1929. The mail reached Karachi by sea and from there onto the United Kingdom. However letters reached their destination in 14˝ days, a saving of only 1˝days over the sea route.

In 1932 Tata Sons of India obtained a licence to extend the service from Karachi to Madras (now Chennai). Tata Sons Ltd became Tata Airlines the forerunner of Air India. Thus another faster service for airmail from Ceylon was available. Two rates were in force one for the slower service by which air mail letters were conveyed by rail and sea to Karachi and thence by air, and the more rapid method to Madras by ferry and rail and thence by air. This service continued till 1936 after which all air mails were sent to Madras for onward connections.

Connections with other services also developed. On 14th March, 1931 a mail service was in operation to Medan to connect with the Dutch East Indies Service operated by K.N.I.L.M. An airmail fee of 20 cents per half ounce was charged. Only 14 letters were sent on the 1st day of this mail service. Imperial Airways inaugurated a service to East Africa. A connection between Karachi and Cairo and then to Mwanza enabled letters from Ceylon to be connected with this service from May, 1931 onwards.
Meanwhile flying as a sport and activity was gaining ground all over the world resulting in the establishment of Aero Clubs. In Ceylon the first attempts were to promote flying by means of sea planes and the headquarters of the first Aero Club was to be at Negombo using the lagoon as a landing place. This initial effort did not bear fruit but the idea was followed up and by 1931 the Aero Club was well established with the Governor General as the Patron.

In 1931 a firm of motor dealers in Colombo organised a flying gymkhana using the racecourse as the landing ground. A "Puss Moth" plane chartered from Tata & Sons of Bombay with Neville Vintcent as the pilot accompanied by Mr. Zubair Caffoor flew in from Manepalam, South India.

Mr. Vintcent flew back to Bombay on the 6th May, 1931 carrying with him a special edition of the "Times of Ceylon" marked First Airmail Edition. Only 25 newspapers were thought to have been carried. He left Colombo at 6.00am, after refuelling and breakfast at Bangalore he reached Bombay at 5.00 pm a journey of eleven hours. This was an incredible feat as the usual sea mail route took 4 days to Bombay. The idea of an airmail service to Ceylon received a boost.

In April, 1932, Tata Airways commissioned a survey flight and this was carried out by Mr Vintcent. A few letters were carried on this flight and only 4 are known to collectors. The cover is endorsed "Preliminary Investigation Flight" in red and carries Mr. Vintcent’s signature and designation "Dy: Director Civil Aviation Government of India". It is postmarked 8th April, 1932.

One major obstacle to the extension of the Karachi to Madras Service to Colombo was the lack of an aerodrome. Discussions took place over a suitable site and in 1934 the State Council passed a resolution to construct an aerodrome on the site at Ratmalana. This site consisted of two hundred and forty acres of land planted with rubber and coconut which was acquired, cleared and levelled.

In 1936 Tata arranged for a special flight from Madras to Colombo to carry the Christmas mail. Connection with the Imperial Airways flight to and from London enabled Christmas mail from the UK to reach Ceylon. Two special flights in each direction were made between Madras, Trichinopoly, and Colombo.

Mails left the UK on December 16th via Imperial Airways to connect with the special flight leaving Madras on the 23rd December, 1936.

A delay occurred in the transit of the English mail and the special flight left Madras carrying only the Indian mail. The return flight left Colombo at 8.00 am on the 24th December and by the time it reached Madras the UK mail had arrived. A second special flight took off landing in Colombo in the evening of 24th December. The second return flight to Madras carried no mail. The return mail reached England on the 2nd January.

Tata & Company issued a special cover for the occasion, coloured blue carrying an imprinted Indian Etiquette and an airplane silhouette. A circular cachet was applied to all mail carried on these flights while the rectangular cachet with first "Special Airmail INDIA-CEYLON DECEMBER 1936" inscribed was applied only to the Indian Mails of December 23rd.

Airmail services rapidly advanced to cover most parts of the globe. The Empire Air Mail Scheme formed a major part of this network covering the British Empire. On 28th February, 1938 Stage 2 of this service was inaugurated coinciding with the opening of the All-Air Service from Colombo. From Ceylon to England in 4˝ days and reply from the UK in 10 days was possible. This was of great benefit for the commercial establishments.

This more efficient service allowed a reduction of 30 cents from the cost previously of the combined sea and air route. Most of the mail dispatched on February 28th bore a slogan postmark "Empire Air Mail – Every Day is Mail Day".
This was how the fascinating story of the Airmail Service in Ceylon evolved.

1. de Silva A L N; Flying in Ceylon in Popular Flying – April, 1937
2. Baldwin N C; The Air Mails of Ceylon in Aero Field – May 1942
3. Field, John; Ceylon 1873 - 1950
4. Communication between H.N. Dru Drury and Francis J. Field
5. Thiedeman, Roger; Sixty Years of Sri Lankan Airmail in Sunday Times – March 1, 1988
6. Personal Communication - Roger Thiedeman & Subbiah Muttiah
7. Extracts from Janes "All the Worlds Aircraft Annuals." courtesy of Roger Thiedeman
8. Taylor, John & Munson, Kenneth; History of Aviation

27 04 2008 - Sunday Island



Aviation Milestones of Sri Lanka


One needs to go back to the dawn of the 20th century, to trace the history of Aviation in Sri Lanka, Ceylon as it was better known at that time.

·       Barely eight years after the historic innovation on 17th December 1903 by Two brothers, Wilbur and Orville Wright, on 12th September 1911, Cohn Brown imported the first aero plane to Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon). It came by ship and was a Bleriot monoplane (single rotor fan at the front) named after the famous French Aviator Louise Bleriot.

·        On 7th December 1912 the first successful flight in Ceylon was made by two Frenchmen George Verminie and Marc Poorp also in a Bleriot mono plane. From that day onwards until 7th May 1931 there would have been some aviation activity but failed to get records probably due to activities to World War 1.

·        The first ever flight of an aircraft in to Ceylon was 7th May 1931 when Neville Vincent, Director of Civil Aviation India, flew from Bombay to Colombo in a de Havilland Puss Moth landing at the Royal Colombo Golf Club. In 1934 the State Council decide to construct an aerodrome and found that Ratmalana was the best area because of it’s convenience to Colombo city.

·         The first plane landed at Ratmalana on 27th November 1935 was a Havilland Puss Moth flown by Lyndalle Bisco, Chief flying instructor of Madras Flying Club.

·         In July 1936 the Ceylon Aero Club was established at Ratmalana. Aircraft operated were DH60 Moth, DH 82 Tiger Moth, BA Swallow and Moth Minor.

·         The first Empire airmail scheme was operated from Ratmalana to India by a WACO biplane by Tata Sons of India by end of February 1938.

·         1943 - 46 – After the fall of Singapore to the Japanese, Qantas Empire Airways operated a nonstop service from Perth in Western Australia to Koggala Lake using Catalina twin-engine flying boats. This held the record for the longest nonstop commercial service in the world with a sector length of 28 hours. This service connected with land plane flights to Karachchi where Imperial Airways continued the flight to London. This provided a vital link between UK and Australia. Later Liberator and Lancastrian land planes replaced the Catalina. First From Ratmalana and then from the Royal Air Force base in Katunayake.

·       The Department of Civil Aviation was set up under the Ministry of Transport in 1946. Ratmalana was taken over by the newly formed authority for civil operations.

·         In early 1947 the ministry of Transport and Works bought three DC-3s from India for the Dept of Civil Aviation. They were named Sita Devi, Viharamaha Devi and Sunethra Devi. (these flights operated under Ceylon Airways.)

·         In June 1947 the Viharamaha Devi operated a 9 day round trip to London, returning with a cargo of electoral registers for forthcoming elections.

·         August 1947 when floods devastated many parts of the island that the DC-3s were extensively used for relief work.

·         10th Dec. 1947 Air Ceylon was formed in place of Ceylon Airways. Its inaugural flight to Madras taken off from Ratmalana via Palaly (Jafana).

·         On 4th February 1948 (Independence Day) the three DC-3s made a precision formation to celebrate the occasion.

·         In June 1948 the first special flight to Australia was taken place by an all-Ceylonese crew and it was a charter carrying naval personnel. Air Ceylon also did a series of flights to Jeddah during the Haj season. The national carrier was flying to India and Pakistan as regional routes mutual agreements among the nations.

·         Air Ceylon attained genuine international status in 1949 when it entered into a partnership with ANA (Australian National Airways) a domestic outfit. Two DC-4 Sky masters were operated (Laxapana and Ratmalana) Colombo - London via Bombay, Karachchi, Cairo, Tel Aviva and Rome. Later services extended to Sydney with stop in Singapore and Jakarta.

·         After dropping Singapore flights, in November 1955 ANA relinquished its 49% stake holding and absorbed the two DC-4s into their domestic service. Air Ceylon had no choice except returning to its former status of a domestic and regional carrier.

·         In February 1955 there was a introduction of a local nature. Capt. Rex De Silva through the Ceylon Air Academy inaugurated internal flights to Minneriya and Trincomalee using two twin engine Dragon Rapid biplanes of wood & fabric.

·         In February 1956 Air Ceylon returned to International routes with its new partner KLM, using two Lockheed 749 constellations supplied by the Dutch carrier. The airline operated Colombo, Bombay, Karachchi, Bahrain, Cairo, Rome, London and Amsterdam on its Sapphire service. The aircraft were painted in the distinct red and yellow colours of Air Ceylon.

·         KLM upgraded the 749 Constellations with Lockheed Super Connies in November 1958 and these were used to operate International routes and were replaced by Lockheed 188 Electra turboprop aircraft from KLM later on. Meanwhile Air Ceylon’s domestic routes were expanded to Gal Oya (Ampara), Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Anuradhapura.

·         In 1962 International services with KLM terminated and a new pooling agreement was signed with BOAC which later became British Airways. They operated Comet-4s. The difference between this and the previous arrangements was that the planes remained in the BOAC livery with a peel off sticker being fixed over the letters BOAC when operating for Air Ceylon. These were subsequently replaced by VC -10s.

·         In 1964 Air Ceylon’s first very own turbo-prop “Avro” HS748 was introduced followed by a French built Nord 262 in 1967. Two years later Air Ceylon made a big leap into the jet era by purchasing a H.S.Trident IE Tri-jet extending regional services to Sharjah in the U.A.E. A second Avro was purchased in 1975.

·         In 1972 Ceylon became a republic. That year also marked the termination of the Air Ceylon/BOAC arrangement. However in 1971 Air Ceylon’s fourth partner UTA had a already entered into an agreement and on International routes.

·         In 1979 Air Ceylon bought the DC8 and operated it with a 100% Ceylonese crew. In 1979 Air Ceylon was dissolved. The remaining 2 DC-3S and the HS 748 were taken over by the Sri Lanka Air Force. The airframe of the Trident was stored at Katunayake.

·         On 1st Sept. 1979 the new national airline Air Lanka was inaugurated with managerial & technical assistance from Singapore International Airline (SIA). They also provided two Boeing 707-300s.

·         In November 1979 Air Lanka leased a Boeing 737-200 from Ari Tara for regional flights.

·         In 1980 Air Lanka network expanded to Frankfurt, London (Gatwick), Zurich, Paris, Bangkok, Singapore, Kula lampur, Bahrain, Dubai, Bombay, Madras and Male.

·         In April 1980 privately owned Upali Aviation commenced on the domestic route between Ratmalana, Palaly, China Bay and Batticaloa using a de Havilland DH-6 Twin Otter turbo prop.

·         In May 1980 Air Lanka purchased the two Boeing 707s from SIA. In November obtained the first of many Lockheed L-1011 Tristars and subsequently a second was added in 1981.

·         In 1982 UL purchased two brand new L-1011-500 long range aircraft and first of two B747-200s in 1984. The 2nd followed in 1985.

·         September 1994 –UL obtained the first of three A340s. In the domestic operation private aviation companies such as Lion Air, Expo Air, Air Tours and Skycabs were operating Russian fixed wing aircraft and helicopters.

·         In 1995 all internal civil aviation operations were suspended due to security concerns and only Lion Air operated on behalf of the Air force.

·         On 1st of April 1998 Air Lanka was part privatized with Emirates talking around 40% stake with managerial control for 10 years.

·         In July 1999 Air Lanka changes name to Sri Lankan AirLines with the 4th leased A340 arriving from Paris in the new livery.

·         In October 1999 the first of 6 new A330-200s arrived with the 2 class seating arrangement.



How Ceylon was part of a vital aerial lifeline during the dark days of world war II

The Catalinas - daring plan to re-establish the Australia-England air link

The Secret Order of the Double Sun Rise - Qantas and its Wartime Secret

Flight of the Double Sunrise
Air raid 1942: No one was asked to resign
A chance in a million? - It was the late 1980s
How Ramasamy caught the Tiger by the Tail...
The Day the World Changed - On September 11, 2001
SLAF Museum, a nostalgic memory - It is a magnificent spectacle

In The Eyes Of The Beholder

The Genesis of Airmail Service in Ceylon (1928-1938)
Aviation milestones of Sri Lanka



The life of the modern jet pilots tends to be most unexpectedly lonely. . . . foreign countries are places to
reach accurately and to leave on time. Distance is a raw material to work with.

- John Pearson -









©alkva 2011