Wonderful World of Aviation

Fly Me To The Moon

Great Wall of China in Kathmandu

Kudurai Madiri Pona – ride it like a horse. 

Poetry In The Sky

Save The Last Dance For Me

Lest Such Be Forgotten

Magnificent Men without their Flying Machines
Living in the clouds
Ceylon’s first flights
A Hundred Years of Flying
Sri Lanka’s first aviation-related Sinhala magazine
‘This is your Captain speaking!’
The National Flag
'Fun Flying' - A personal experience with Captain Elmo


Fly Me To The Moon


Ive ‘U’ turned back to aviation, this time learning to fly Airbus 320. Now please don’t mix it with the enormous Airbus 380 that the world is going to see in October. That’s the Gulliver, I am talking of the Lilliputian, the twin engine little brother version of the Airbus family. I train with a young cadet pilot who is 21 years old, Udesha from Sri Lanka, keen as mustard, ready to absorb anything on aviation like a blotting paper. Every morning we go to the simulator to learn the magic of side-stick and fly-by-wire and the computerized colour combinations that make modern aviation a new fascination for weather-beaten aeroplane drivers like me.

We get along well, the old man and the kid, he is a wizard with computers and I ruffle my withered feathers and tell him how to be safe in the sky, it is a good combination.

“One day if I live long enough and want to go to the moon in a rocket, maybe you would be the Captain,” I told my young friend.

He gave me a strange look and grinned. Such expressions come when you hear absolute absurdities. Maybe that’s what he thought about my prediction, about him flying spaceships.     

I smirked too in return. I had reasons; very good reasons.

The Boeing 747’s came into aviation in the early seventies. That was a mega story; perhaps the biggest since the Bishop’s boys, Wilbur and Orville crawled into the sky in Kitty Hawk. The entire world was cheering the Boeing Company and heralding the arrival of this colossal new aeroplane. In Seattle they rolled it out of the hanger and christened it the “Jumbo Jet”, coined in revered admiration. We saw the aircraft in magazine pictures and read about the majesty of the machine in newspapers and went into wild imagination trying to make sense of how this humongous ‘flying building’ would stay aloft. The plane weighed 400 tons and had hundreds of miles of electric wires. The fuel alone was 160 tons and the cabin carried 500 people. It was capable of flying across continents at 80 per cent of the speed of sound; such were the credentials with which the 747 was going to revolutionalise the entire travel industry.

Back in Sri Lanka, we too were aviators, but of course mere manikins in a minor league. It was a time we wore younger men’s clothes as the ‘Piano Man’ sang and had a single braid epaulette to give us our pilot rank. We were plodding on old DC-3 Dakota aeroplanes with 20 passengers onboard and one stewardess serving tea or coffee. Our flights were from one end of Sri Lanka to the other and we earned a fabulous monthly salary of about eight hundred rupees. To us the phenomenal Jumbo Jet was from another planet, like a rainbow dream or an ice-cream castle.  

I remember the first 747 I saw. It was a Condor plane that came to Sri Lanka filled with German tourists. I had a grasshopper’s view of the arrival of this giant. We were waiting to enter the runway and take off; a grizzled old Captain and me, in an old DC-3. The two of us watched this magnificent machine’s slow flight; coming low across the sea, skimming the Negambo Lagoon, hanging in the sky with wide spread wings like a jurassic albatross. The huge engines hummed in low power as the 18 wheels stretched and waited to touch the ground. We watched in awe as she passed so close to us, I could almost see the face of the Captain, and then she touched down and disappeared along the runway with shrieking engines in reverse to make a spectacular entrance to the Colombo airport as the first 747 to land in Sri Lanka.

“Young man, not me, but one day you will be commanding Jumbo Jets,” my captain said to me in a rustic drawl.

I looked at him, an old man with crow-feet around his eyes, probably by staring too long into little dials on the tiny instruments of aged aeroplanes. Perhaps the years had made him senile. He was simply minting words in a dream world and preaching mythology to a smidgen earning fledgling who was island hopping in an old Douglas DC-3, trying to convince himself that he too is a pilot.

“Fly 747’s one day,” I whispered to myself; politely returning a smile for his preposterous prophecy.

Perhaps it is the same cynical smile my new-found cadet pilot friend gave me a few days ago when I told him that one day he will fly me to the moon.

That grizzled old captain prophet is no more, he went out of aviation with the beloved Douglas DC-3’s and I did hear he passed on. In retirement he had been looking after a small plot of coconut trees that he inherited from his family. That was many years ago.

I wonder what he would have said if he knew where I finally ended up. How I wish I could turn back the clock and thank him for his prophecy. I’m sure it would have pleased him to know that his once-upon-a-time green kid did end up flying 747s.

The aeroplane I flew most in my career was the lovable Boeing 747. For almost 20 years I romanced the skies with it, took off and landed it in the most exotic places, flying them for one of the best airlines in the world.   

That is how my DC-3 to Jumbo Jet fairy-tale ended.  

Who knows? I might live long to see passengers fly to the moon too. Who knows? It might even be possible that I could afford the trip and sit in a spaceship and ask the stewardess who the Captain is?

I wonder what my cadet pilot friend would say if it was him.

Life, as Gump said, is certainly a box of chocolates; you never know what you get till you open. Maybe a 747; could be a spaceship.

Capt Elmo Jayawardena   


Great Wall of China in Kathmandu


Hang on friend, don’t mock me yet, wait till I finish. Yes I know the Great Wall is in China, but then, there are those who believe otherwise and this is a fairy tale where the Gods came down from Mount Olympus and acted the script in front of my eyes. The story is gospel truth, pulled out of my memory bag, many others to come too, about how I flew VIP’s in aeroplanes. It is funny when I look back now, but it certainly wasn’t funny when all this was happening.  

The VVIPs were in Kathmandu and I was to fly and pick the party and drop them in New Delhi, then head back to Colombo. It was “meeting and talking” time to simmer the ethnic conflict where leaders flew in aeroplanes to meet other leaders to discuss means of bringing peace. Sometimes it was not the leaders but trusted messengers who carried olive branches and drank coffee sitting on fatly cushioned seats  with aids bending to give and take papers whilst a young Sinhala soldier stalked his young Tamil counterpart in the wastelands of the north,  both hell bent on killing each other and sadly, not even knowing why. No coffee, no talk, just aim and shoot.

Let me get back to my story before I get carried away. Yes, the big aeroplane was ready and so were we to head to Nepal. But there was a problem. The Himalayan fog had settled in and blanketed the airport and one look at the meteorological report told me there was no way I could land in Kathmandu. The visibility was almost zero till such time the sun could come out and thaw the fog and that would be at least two hours after our estimated time of arrival.  No problem, “we delay the flight and go three hours later just to make sure.”  These kinds of situations happen so often in commercial aviation and Kathmandu was no place to play Russian roulette; not with all those mountains shrouded in cloud waiting for a pilot’s mistake.   

“No, no, no,” comes the order from heaven. The Drum Major who was running things for the board room was on board to make sure everything went silky smooth. He had been entrusted to lay the Arabian Night “Magic Carpet” for the VVIP travel and go on the flight itself to be around for anything and everything including getting some VVIP butter on his bread. “We must go on time Captain.” “But Sir, I cannot land, it is all fogged up.” “No no no, we will go on time and we will wait there hovering over Kathmandu so the Big Boss knows we have come.”

It wasn’t a request, a subtle order and my job was to fly safe, as long as I had fuel I could sing Ba ba Black Sheep and hover till the cows came home over Kathmandu as long as I had enough gas in tanks to high-tail it to Calcutta, that’s if the fog never lifted.

Off we went, tanks full, flying in a clear blue sky to Nepal. The met man was right, it was all fogged up below 4000 feet, white and mushy, like bombai-mutai and above that we entered a holding pattern to stay flying till the fog lifted. Well, the people we came to pick up knew we had come. Never mind how much fuel we burnt, they knew we had come, that was important, at least to some.  

Round and round we flew on what is called a race track pattern in a crisp clear sky, auto-pilot doing yeoman service. The majestic Himalayan range stood out in picture postcard perfection with peaks jutting out to the heavens whilst the trade-winds aloft were sheep dogging flocks of fluffy clouds against a brilliant blue sky. 

We ate snack meals, full meals, salads and sweets as food was plenty on these VVIP flights. Even the catering men needed to pick a “well-done or two” and they loaded anything and everything that they imagined the VIP’s would fancy. “Raja Bojun Captain, Raja Bojun” I will never forget that description the catering boss gave me before we took off from Katunayake.  Yes, whilst we were waiting for the fog to lift I remember drinking chilled “Dimbul Kiri” and perhaps entering the Guinness Book as the only Airline Captain who was served creamy wood-apple juice in his cockpit. 

“That crack out there can you see?” this was the flight engineer talking to the stewardess pointing to the mountain range, “that is the Great Wall of China.” It sure looked like some broken wall, a split on the hillside. She looked hard as if to eat the wall and then ran out, all excited, maybe to tell the others about the Great Wall she saw.

An hour passed, maybe a bit more, the fog lifted and we made preparations and brought the aeroplane in and landed safely. First part of the drama over, now it was only to get the passengers on board and head for Delhi.

I saw them trickling in, the VIP group, strutting, shuffling feet and waving at new found Nepalese friends, warm handshakes and warmer hugs and it was good-bye to another holiday. Everyone was seated and cool drinks were going around while we waited for the VVIP to arrive to start the engines.  

In comes to the cockpit, the Drum Major, “Captain, when you take off, which side would our VIP passengers see the Great Wall better, left or right?” Man, wasn’t that a googly? Thank God the doosra wasn’t invented. “What Great Wall Sir?” For a moment I thought he was joking. He wasn’t. “The Great Wall of China Captain, whilst you were in the holding pattern the stewardess showed me.”

“Sir, this is Nepal, there is no Great Wall here,” I mumbled.

“What do you mean? I already told the VIP’s you can see the Great Wall after takeoff,” he certainly was bowled. “What am I to tell them now?” He did look annoyed.

Man, I certainly did not have an answer for him unless I filled the tanks again and made a beeline to Beijing and back.  Great Wall of China in Kathmandu, then I must have been Captain Kublai Khan.

Dear reader, I rest my case. What I wrote is the absolute truth.

We reached Delhi safely and the VVIPs disembarked. Some stayed on, to return to Colombo and we flew back. Of course there were Swiss chocolates to eat and chilled Dimbul Kiri to drink, even the leftovers of Raja Bojun was way beyond our normal aeroplane food.

Flying the VVIPs was never a problem, they were always gracious, it was the second string that bent to please the bosses who gave the headaches and saw Great Walls in Kathmandu.  Then there was the third string and the fourth string and a fifth too, all making their best attempts to play some part in the pageant and lead the hurrahs which I thought was the sole reason they were present.   

The Kathmandu crew are scattered today, one is an instructor with SIA and another a senior Captain in Jet Airways and the third after a stint in Japan Airlines is domiciled in Canada. Yes, if needed, I have witnesses to put on the stand; they would never forget the Great Wall fairy tale.

I wonder whether the years that rolled have changed anything. I doubt. It is like watching Charles Loughton as Quasimodo in Hunchback of Notre Dame filmed in black and white and now switching to the Anthony Quinn version. Same script, only the actors have changed, and no more black and white, now it’s filmed in technicolour, wide screen and Todd AO and we the audience as always, clap and cheer.     

Great Walls and Chilled Dimbul Kiri, at least I have stories to tell.

Capt Elmo Jayawardena


Kudurai  Madiri Pona


The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all awaited for so long to see. As the years roll, none would talk of delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a black-board, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and perhaps re write all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.

Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps Luke would too, and this story is about him. Luke of the yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.  

He was from Johor Baru in Malaysia.  His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula.  Luke was named after one of the four gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym I use just to give him some anonymity.  Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumplestiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.

We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College and me as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747.  The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.

His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like a Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job. 

The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.

That’s when I decided to change the tide.

‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.

‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.

“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.” 

That was it. We flew over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the over crowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.

On the way back we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground.  I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem Captain.”

I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hop Along Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying , this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.   

That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.  

The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger too with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said ‘Amen’.

I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me.  Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said

“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.”

One day I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.

Kudurai Madiri Pona – ride it like a horse.  Some flying lesson.

Captain Elmo Jayawardena


Poetry In The Sky


On a bright sunlit afternoon I lined up the big 747 for take off at Singapore’s Changi International Airport. 396 tons of metal and electronics and 379 passengers rolled down the runway powered by Pratt and Whitney engines and lifted off to a bright blue sky, London bound on SQ 320 on the 15th of March. In the Flight-deck with me were three other pilots, heavy crew as we call it when we fly 14 plus hours non-stop, another Captain and two First-Officers. The cabin was manned by 17 charming stewards and stewardesses, many among them the kabaya clad sky queens, the renowned Singapore Girls.

An hour passed, it was lunch time at the back and that’s when the balloon bust to smithereens. The CMIV (personal TV screens) refused to work; they went blank and out flew Rocky Balboa along with Denzel Washington, DiCaprio and Matt Damon. Movie magic on the aeroplane was gone; whatever the fancy of every passenger be, they were going to face 14 Hours of daylight flying with empty screens and no Hollywood heroes to keep them company.

We did our best, called Singapore engineering on satellite phone, reset the system and hoped for the miracle. The CMIV very stubbornly refused to ignite. Status quo - no entertainment onboard.

The cabin crew went to over-drive and the Cabin Chief moved like a magician looking for some world class trick to keep things calm and smother the calamity. But 379 souls were for once not happy. Singapore Girl was struggling; it wasn’t such a great way to fly sans the CMIV. The smiles and the wines were still there, totally inadequate, more like Marie biscuits and Ginger Beer at a funeral wake.    

I had a quick chat with the Cabin Chief and we agreed. Something must be done. The flag had to fly high, never at half mast, this is SIA.

As the Captain it was my call; up in the sky you make decisions, sometimes analytical and at times intuitive, but they have to be made, that’s what they paid me for. I made the announcement and used the best words I could muster. First there was the fervent apology, then came the gist, abstract, unconventional, yet, certainly the need of the hour.

I called it “Poetry in the Sky”

We would have a competition, I announced to the passengers. Two hours to write a poem of the TVless situation and there would be a winner and a runner-up and prices would be given.   

It started slow, like a weed clogged wave and then expanded throughout the cabin. People responded; a lot more than we expected. Passengers were asking for pen and paper and gathering around their would-be bards, combining word and metaphor with the little poetry they knew. Some went at it alone, writing and cutting and chopping for perfection. I made an announcement that I would be leaving the aeroplane in the safe hands of my deputy Captain and walked the cabin. There were Yeatses and Elliots and Wilds and Wordsworths, all competing to be the winner of the sky-high poetry competition.

56 people contributed. One First Class passenger wrote a horrible poem of 4 lines and said to me “I am no poet Captain, I just wanted to participate.” A mother and daughter from raffles class said we don’t need the price, but we love poetry.

Two hours later the poems were collected. The winner was selected and so was the runner up. By popular choice of the participants they both read their poems over the PA system.

Paul Wootton of seat 38B won first prize and Evelyn Jones of 51A won second price.

More than three hours had passed and the damage control was done. The CMIV was forgotten, it was poetry in the air. Such things are possible when you work as a team, that’s exactly what we did, not the class room stuff of ‘talk the talk’ of resource management and ivory tower paraphernalia, this was the real deal, making plus points from minus situations.

I have the poems with me, I said Good-Bye to SIA in June. Along with my wings and my cap and my faded four stripes of braid, I safely packed the poems I collected at 36000 feet. I’ll treasure them and save them. As the years roll and when people ask me about my flying days and fancy details, I’ll talk of the continents I flew and of the cotton clouds and carpet fog, of crosswinds and the rain swept airfields I took off and landed and the many molecules of aviation that spanned my years in the aeroplane world. Perhaps I will tell them of my collection of poems too, of the fabled flight sans the CMIV and how we coped when passengers became instant poets on the yonder blue, replacing the TVs that refused to entertain. 

Capt Elmo Jayawardena


Save The Last Dance For Me


A few months back I was in Hong Kong visiting a well known charity organisation called Crossroads. It was to seek assistance for a project in Sri Lanka. Crossroads has an enormous warehouse filled to the brim with anything and everything; ready to be sent to places where people in need plead.

The store surroundings looked familiar. Then I realised I was standing where the old Kai Tak airport was, now pastured and replaced by the glamour of the new Hong Kong International Airport.  

Yes, I have been here before, many a time at that, bringing jet aeroplanes in to land on runway 13, turning at the famous Chequered Board at 600 feet and pointing at the short runway besieged by the sea. The final turn and approach was made between sky scrapers that stood on either side like sentinels and one could spot the flat residents’ laundry hanging outside their windows.

The Chequered Board was fixed to the mountainside, big board with orange and yellow squares, clearly to say “Turn now, beyond this is damnation”.

That was Kai Tak, surrounded by hills, minimum length to stop and the weather gods playing their fancy games so often that we mere mortals who flew the machines were nothing but puppets on a string.

But we managed; day in and day out to put our aeroplanes down and brake like crazy to make sure we didn’t overrun and tip into the water.

When the skies were friendly it was a thrill to land at Kai Tak. The runway usually was direction 130 (runway 13)  and the wind rolled from the East, nice and steady and we came past Green Island and saw the Chequered Board in front to tell us we have to change direction lest we too got pasted like the Chequered Board on the same mountain. Then came the turn, low and precise to make the final approach, the laundry run, to fly between the buildings and place the wheels precisely at the touch down point to avoid going swimming.

Every time a pilot landed in Hong Kong in the olden days, there was that gleam in the eye. I’ve seen it a hundred times in my co-pilots and I’ve felt the same when ever I made the approach; the accomplishment of doing something right where the demand was high which sent the adrenalin to over-drive.

The typhoon time was another story. The winds sheared, gusted, backed and veered and the rain swept across the field, diminishing visibility. Dark grey clouds hung low covering the mountains and the chequered board was hardly visible. We went in by the leading lights, which were very powerful strobes that throbbed, giving us a path to follow to take us to the laundry lane. All this was with the wind playing wild symphony and the rain pattering down like machine gun fire. Most times lining up on the runway for the short final run was almost impossible and that is where the pilot’s skill mattered, kicking rudders and wagging wings like a mad man playing drums just so that the aeroplane landed and stopped all within that little wet and slippery runway with the sea awaiting with open jaws for a luckless pilot’s mistake.   

I remember my last flight to Kai Tak, in the June of 98.  I left home determined to do the landing. Most days I would let the co-pilot fly, I’ve seen a lot of this airfield and the younger pilots were always grateful for a swing at Hong Kong. But this was my final flight to Kai Tak and I saved the last dance for me, just like the Drifters sang.

The co-pilot was young and he mentioned he’d never landed in Hong Kong. It was a hard call on me. I could not let this young man go and run through a flying career having never landed in Kai Tak. Maybe years later his first-officer would ask about the infamous Kai Tak approach and my friend would have to answer that he never did it.

All in all the deck was stacked against me, there is something called professional courtesy and out went my last dance, “son, you take it to Hong Kong”.

The weather was bad, the winds were howling, and we went in. The young man turned at 600 feet and the aircraft was bucking and jumping and he hung in there like a rodeo kid but that wasn’t enough.

300 feet to go we were pointing at mountains and the field was almost below us and then I took over and went around to the safety of the sky.

One thing I never did in an aeroplane is if I ever took over from a co-pilot, I never gave it back. I flew it and landed it – that was the golden rule, the safe approach.

The rodeo kid and I were now loitering in the sky to await our turn to make the next run. Then it hit me like a thunderbolt, same co-pilot, years later would be a Captain and  when his co-pilot asked him about Kai Tak and how it was to fly in he would have to say “I got one chance and I blew it, couldn’t make the field and the Captain had to take over.” 

There was no way I could crucify this young man’s soul, make him poor as gutter water in a field where professional prestige mattered most.

‘Son you take it in, go and land this aeroplane.” 

That’s precisely what he did. He waltzed with the wind and came through the clouds and turned at the Chequered Board and flew down the laundry lane and lined up the big 747 on the short runway to land as smooth as Mr. Neil did on the moon.

Then I saw the glitter in his eye - Last dance or no dance, I wouldn’t have traded anything for that look.  That’s what flying was all about.

It is possible that my rodeo-kid friend would read what I write and remember. It was all between him and me and the old Kai Tak Airport.

He, I am sure by now is a Captain. I like to think that he too would at times give away his turn to dance just to see the gleam in a fledgling’s eyes. That should be the legacy.  

If not, what would we be worth as professional pilots?   

Capt Elmo Jayawardena  


Lest Such Be Forgotten


In June I did my last instructional flight on a 747-400 with SIA, training a new recruit from Uganda. Pilot training in Singapore Airlines is serious business; the standards are high and the system runs on well oiled wheels that optimise professionalism. I was a part of that team and was privileged to have such twilights when I closed chapters as a pilot. It’s been a very long journey of teaching people to fly, from my primeval beginnings in the early seventies to the last landing at Changi.  

My first job as a flying instructor was on a little grass field south of Colombo where the old Ratmalana Airport was and the craft was a bi-plane, a DH-82, better known as a Tiger Moth. The pay was great, 10 rupees an hour and most days I did 6-7 breadwinners that paid me sixty to seventy rupees which in today’s context equates to one Singapore dollar. To supplement this I flew and dropped flowers at burials that netted 50 rupees per trip. It’s not the money; it never was, it was the joy of flying, sitting in an open cockpit aeroplane wearing an old leather helmet and goggles and teaching fledglings the rudiments of staying aloft safe. Years have rolled and of the Baron Richthofens I taught to fly, some became Chief Pilots and Directors of Flight Operations whilst others command Big Jet Aeroplanes with Sri Lankan Airlines and Jet Airways, flying across continents. Most ended as Training Captains teaching their own brood to punch holes in the sky, the same way I taught them a long time ago, from the grass patch at Ratmalana in a very different world. 

I remember once we got grounded, the wooden propeller of our beloved Tiger Moth cracked. No propeller, no flying, one had to go to the moon to get a replacement. We all had funeral faces and lamented at the loss till one bright engineering apprentice came up with a brilliant idea. The Old Airport had a wooden propeller for display under its arches at the entry point. Could be a Tiger Moth prop? Yes it was and in no time the switch was made, the chipped one went on display and the wall ornament was rotating smoothly on the Gypsy Major engine and biting into the air to roll our Tiger Moth on yet another take-off along the grass strip.

Years later, the beloved Old Lady lost its ability to fly for the lack of spare parts and rotted a while and was lost in hanger junk. I took the propeller home and it sits today pasted on my study wall, the old sun burnt arms of wood embracing the world and its edges of brass in dull shine as if to say “once I too was gleaming.”

At times I sit and stare at this relic and reminisce, recalling the places I flew and the faces who sat behind me, all adding up to memories that make me so rich.  I could close my eyes and feel the wind on my face, caressing with loving care and the azure sky opening to me with cartoon clouds laughing and waving.

Such was my beginning in this wonderful world of teaching people to fly. At the base of it all, it’s the same – be it the ancient Tiger Moth or the high tech colossal 747, the essence is one man sharing his knowledge with another on how to be safe in the sky.

I’ve been truly blessed in aviation. I’ve been a sky tramp going from rags to riches and walked away from a jumbo jet with “myself” intact. Some pilots do dream of what I flew, of Tiger Moths and open cockpits and blue skies above.

As for me, it was all real, I had’em.     

Capt Elmo Jayawardena 

A few years ago I met Brian Christy, less hair on the head more flesh in the middle. He is now a top maintenance engineer in the Middle East. We both laughed and agreed it’s a pity they don’t have big Rolls Royce engines hanging on the walls of Dubai International Airport.   

In any case it wouldn’t be easy to switch them.


Magnificent Men without their Flying Machines


“The curfew tolls the knell of parting ways”, a slight variation from Grey’s elegy, yet so appropriate when I collect my thoughts to write on magnificent aviators who turned sixty and lost their right to the sky. One day we are earning our corn at the top of the ladder and then in one second, we reach the morbid retirement age and the judgment comes like a judge’s gavel, barring us from a place we loved so much, so well, for so long. The pilot simply becomes ostracized from his sky.

The romance is over, it is the inevitable. The time has come to return the uniforms, jettison the sadness and face a new life with shallow satisfactions. No more drawing jet streaks in blue skies, no more bobbing and weaving out of thunderstorms, no more punching holes in carpet fog. The days of shooting gusty rain swept approaches are over and so are the waltzes with cross winds. The often seen sky concerts become a thing of the past. Pastel shades of dawn, amethyst horizons with setting suns, ice cream castle cumulus clouds, mountains bathed by gibbous moons or a night sky powdered with star dust; such would be the unforgettable sights, beauty at its best witnessed from the cocoon cockpits. Never to be seen again, not even to be imagined, but maybe dreamt.

No more will they hear the all familiar litany “this is your wake up call and your pick up will be in one hour”. The midnight vigils are finished, watching CNN and BBC and the meaningless TCM and HBO. No more jet lagged wakes at three in the morning and wait for sunrise to catch a colleague to eat bacon and eggs at Denny’s. It is good-bye to a way of life.

That’s what happens to the pilot at sixty. However habitable the retirement “gold fish bowl” would be – it is not the sky, it is not the pilot’s parlour. The spark is lost or misplaced. No doubt the compensations would always be there, but the fairy tale is over. The circus sans the fans; the spherical deflation of personality is the price the pilot pays for driving aeroplanes to a heart’s content and riding life in “Cloud Nine” for four decades.

The pattern that has been relished for years is hard to pack away. Few outside the fraternity would comprehend the ultimate meaning of a flying life; the pride of the professional, to be better than the best. A matter of achievement coupled with the hard earned respect. It is all about how well the four braids rested on shoulders that carried the authority to command and the responsibility to fly safe skies. The demands were always there, all kinds and in all fields; each one met and dealt with fine honed instincts of safety that saved the day. True, along with the caviar, at times the cutlery clashed; but the best would have far outweighed the least and the totality when added became an undisputed winner to the very end.

Flying commercially certainly is a hard furrow to plough though it seemed routine as the years added on. The competence checks are no cake-walks where performance is demanded to be the best; base checks, line checks and what not. Then there are the six monthly Medical hurdles to jump. That isn’t an easy task either, especially as the aging takes its toll; one had to take care of the systolic and the diastolic and watch the weight needles with a bit of South Beach and Atkins. All this is part of the game where the hidden prices are paid in full measure and most times with compound interest.

Nothing is too much to protect what a pilot loves in life; his flying. It is his Jerusalem, till the walls come tumbling down as the chronology adds to sixty; time to part from the love story, time to take the marbles and go home with thoughts undisclosed like words in a pen.

The best in anything fade in memory; that is to be expected. Such is the fate to be for the Pilot in retirement. The Christmas cards would drop in numbers and so would the phone calls for Pine Tree beer busters. Yet, life goes on and the legacy once founded in the sky remains. The log books of the younger ones have the names and so would the mentions be in bar burbles where their one-time fledglings gather and talk down memory lane. The records that had been written professionally will always be remembered and talked about, no matter how long the years roll. Wouldn’t that be the best and fitting epitaph for the aging aviator?

My last flight on the 747

Let us all be aware that we all retire one day. I write with nostalgic thoughts as you too would one day be on the periphery to say good-bye, long finals with gear down for retirement.

I would like to think that pastured aviators will always be remembered. They certainly have been a colourful lot; from the gods that fell from Mount Olympus to pure professionals who made the game proud, from the grumblers and the mumblers to the ones that walked tall. The sodality had them all and that’s what makes the memories last.

There is not much wisdom in words when it is time to part; but let us recite them, for those magnificent men who turn sixty and lose their flying machines. Let us cheer them for the paths they carved for others to follow, let us laude them for the vapour trails they left in the yonder blue. Let us thank them for the stories they left in store.

More than anything else – let us remember them.

Capt Elmo Jayawardena 



Living in the Clouds


Enthralling hands - on experiences of a SriLankan Airlines pilot/ captain both on and off the air

Ravi Ladduwahetty

Capt. Rambukwelle (extreme left ) after disembarking an Air Lanka flight with the First Officer and cabin crew.

He is a strange temperamental paradox. Despite being an affable disposition and radiant countenance, he has been living in the clouds for the past 18 years. He has to. He is a pilot.

For SriLankan Airlines Senior Pilot and Captain Nimal Rambukwelle, flying has been a childhood passion, the profession being in his chromosomes. His father Anil was Sri Lanka's first Jet Captain who flew the Air Ceylon's DC 3 and Avro and the Trident to Singapore, Bangkok and Chennai.

Nimal was trained at the Royal Air Force base at Begin Hill, Kent at 22 after primary and secondary education at both S. Thomas College and Royal College. He joined SriLankan as a second officer in 1987, promoted as First Officer in 1990 and Captain in 1996.

Ready to fly
Capt. Rambukwelle is ready to fly. He is now at the SriLankan Airlines Flight Operations Department at Katunayake, an hour prior to departure on a flight to London. He checks the weather, the route and the fuel. There is a telex update where the weather conditions right up to London 30 minutes. Then there is the CAVOK check as well. (CAVOK is the acronym for Ceiling and Visibility OK) depicting ideal weather conditions for landing at Heathrow.

There is also a NOTAMS check, another routine check, to ensure clarity of the flight path. Certain routes are embargoed in instances of VVIP movements. (For instance, if President Chandrika Kumaratunga is flying from the President's House to Parliament grounds on Independence Day, commercial aircraft are forbidden to fly that route. There could be such movements in other parts of the flight path as well).

Now it is time to embark. All passengers are seated. All external checks prior to boarding. Then, cockpit checks. The London flight is required to have around 75,000 kgs of fuel, while the Bangkok flight needs a mere 20,000 kgs due to closer proximity. The maximum gross weight of the Airbus A 340 is 260,000 kgs while net weight should be 178,000 kgs. The gross weight of the short distance flight are around 180,000 as the fuel weight is less. It is also imperative that the fuel has to be dump fuel to the landing height so that the aircraft would be at below maximum landing weight.

Then the engine pressure ratios are checked and it varies from the temperature and altitude of the destination. For instance, Katunayake is at 20 feet above Mean Sea Level while Zurich is at 1400 feet. The minimum oil pressure should be 13 pounds per square inch.

It is now time for Air Traffic Control clearance and taxiing. The Airbus A 330 has two Rolls Royce Engines while the A 340 Aircraft has 4 CDM engines. He reaches for the four master switches of the four engines, which droning at speeds at 22.7% of the total, depending on the altitude and the ground temperatures which are computer generated. The aircraft is taxied off the runway at the time all engines are stabilised and between 10 and 30 knotts. Power is provided for take off, climb and cruise.

The aircraft is lifted at the pre-determined speed, based on the performance manual. The pilot non - flying calls the pilot flying when the speed has reached for lift off which is at between 140 and 165 knotts. The pilot flying lifts the aircraft from the control columns and when airborne, the landing gear (wheels) are retracted.

If the captain feels that the aircraft is not safe at the time of take off ( which is Velocity 1) and if the speed of the aircraft on the runway, he would have to continue the takeoff. Otherwise, the aircraft would not have the distance remaining to stop safely and an overrun could occur.

The London route
The 11 hour flight would cruise over the southern tip of India over Madurai and Trivandrum, the Indian Ocean and Arabian seas over Muscat. Then, it is Iranian air space entering Turkey from the East. The aircraft moves towards the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Hungarian capital of Budapest and Bucharest, Romania's capital. It is Vienna in Austria and Germany's Frankfurt, Belgium's Maastrich. Then, it is over the English Channel and north of the White cliffs of Dover towards Lambourne where there will the radar guide towards landing at London's Heathrow International Airport.

Standing outside an A340 Airbus which was on order for the national carrier prior to painting at Toulouse where he was there for training to fly the aircraft.

Emergency landings
There have been three emergency landing in his career. Emergency landings are done and the pilot has to be agile to execute it manually as the computers will show the problem. There was an instance where one of the four engines of the A 340 was unserviceable and the aircraft had to emergency land at Abu Dhabi which was the most appropriate for maintenance. The passengers were disembarked and flown to London on another aircraft while the aircraft was ferry flown to Colombo.

The second instance had also been also on a London flight where there was a passenger suffering from cardiac arrest while flying over Zurich. There was a doctor on board the flight and Heathrow allowed an emergency landing on a priority basis.

Another interesting landing that he made was at the Kaithak Airport in Hong Kong where it had to descend a hill which had the measuring equipment and the Instrument Landing System in the aircraft at a pre-published system. Capt. Rambukwella had to do a right angled ( 90 degrees) turn to the right. If the Hong Kong Airport authorities did not see it due to the low clouds and the heavy rain which is not unusual for Hong Kong, the aircraft would have crashed into the mountain! Otherwise, it was mandatory for the him to start climbing higher.

One of the most interesting flights that he has done soon after qualifying was been a flight on a single engined Cessna 150 from Kent to Toulouse in France with colleague Richard Reynolds, a British Airways Concorde pilot today. The cycle was concluded when he had to return to Toulouse for the training in the Airbus aircraft A 320 in 1992, A 340 in 1994 and A 330 in 1999.

One of his saddest days was during training in the A 340 in Toulouse. It was a test flight which was carried on an A 330 where the pilots aboard that aircraft were to subsequently to train Sri Lankan pilots and Capt Rambukwella had been asked how to reach Kandy. The test aircraft had crashed and the entire crew died.

Favourite pastime
He said that he enjoyed flying to all SriLankan Airlines destinations. Sometimes, he gets bored during the long haul flights. He revealed that what he enjoyed most at that time was filling the Daily Mirror Crossword puzzle!

VIP flights
Nimal has also been flying Sri Lankan VIPs. It has been twice with President Chandrika Kumaratunga to Male on April 11, 2000 and Chennai on April 7, 2003.

Others had been former UN Under Secretary for Disarmament, Jayantha Dhanapala, from Frankfurt. Then it was UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister from London in 2002 and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar from Kuwait to Colombo where both of them had been seated in the cockpit in the instructor's seat.

Genes and Exceptions

Father Anil Rambukwella (extreme right) standing outside Beach Craft E185, a survey flight used by the Survey Department for aerial maps.

As in the case of the Rambukwellas, the national carrier has a series of second generation Captains and First Officers. There are father/ son and uncle/ nephew combinations. It also has the first husband/ wife as first officers, possibly a world record.

The father/son combinations starts with the Nadarajah family where father Panchalingam Nadarajah was the Captain of now defunct Air Ceylon with four his sons in aviation. Eldest son Tajkumar, was a Captain at Sri Lankan Airlines and now in the same capacity with Singapore Airlines. Younger sons Nandakumar and Panchakumar both First Officers of the National Carrier while youngest son Premakumar is Aeronautics Engineer there.

Others include father (Captain) Dudley Ranabahu and son First Officer Sam Ranabahu while nephew/ cousin Rohan Moonemalle (only son of retired Court of Appeal Judge C.L.T. Moonemalle) is also a First Officer. Also father (Captain) Ravi Thambapillai and son (First Officer) Dilranjan Thambapillai, father (Captain) Ranjith Pedris and son (First Officer) Shevantha Pedris, father (Captain) Duleep Vedanayagam, and son ( First Officer) Dinesh Vedanayagam while there is father (Captain) Jayantha Jeevandara and son (First Officer ) Anushka Jeevandara.

The husband and the wife combination is Hemantha and Anusha Siriratne, who are both First Officers. Aviation regulations demand that there has to be at least one captain on each flight and the day that one of them is promoted to the command, (rank of captain) they could navigate the same aircraft as spouses.

There is also another special uncle/nephew combination of former Sri Lanka opening batsman Sunil Wettimuny and his nephew Pravin Wettimuny, (son of the other Sri Lanka opener and brother of Mitra Wettimuny). Of the sons who did not follow their father's footsteps was Capt. Hiranjan Bibile, son of Sri Lanka's internationally acclaimed founder Professor of Pharmacology Prof. Senaka Bibile.

12 04 2005 - Daily Mirror


Ceylon’s First Flights


As Sri Lanka marks its centenary of aviation, Roger Thiedeman looks at the intrepid early aviators who brought ‘flying fever’ here

This month the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) is commemorating 100 years of aviation in Ceylon/Sri Lanka. But the first flight of an aeroplane in Ceylon took place on December 25, 1911. That’s right – 101 years ago. So why are Sri Lankan ‘aerocrats’ celebrating the centenary in 2012? Are they living up to that unkind tag bestowed on SriLankan Airlines and its predecessor Air Lanka: ‘UL’ (Usually Late)? Or is there a good reason? Let’s look at the facts, then you be the judge.

He tried and tried: Franz Oster

Piloting the first aeroplane to take off from Ceylonese soil on Christmas Day 1911 was an itinerant German named Franz Oster. But the story of Lankan aviation did not start with Herr Oster, because his airplane wasn’t the first to arrive on Ceylon’s shores. That distinction went to a Bleriot monoplane similar to the one flown by French aviator Louis Bleriot when he made the first aerial crossing of the English Channel on July 25, 1909. Ceylon’s first aeroplane arrived in Colombo on September 12, 1911, aboard the SS Rabenfels, imported by an Englishman named Colin Browne (not ‘Brown’).

Capitalising on the novelty value of this new-fangled flying machine, in November Browne put his Bleriot on static display at the Colombo Racquet Club, charging visitors for the privilege of viewing it.

Advertisements for the exhibition hinted that the aircraft would soon be taking to its natural element for demonstration flights, and that members of the public could also pay to go on joyrides. But Browne and his Bleriot had their thunder stolen by Franz Oster, who arrived in Ceylon aboard the Hamburg Amerika liner Silesia in late December 1911 with an airplane as part of his ‘baggage’. This was an Etrich-Rumpler Taube, a curious-looking craft, also a monoplane, whose wings and tail had a ‘feathery’ look, like those of a bird – explained by the fact that ‘Taube’ is the German word for ‘dove’.

Early on the morning of Christmas Day, in perfect weather conditions for flying and watched by five or six Europeans plus a small contingent of coolies, Oster’s Etrich Taube started its takeoff run along the Racecourse infield. According to a contemporary newspaper report, it “swept majestically past the interested spectators near the grand-standerising gracefully, and then descending as the aviator gradually increased its height.”

The Bleriot monoplane 1911

But suddenly things went awry for Oster and his ‘feathered’ mechanical dove with 80hp engine. Forced to bank sharply to avoid a wire strung across the course, Oster managed to miss the wire, but the violent manoeuvre caused the airplane to stall and plunge unceremoniously to earth. Although the Taube suffered considerable damage in the crash, Oster escaped injury. Thus ended, albeit ignominiously, the first flight of an aeroplane in Sri Lanka.

Undaunted, and with the Taube repaired, Franz Oster returned to the Racecourse for another attempt on December 30. But that too ended in a crash landing when a strong gust of wind flipped the airplane over and blew it onto the ground. Again, Oster wasn’t injured, but the Taube had both wings broken and its fuselage “hopelessly damaged”.
As 1912 dawned, and yet to make a successful, fully-controlled flight, Oster decided to try again. By early in the New Year, a rivalry had arisen between Colin Browne and Franz Oster, each trying to outdo the other for the honour of making Ceylon’s first successful, totally-controlled aeroplane flight. But for his third foray aloft, Oster did a deal with Browne, obtaining the use of the Englishman’s Bleriot monoplane, which had still not flown in Lankan skies. So on January 18, 1912, Franz Oster took off from the Racecourse in the calm early morning air.

This time he appeared to be in better control, as the Bleriot was seen climbing steadily and disappearing in the direction of the Fort. But returning to land, his airplane clipped a bamboo pole on a building at Royal College and crashed inside the grounds of the Racecourse. Franz Oster suffered a dislocated shoulder and sundry cuts and bruises, and was taken to hospital. That was the last time he flew in Ceylon.

Later that year Ceylon finally saw its first successful and completely controlled flights. This time there were two pilots and two aeroplanes: visiting Frenchmen Georges Verminck and Marc Pourpe (not ‘Pourpre’, the French word for ‘purple’, which other writers have mistakenly used), and their Bleriot monoplanes named Rajah and La Curieuse, respectively. Commencing on December 7, 1912, and almost daily for the next week or so, the pair put on a series of ‘aviation exhibitions’ above the Racecourse, even venturing as far afield as Mount Lavinia. To the delight of awestruck spectators below, they showed off their flying skills with Gallic flair and not even a faint suggestion of the unplanned returns to terra firma that had blighted Franz Oster’s attempts.

Marc Pourpe,one of the two Frenchmen who made the first successful flight in Ceylon

As ‘flying fever’ swept Colombo like an epidemic, the Times of Ceylon newspaper scheduled an event for December 12, with Verminck and Pourpe to compete against each other for the ‘Times of Ceylon Cup’. But during one of his public demonstration flights on December 11, Marc Pourpe fell foul of the British authorities. Having taken off from the Racecourse, he overflew Cinnamon Gardens and Kollupitiya, then headed farther north. But in the aerial vicinity of Colombo Fort he strayed over the harbour and Police barracks, areas that had been ruled out-of-bounds to the French aviators when they were given permission for their flights. Upon landing back at the Racecourse, Pourpe was met by senior Police officials and taken away for questioning on suspicion of espionage. The Police also banned the next day’s ‘Cup’ event.

Ultimately, it was all deemed to be an innocent misunderstanding, but not before much huffing and puffing by the British colonial powers-that-were, with even the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry McCallum, becoming involved. With the Frenchman released from interrogation, the ‘Times of Ceylon Cup’ went ahead the next day as planned, and Georges Verminck was declared the victor.

Despite the unpleasantness of the ‘spying scandal’ for Verminck and Pourpe, Ceylon could finally lay claim to seeing the first successful aeroplane flights taking off from and landing on local ‘real estate’. Therefore, CAASL apparently has some justification in regarding the Verminck/Pourpe flights of December 1912 as the benchmark for centenary celebrations this year. But some aviation-minded pedants may continue to insist that the honour should have gone to the accident-prone Oster instead, and the centenary of aviation in Sri Lanka celebrated 12 months ago rather than in December 2012.

Those differing viewpoints aside, what do we know about Oster, Verminck, and Pourpe? Who were those intrepid fellows who introduced Ceylonese men, women, and children to the wonder of powered flight less than a decade after brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright did their pioneering thing at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903?

Franz Oster was born on January 19, 1869 in Bad Honnef, Germany. After joining the German Navy, he sailed on a naval ship to Hong Kong.
There he left the Navy and ended up in Tsingtao (now Qingdao), China, where he ran a shipyard and established a machine factory, employing some 300 Chinese workers.

In 1909, after selling the factory and shipyard to the German government, which at the time maintained a colonial presence in Tsingtao, he returned to Germany. Learning to fly in his homeland, he bought the Etrich-Rumpler Taube monoplane. In 1911, taking his new ‘toy’ with him, he boarded the Tsingtao-bound Silesia, stopping in Colombo on the way.

After recovering from injuries sustained in his January 1912 crash in Ceylon, Oster resumed his voyage to China. When World War I broke out in August 1914, the German Governor of Tsingtao asked Oster to carry out reconnaissance flights in his repaired Etrich Taube to keep a lookout for approaching Japanese troops. But despite three attempts to get airborne, the aircraft failed to take wing and fell to the ground.

A sketch by Herge of the Etrich- Rumpler Taube with its feathery look


When the Japanese finally overran Tsingtao, Franz Oster was captured and taken to Japan as a prisoner-of-war. Even though the Great War ended in 1918, he remained in Japan until 1920, when he returned to Tsingtao and rejoined his wife and son. Franz Oster died in Tsingtao on July 19, 1933.

Marc Pourpe and Georges Verminck held pilot licence nos. 560 and 1084, respectively, issued by the Aero-Club de France.

Typical of European aeronautical adventurers of the day, they travelled to distant corners of the world and flew their aeroplanes for reward, giving people in those countries their first exposure to the new and exciting invention that was the flying machine. After their ‘aviation exhibition’ in Colombo, the French flyers and their Bleriot monoplanes arrived in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, on December 21, 1912. As they had done in Ceylon, Pourpe and Verminck gave demonstration flights at the Royal Calcutta Turf Club, their displays running until January 8, 1913.

02 12 12 - Sunday Times


A Hundred Years of Flying


Guwan Seeya




A hundred years of aviation in Sri Lanka and what have we got to show? Geographically, Sri Lanka is in a very strategic place between East and West. So much so that in 1944, when an aviation conference was jointly held by the United States of America and Great Britain in Bermuda, to plan out or divide amongst themselves new air routes to the East and West, the Ceylonese administrators confidently expected the air routes in their neck of the woods to go through Colombo, as it was already a very busy and important port on shipping routes between East and West. To their surprise and disappointment the East-West routes were defined further North, across India, via Bombay and Calcutta. Subsequently, it was only TWA (Trans World Airlines) of the USA that flew through Ratmalana to Singapore in those early days.

Lee Kuan Yew, acclaimed as the ‘Father of Modern Singapore’, once said: "To know where you are going you have to know from where you came." So now might be a good time to review the most unfortunate history of Sri Lanka’s national airline, which started with tremendous promise in 1947, and civil aviation in general after independence in 1948.

Air Ceylon was launched by the Department of Civil Aviation in December 1947, using the reliable workhorse Douglas DC-3, or Dakota, aircraft. A group of technically qualified World War II veterans, along with handpicked Ceylonese with work experience at home and in India, formed the backbone of the new airline. The Minister of Transport and Communications, Mr. (later Sir) John Lionel Kotelawala, Mr. L.S.B. Perera, and Mr. M. Chandrasoma, were the wind beneath their wings. Within a few months of its formation, in August 1948 an agreement was signed with Australian National Airways (ANA) to provide Air Ceylon with technical assistance to operate the larger four-engine transoceanic Douglas DC-4 Skymaster aircraft. This was seen to be a less risky option than the fledgling Air Ceylon having to buy two relatively advanced and complicated Lockheed Constellations, which was part of the original plan for Air Ceylon.

The experienced technical staff in Air Ceylon contended that they could ‘go it alone’, without Australian involvement, as the non-pressurised DC-4 was effectively a DC-3 with two extra engines, whose maintenance and operation was well within the capabilities of Ceylonese nationals. But the protests of Air Ceylon pilots and engineers, over the proposed Australian tie-up, fell on deaf ears. In fact it almost turned into a diplomatic incident. For their part, the Australians insisted that they came to teach "your boys" to fly the DC-4s and that it was an act of good faith. In reality, ANA wanted to get involved with Air Ceylon purely to be able to use Ceylonese traffic rights between Australia and England so that they (ANA) could compete with Qantas Airways on the lucrative ‘Kangaroo Route’ between those two countries. Ceylon had been one of the original signatories to the Chicago Convention of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and that spurred the Australians’ interest.

In 1949, Air Ceylon extended its domestic and regional DC-3 services to Bombay and Karachi with two DC-4 aircraft. In January 1950, Air Ceylon began London–Sydney flights with stops in Rome, Tel Aviv, Karachi, Bombay, Colombo, Singapore, and Jakarta. In May 1951 Air Ceylon became a Corporation, with the Government of Ceylon owning 51% of the shares while ANA owned the remaining 49%. Except for two flying clubs, there were no facilities to train young Ceylonese to become commercial pilots. Therefore, the Australians helped to start the Ceylon Air Academy at Ratmalana, as well as a separate internal ‘feeder’ airline using two twin-engine, eight-seat de Havilland D.H.89 Dragon Rapide biplanes on services linking Ratmalana with China Bay (Trincomalee), Minneriya, and Ampara, areas which were by then rapidly developing. This was in addition to Air Ceylon’s DC-3 regional operations.

Although a progressive step, it also meant that it would take longer for young Ceylonese pilots to be promoted on the DC-4 aircraft. In fact, no local flyers were cleared to operate the DC-4s, so the Australian pilots had the international skies to themselves, flying our Air Ceylon aircraft while our own pilots were confined to internal and regional services.

Soon, Air Ceylon faced competition from British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and TWA, who had also extended their flights through Colombo using more advanced aircraft. BOAC was using the de Havilland Comet – which was a pressurised airplane and also the world’s first jet airliner – while TWA operated the four-engine Lockheed Constellation, another pressurised aircraft built to compete with Pan American Airways at the behest of the eccentric millionaire Howard Hughes who was then a major stakeholder in TWA. The unpressurised DC-4 was no match for the Comet and Constellation, and by the summer of 1953 all of Air Ceylon’s international DC-4 operations had ceased. ANA too was facing problems in Australia, probably because they had overstretched themselves. They were reduced to a sleeping partner while the Ceylon Air Academy and Air Ceylon operated their internal and regional services, respectively. 

The situation continued until February 1, 1956, when Air Ceylon entered into another partnership with KLM-Royal Dutch Airlines, who bought out ANA’s shares. The Chairman of Air Ceylon was Mr. J.L.M. Fernando ("JLM and KLM"!). The next year ANA itself was history when it was taken over by Ansett Airways, another progressive Australian domestic airline. Soon, Air Ceylon was flying its colours internationally again, this time with a Lockheed 749 Constellation leased from KLM, to Bombay, Karachi, Bahrain, Cairo, Rome, and London to the West; and Bangkok and Singapore to the East. A few Ceylonese captains, first officers, flight engineers, and radio officers were trained on the Constellation, but the numbers were not enough to make the difference. However, the cabin crewmembers were mostly Ceylonese. The ground engineers and other Air Ceylon staff were trained to KLM standards.

Later, KLM upgraded the 749 Constellation to a 1049 Super Constellation, and later still – in 1960 – supplied a modern Lockheed 188 Electra four-engine turboprop for Air Ceylon services. However, by then KLM’s share holding in Air Ceylon had been reduced to 24%. Nevertheless, KLM had plans to further upgrade the equipment to the McDonnell Douglas DC-8 four-engine jetliner. Unfortunately, our runways at Ratmalana and Katunayake were not long and strong enough to accommodate these heavy, new-generation airplanes. Sadly, it became apparent that the Ceylonese policy makers had blundered and not kept up with worldwide developments in civil aviation.

From November 1, 1961, all Air Ceylon international fights ceased. BOAC was the only international airline operating scheduled flights into Colombo, and that too to Katunayake only. The aircraft used was the de Havilland Comet 4, an uneconomical, over-powered aircraft which was designed by the British to serve their former colonies in such places as Nairobi (Kenya), Johannesburg (South Africa), Colombo, Singapore, and Hong Kong. These aircraft were designed to operate from short runways, unlike the Boeing 707 and DC-8 which needed much longer ones. In contrast, India had extended the runways at its major airports, and Air India commenced operating Boeing 707 jetliners, thus becoming the world’s first all-jet airline.

So, Air Ceylon management had no option but to go into partnership with BOAC to conduct Air Ceylon flights to London. The Comet 4s were not painted in Air Ceylon colours but merely had an ‘Air Ceylon’ sticker placed over the door each time they operated an Air Ceylon service, the sticker being removed when that particular airplane was next rostered to fly a regular BOAC service. This pattern was repeated when BOAC upgraded the equipment to the Vickers (BAC) VC10 commencing in 1965. On all BOAC/Air Ceylon services the flight deck crewmembers were all Britishers, while some of the cabin attendants were Ceylonese (although first class was handled by BOAC’s own cabin crew).

Part 2

Meanwhile, Air Ceylon plodded on with its old faithful DC-3s on internal and regional services. By now the Ceylon Air Academy, started by the Australians, had also closed down, and all aircraft on its inventory had been taken over by Air Ceylon. There is an interesting story of a lady newspaper reporter who was romantically involved with the then Director of Civil Aviation, and when she fell out with him she began writing a series of articles in the daily newspapers questioning whether the light aircraft of the Air Academy were safe! Evidently that was the main reason behind the closure of the Academy. That journalist later married a young politician who subsequently became the Minister of Communications, which also held responsibility for Air Ceylon. Therefore, people ‘in the know’ were not optimistic about Air Ceylon’s future progress.

By then, railway warrants issued to government servants could be exchanged for air tickets. Essentially, the airline was spending valuable foreign exchange for spare parts and fuel while earning in fares in Rupees! The once-proud airline was down and out. The policy makers had no vision. Light aircraft flying and general aviation (GA) was virtually dead. Air Ceylon certainly did not deserve this. At last, in 1964 Air Ceylon acquired a 44-seat Avro (Hawker Siddeley) 748 turboprop aircraft as an eventual replacement for the aging DC-3s. Then, against all logic, to consolidate the internal flights, it was decided to purchase a French Nord 262 turboprop, which meant that there was no fleet commonality. (It is rumoured that one director of Air Ceylon even bought himself an autogyro aircraft as part of the Nord deal.)

In 1964, during the time of Mr. E.L.B. Hurulle as Minister of Communication, the Ratmalana Flying Training School was reopened, and subsidised flying training was provided for the youth of Ceylon. The new Bandararanaike International Airport at Katunayake was commissioned in 1968, and in 1969 a Hawker Siddeley D.H.121 Trident jetliner was acquired by Air Ceylon, and upgraded services were extended to Singapore, Bangkok, Bombay, Karachi, and Madras. (Another prominent Director of Air Ceylon sent his son to Hatfield, the home of British aerospace, for training.) When this single Trident was grounded for some mechanical problem or shortage of pilots, all regional operations were disrupted. Meanwhile the Commercial Department of Air Ceylon was clamouring for larger aircraft in the category of the Boeing 707 and the DC-8, but the Board of Directors couldn’t deliver.

At last, in 1971, the then Chairman of Air Ceylon, Mr. Sam Silva, successfully negotiated a deal with UTA French Airlines to commercially and technically assist Air Ceylon to go international again. The attraction seems to have been the rights that Ceylon had to operate to Australia. UTA needed to compete with Air France internationally. At the end of the deal Air Ceylon would have ended up owning one Douglas DC-8 aircraft and a yearly guaranteed profit of Rupees 12 million! They also started training a large number of cabin crew. UTA also promised to train a hundred pilots to fly the big jets. It was the best potential deal for Air Ceylon since 1947.

With the increase in numbers, the employees’ trade unions at Air Ceylon became stronger and more demanding. One Minister was to exclaim that "it was easier to deal with the thousands of workers in the harbour than the hundreds of workers of Air Ceylon." As time went on, the UTA deal hit a few snags. Due to UTA pilots’ union rules it was not possible to train ‘mixed crews’. They had to find ‘non-union’ instructors to train our pilots on the DC-8. After many years of internal and regional flying on DC-3, HS 748, Nord 262, and Trident aircraft, the majority of senior Sri Lankan pilots who were released for training as captains were ‘rusty’ and could not cope with modern devices such as simulators. They were slow in learning new techniques that were required for flying the ‘big jets’ in an international environment. In short, it was difficult to ‘teach old dogs new tricks’. There were younger, arguably sharper and more able Sri Lankan pilots far below in the seniority list, but management could not find a way of breaking the logjam to activate them.

It is believed that when UTA attempted to operate into Australia with the Air Ceylon DC-8, they were told that the flight deck crew must be all-Sri Lankan. There was also a limit on the number of passengers which needed to be resolved as the original bilateral agreements were signed for much smaller DC-3 and DC-4 aircraft. By 1976 the relationship between UTA and Air Ceylon was not very cordial. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when the then General Manager of Air Ceylon visited Paris; he was given the cold shoulder treatment by UTA. This angered him so much that he came back to Colombo and took action to abrogate the deal! (Sounds familiar?) With that went the Rupees 12 million guaranteed profit.

Now Air Ceylon had a first-generation, narrow-body, intercontinental big jet (DC-8) with no flight deck crew. By then most of the world’s airlines were flying wide-body aircraft such as the Boeing 747, Douglas DC-10, and the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar. Before the end of the UTA deal, expatriate DC-8 pilots were recruited from all over the world. Looking back now, some of those pilots could really be termed ‘cowboys’. A few pilots were seconded from the Sri Lanka Air Force too. Air Ceylon went it alone with redefined international destinations for three years. Charter flights had to be arranged at great cost to transport passengers holding tickets at other former destinations. It was during this period that for the first time in the history of Sri Lankan aviation, an all-Sri Lankan crew flew a DC-8 jet into Colombo. The then Chairman, Paddy Mendis, who was an air force pilot himself (and former Sri Lanka Air Force Commander), sat in the flightdeck for moral support! In comparison, 15 years before this, Air India had all-Indian flightdeck crews flying all over the world on their route network. We were 15 years behind time.

Things went on like this until 1977 when, after the appointment of Mr. J.R. Jayewardene as President of Sri Lanka, it was decided that Air Ceylon was beyond repair and a new airline would be formed with the help of Singapore Airlines. Then in September 1978 one of Air Ceylon’s two HS 748 aircraft was destroyed by a terrorist bomb on the parking apron at Ratmalana Airport. By then the government flying school had also closed down. The open economy allowed many a flying training school to mushroom at Ratmalana, and because the cut-throat competition could not be contained, standards fell. Most trainee pilots went abroad to qualify as pilots. The regulator, the Director of Civil Aviation (DCA), watched helplessly.

Formed under the private company’s ordinance, Air Lanka was government-owned. Two Boeing 707 aircraft were obtained (and later bought) from Singapore Airlines (SIA), who provided training for the crew and all executives selected. No pilots above the age of 44 were recruited, thus paving the way for younger pilots to come to the forefront and achieve the required standards. SIA also benefited from this deal, as they were given unlimited rights to operate through Colombo both west- and eastbound. At the time their ‘Classic’ Boeing 747 airplanes were not capable of flying nonstop to Europe. The Chairman of Air Lanka was a Sri Lankan airline pilot who had worked for SIA and knew the requirements of a world class airline. He spared no expenses to make it so. The majority of the 707 captains were expatriate pilots who had retired from SIA at the age of 60 and flew with Air Lanka for another two years under special provision.

SIA knew what they wanted in terms of an international airline, and hired expatriates to achieve it. This indeed was the secret of success of Singapore Airlines. In contrast, from its inception, when Air Ceylon got into partnerships with other airlines, they had ‘danced to the tune’ of their foreign partners. Air Lanka moved from strength to strength. They acquired Lockheed L-1011 TriStar aircraft in 1980. They were a force to be reckoned with. (Emirates Airline had not even been born at that stage!) Air Lanka had a wide regional and international network, and even made a modest operational profit. The regional flights were operated by a semi-wet-leased Boeing 737. Now, Indian passengers didn’t have go all the way to Singapore to buy luxury goods – it was cheaper to come to Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan open economy was booming, but the country’s security situation soon deteriorated. Unfortunately, this difficult period coincided with Air Lanka’s acquisition of two Boeing 747 aircraft from Qantas in Australia. But tourist numbers kept dwindling and the national carrier was saddled with far too many empty seats.

Then in 1986 an Air Lanka TriStar was blown up on the parking apron at Katunayake International Airport. It was perceived by some that the powerful Chairman of Air Lanka was insulated from reality by too many ‘yes men’ around him, and the Sri Lanka Pilots’ Guild became disenchanted when direct access to him was lost. Ironically, it was the Pilots’ Guild that had helped to put him there. Due to the pilots’ agitation, the original Board of Directors didn’t last for long after that and were replaced by a Board of hard-headed businessmen led by Mr Lakshman de Mel, a civil servant who had been Director of Civil Aviation before. They decided to return the two 747s to Qantas, and things began to look promising again.

By 1989, all the local captains were products of the Ceylon Air Academy and the Ratmalana Flying Training School. With the advent of President Ranasinghe Premadasa, the appointments to the Board of Directors were made as political pay-offs, just like in the old Air Ceylon days. Even so, the airline was able to successfully introduce two Airbus A320 and three Airbus A340 aircraft to its fleet. In fact, Air Lanka was the first airline to fly the A340 in Southeast Asia, even before Cathay Pacific Airways, SIA, or Thai International Airways. The airline was making an operational profit but the debt servicing resulting from commercial borrowings was overbearing.

Part 3



In the mid-1990s, Air Lanka could not generate adequate capital to buy new aircraft for planned expansion while servicing commercial loans they had obtained before. So, they had to look for a ‘strategic partner’ again. Although a ‘show of interest’ was called for from world airlines, it was known by almost every one in the business that the Government of Sri Lanka had pre-selected Emirates Airline, headquartered in Dubai, as a likely partner. This was confirmed when Emirates delayed a flight in Dubai for the then-President of Sri Lanka to have talks with the Sheik of Dubai on her way to London. Emirates was a direct competitor on Air Lanka’s routes. What interest could they have other than downsizing Air Lanka to serve as a feeder airline from India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka to Dubai? Emirates was also given a management contract to run the airline for ten years. Air Lanka has been thrown to the wolves. There was a big hue and cry from the parliamentary Opposition, the media, and the public. A debate on the issue was held in Parliament. Dogs barked but the caravan moved on. Suddenly, even the media went quiet. Looking at the whole deal, one is reminded of what Howard Hughes said: "Each man has his price. The question is to find out what that price is!"

Soon after the deal in 1998, in order to run a mean and lean operation for themselves from Dubai, Emirates dumped their excess Airbus A330 aircraft on Air Lanka. The Airbus A330 although similar to the A340, had Rolls-Royce Trent 700 engines instead of the CFM56 engines of the latter type. As Emirates was the agent for the Trent engine, it was reported that based on commissions alone, Emirates was able to cover the initial cost of 28% of shares they paid up front. To justify the use of A330s they had to introduce new routes. Things came to a head in the year 2001 when the Commercial Department told management that they had ‘over capacity’ and that it was imperative that uneconomical routes be stopped by August 2001. The future of excess A330s was a problem. But the problem was solved on July 24, 2001 when the Bandaranaike International Airport was attacked by the LTTE. The next day’s headlines in the Herald Tribune read: ‘The terrorists have reduced the airline to a more manageable size’. Two A330s and an A340 were destroyed, an A320 and another A340were badly damaged although repaired and returned to service, but a second A320 was later written off when deemed uneconomical to repair. By a quirk of fate the A330 aircraft were reduced to the number required.

The change of name and logo from Air Lanka to SriLankan Airlines – which occurred in July 1999 – was another farce. Money spent on artwork, crockery, cutlery, and letterheads would have run into multiple millions of rupees. The Emirates management employed unqualified ‘friends of the family’ for jobs which could have been easily done by Sri Lankans. Later, two floatplanes were bought, but no real effort was made to popularise the service and expand the operation within the island. The national carrier gained the world but lost its soul. SriLankan Airlines’ reservations were handled from Dubai, and SriLankan became a feeder carrier to Emirates in Dubai. Then one day Emirates management decided they couldn’t accommodate a high-powered government team that was returning from London. The relationship soured and the rest is recent history. Emirates had to go. It must be said, in fairness, that while the long-term plans of Emirates were in question, their day-to-day management of the airline was exemplary. There were individuals in the Emirates team whose management style was worth emulating.

Meanwhile, although the green light was given by the Department of Civil Aviation to a subsidiary of AirAsia called Holiday Air, out of the blue came another upstart airline called Mihin Lanka, which ran through Rs. 190 million of taxpayers’ money to justify its existence. During the formation of Mihin Lanka, the Director-General of Civil Aviation pointed out a number of irregularities, which were ignored. The political pressure to push the budget airline through was so intense that the ‘DG’ was forced to take leave of absence from duties for two years. The minister who interfered is also no longer with the government. Mihin was closed, then re-started, and now its losses are running into billions of rupees.

A new international airport is also in the making at Mattala, near Hambantota. This was not in any master plan – if ever there was one. There were 11 other airports that could have been developed.

So, do we need a national airline, let alone two? In 1971 it was the Air Ceylon Trident that went to Cairo to bring arms and ammunition to the forces during the abortive JVP insurgency. There were unconfirmed reports that the DC-3 aircraft were used to ‘tanker’ high-octane fuel to the air force aircraft in China Bay when stocks could not be transported by road at that time. During Gulf War One, it was Air Lanka who evacuated Sri Lankans from the Middle East at the behest of the government. When push came to a shove, the national carrier was always there. There is no doubt a national airline is necessary, but at what cost? SriLankan Airlines is also losing big money. Unfortunately, penny-pinching doesn’t help. The airlines depend on passenger loyalty. For that they must produce a consistently good product. Sadly, in Sri Lanka that seems not to be case. In the last few years, the airline has not been able to even produce a stable schedule. When things seem to be settling down, aircraft are pulled out of service to carry large delegations of VVIPs all over the world at tremendous cost!

It must be noted that no passenger was lost due to an air accident in Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, and SriLankan Airlines throughout 65 years of existence, thus making Sri Lanka’s airline industry one of the safest in the world.

So what went wrong in the last 100 years? Before World War II the great potential of air travel was not realised except by a few people such as Sir John Kotelawala. In 1947 it was Air Ceylon that flew to London and Australia at the country’s behest. The airplanes were crewed by Ceylonese pilots under the command of Capt. Peter Fernando. After one of these flights, the ‘Father of the Nation’, Mr. D.S. Senanayake, was heard to exclaim that "Our boys are capable of anything." Aviation held great promise. Then someone lost the plot. Other airlines passed us by. The policy-makers were incompetent at best. The post-1956 era politicians didn’t want to develop international routes beyond continuing domestic flying under the Ministry of Communications. As can be seen, inefficiency and corruption were rampant. Retiring professionals, who could have helped, were ignored, sidelined, and forgotten. With rapidly changing governments, the post of Chairman of the national carrier was considered a plum job. People appointed to the post in quick succession didn’t have a clue about the airline business.

At about this time there was a dynamic gentleman of Sri Lankan origin who was appointed as Chairman of Singapore Airlines. To give you an example of what Air Ceylon and Air Lanka faced during his tenure, taking SIA from strength to strength with a stable master plan, there were no less than ten Chairmen in Air Ceylon and Air Lanka. Aviation policy was changing like the wind. The Director-General of Civil Aviation didn’t have a single airline pilot working for them, after the retirement of Capt. C.H.S. Amerasekara in 1980. Thankfully, the DGCA has now recruited two retired airline pilots into their ranks, but they are too far down the chain of command to make a difference. The national airlines need not run at a profit, but they should not be a burden on the public either. It must be noted that no passenger was lost due to an air accident in Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, and SriLankan Airlines throughout 65 years of existence, thus making Sri Lanka’s airline industry one of the safest in the world. In the last few years, the Director General of Civil Aviation has introduced the concept of Sri Lanka ‘open skies’, thus permitting many Middle Eastern Airlines more than one flight a day. Sri Lankan Airlines are forced to improve their product to prevent these airlines creaming off the market share. Sadly it does not seem forthcoming. 

To quote R.E.G. Davies: "The history of air transport in Ceylon/Sri Lanka has been a chequered one. Name any kind of problem that could beset any airline and Air Ceylon/Air Lanka has had it: inefficient management, even corruption, hijacking, aircraft destruction by terrorism...and the effects of a civil war at home and as well as the Gulf War in one of the most lucrative areas of traffic and revenue generation. One writer described Air Lanka as a vainglorious nationalistic exercise…Fate should be kinder to Air Lanka in the future."

12 12 12 - The Island


Sri Lanka’s first aviation-related Sinhala magazine


The editor hands over the first copy at a recent ceremony

The Aviation Club of the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka recently launched “Guwansara”, a quarterly educational magazine on aviation issues.

Guwansara” is the first-ever aviation related educational magazine to be issued in Sinhala and focuses on the growing student population of the country, average readers and aviation enthusiasts in Sri Lanka.

Dev Kowsala Samarajeewa, editor of the magazine said the magazine will provide proper education and guidance by building up and expanding new knowledge avenues related to the field of aviation in the country.

13 12 2009 - Sunday Times




‘This is your Captain speaking!’


Capt. G.A. Fernando

"Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking" is an opening phrase used by many an airline Captain when speaking to their passengers over the public address (PA) system of an aircraft. This phrase has been attributed to Capt. Alvin M. ‘Tex’ Johnston, chief test pilot of the Boeing 707, which was one of the first aircraft equipped with a PA system. It was ‘Tex’ who flew over the Seattle harbour while carrying out a perfect barrel roll in the 707 prototype, the ‘Dash 80’, much to the consternation of the Boeing Chairman who later gave him a ticking off.

Because early airliners didn’t have PA systems, flight information such as speed, altitude, and the area over which the airplane was flying was written on a piece of paper by the pilot and passed around the cabin to the passengers. The situation was the same in Air Ceylon, where the Douglas DC-3 Dakota did not have a PA system. The cabin crew would have to walk to the door of the flightdeck and obtain information of passenger interest from the pilots.

In 1964 when Air Ceylon acquired the Hawker Siddeley (Avro) 748, for the first time local pilots had the opportunity to speak directly to the passengers. It won’t be wrong to say that all our DC-3 pilots were ‘mic (mike)-shy’ and hardly used the PA system. Not until a new generation of Captains was appointed after 1972 did the "This is your Captain speaking" phrase catch on. Following their good example, the First Officers (co-pilots) who were recruited later attempted to use the PA to the best of their ability, believing that practice made perfect. Of course, without saying that it was the ‘Captain’ speaking, they would probably say, "This is your First Officer speaking" or "Your pilot speaking". The older Captains of DC-3 vintage would sometimes delegate the task of making the PA announcements to their eager-to-speak First Officers by saying, "Tell them, boy!"

At the inception of Air Lanka we had Captains from many countries where English was not the first language. In fact, their PA skills left much to be desired. There was a Turkish Captain who would announce that we were flying over "the Turkey", much to the amusement of crew and passengers alike. His accent was so thick, one could hardly understand him. To add insult to injury, after he made the ‘PA’ he would call a cabin crewmember up to the flightdeck and ask whether he/she understood what had been said. Invariably, the crewmember would say "Yes" for courtesy’s sake. Then the Turk would ask, "So what did I say?"

We also had a few ex-BOAC/British Airways Captains who would make perfect PAs that were a pleasure to listen to. They, like other pilots in many other large international airlines, had been given formal training in ‘microphone techniques’ and use of the PA. One of these gentlemen, who was the Captain of an Air Lanka flight from Hong Kong to Colombo via Bangkok, was annoyed that they were delayed in Bangkok because some VIPs had got off and were missing in transit for a while.

His PA went something like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. We are all ready to depart but unfortunately we were unable to locate a few transit passengers who got off in Bangkok. I understand that they have now been found. Please show your displeasure by slow hand-clapping when they walk in." The passengers already seated in the airplane dutifully obliged – but airline management wasn’t too pleased!

In Air Lanka there was also an American Captain who never used the PA system. It was subsequently discovered that he had not flown PA-equipped large aircraft but had thousands of hours in light airplanes. One day when his flight had a technical delay, the Chief Steward requested him to make an announcement to update passengers regarding the delay. He picked up the mic and said, "Hi folks, this is your Captain. You see that guy up on top of the wing on the left hand side? As long as he is up there we ain’t going nowhere."

Sometimes, pilots become victims of ‘hot mics’. That is when the ‘PA’ system is not switched off, although the flightdeck switch is turned off, and conversation between the pilots is ‘aired’ in the cabin. In other words, the mic is still alive. The story is told of a Captain who, not realizing he had a ‘hot mic’, told his First Officer jokingly, after parking the aircraft: "Now’s the time for a cool beer and a warm girl." As soon as his words boomed throughout the cabin, a stewardess ran towards the flight deck door to warn the Captain about the ‘hot mic’. As she was rushing past, an old lady seated by the aisle said to her, "Miss, you forgot the cool beer!"

Other pilots are sometimes victims of ‘finger trouble’. They would select an Air Traffic Control transmitter by accident instead of the PA system button, and broadcast to ATC and pilots of other airplanes on the same frequency PA information meant for their passengers.

I have been a victim of both.

With the advent of new technology, passengers now have access to a continuous moving map video ‘air show’ on their entertainment systems, which gives them an update of the flight’s progress in real time. However, a welcome to the passengers is still done by the pilot in command. I was flying as Captain to New York on the first anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy. There was always a possibility of a copycat incident. So I found it useful to make an announcement to the passengers, suggesting that they get to know each other for the sake of self-preservation. My announcement went something like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. Yours being a friendly airline, we would like you to take a moment or two of your time to say ‘hello’ to the passenger next to you." Because on that fateful day in September 2001, it was the passengers who prevented United Airlines Flight 93 from crashing into a sensitive target in USA.

In the present context, the PA system is a ‘no-go’ item for any flight – meaning, the flight is not allowed to take off if the PA is not working. Why? Because the PA is a vital tool for alerting passengers in the unlikely event of an emergency situation such as a rejected takeoff, cabin evacuation, or an unscheduled descent because of cabin depressurization. There is also a back-up provided by a few megaphones (hand-held loudspeakers) for use during an inflight failure.

09 07 2014 - The Island


The National Flag



With the advent of Independence Day, it may be an appropriate time to discuss a few points pertaining to our National Flag. Many believe that the Green and Amber stripes in the flag are for the Muslims and the Tamils respectively. This grave misconception was perhaps perpetuated by design more than accident. Surely aren't there many more ethnic groups in our fair isle? The truth is that Green represents the Tamils and the Amber represents all 'other races' such as Moors, Malays and Burgers.

The flag must be flown with the stripes close to the flag pole. However in the SriLankan Airlines aircraft which carry images of the National Flag forward of the front doors, it is only correct for the left hand side door.

The right hand side has National Flag with the Lion traveling backwards! That was the reason why AirLanka aircraft had the image of the Lion's Flag only at the left door. The Emirate artists had got it wrong. Many a complaint was made to the previous Chairman who didn't do anything about it.

It may have been because the drawing of an Airbus aircraft hanging on his wall had both Lions of the flag facing forward as should be, quite unlike what is seen on the actual aircraft of the National Carrier.

Capt. G A Fernando

03 02 2015 - The Island



'Fun Flying' - A personal experience with Captain Elmo


I read with great interest Captain Elmo Jayawardane’s article entitled ‘Where have all the fun flyers gone?’ in a recent newspaper, which brought back some memories of my experience ‘fun flying’ with him. 

I got to know Elmo about 20 years ago, through a mutual, late and dear friend Phillip Cooray, former Deputy Editor of Straits Times, Singapore. I developed the friendship over the years, visiting Elmo in Singapore whenever I could, when I was on business visits there. I came to realise that this well loved and respected Senior Singapore Airlines Captain, was actually still a good old Moratuwa boy at heart, who still loved his sarong, a good drink and baila in the company of his friends.

My visits to his elegant apartment in Singapore were fuelled not only by Elmo and his wife Dil’s warm and friendly company, but also my childhood fantasy of aircraft and flying.
My interest in flying was quite serious and I was quite adamant to become a pilot in my early career, and I did apply to the newly-formed Air Lanka in the late 1970s. At the interview, I was offered training as a flight engineer with the first batch of Sri Lankan recruits, who would be going across to Singapore for training. After much thought, I declined the offer, since by that time I had already completed my degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Moratuwa.

As my career in Engineering and subsequently in Tourism developed, I still pursued my interest in flying and aircraft, by keeping abreast of airline news by reading technical books on

 aircraft. I still love to fly and like to watch the planes at the airports and identify them, and see them being readied and refuelled.

Therefore, the few evenings spent with Elmo in Singapore were always of a great interest to me, as I would pepper him with questions about aircraft and flying, over a couple of drinks.

A dream comes true

During one such visit, perhaps due to my persistent questions about flying, Elmo told me that I should really try my hand at piloting a plane. I did not believe him, but he said that the next time he was in Colombo he will try to arrange for a short training flight for me.

I forgot the incident, and was quite astonished to receive a call from him one evening a few months later, saying that he was in Colombo for few days, and that if I was free the next morning, we could go on a flight. I could not believe what I had heard; I jumped at the offer, cancelling all my appointments, all of which were suddenly of secondary importance.

As agreed, I was at the Ratmalana ‘Bata Junction’ at 5:30 a.m. the next morning where I met up with Elmo and drove to the Ratmalana Airport. Since, this was during the initial stages of the civil strife we went through some security checks. Everyone seemed to know Elmo at the small airport and there soon was a small crowd of officers talking to him. He accompanied them to the office and did the necessary paperwork and came out and went to the tarmac with me.

He told the chattering officers “please get the Cessna ready and do a quick 360 check”. I was so excited that I my knees were like jelly, and as we went into the hanger and I saw the small white and blue trainer Cessna aircraft being wheeled out and made ready for us. I kept pinching myself and wondering whether this was a dream that I would wake up from.

When everything was ready, Elmo said “let’s go Srilal” and we climbed into the plane helped by the friendly officers. It was evident to me that Elmo was an extremely popular person and well loved by the officers, even though at that time, he was no longer with SriLankan Airlines and working for Singapore Airlines.

We strapped ourselves into the twin-seater with dual controls, and Elmo gave me a quick overview of the controls. In typical ‘Elmo style’ he told me: “Machang, you know the drill no? Now don’t worry, this bird will start rattling like a Bug Fiat when we open up the throttle. Don’t worry, nothing will fall off. I will throttle and when I say rotate; you pull the yoke gently towards you ok?”

He then gave the thumbs up and shouted to the person below “Kollo, fire it up” and the propellers started turning and we start taxing to the end of the runaway, while I gingerly started getting the feel of the rudder pedals and the controls. At the end of the runaway, we paused for a while and Elmo said “right machang here we go” and the small plane lurched forward.

The sound was deafening in spite of the earmuffs and, as Elmo had warned me, I felt the whole plane vibrating and thought it was coming apart. As we accelerated, I could see the ground rushing past me, faster and faster, as Elmo opened up the throttle. Once we reached the correct speed I heard him say “rotate now Srilal” and I gently pulled the yoke towards me and got the most exhilarating feeling as the small plane soared into the sky.

Bird’s eye view

It was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life as the wings caught the airflow and I felt the strong up-thrust as the plane climbed. The ear shattering crescendo went silent suddenly, and I was engulfed in cotton white clouds and sense of floating. There was a soothing calmness as the plane climbed steeply and we levelled out, and even the drone of the engine was also soothing.

Elmo then told me to slowly bank and I got the feel of the rudder as the plane responded to my controls. I slowly banked, learning to gain some altitude prior to banking, working the rudder and yoke gently and getting the feel of the controls responding. We flew southwards talking to each other and admiring the beauty of the greenery of the country, until we reached the Kalutara temple, at which point, we turned back. Elmo let me do a few slow turns, and climbs as I soared above the heavens having the greatest experience in my life. It’s a feeling one cannot quite describe. Peace tranquillity and calmness is what I recollect, far above the cares of this world.

Unfinished beach business

As we returned back along the coast near Wadduwa, Elmo told me that he wanted to show me something, and that he would take over the controls for a little while. He aligned the plane along the beach, went into a steep dive and I saw several fishermen, who had come to the beach in the early hours of the morning for their morning ‘constitution’. We laughed as we saw their astonished faces as they squatted on the beach, and saw this aircraft diving at them. In fact I saw some of them run for cover, leaving important ‘unfinished business’!
We got back to proper altitude and then meandered back towards Ratmalana chatting away about the beauty of flying. We circled the airport, and Elmo helped me align the plane towards the runaway and he said that he would land it, since landing was little bit too complex for me to try out at first attempt. We made a perfect touchdown and taxied back to the hangar, ending one of the most memorable events of my life. We spent another half an hour at the airport with the junior officers preparing tea for us and talking with Elmo about old times. Hence, reading through Elmo’s article about ‘fun flying’ I can definitely vouch for everything he says and I do regret that I did not pursue my dream to at least get a private pilot license subsequently.

I often think back of the wonderful experience Elmo gave me, for which I am ever grateful.

Srilal Miththapala

21 04 2014 - The Island


Fly Me To The Moon

Great Wall of China in Kathmandu

Kudurai Madiri Pona – ride it like a horse. 

Poetry In The Sky

Save The Last Dance For Me

Lest Such Be Forgotten

Magnificent Men without their Flying Machines
Living in the clouds
Ceylon’s first flights
A Hundred Years of Flying
Sri Lanka’s first aviation-related Sinhala magazine
‘This is your Captain speaking!’
The National Flag
'Fun Flying' - A personal experience with Captain Elmo



Radio is only an electronic suggestion box for the pilot. Sometimes the only way to clear up a problem is to turn it off.

The only thing worse than a captain who never flew as copilot is a copilot who once was a captain.

A thunderstorm is never as bad on the inside as it appears on the outside. It's worse.

A male pilot is a confused soul who talks about women when he's flying, and about flying when he's with a woman.

What's the difference between God and fighter pilots? God doesn't think he's a fighter pilot.

Trust your captain but keep your seat belt securely fastened.

An aircraft may disappoint a good pilot, but it won't surprise him.










©alkva 2015