A Centenary Sky
100 YEARS OF AVIATION IN SRI LANKA

Capt. Elmo Jayawardena
1
1
ISBN	978-955-4655-00-3
The right to identify Capt. Elmo Jayawardena as the Author and Civil Aviation Authority, Sri Lanka
...
A Centenary Sky
100 YEARS OF AVIATION IN SRI LANKA

Capt. Elmo Jayawardena
To the ones who flew and the others who helped them to fly

5
FOREWORD
Though history is a timeline connecting the past to the present, it has
no beginning in itself. History gets a me...
This Publication was authored by Capt. Elmo Jayawardane at the request of the
Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka on the...
Author’s Thoughts
The call was to research, write, edit, design and publish a book for
the centenary celebration of aviati...
Contents
1. The Present	

14	

2. Where did it all begin?	

24	

3. First into the Centenary Sky	

30	

4. An Aeroplane ca...
The Present

15
The sky is waking up from slumber, changing its blue black attire at a
snail’s pace, to something lighter in shade. It is ...
“Good morning, pick up heading two zero zero and descend two
thousand feet”
“Roger two thousand and heading two zero zero”...
19
21
ground engineer with head set and connecter waits to communicate.
The aeroplane comes to a stop, the engines reduce their ...
Where did it all begin?

25
The history of flight in Sri Lanka is recorded from 1911. Even though
the information may not be the most accurate and cer...
If there was an engine, there would have been someone to operate
the controls too. ‘Dhuthaka’ was what they called the pil...
First into the Centenary sky

31
It did not take long for aviation to make a very rapid progress, from the
maiden flight that was conducted by the Bishop’s...
Blariot
People bought tickets and came to see the wonder machine that
was capable of lifting to the sky and manoeuvring, using thr...
Taube
For his third attempt at flying the Sri Lankan sky, Franz Oster flew Colin
Brown’s Bleriot monoplane. It had not flown so ...
It is also mentioned somewhat in abstract that on that first day of flight
in the Race Course grounds, there were passenge...
An aeroplane called Jaffna

41
Aviation in Sri Lanka took a sabbatical from 1912 to 1931. There may
have been so many who were interested in the subject,...
The Jaffna Tamil community of Malaya, though limited in resources,
extended their generosity to the British Government by ...
Inbound From India

47
Early aeroplanes speeded communication by carrying mail between
cities and then graduated to go across continents as aviat...
Puss Moth
Normal sea-mail took four days to reach Mumbai and Neville Vintcent
covered the distance in 11 hours. The need for an air ...
Ratmalana

53
I sincerely think it would be easier to relate King Dutugamunu’s march
from Magama to Anuradhapura in 200 B.C. than write ...
also on written record. As in most matters of history, it is the version of
the winners. Sir John at that time certainly w...
Sky. There was now an official place designated by the Colonial
Government of Ceylon to take-off and land aeroplanes.
Perm...
Rapid Air was followed by many companies that did charter work
from Ratmalana. Upali Aviation, Air Taxis, AAC, Deccan, Day...
Little Moths in the Wide Sky

63
From the beginning to the present age, aviation in Sri Lanka owes a
large-size debt to the light aeroplanes that flew the ...
the aircraft. The second came on the 4th or March 1937, a D.H. Tiger
Moth with a Gypsy Major engine. It was a gift from Lo...
Tiger Moth
In a post-mortem it was concluded that Duncanson’s death was due
to a fracture of the skull and fracture and dislocation o...
The Tower Men

71
Times have changed. Air Traffic controllers now work on RADAR
screens that show aeroplanes as luminous blips. For long
ran...
The beginning of two-way radio transmissions between an aeroplane
and the aerodrome in Ceylon was in June 1939. Tata Airwa...
H.M.S Rajaliya, Puttalam
Royal Air Force

77
The first squadron of aeroplanes that the Royal Air Force brought to
Ceylon were Hawker Hurricane fighters. They were base...
The location was a large coconut plantation bordering the Negombo
Lagoon on the western side. A runway was planned with 04...
Names too can be traced; some of these bases were named with
a local touch. Colombo Race Course was HMS Bherunda, Puttalam...
China Bay
“Rule Britannia and Britannia rules the waves” the much sung
sentiment extended to the Centenary Sky too. It wasn’t easy t...
Intruders into the Centenary Sky

87
Birchall
Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall arrived in Ceylon on the 3rd of
April 1942. The flight was from Karachi to Koggala where ...
and one in the Colombo Race Course were on the ground and went
into full alert only when they saw a sky-full of Japanese a...
Commander Fuchida’s raid on Colombo was planned on the same
strategy as what he did at Pearl Harbour. Had the British flee...
Zero
Maybe he wasn’t learning to fly, but gathering information on what he
saw from the Centenary Sky.

Perhaps that was their ...
Katunayake

97
Ratmalana Airport was getting busy. This was 1939. Commercial
traffic was at a minimum with only mail-carrying aeroplanes ...
The construction of the field commenced in the early 40s and was
operative from 1944. RAF Negombo was the name. There was ...
at the Negombo airport in its infancy. But the stories are there, to be
re-kindled, from time to time, of what it was like...
Air Ceylon

105
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Civil aviation book final

  1. 1. A Centenary Sky 100 YEARS OF AVIATION IN SRI LANKA Capt. Elmo Jayawardena 1
  2. 2. 1
  3. 3. ISBN 978-955-4655-00-3 The right to identify Capt. Elmo Jayawardena as the Author and Civil Aviation Authority, Sri Lanka as the Publisher of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved. No part of the publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form , or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior permission from Publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages. First Publication December 2012 Concept, Design & Layout by Ogilvy Action (Pvt.) Ltd., 53, Rosmead Place, Colombo 07. Published by Civil Aviation Authority, Sri Lanka. No 04, Hunupitiya Road, Colombo 02. Printed and Bound in Sri Lanka by M.D. Gunasena and Company Printers (Pvt.) Ltd. 20 San Sebastian Hill Hulftsdorf Colombo 12.
  4. 4. A Centenary Sky 100 YEARS OF AVIATION IN SRI LANKA Capt. Elmo Jayawardena
  5. 5. To the ones who flew and the others who helped them to fly 5
  6. 6. FOREWORD Though history is a timeline connecting the past to the present, it has no beginning in itself. History gets a meaning if it relates to an event, the occurrence of which is traceable with some evidence. Absence of evidence to support an occurrence in the past is usually referred to as a myth. The following paragraphs of the Aviation Centenary Book present succinctly major events which unfolded in the blue skies of Sri Lanka in the past 100 years. The author determined the structure and contents of the book and has presented it in his own style of writing for which the CAA had little influence. Celebrating 100 years of service, business, good times or philanthropy in any industry is a significant occasion. So is it in aviation. The century celebrations should revisit the founding of the industry and project highlights of its evolvements in a century. The book on aviation centenary in Sri Lanka is an attempt to fulfill this obligation, wherein salient points of turns or developments that took place in the aviation sector over the period of first 100 years are documented for the reference of the present and the posterity. However, one has to bear in mind that the creator of humankind has not permitted people to scan and witness in their own eyes the evolution taking place for a period of 100 years in any field albeit a very few gets the opportunity of recalling occurrences in relation to their own lives. Hence recording every minute of details of what happened over the past 100 years to hairpin accuracy is beyond reasonable expectation, as most of the things are either heard, read or remembered somewhere than recorded. There would have definitely been a few more chapters in this book to explain some more developments in heaps and bounds, had the skies not been constrained for civil use in the last three decades due to fear of terrorism. After traversing through turbulent air for a long time, the country has now entered a new era with full of hopes. The government has identified the potential of aviation for the economic growth and accordingly assigned due importance and priority by identifying aviation to be one of the five main centres of growth. Although the world has witnessed phenomenal growth in aviation since the beginning, the underlying principle of flying hasn’t changed. What has changed is the pace of integration of rapid advances in science and technology into the aviation industry to foster safety, security, regularity, efficiency whilst providing air transport services to consumers at competitive price with wider choices. Modern aircraft are operating with advanced systems, new materials, range and comfort aboard on the one hand and under stringent national and international regulations and standards on the other. The latter is intended to ensure that flying is subject to the highest safety standards that one could think of, which is indispensable to retain inherited speed in aviation and the public confidence for its continued growth and sustainability. In satisfying the need of the hour of documenting the country’s aviation history with fair and balance presentation of facts for the benefit of the reader, the CAA had to find a right person who could lively narrate a fairly technical subject in a manner easy to understand. Although the resourceful personnel within the local aviation community who could take up the demanding task are not too many, the CAA was fortunate to find such a person who has had expertise in both aviation and authoring books. Capt. Elmo Jayawardena is a veteran writer as well as a veteran pilot who for major part of his life, commanded in the blue skies the big jets with hundreds of people sitting behind and clapping his landings. CAA is thankful to Capt. Elmo who undertook to accomplish the task of writing a book to mark the aviation centenary, complimentary to the occasion though having a very busy personal schedule. “Never fly to a place if your mind has not already flown there”. This is one of the basic principles commonly repeated by flight instructors and it is still valid. Being an Instructor Pilot, Capt. Elmo knew the route to be flown for the book to come out in time information is not found, recorded somewhere in a chronological and organized manner. Nevertheless, airmanship in Capt. Elmo at last, made the script to reach the printer’s table in less than 100 days since undertaking the assignment. There were many people who strived and worked with dedication to bring the country’s aviation to its present status over the last 100 years. This book should be a tribute to them. Also there are many people who are seriously engaged and striving at present in taking the country’s aviation to new dimensions keeping pace with the rest of the world. This book should be a source of strength to them. There will be many more people who will work for aviation sector in this country taking it to greater heights. This book shall inspire them. H M C Nimalsiri Director General of Civil Aviation – Sri Lanka 13 November 2012 7
  7. 7. This Publication was authored by Capt. Elmo Jayawardane at the request of the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka on the occasion of celebrating A Hundred Years of Aviation in Sri Lanka Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka 9
  8. 8. Author’s Thoughts The call was to research, write, edit, design and publish a book for the centenary celebration of aviation. I had three-months to complete the project. The book had to be ready by the 7th of December 2012. It was a challenge and a labour of love. The pages within, bear testimony of the effort, not only by me, but by all the others who rallied round, to give life to “A Centenary Sky”. I want to ensure that my heartfelt gratitude reaches each and every one who helped me, the list is long, too long to mention here. The contents in this book reflect my best possible effort to find out the truth. Sometimes I have logically analysed the available information and deduced what may have been the truth. I could be spot-on in my analysis, or dead wrong. But I have not in any way manipulated the events of the past to favour or discredit anyone. Information wasn’t easy to find. Dusty manuscripts did give accepted facts and figures. A fair amount of contradictions surfaced too, mismatching the accepted norm against logical deductions. People’s narrations of events, sometimes consolidated, and at times confused me between fact and fiction. But they were all little snippets that added flavour. Sifting through this maze, the best I could do was to create a reasonable story of aviation through its 100-years of life. Aviation has a reputation for having many “know all” critics in every sphere of its activity. They have something to say even if you flew a kite into the sky. I hope they will keep their self-proclaimed expertise to themselves. “A Centenary Sky” is a narration of events and feats of aviators. It is certainly not a perfect record of history. I am no historian, just an aeroplane driver who has done his best to relate the stories of the Centenary Sky. “A Centenary Sky” is not its author’s sole effort of accomplishment. Many others played varying roles to assist me to publish this book. Most offered assistance purely to be part of something that fascinated them, aviation. “Ring the bells that you can ring” said the wise words of Leonard Cohen. That is exactly what I have done. I may have missed some, but I am sure I did ring loud enough to cover the hundred years, and the story of the Centenary Sky. ‘Three months’ is a short period of time in the literary world. Let alone my writing efforts, researching the information and editing the manuscript had to be done exceptionally fast by others. Designing was another challenge. Finding pictures and photographs to emphasise the stories narrated and their strategic placement within the pages was no easy task. Thank you for reading me. Capt. Elmo Jayawardena Koralawella, Moratuwa. Elmojay1@gmail.com Yes, “A Centenary Sky” demanded a huge effort and I certainly was not flying solo, so many others surrounded me so willingly in the formation. 11
  9. 9. Contents 1. The Present 14 2. Where did it all begin? 24 3. First into the Centenary Sky 30 4. An Aeroplane called Jaffna 40 5. Inbound from India 46 6. Ratmalana 52 7. Little Moths in the Wide Sky 62 8. The Tower Men 70 9. Royal Air Force 76 10. Intruders into the Centenary Sky 86 11. Katunayake 96 12. Air Ceylon 104 13. The Maintenance Men 118 14. The Custodian of the Centenary Sky 126 15. Fledglings to Pilots 132 16. SLAF, a Sentinel in the Centenary Sky 142 17. Cargo through the clouds 152 18. Tears of a Sky 162 19. The UL Story 168 20. Model Aeroplanes 180 21. A Toll to the Sky 185 22. Baloons in the Sky 190 23. Mihin Lanka 198 24. Para Motoring 204 25. From the waves to the winds 210 26. Epilogue 218 13
  10. 10. The Present 15
  11. 11. The sky is waking up from slumber, changing its blue black attire at a snail’s pace, to something lighter in shade. It is a new day. The traces of dawn are emerging from the eastern sky. “Radial three one five and DME nine zero.” “SriLankan identified on RADAR, cleared descend flight level one five zero, report leaving two seven zero.” Streaks of shallow light gradually penetrate broken clouds in shades of bluish grey, making it almost an abstract painting in the horizon. The sun slowly makes its way on a crawling climb towards its midday zenith. Visibility is at its best in the clear night sky, above the alto-stratus sheet that lie below the aeroplane which is cruising at Flight Level Two Seven Zero. “Leaving now for one five zero, SriLankan 162” ‘Roger” In the distance, a faint silhouette of Adam’s Peak juts out of the cemented cloud bank covering the terrain below. A few wisps of Cirrus clouds are the only meteorological objection to the perfect high-level visibility. Constellation Scorpion that dominated the southern sky is gradually losing its night time twinkle, its brilliance fading with the rising sun. Someone is flying home, getting ready to descend and make the approach to the Bandaranaike International Airport. A journey’s end and a safe landing, another flight, another day and another lot of people arriving to step on the shores of Sri Lanka. It is 100-years from the time an aeroplane first flew in the Sri Lankan sky. “SriLankan 162 change to Colombo Airways on 124.9” “Wilco, good-bye Trivandrum, SriLankan 162” The speed runs at Mach .78 and the FMGS navigates the aeroplane with Auto Pilot giving command to stay on Airway N640. This takes the machine as the crow flies, towards Katunayake on radial 315 from the Kilo Alfa Tango beacon. The powers come back and the twin CFM engines whine down to keep a constant speed using the momentum of the aeroplane. She pitches down gently, looking for flight level one five zero. The rate is around 2,000 feet a minute and that takes approximately seven minutes to reach the cleared level, moving at a ground speed averaging three thirty knots, assisted by a steady tail wind. “SriLankan 162, you are re-cleared three thousand feet on QNH 1003” “Three thousand on 1003, SriLankan 162” The pilots change the altimeter settings to the aerodrome pressure, reduced to mean sea level. The cloud bank is at 8,000 feet and the aeroplane decelerates to 250 knots passing 10,000 feet. The entry is smooth, as the opaque clouds swallow the fast moving machine, giving a subdued shake of turbulence which the pilots know so well. It is all a greyish-silvery cocoon now, visibility zero as the aeroplane descends in the altocumulus shroud looking for 3,000 feet, all in the safe hands of the auto pilot. “SriLankan 162 change to Colombo Director on 132.4” “Roger 132.4, have a nice day.” “Colombo, good morning, this is SriLankan 162 at flight level two seven zero requesting descend.” Levelling at 3,000 feet, the co-pilot manipulates the FMGS buttons as the captain commands ‘activate approach.’ The aeroplane reduces speed to ‘green dot’ as the pilots call it, around 210 knots, in preparation to extend flaps. “Morning SriLankan 162, report radial and DME from Kilo Alpha Tango” “Good morning Colombo Approach this is SriLankan 162 at three thousand feet” 17
  12. 12. “Good morning, pick up heading two zero zero and descend two thousand feet” “Roger two thousand and heading two zero zero” The silver cocoon still dominates the aeroplane and the visibility is zero. The Airbus A320 of SriLankan Airlines ploughs through the cloud following the instruction of the controller. At his command, the pilot and machine instantly obey, respecting the sacred confidence built through the ages between the tower man and the flying man, now augmented by the sophistication of the high-tech automation. “SriLankan 162 turn left heading one three zero and descend one thousand five hundred” “Heading one three zero descending fifteen hundred” The thick low stratus gives way to scattered patches and the aeroplane emerges out of the cloud layer. Curious passengers paste their faces to the windows to get their first glimpse of the emerald green fields down below. “SriLankan 162 turn left zero seven zero, you are cleared to intercept the ILS runway zero four, call established” “Heading zero seven zero, cleared to the ILS, call you established.” The aeroplane goes into a facile bank seeking the extended centreline of the landing runway. In the far right, the fading lights of the Negombo town glint like distant fireflies. The lagoon and the sea are clearly visible now and so is the sand bank dividing the two. The out-rigger canoes on the lagoon shore appear like misplaced toys of kids at play. “SriLankan 162 established on the localiser runway zero four” “Change to tower, 118.7, good day” “Wilco Radar, so long” The airfield is spread wide and the landing runway appears like a thin long serpent, faded black against the green grass contrast. Aeroplane established on the ILS, Localiser and Glide Slope both captured, descending at 700 feet a minute, to touch down at Bandaranaike International Airport. “Tower SriLankan 162 established on ILS runway zero four.” “SriLankan 162, cleared to land runway zero four, wind zero one zero fifteen knots.” “Cleared to land, SriLankan 162.” The approach lights are guiding the pilot and the PAPI indicator defines his descent path. The auto pilot is disconnected and the manual flying phase commences. Thirty feet above the field, the aeroplane responds to the pitch change made by the pilot and the nose lifts in the final preparation of the touch down. “Retard, retard” alerts the auto call and the thrust levers are brought back to idle. The landing is smooth, direction perfect, right on the centreline of the runway. The engine reverses are activated and the auto brakes takeover the deceleration. The aeroplane slows down to taxi speed and takes the right turn to taxiway ‘Bravo.’ “SriLankan 162, contact ground on 121.9” “Roger 121.9” Strobe lights and the landing lights are switched off, the flaps are retracted and ground spoilers stowed, as the aeroplane moves slow along the taxi way. “Ground good morning SriLankan 162 on taxiway.” “Morning SriLankan 162, you are cleared to stand Bravo Twelve.” The parking slot is waiting, flashing lights giving indications of direction and distance as the pilots crawl the aeroplane to its final stop. On either side, the ground support teams stand on alert, to commence disembarking duties when the parking brakes are set. A
  13. 13. 19
  14. 14. 21
  15. 15. ground engineer with head set and connecter waits to communicate. The aeroplane comes to a stop, the engines reduce their whine, the beacon light goes off. Another flight has come home. and part truth and no one knows to draw the dividing line. As for the last 100-years, the information is not readily available or recorded in perfect accuracy for anyone to decipher. The seatbelt sign is switched off. At best I can only make a fervent attempt to bring you the story of aviation attempting to re-create the years that have rolled. Limited information, contradictory opinions and misplaced records all add up to possible misconceptions that could enter the pages of this book. But there’s the truth too. Faded papers, torn photographs and most importantly, extracted information from memories of people who were connected to this 100-year-old tableau. They saw, they heard, they read and remembered, that has been my best source. Read me such, for errors and inaccuracies I apologise. “Disarm slides and clear to open doors” announces the pilot. It is good-bye time. Sri Lanka has come a long way in its 100-years of aviation. It certainly is a ‘Centenary Sky’ that is being celebrated. Let me now take you to the beginning, to 1912, or even before, to King Ravana and the Dandu Monara era. The details are part myth 23 The offering is not perfect, but then how often are we perfect?
  16. 16. Where did it all begin? 25
  17. 17. The history of flight in Sri Lanka is recorded from 1911. Even though the information may not be the most accurate and certainly arguable due to differing opinions, there’s adequate material to make logical assumptions. It gives us a reasonable picture, an idea of the infancy of aviation in the Centenary Sky. Its birth was a mere eight years after Wilbur and Orville flew ‘The Flyer’ in the sand dunes of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903. Let me address the 20th century sky a little later. The story gets easier to narrate as the years roll on and information pours out of the record books in better clarity. Even though ‘A Centenary Sky’ is a tribute to the hundred year celebration of aviation in Sri Lanka, my thoughts keep going back to King Ravana. I cannot relate this sky story without due reference to the mythology, folk-lore or truth of Ravana and his flying machine which to us is known as the ‘Dandu Monara.’ If such be the inference, it is possible Ravana had specific sites for take-off, on higher ground. Vayu Riya Pola the most appropriate word for an airport, contracted to Wariyapola, the town thus named. Then there are other places island-wide, such as, Ussangoda, Thotupola Kanda, Kothmale, Thoppigala, Nawugala and Binganthalawa that still cling to the legend of being ancient airports. Now we come to the engine. Researchers speak of three possible types of engines that may have powered a craft that flew in ancient times. 1 Mercury vortex engine 2 Crystal energising engine 3 Air injecting system. Evidential history places King Ravana circa 2000 B.C., which is, approximately 4,000 years back in time. The Asian epic Ramayanaya gave life to the myth-like characters, Ravana, Rama, his brothers Lakshmana and Arjuna, Hanuman the Lord of Monkeys, and the sought after Princess Sita. Did these characters really walk that primeval stage? Did the Dandu Monara really fly? Let’s address this complicated and controversial phenomenon before we come to what is called modern day aviation. Mine is strictly an opinion, the truth of the matter has eluded us for thousands of years, but there has to be a truth. It is better we address this ancient mystery and try to shed some light on it, than completely ignore the controversy and commence Sri Lanka’s sky story in the 20th century. The information I have gathered, is what I place here. I certainly am no authority on the subject, but people who have researched with limited available information have shared their conclusions with me. To that I applied some logic and wrote this chapter about King Ravana and his controversial Dandu Monara. It is possible to deduce that people having seen birds on glide, like a hawk or pelican, realised spread wings in balance would give extended horizontal distance in the air. Then there were the updraughts that kept a glider aloft. Again a concept learnt by watching birds. In this context, there could easily have been some form of a glider that may have flown without the power of an engine. That could be a possible beginning. 27
  18. 18. If there was an engine, there would have been someone to operate the controls too. ‘Dhuthaka’ was what they called the pilot. to assist in the construction. They arrived in a craft that travelled in the sky and brought with them a technology that was used in the construction of the Hanging Gardens. All this is gleaned from the clay tablets that were discovered by a group of American archaeologists in 1998. Maybe someday there will be better answers related to the machines they flew. Maybe the Sinha men came from Ravana’s Lanka. The Gliding principle was easy, the birds showed the way. An engine is an entirely different story. It will not be correct to say there could never have been an engine. Not being able to comprehend something, does not make the possibility a mythological fabrication. There may have been an engine. The Tibetan texts may find a possible link with today’s aerospace technology. The American research may add or subtract. Maybe there was a forgotten superior civilisation? Maybe they vanished without leaving a reasonable record? Maybe the ‘Dhuthaka’ pilots did fly in the sky in some kind of machines. If there is some truth found in the ancient sky travel stories, it will completely astound the modern man. He rarely believed in the existence of some sort of a craft that could fly in the sky. Looking at the picture in another way, if there was one flying machine in the sky, logically, there would have been more. Ancient texts reveal that the craft were known as, ‘Viman’ a big flying machine, ‘Biman,’ a small engine-powered glider and another one that was purely used for gliding. The third one could have flown, commencing flight from height, gliding and extending the glide by using thermals. Widespread wings and light in weight may have given it adequate lift to fly a fair distance. Such a concept is definitely possible. Solar energy too is added to the story and a craft called ‘Theeru’ is supposed to have flown using solar power. It is said that King Ravana’s Dandu Monara belonged to the ‘Shakuna Viman’ type of craft. The possibility is alive that the ancient flying machines could still be traced to their origins. Perhaps then, some light might be shed on the sceptical modern world about the ancient flight of Ravana’s Dandu Monara over Lankan skies! It is also said that the body of the Dandu Monara was constructed using ‘raja lohaya’ metal and a very strong wood called ‘Mayura Dande.’ Whether this was a wood or a reference to the fuselage is difficult to fathom. I have no clue to say how wrong I am or how right I could be. People of the time may have flown these machines and travelled vast distances, as legend claims. The Dandu Monara was used as a fighting machine in battles that raged across borders. Extending the theory even further, some scholars believe that in the era of the Dandu Monara, galaxy travel using a space craft was undertaken! However, I stop any elaboration right there on that concept. The story goes that after King Ravana was defeated in the epic battle, Rama went back to India and took with him the aeronautical technology of the Dandu Monara. This information was written in nine manuscripts covering all aspects of aero-dynamics and hidden in Lhasa, Tibet. When China invaded Tibet in 1960, it is said they found the texts and took them back to China. An Iraqi story too floats around related to Nebuchadnezzar and the construction of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It is supposed to be mentioned in some clay tablets that a people called ‘Sinha’ came 29
  19. 19. First into the Centenary sky 31
  20. 20. It did not take long for aviation to make a very rapid progress, from the maiden flight that was conducted by the Bishop’s Boys. The Wright Brothers of Daytona, Ohio, clipped the tape first, in the ‘into the sky’ race. Yet, at that time, there were so many well-known aviators knocking on a door of fame connected to flying. Each one trying to be the first in the yonder blue amidst the dancing winds and cartoon clouds. Infant aviators sprouted out from all parts of the technologically civilised world and started inventing their flying machines. They started learning to fly by themselves, the same way that Wilbur and Orville did. The path to the sky was strewn with failed flyers, men of immense resolve and almost half-bird themselves who dauntlessly pursued the secrets of flight. The resultant boom in aviation spread around and reached the far corners of the world in a short span of time. The first aeroplane arrived on the shores of Sri Lanka in 1911. It was freighted by sea in a ship called ‘Rabenfels’ and was unloaded on the 12th of September, the exact date may be recorded somewhere and that somewhere too, is somewhere which is impossible to trace. Good enough, year 1911 and month September and it was imported by an Englishman named Colin Brown. The plane was called a Bleriot, a monoplane with an Anzani 25 horse power engine, built by the company of Frenchman Louis Bleriot, himself a pioneering pilot, a contemporary of the Wright Brothers. The aeroplane was rated as the best flying machine in the world, after Louis Bleriot flew it across the English Channel from Calais to Dover on 25th July 1909. Orders were pouring from all over the world, as aviation enthusiasts supported by rich patrons crowded around Bleriot to buy his aircraft. Mr. Brown from Sri Lanka too would have been an early bidder. Within two-years of Bleriot’s historical flight across the English Channel, the aeroplane arrived on the shores of Sri Lanka. Colin Brown’s newly acquired masterpiece was originally kept out of flying. Maybe there was no pilot qualified and available to fly or maybe for some other unknown reason. It is on record that it did not fly the first few months. Brown’s Bleriot was exhibited in different locations. 33
  21. 21. Blariot
  22. 22. People bought tickets and came to see the wonder machine that was capable of lifting to the sky and manoeuvring, using three-axis flight controls and landing at a pre-determined selected place. That was what was said, but nobody saw as there was no one to fly the aeroplane. The Bleriot was restricted to display, people came, and people saw, but there was no one to attempt the conquering of the sky. Onto this early stage of Sri Lanka’s aviation there arrived a German pilot named Franz Oster. He had learnt to fly aeroplanes; it isn’t stated on record where he learnt to fly, probably self-taught, as that seemed to be the norm in the early days. Paper article Oster brought with him a monoplane called an EtrichTaube, an Austrian machine which was designed by Igo Etrich, of AustrianHungarian origin. The aeroplane looked like a dove and so carried the name Taube, the German word for a pigeon. Oster became the first pilot to lift off to the skies of Sri Lanka. It was ‘Herr Oster’ (as he was better known) who climbed into a cockpit, revved his engines and rolled on the grass at Colombo Race Course and shot out to the virgin sky of Lanka. In so doing, he established himself as the first pilot to successfully complete a take-off in our Centenary Sky. The event was well patronised, but unfortunately he crashed, unable to control the aeroplane. The recorded information places the flight to have taken place on Christmas Day in 1911. The disappointment would have been immense but that did not deter Oster. The first unsuccessful attempt was quickly followed by another flight five-days later at the same Race Course grounds with the same aeroplane. On the 30th Herr Oster repeated the performance, took off and flew awhile and again crashed in his attempt to land. Enthusiasm would have been so profound in Colombo during this period, but unfortunately that sentiment is purely imaginative on my part. Simply because no records are available of crowd support and who cheered and who jeered. As in most matters of historic value, the finer details of these early flights have vanished with the monsoon winds that veered and blew during the roll of years. 35
  23. 23. Taube
  24. 24. For his third attempt at flying the Sri Lankan sky, Franz Oster flew Colin Brown’s Bleriot monoplane. It had not flown so far and had only been on exhibition. Again the trail gets cold here, as to whether he was hired by the owner Brown to fly or whether Oster bought the plane and flew it as his property. The coin could turn either way, depending on who believes what in this aero-carnival that was taking place in the Race Course of Colombo. Verminck and Pourpre too used Bleriot monoplanes, the same as Colin Brown’s. And this time there were two of them. The aeroplanes even had christened names. One was ‘Rajah’ and the other ‘La Curieuse’; the first name perhaps connected in some way to maybe a stop-over in India before they were shipped to Lanka. This is of course stated in certain records without clarity. The Rajah does sound Indian. The Frenchmen did many flights on 7th December 1912. They were both competent pilots who knew more about the intricacies of flying safely. It was almost a year after the disastrous flights of Herr Oster. It was a long period in the infant aeronautical fraternity. The eleven months so passed may have made space for budding pilots to learn more about the finer points of flight and aeroplane control. Third time too, Herr Oster was unlucky. He brought the Bleriot that was being displayed at the Colombo Racquet Club to fly. Unfortunately this time he came in contact with a bamboo sticking out of the Royal College building and crash-landed onto the Race Course grounds. Same story repeated as the two previous two flights. There were no reported injuries, the aeroplane was rated to fly at 52 knots and perhaps flew a much lower speed of around 40 knots on approach. It had a 25 foot wingspan that would have given it the aerodynamic capability, with adequate lift to glide a reasonable distance even without the engine. All in all, the chances of fatality were slim at the low speed. There was also a cushioned low rate-ofdescent touch down, thanks to the well-spread wings. The flying machine was a new concept altogether and few people were capable of mastering the basics of taking off and landing a plane. The lessons were mostly self-taught and the prices paid were accidents and some fatal too. Comparisons would be incorrect between Herr Oster and the two Frenchmen, as the silent 11-months that elapsed from Oster’s first flight to 7th December was a long time, long enough to make George Verminck and Marc Pourpre better trained pilots. That was the closing of the Herr Oster chapter in the skies of Sri Lanka. Maybe he flew more and maybe he crashed and survived. History is hazy, opinions differ, and I am happy to set his name up in the ‘Centenary Sky’ as a pioneer of flight in Sri Lanka and leave it at that. That was the beginning of the story of modern aviation in the Paradise Island. The three flights so mentioned were unsuccessful. Call it a journey that went out of control. As such they could not be recorded as a complete flight, and did not enter the record books as the beginning of powered and controlled flight in the Sri Lankan sky. The ones who first flew an aeroplane in what may be termed as a safe flight in Sri Lanka were two Frenchmen Georges Verminck and Marc Pourpre. They took off, flew and landed safely. The date was the 7th of December 1912. The place was the same Race Course grounds in Colombo. There are adequate records to show when it happened and where it happened and how it happened. That would be a hundred years ago when the first rays of light hit the eastern Lankan skies for the dawn of 7th December 2012, thus completing a century of aviation in the island and proudly announcing the qualification to be a ‘Centenary Sky.’ 37
  25. 25. It is also mentioned somewhat in abstract that on that first day of flight in the Race Course grounds, there were passengers who flew with the French pilots. Were they paid customers or selected celebrities? How many and who they were are not clearly stated anywhere. I’d rather mention the fact that passengers flew and stay away from letting my imagination run on something I have no record to go by. Some even say there was an Aero Club formed in 1928. Maybe of people who were interested in aeroplanes? But it is certain that they did not fly and had no aircraft. Yes, they could have been some version of ‘magnificent men’ and this time, without their flying machines. It would not be wrong to say that 1912 to 1931 was a period that the Centenary Sky had its solitude, undisturbed and silent and serene, as it has always been. On the same token, there is a controversy about a prize that was offered by a company, Apothecaries Ltd. It was for the first man who flew safely in the Centenary Sky. Information known of the story is questionable. It is said that Franz Oster was the winner and received 1000 sterling pounds. Verminck and Pourpre contested and failed to reverse the decision. Another source says the prize was given to Colin Brown. I mention the matter purely as information. As for the validities, I really do not know. The 7th of December became the beginning of an era in the history of aviation in Sri Lanka. It is a fitting tribute that Sri Lanka has selected this very date as the ‘Aviation Day’ of the country. The remembrance is well established now of the two French pilots and their ‘Rajah’ and ‘La Curieuse’, the Bleriots they flew. Pourpre and Verminck had three-days of exhibitions after the first flight and sold tickets. They were priced at Rs. 5.00 for Grand Stand, Rs. 2.00 for Enclosure and fifty cents to stand on the ground. The dates were 10th, 11th and 12th of December 1912. Two shows were completed, but the third show was cancelled by the government on some flimsy reason of exceeding laid out sky limits. It was more a political matter of Frenchmen coming and stealing the show in a British Colony. Pourpre and Verminck left Sri Lanka on 19th January and headed to Kolkata where they flew exhibitions. The skies of Sri Lanka went silent with the departure of the two French pilots. Strange, with such an eventful and flamboyant beginning, aviation came to a standstill. It stayed so till 1931. A Puss Moth then broke the silence of the sky. There is rumoured information that the RAF arrived in Sri Lanka in 1920. They were doing a far eastern survey of the skies. Where they landed no one knows, whether they came or not too is questionable. But, it needs to be mentioned. 39
  26. 26. An aeroplane called Jaffna 41
  27. 27. Aviation in Sri Lanka took a sabbatical from 1912 to 1931. There may have been so many who were interested in the subject, considering that in a mere eight-years from the Wright Brothers’ flight, we had aeroplanes strutting on Race Course Grounds. September 1911 to 19th January 1913 would have seen a hive of activity of aviation in Colombo. That period starts from the time Colin Brown’s Bleriot arrived, to the day the Frenchmen Verminck and Pourpre departed to Kolkata, almost banished from the sky. There is a rumour too that the British authorities were disturbed by the Frenchmen flying over the city of Colombo, and suspected them of spying on gun placements in the Fort. That was perhaps the real reason their licence to fly over the skies of Sri Lanka was cancelled. The First World War erupted and all efforts of the international flying fraternity were channelled to finding ways to dominate the battle in the sky. Sporting aviation became unimportant as aces in the calibre of Manfred von Richthofen the Red Baron, Rene Fonck the French Ace, Billy Bishop and the likes of him took centre-stage with their machinegun-firing fighter aeroplanes. The war itself became a major contributor to the expansion of aviation with its search for faster planes flying higher and having the capability of greater manoeuvrability. In Sri Lanka too, sporting aviation came to a complete standstill. There were small gatherings of people who were interested in aeroplanes. They had their little discussion groups which became unofficial aviation clubs. Not much on record, but indicative information does say the subject was alive in miniature scale among the elite of Colombo. However, during these silent years of aviation in Sri Lanka, there is a fascinating story that needs to be mentioned, though it may not belong to the centenary sky. The year was 1915. A group of Jaffna Tamil people who had migrated to Malaya comes to the forefront to relate an unusual story about a British Royal Flying Corps (R.F.C.) fighter plane that carried a Sri Lankan name. Native people of the lands conquered by the British Empire were called to serve the war effort against Germany. Many joined and saw action both on land and sea. Efforts too were made to collect funds for the military treasury. Special requests were sent out to colonial communities to sponsor the cost of aeroplanes. 43
  28. 28. The Jaffna Tamil community of Malaya, though limited in resources, extended their generosity to the British Government by collecting money to pay for a fighter aeroplane. The cost was a tidy sum of 2,250 Sterling Pounds. The aeroplane so paid for, was a F.E. 2b with a 120 H.P Beardmore engine and a prop that rotated behind the pilot, which was known as a ‘pusher.’ The propeller fitted behind gave a clear frontal vision to the pilot, enhancing the ability to fire a machine gun mounted on top of the nose cone. At that time, only the German Luftstreitkrafte operated Anthony Fokker’s invention of firing through a rotating propeller. The two-seater biplane was used as a fighter and a bomber where the extra crew member threw bombs aimed at targets below. Having the choice to name the plane, the Tamil community in Malaya elected to call it ‘Jaffna.’ It was in remembrance of a birthplace in a faraway land, where the heartstrings often resonated nostalgic bells. The gift was made on the 22nd of December 1915. As the world got older and aviation flourished in Sri Lanka, the locally registered aeroplanes in commercial service were named after prominent royalty and renowned cities, King Vijaya, Viharamaha Devi, City of Anuradhapura, City of Colombo. All of these, plus a host of others, flew the skies, brandishing their Sri Lankan heritage with boldly painted names. But the first gift to the sky, was the little fighter plane ‘Jaffna.’ Certainly less known, but very much in the annals of aviation. It did fly in some war-torn sky, in formation or in dogfight, but it flew. Then she went into oblivion till someone decided to resurrect her. That is what I write, and that is what you read, and that is how memories stay alive for the generations to come. 45
  29. 29. Inbound From India 47
  30. 30. Early aeroplanes speeded communication by carrying mail between cities and then graduated to go across continents as aviation progressed. achieved international fame as Air India. Vincent was also at one time the Director of Civil Aviation in India. Sadly Vintcent missed the best years of growing aviation when he died in 1942 in a plane crash. The first airmail letters were flown in India from Allahabad to Aligarh across the Ganges on 20th February 1911 by a French pilot named Pecquet. This part will always be a controversy as to whether the ‘Puss Moth’ flown by pilot Vintcent on 1st May 1931 was the first aeroplane that flew to Sri Lanka from another country? There is some information of a Royal Air Corps aeroplane arriving in the 1920s. From there the airmail service was exported to Britain and the services commenced there on 9th September the same year. I wasn’t there and the records are hazy at best, but logically addressing the question, I think it was Neville Vintcent who first flew the international skies to arrive in Sri Lanka. Given the kind of range that aeroplanes flew at that time, there is no doubt that if there was an international flight arriving in Sri Lanka, it had to come from India. Before powered machines were employed to carry mail, pigeons did fly messages back and forth in Sri Lanka. That was 1850, start date 24th September, long before the Wright Brothers were born. Ships from England called at the port of Galle with newspapers from London. Important items were extracted, printed on flimsy paper and homing pigeons flew to Colombo with messages tied to their feet. ‘Ceylon Observer’ is credited for this feat making the courier pigeon the first mail carrier. Manepalam was Vintcent’s departure point and it is near Trivandrum, and is re-named today as Marappalam. The flight would have been right across the sea, single engine and with absolutely no navigational aids, approximately 225 miles. Of course he would have flown in daylight and may have even coast-crawled to be safe, before attempting the crossing. In May 1931, a firm of motor dealers in Colombo organised what they called a ‘Flying Gymkhana,’ some kind of a carnival connected to aeroplanes. They chartered a De Havilland D.H. 80 ‘Puss Moth’ from Tata & Sons in India. The aeroplane had come to service in 1929 and was speedily getting popular as a reliable flying machine in the international fraternity of aviation. Powered by a 120 H.P Gypsy III engine, it had a range of approximately 300 miles. The first aeroplane flown to Sri Lanka was by a pilot named Neville Vintcent accompanied by a passenger called Zubair Caffoor. It is possible that the people who organised the ‘Flying Gymkhana,’ sent one of their representatives to be on-board the first flight. Mr. Caffoor’s name appears as a senior member of the Aero Club in 1936. Was it the same Caffoor who flew with Vintcent? Is he a Sri Lankan? I cast my vote on both being affirmative. As for Neville Vincent, he certainly was as colourful as the profession he professed. A South African by birth, he learnt to fly in the RAF and came to India in 1929. By that time he had already won a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) for active duty in Iraq. He is known as the first pilot in India and being the expert he was in a limited field of aviators, he became the prime pilot in the Tata Company that owned aeroplanes. It was the Tata Company that changed names and subsequently Vincent 49
  31. 31. Puss Moth
  32. 32. Normal sea-mail took four days to reach Mumbai and Neville Vintcent covered the distance in 11 hours. The need for an air service was very much there, but having no proper aerodrome for the planes to land, was an obstacle that needed to be cleared. It took another fiveyears and a new runway built at Ratmalana for letters to come by air. The first official mail flight piloted by Homi Barucha arrived on 23rd December 1936 and landed on the grass patch in Ratmalana. It was a special flight arranged to carry Christmas mail. The flight missed the delayed London connection and carried mail that was collected in India. Vintcent landed on a makeshift landing strip demarcated at the Colombo Race Course. One can assume there would have been a carnival atmosphere, as the organisers of the ‘Flying Gymkhana’ would have made sure the event was properly advertised and patronised. It was almost a re-birth of aviation after a long drought of inactivity that had lasted years. The Colombo Race Course would certainly have been a spectacular sight on that day. I cannot be sure, but I think he arrived on the 2nd of May 1931, could even be the 1st. Neville Vintcent thus entered the record books of aviation history in Sri Lanka as the first pilot to fly in from another country. That was the beginning of the ever important airmail service in Sri Lanka. The inception was homing pigeons from Galle to Colombo and the consolidation was what Neville Vintcent flew. It was an era when aviation was trying to find a footing and a foundation to expand. The carriage of mail by air did add a considerable quantum to the recognition of aeroplanes as a means of progress. The return flight took place on 6th May 1931 and flew to Mumbai, with a stopover in Bangalore. Though the records say so, I tend to think he may have stopped somewhere between Colombo and Bangalore. The distance between the cities is around 480 miles and the Puss Moth’s best possible range was limited to 300 miles. Of course, there is always the possibility that they may have fixed extra fuel tanks. Let me go by the records here on Vintcent’s flight from Colombo to Bombay. So began the acceleration and acceptance of aviation in a world-wide stage, opening doors to multiple benefits in international interactions. Departure 0600 from Colombo Race Course Overhead Talaimannar at 0720 Overhead Dhanuskody at 0732 Landed Bangalore at 1032 Departed Bangalore at 1145 Landed Bombay at 1705 The last leg is five hours and five minutes. As much as the records show the flight plan, I have my gravest doubts how a Puss Moth with a designed range of 300 miles, flew from Bangalore to Bombay on a flight time of five-hours and 20 minutes. I criticise no one and do not question the records. But I would be failing in my duty as a pilot, if I do not bring out certain matters that are on record, which could be questionable. Sometimes fact is fiction and fiction can be fact. The best is to call such “faction” and leave it at that. As I said before, the aircraft may have been fitted with extra fuel tanks. Vincent’s Puss Moth carried 25 copies of ‘The Times of Ceylon” marked ‘First Airmail Edition.’ 51
  33. 33. Ratmalana 53
  34. 34. I sincerely think it would be easier to relate King Dutugamunu’s march from Magama to Anuradhapura in 200 B.C. than write the facts of Ratmalana Airport which is only 77-years-old. The prime reason is simple. The records are there, but they vary so much in content to comprehend the truth in any reasonable manner. Dates of importance and ‘who did what?’ and ‘when was that done?’ It’s a total web of confusion. Different records compiled by different authorities and different aviation enthusiasts differ so much. One can only hope to seek logic in this selection and give all possible versions to the reader for him/her to decipher what is true. After all, the truth is what you believe and not what somebody tells you. Truth certainly has different dimensions in Ratmalana depending on the vision in the eyes of the beholder. After Neville Vintcent’s first international flight that arrived in Sri Lanka and his departure to Bombay carrying newspapers, there was much ado about the construction of an aerodrome. Various locations were recommended and evaluated. Mount Lavinia was a firm suggestion but did not materialise. Other places too were named but dropped for various reasons. Finally it trickled down to Ratmalana, correct distance from Colombo and enough unused space, ideal for an airport. There were few other reasons too that may have tilted the scale in favour of Ratmalana. Sir John “I want to get into a plane from my backyard and fly to London.” Such were the famous words spoken by Sir John Kotalawela from his opulent ancestral home in Kandawela located in the southern edge of Ratmalana. He was an undisputed Don of the era who subsequently became the Prime Minister of Ceylon. It is also said that he owned a private aeroplane and had a runway built in his vast estate and the expansion of that became the Ratmalana Airport. The story adds on and says Lord Vevel from England wanted to visit Sri Lanka and his aircraft needed a place to land. Sir John generously agreed and extended the length of the runway in his back garden to 700 yards to accommodate Lord Vevel’s plane. Subsequently it is stated that Sir John gifted his home-made aerodrome to the Government of Sri Lanka to develop it and make Ratmalana Ceylon’s first International Airport. That tale has been passed down from generation to generation and is 55
  35. 35. also on written record. As in most matters of history, it is the version of the winners. Sir John at that time certainly was a winner by any count. off from. The runway was simply a wide-open grass patch. Original administrative buildings were shed-like with galvanised sheets on the roofs. They stood on the edges of the green grass giving shelter to airport staff and people who came to visit the airport. Ratmalana was just that, officially designated as an aerodrome and was a vast improvement from the Colombo Race Course which was earlier used for a few aeroplanes to take-off and land. The next story is extracted from newspaper clippings of that time and is so very different. In 1934 the State Council of Ceylon made a decision to construct an aerodrome in close proximity to Colombo. Ratmalana was selected as the location. A 242-acre land was purchased for Rs. 254,759 and of it only 17-acres was owned by Sir John, for which the government paid him Rs. 28,730. The rest of the land for the new airport was purchased from different owners. On the 27th of November 1935, the first flight came to Ratmalana. The aeroplane was a De Havilland Puss Moth flown by Flt/Lt Harold Tyndale-Biscoe, the Chief Flying Instructor of the Madras Flying Club. Tyndale-Biscoe was British, but born in Srinagar and had learnt to fly in England. He had served in the Royal Flying Corps and retuned to India after the war. Tyndale-Biscoe was then associated with Indian aviation, teaching people to fly in Madras and also working as a pilot for the then famous Tata Company. Flt/Lt Tyndale-Biscoe became the first pilot to land in Ratmalana, having flown the Centenary Sky across international boundaries. Of these two versions of the origin of the Ratmalana Airport, which one is correct is hard to comprehend. What we can deduce without controversy when we bring these stories to the Centenary Sky is that the Ratmalana Airport was constructed in the year 1935. That is the paramount factor to address and we will leave it at that. The new aerodrome was a large area cleared and levelled but without any markings to indicate where to land and which direction to take- On the same day, 27th November, Ratmalana Airport was accorded a ‘soft’ opening. A new chapter commenced for the Centenary Hurricanes 57
  36. 36. Sky. There was now an official place designated by the Colonial Government of Ceylon to take-off and land aeroplanes. Permanent buildings were added subsequently and more land around the field was cleared to accommodate the airport expansion. There still was no designated runway but a well-mowed 600 squareyard grass field was provided for the pilots to take-off and land. A solitary windsock stood in one corner like a black and white pyjama clad sentinel, the sole provider of meteorological assistance to the operating aviators. It was by observing the movement of this windsock that the pilots decided which direction to take-off and which direction to land. The formal opening of the Ratmalana Airport took place on 28th February 1938. An airmail flight too was arranged on the same day. A Waco biplane of Tata Airlines took off from Ratmalana carrying mail, thereby officially linking Ceylon to the Empire Airmail Service. By this time there was a three-storied airport terminal building too. Hangars had been constructed for sheltering aircraft and workshops were added to carryout engineering maintenance and repairs. Waco Biplane The Royal Air Force took over the aerodrome in 1939. Ratmalana in its infancy became a military/civilian airport providing aviation facilities to RAF aeroplanes and airmail carriers. However a major part of the flying at Ratmalana was credited to the Aero Club of Ceylon, who had their ‘moth brigade pilots’ keeping the aerodrome busy with their pleasure flying. The subsequent years saw an increase of aeroplanes and pilots of varying nationalities buzzing around Ratmalana. It was Air Ceylon’s home-base and from here they flew to all their international destinations. The giants of the aeroplane world too came here. World-renowned carriers flying long haul from Europe to Asia used Ratmalana as a transit stop, resting their crews at Mount Lavinia Hotel. Subsequently they all moved to Katunayake when the new airport opened in 1963. Ratmalana played a prominent role as a home for domestic charter operators. The first was Rapid Air in the early 70s, using an old Dragon Rapid that was restored and given a C of A to fly. The ‘Dragon’ registered as 4R-AAI was the first to fly tourists around the island as a private charter company. Captain Emil Jayawardena who was a RAF and Air Ceylon veteran flew the Dragon till it was sold to a museum in England. 59
  37. 37. Rapid Air was followed by many companies that did charter work from Ratmalana. Upali Aviation, Air Taxis, AAC, Deccan, Daya Aviation, Aero Lanka, Lion Air, Sky Cabs and Expo Lanka to name some of them. During the lean years whilst the war raged, it was the charter companies that moved passengers to domestic destinations. The operations were not easy; security concerns mattered most and restricted the charter operators. They still managed, keeping the Centenary Sky alive for those who could afford. This is an airfield that once had its day, when Constellations and Sky Masters took off revving their Wright 18 cylinder engines and Rolls Royce Marlins. TWA, KLM, BOAC and a host of other aviation luminaries arrived and departed from its 6000 foot 04/22 runway. I still remember seeing smartly uniformed pilots sitting on wicker-chairs and sipping tea in the terminal building, that was more than half a century ago, recalled from a child’s memory. It would be nice to see old Ratmalana going back on the revival path and returning to its old glory again. Maybe just like the old times, becoming a gateway to the international world as it once was. Air Ceylon folded in 1979, stopping all their operations, thus taking away Ratmalana’s last label as a regular commercial aerodrome. The long-drawn war too took its toll and cauterised the light aeroplane and charter brethren and made Ratmalana mostly a military airfield. Much-needed security restrictions had to be enforced; the threat was always there for some clandestine operation to take place starting from Ratmalana in a light aeroplane. Perhaps Sir John was right; we might still have the ability to fly to London from his back garden. That was then. The war clouds have now blown away and freed the sky to seek its former glory. Ratmalana is re-tracing its steps, navigating its way to what it was before. The pick-up is slow, but there is more life in the old airfield now than in the three plus decades before. Local charter operators fly helicopters and Civil Aviation Authority approved flying schools train fledgling pilots. Provisions are there for customers to rent aeroplanes too. More is expected in the near future, as the country moves gears to welcome the ‘war-less’ years. Ratmalana now is ready to accept the business jet community and provide immigration and customs on request. Expansion too is in the ‘flight-plan’ to upgrade facilities. The vision is to have narrow-bodied jets landing in Ratmalana which might then convert the aerodrome to a budget airport. Suggestions are being made to call the old ‘grass patch’ landing field by a new name ‘Colombo City Airport.’ Whatever the new christened name might be, Ratmalana is immortal, like the men who flew there and the stories that came off it. 61
  38. 38. Little Moths in the Wide Sky 63
  39. 39. From the beginning to the present age, aviation in Sri Lanka owes a large-size debt to the light aeroplanes that flew the Centenary Sky. Commercial aviation was a late entry. Long before the passenger aeroplanes took flight, it was the pleasure flier who coloured the sky, even before the military men and their war machines. They were the pioneers, the Moth fliers, the path finders and the custodians who kept aviation alive. As before in previous chapters, again the historical path is filled with blank spaces and wrong sign boards. But the direction is there and that is where I will trudge, or should I say fly? This is the story of general flying and the magnificent men who flew little aeroplanes. It is about how they navigated aviation through leaner times to pedestal the Centenary Sky. Interest in aviation reached a zenith in 1911/12 with the initial flights that took place in the Colombo Race Course. Then came the silent years of inactivity in the sky, perhaps, in some ways, related to the world being occupied with killing each other in the First World War. The next milestone of aviation in Sri Lanka was the forming of the Ceylon Aero Club in 1928, headed by Major Elton Lane. There were no aeroplanes and there was no airport, but the aero club functioned, infusing interest in aviation among the enthusiasts. They were the first who appealed to the Colonial Government, to pursue the possibility of building an aerodrome for futuristic progress. The Aero Club’s visionary view was a step in the right direction for the betterment of aviation. This matter is worthy of mention, as it was the original plea for an airport in Sri Lanka. It took a good seven-years but the one-time wishful thought, did become a reality. The opening of the Ratmalana Aerodrome was the biggest boon for the members of the Ceylon Aero Club. Many activities commenced immediately. The first being the Madras Flying Club receiving an invitation to come and do demonstrative flying in Ratmalana. The Indians gave ‘joy rides’ too as a promotional tactic to entice interested parties to take up flying as a hobby. The next was aeroplane purchasing time for the Aero Club. The first to come was a second-hand Gypsy Moth that arrived on 17th November 1936. The club members personally contributed to pay for Puss Moth 65
  40. 40. the aircraft. The second came on the 4th or March 1937, a D.H. Tiger Moth with a Gypsy Major engine. It was a gift from Lord Wakefield who was subsequently made a Vice-Patron of the Aero Club. The third was a Taylor Cub that came to Ratmalana on 15th June the same year, a private aeroplane owned by a member, Gordon Armstrong. A fourth Tiger Moth was bought by the Government of Ceylon and gifted to the Aero Club on 17th December 1938 completing a four aeroplane fleet in the Aero Club of Ceylon. The first three pilots who held licences issued by the DCA of Ceylon were R.C. Tillard, G.H. Dulling and R.A.F. Farquharson. Though the records are not perfectly clear, I would logically state that they may have learnt to fly elsewhere before they came to Ratmalana. All three of them were capable of teaching other members of the Aero Club to fly. Log book details of some early pilots show dual flying and these three names are entered as instructors. Mrs J.S. Farquharson became the first lady pilot to obtain a private pilot’s licence in the Centenary Sky. She was granted Licence No. 8 on the 15th of February, 1939. The registrations of the aeroplanes were VP/CAB, VP/CAC, VP/CAD and VP/CAE. They were available to club members to fly at Rs. 30 an hour for instructional dual flying and Rs. 24 per hour to go solo. Flt/Lt Robert Duncanson became the Aero Club’s Chief Flying Instructor on 1st June 1938. He played a major role in flying training at Ratmalana Airport till his unfortunate and mysterious death in an air crash when his Tiger Moth disappeared on 21st May 1949 into the sea. On take-off he had fuel to fly for three hours. The club became a limited liability company in September 1938 and obtained a grant from the government to subsidise flying rates. From then on, it was registered as a non-profit organisation, operating purely to promote interest in aviation in the country. Membership was selective. It was open to foreigners and locals; of course the patronisation was mostly by Caucasians. To join, non-flying members paid Rs. 15, fliers paid Rs.5. Annual subscription was Rs. 25 for flying members and Rs. 10 for non-fliers. Two days later parts of the aeroplane were found washed ashore on the Mount Lavinia beach. There was a wheel and a piece of the wooden propeller. This was a clear indication that the aircraft broke to pieces. On 24th May, Duncanson’s body was sighted by T.D.S. Weerawardena, the village headman of Pinwatte. The body with its upper part of the face and forehead missing was floating in the sea near Pinwatte, Wadduwa. As for the people who learnt to fly at the Aero Club, they were mainly the adventurous young from the high social strata of Colombo. It was a time when ‘wanna be’ aviators learnt to fly, simply for the pleasure of it and not for any form of profit or prospect of seeking employment as pilots. Duncanson 67
  41. 41. Tiger Moth
  42. 42. In a post-mortem it was concluded that Duncanson’s death was due to a fracture of the skull and fracture and dislocation of the spine. The Aero Club of Ceylon continued to function as an elitist entity, gathering members to increase the numbers. Under Duncanson, the chief instructor, there were many pilots trained who flew for pleasure. The club also did aviation promotions, such as air races and flying circuses, where aerobatics were the chief attraction. They added another destination for pleasure flyers, when in 1941 Cathiravalo Private Aerodrome was opened in Jaffna. Did the aeroplane crash or did he make it crash? It is a sad question to seek answers. If his engine failed, he could have glided and landed on water. He was too good a pilot not to do that. If that is the assumption how the aeroplane broke to pieces would always be the mystery. The last days of the Aero Club were the late forties when the Director of Civil Aviation opened an Air Academy in 1950. Private fliers were welcome at the Academy and they continued to do their pleasure flying from Ratmalana. The trend of pleasure fliers still continues and should have a boost, now that the conflict years are over and security restrictions are less stringent. Sri Lanka undoubtedly is one of the most beautiful places to do private flying, with such good weather and so many airports all over the island. This should be a haven for pleasure flying. Perhaps if he wanted to go he may have wished for the end to come while flying his beloved aeroplane. Flt Lt Robert Duncanson will always be remembered, will be spoken of in high esteem anytime anyone talks about training pilots in Ratmalana. He certainly was a hallmark character in the Centenary Sky. The first Ceylonese to obtain a Private Pilot’s Licence was Dunstan de Silva who held Licence No. 4. Sir John, who was the Vice-Patron of the Aero Club, became a trainee pilot and took instructions from Duncanson to fly. Whether he obtained a licence or not is not clear. There were whispers that he was issued a PPL, the kind that the powerful obtain simply by the power they hold. There are stories, like in all matters truth does have its share of illusions and masquerades. The Moth flyers of Ratmalana did play their part to take their rightful place in the Centenary Sky. They were there from the beginning, when times were lean and aeroplanes were mostly considered as a wasteful fancy. What would the critics know about a Tiger Moth rolling on a grass field? Or a misty morning take-off with the tail skid dragging and the auto-slats fully out? How could you describe the play of wind on the pilot’s face, from the slip stream of the wooden propeller? Or a gentle bank to line up on a grass patch and make an approach at 55 knots to do a perfect three-point touch-down? Dunstan later became the President of the Aero Club of Ceylon and was a prime mover in the construction of the Puttalam landing ground. It really wasn’t an airport per se but a large clearing to land aeroplanes with a wind-sock for assistance to decide on landing directions. Puttalam landing ground was officially opened by Sir John Kotalawela on 3rd June 1939. One important feature of Puttalam was that it acted as an unofficial weather alternate for the Ratmalana Airport, which by now, was hosting airmail flights from India. That was the beauty, the serenity and the sacredness of real flying in Tiger Moths and Gypsy Moths. It was certainly the uncompromised love of the sky, the purest kind known to sky tramps like me, who sat in open-cockpits flying ancient bi-planes. Aero Club members often flew to Puttalam for practice landings and to carry out circuit flying. Ratmalana to Puttalam would have been a wonderful flight in an open cockpit aeroplane. The navigation obviously was simple, just following the coastline below and updating the flight plan over the Kelani River, Negombo and Chilaw. They also picked up the habit of flying to Puttalam on what they called ‘Flying Picnics.” Lunch was organised at the Puttalam Rest House and the pilots returned to Ratmalana by sundown. Such were the pleasures of private flying in the early days of Ceylonese aviation. Where do I find the wisdom of words to describe that? 69
  43. 43. The Tower Men 71
  44. 44. Times have changed. Air Traffic controllers now work on RADAR screens that show aeroplanes as luminous blips. For long range communications it is CPDLC, Controller Pilot Data Link Communications. The system works in conjunction with Automatic Dependent Surveillance (ADS) and the pilot controls by the movement of a single switch. After that, it is hands off and fully automatic. When in closer range, it is direct Very High Frequency (VHF) two-way communication and guidance for the departure and arrival. RADAR controlling sets aeroplanes on out-bound courses depending on their destinations or brings them into the extended centre line of a landing runway. The Instrument Landing System (ILS) will guide the aircraft through automation to land in very low visibility conditions. The pilot saw another flag being waved at him from the Mannar beach and knew he was now flying the Centenary Sky. That is how aeroplanes and their movements are handled by Air Traffic Controllers in the present day Centenary Sky. That was Air Traffic Control at its infancy. The arrival to land in Ratmalana was another fairy tale. The aeroplane flew down to circuit height, anything above 800 feet and flew over the small terminal building. The pilot then turned downwind flying parallel to his landing direction, but on the reciprocal heading. A shallow descent was commenced on base leg, where the plane was clearly visible to the Air Traffic Controller. Permission to land was granted by Aerodrome Light Signals emitted by an Aldis Lamp or flare signals. The first Air Navigation Regulations (ANR) was published in 1937. It was an exact replica of what was used in the entire British Empire. The same document controlled the skies of all the colonies around the world. The ANR is still in use, updated and altered to cater to the vast improvements that have taken place in the fast moving world of aviation. It was all so different when sky controlling began in the years gone by. The methods then used appear like a Robinson Crusoe act. But that is exactly how it happened. The main international route in the Centenary Sky was from Madras to Colombo. The system was rudimentary, but it worked and aeroplane movements were governed by Air Traffic Control. One man stood on a beach, somewhere in the southern coastline of India. He was an Air Traffic Controller in the 1930s. His counterpart was on the other side of the Palk Strait, both employees of the British Imperial Government. The Indian controller watched the sky for a speck to appear and kept a listening watch for the sound of an aeroplane engine. He had an approximate time of arrival as he had received a Morse code message giving the departure time from Madras. He knew roughly when the aeroplane would fly across his coast. The pilots usually descended low, and even did a full 360 degree turn, to make sure the Air Traffic Controller saw him. On sighting, a flag was waved from the ground and the aeroplane continued on its journey. The pilot would then look out for the next controller across the Palk Strait, waiting on the beach of Mannar. The Indian controller completed the procedure by sending a Morse code message to Madras, Ratmalana and his counter-part in Mannar. That way, he updated the flight-plan details of the over-flying aeroplane crossing the South Indian coast. 73
  45. 45. The beginning of two-way radio transmissions between an aeroplane and the aerodrome in Ceylon was in June 1939. Tata Airways was operating a mail service and their flights carried a 30-pound heavy radio set with a very long aerial. The pilot being able to talk to the tower man and vice-versa was the real beginning of Air Traffic Control in the Centenary Sky. included the management of over-flying traffic. In addition to the civil controllers, there were their air force counterparts too, who handled aeroplane movements in airports manned by the military. The original RADAR approaches in the 1950s were conducted by the RAF controllers. They used an old Marconi ACR Approach Control RADAR that had a maximum range of 25 nautical miles. It was only in 1976, just prior to the Non-Aligned Movement conference, that proper RADAR controlling equipment was installed to monitor and guide aeroplanes in the Centenary Sky. The Second World War added a lot of air traffic movements to Ratmalana. The RAF increased their staff and the number of aeroplanes stationed in the airfield. It was the RAF that improved ATC from 1940 onwards, controlling their high density traffic that arrived and departed from Ratmalana. Air Traffic Controllers have always been the unsung heroes of aviation. Cocooned in their isolated control rooms, they have been policing the sky, out of sight of the common aviation limelight. In the by-gone days, the controllers placed pins on a large map to depict aircraft in their FIR. Now they stare into large glass screens and follow the dots that represent aeroplanes. They’ve come a long way from standing on a beach and waving flags at a passing aeroplane. The Royal Air Force also established Flight Information Regions (FIR) that separated regional skies. The Centenary Sky was from 9 degrees north to 4 degrees south longitudinally. Laterally it spread from 78 degrees east to 92 degrees east. It wasn’t a rectangle but tangential to avoid Indian airspace. Let down procedures were drawn to arrive in Ratmalana and radio communications worked in its most basic form. Controlled Air Space was within a ten mile radius from the airfield reference point vertically to a height of 3500 feet. The Air Traffic Controllers certainly played a vital role in the nation’s aviation advancements, and more than their part in ensuring the safety of the Centenary Sky. Talangama beacon and a transmitter installed in Attidiya assisted the controllers operating from Ratmalana. These two aids facilitated the navigation and transmission of messages that streamlined Air Traffic Control. Management of the Centenary Sky was improving. ATC was moving in rapid progression especially with the increase of flying due to the war. The first Civil Traffic Controllers were introduced to ATC in 1949. They were trained in different countries. UK, Thailand and Singapore were the main centres that conducted courses for the new controller cadets from Ceylon. From Ratmalana the controllers went to Katunayake, Jaffna and Trincomalee where new control towers had been erected to manage air traffic. The first local Chief Air Traffic Controller was Mr. Saravanapavan, who served the department till his retirement. All matters in the Colombo FIR of the Centenary Sky came under the purview of Ratmalana. From here they did area controlling, which 75
  46. 46. H.M.S Rajaliya, Puttalam
  47. 47. Royal Air Force 77
  48. 48. The first squadron of aeroplanes that the Royal Air Force brought to Ceylon were Hawker Hurricane fighters. They were based at the new airfield in Ratmalana. It was the initial stages of the Second World War. The RAF took control of the Ratmalana Airport and made it a vital base for them to operate from. The location was ideal, a short distance from Colombo, ample space and obstacle-free terrain to fly. From here they planned to protect the Centenary Sky from any possible intruders. It was the RAF who improved the totality of aviation in Ceylon. The main reason for the expeditious effort was the war. Ratmalana was a convenient midpoint for Royal Air force flights that flew east and west from bases in South East Asia and the Middle East. It was a link that was much in need, with possibilities of refuelling and capabilities to carry out maintenance work. In Talangama, the RAF installed a low frequency Radio Range beacon. It was a great navigational aid, giving directional information to aeroplanes flying in the Colombo Flight Information Region (FIR). They homed in to Talangama, flying pre-arranged tracks by monitoring Morse codes. Left of the path was ‘A’ and right of the path was ‘N’ and the pilots flew the over-lapping line of the signals. That brought them to the Talangama beacon and from there they back-tracked the beam to Ratmalana. Lancasters and Liberator bombers operating long-range flights up to Burma used the beacon to set course across the Bay of Bengal. The reverse was true when they approached Ceylon to land at Ratmalana. The Head Quarters of the RAF base was constructed at Kandawela, courtesy of Sir John Kotelawela. The Royal Air Force took over the air traffic control and also initiated advisory information to aeroplanes operating in the Colombo FIR. The routes East and West from Ratmalana were modified, but originated from the well-defined old RAF-dedicated airways. The most prominent was ADR751, an advisory route, which in later years became airway R461. A temporary landing strip was constructed by the Royal Air force at the Colombo Racecourse Grounds. The 258 Squadron of Hawker Hurricanes operated from this field, right in the middle of Colombo 7. The next airfield opened by the RAF was in Negombo. 79
  49. 49. The location was a large coconut plantation bordering the Negombo Lagoon on the western side. A runway was planned with 04/22 as approach and departure directions. This magnetic alignment gave maximum head-wind capabilities for take-off and landing with monsoonal wind changes. In a way, it was a copy of the then existing Ratmalana runway. During the war years, Negombo Airport became a home to long haul military aeroplanes that flew via Ceylon. The aerodrome shared the military traffic with Ratmalana and both places were staffed by a large contingent of air force personnel. Ceylon became a major RAF base with two military airfields initially. There was only the presence of air force aeroplanes and a few airmail carriers in the Centenary Sky in the mid-forties. Private flying was minimal. Minneriya airport was constructed in double quick time by the RAF in 1942. It was manned by a squadron of hurricanes that flew in from North Africa. A few reconnaissance aeroplanes too were stationed there, both, in some ways providing additional protection to China Bay. Though it was more than half an hour away as the crow flies, Minneriya was a reasonable defence support to the installations at Trincomalee. Sergeant pilot Shelton Flamer-Caldera who had seen action over English skies as a RAF fighter pilot, was stationed in Minneriya. One morning he took off on a Hurricane and was practising aerobatics. In one manoeuvre, the aeroplane went into a spin and failing to recover, he crashed and died. As far as I know, he was the first Sri Lankan pilot to lose his life in the Centenary Sky. The RAF field at Minneriya operated a few years as an air force base. By this time the war was over. The need for military protection was not there anymore. The Royal Air Force said good-bye to Minneriya in 1946 and handed over the aerodrome to civilian administration. During the war years there were 14 RAF bases in Ceylon. Ratmalana, Negombo, Katukurunda, Colombo Race Course, China Bay, Minneriya, Sigiriya, Vavuniya, Jaffna, Kalamatiya, Koggala, Mawanella, Dambulla and Puttalam are mentioned. How active they were is difficult to ascertain, but they sure would have had landing strips cleared for aeroplanes to land and take-off. 81
  50. 50. Names too can be traced; some of these bases were named with a local touch. Colombo Race Course was HMS Bherunda, Puttalam HMS Rajaliya, China Bay HMS Bambara, Ratmalana HMS Seruwa and Katukurunda HMS Ukussa. Capt. Pathy Many Ceylonese young men joined the RAF in various fields. It was the commonwealth countries’ manpower contribution to the war effort. Prominent among those who joined were the cadet pilots. They were recruited and sent by ship to be trained as pilots in England and Canada. Most of these pilots, on their return, went into commercial aviation, some in the Centenary Sky, some elsewhere. He was from Uduvil, Jaffna. He too, was in the batches of cadets who were selected by the RAF to be trained as pilots. He flew Beau Fighters off the east coast of England in the war years. Sergeant Pilot Chelliah Kanagasabapathy was the first Sri Lankan to fly a heavy jet in command. It was 1960; the flight was from Bombay to Cairo and onwards to London Heathrow. Capt. C. K. Pathy was in command of the Air India Boeing 707. On retirement he returned to his homeland. Capt. Pathy trained pilots for Air Ceylon on DC-3 and Avro 748, then finally removed his wings. Currently, he lives in Sydney and drives his car. At 96, he certainly is the last of the Mohicans who went to fly with the RAF. As the war ended, the main Air Force operations shifted from Ratmalana to Negombo. The first jet aeroplanes to fly in the Centenary Sky were two Gloster Meteor twin-jets and five De Havilland Vampires. They came to Negombo Airport on 31st January 1951. The aeroplanes were from the 249 squadron based at that time in a field near the Suez Canal. The jets left their home in Egypt and had multiple stops for refuelling, as the maximum range of both types was relatively short. The aeroplanes participated in Ceylon’s independence celebrations on the 4th of February, thrilling everyone with the scream of jet engines as they repeatedly flew low in their flypasts. The RAF story began its decline when the Royal Ceylon Air force was formed in 1951. Initially, all leading positions were held by seconded Royal Air Force staff. The newly independent nation was very keen to train locals to replace the foreigners. Selected individuals were sent abroad to follow specialised courses in all aspects of aviation and airport management. B707 83
  51. 51. China Bay
  52. 52. “Rule Britannia and Britannia rules the waves” the much sung sentiment extended to the Centenary Sky too. It wasn’t easy to wrap up the colonial domination that fast. It took almost 11-years for a local to command the RCyAF. There is a story of how in 1955 five Vampire jets were ordered by the RCyAF. They arrived in Ceylon by ship in crates. On arrival at the harbour, the packages were not opened, but sent back to England by the order of the British Commander of the Air Force. His reason was that the Ceylonese pilots were not capable of flying jet aeroplanes. Instead, he brought in propeller-driven Balliols. I like to think this statement was never made. If not, it is a damning evidence of colonial superiority. Some of the finest pilots I have seen, flying in command of big jets all over the world, were locals, Sri Lankans who were born and bred under the Centenary Sky. Though the Royal Ceylon Air Force was officially formed in 1951, it took command of the Centenary Sky from the RAF in 1957. Even then, the head of the Air Force was a seconded officer from the RAF. The name change from Negombo to Katunayake happened in the same year. From then on, it was RCyAF and the airport was officially christened as Katunayake. The Royal Air Force has to be credited for all the airports they built in Ceylon. It was the RAF that protected the nation from Japanese occupation. These were the colonial times, pluses and minuses were always twined. But as in all things in history, especially when related to human conflict, it is difficult to set up a measuring scale to weigh the pros and cons. There were negatives and positives created by the Empire Builders when dealing with their colonies. The line is too thin to differentiate between the two. The Centenary Sky today is getting filled with all kinds of aeroplanes flying to little airfields spread around the island. The runways have been in existence since the Second World War. The gratitude should be to the Royal Air force, for planning and building the aerodromes of yester-year. Reasons do not matter, the airfields are there and for that we need to be grateful. 85
  53. 53. Intruders into the Centenary Sky 87
  54. 54. Birchall
  55. 55. Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall arrived in Ceylon on the 3rd of April 1942. The flight was from Karachi to Koggala where an RAF base was operational. Birchall was from the 413 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. They, at that time, had a joint operation with RAF to conduct reconnaissance flights over the southern coast of Ceylon. The aeroplanes used were Catalina flying boats, cumbersome giants who had very long endurance that was needed for the extended range of surveillance over water. Akagi The next day, 4th April, Birchall and his crew of nine were on patrol. Prior to them, another Catalina had gone out on a similar mission and never returned. Reasons became a little clear later when the incident repeated. Birchall and his crew spotted stick-like images on the calm sea below. It was at 1600, and they flew lower and closer for better identification. The Catalina was 400 miles south of Koggala at that time, according to the calculations of the navigator. What Birchall spotted was the Japanese fleet of Admiral Chuichi Nagumo. He was sailing on course to Ceylon with six aircraft carriers, four battle ships, three cruisers, three destroyers and a total of 300 carrier based aeroplanes. Birchall ordered alert messages to be sent to Colombo. The laid out procedure was to repeat the transmission three times. As the second message was completed, the aeroplane rocked with machine gun fire from six Zero fighters that had taken off from the carrier Hiryu after spotting Birchall’s Catalina. The radio officer was injured, the radio equipment shattered, and the bullets ripped the entire aircraft and damaged the fuel tanks. With great difficulty Birchall managed to land his crippled aeroplane in the sea. The fighters continued to strafe and killed three of Birchall’s crew members floating in the water. The remaining six were taken prisoner and interrogated as to whether any alert message was sent to Colombo. They vehemently denied. For their luck, the Japanese intercepted a transmission from Colombo asking the Catalina to repeat the twice received message as it was not very clear. The logical conclusion is that Colombo never read Birchall’s warning correctly. It was all in Morse code, and the possibility is always there for a misread. When the Japanese fighter bombers flew overhead Colombo the next day, people were in church; it was Easter Sunday. The RADAR station was closed for maintenance, as it was the normal practice on Sundays. The two fighter squadrons, one in Ratmalana, Catalina 89
  56. 56. and one in the Colombo Race Course were on the ground and went into full alert only when they saw a sky-full of Japanese aeroplanes all over Colombo. It certainly was a surprise attack, exactly like what happened at Pearl Harbour. Admiral Nagumo To accept logically that Birchall’s message alerted Colombo is difficult. A lot had been written about how he saved Ceylon. Maybe true, maybe not, he certainly initiated the warning. Had Colombo been on high alert, I wonder how many would have left their homes and attended church to celebrate Easter? Or for that matter, the RADAR station most certainly would have been operational and not closed for routine maintenance. As in most matters of history, opinions could differ. The Japanese aeroplanes led by Commander Mitsuo Fuchida flew into Colombo on the 5th of April 1942, at 7.30 am on Easter Sunday. There were 36 fighters, 54 dive bombers and 90 level bombers flying in formation. Commander Fuchida was a very well-known name in the war annals, as it was he who led the attack on Pearl Harbour and also an attack on the city of Darwin. Fuchida’s fighters were the first intruders who flew over the ocean into the Centenary Sky. The Japanese mission was to seek and destroy the British fleet in harbour. They came from the south west. Seeing the Japanese fighters all over the sky, the Hurricanes scrambled from Ratmalana. The squadron stationed at the Race Course grounds too started engines, threw chocks off and roared out to the sky to meet the enemy. Dog fights took place in the Centenary Sky. People on ground heard and saw the aerial battle and climbed roofs to get a better view. The main attack was at the Colombo Harbour. Whilst dive bombers screamed down to release bombs, the Zero fighter escort flew their aeroplanes to their limits, battling against the RAF Hurricanes. Japanese aeroplanes were shot down, Hurricanes were shot down, parachutes drifted in the sky, pilots jumping out of burning wreckages. Ground batteries too opened fire on the attacking planes. Fuchida A Japanese pilot by mistake bombed the home for the mentallychallenged patients in Angoda and 20 inmates died. Around 37 was the total count of the dead on ground that fateful morning. The number 91
  57. 57. Commander Fuchida’s raid on Colombo was planned on the same strategy as what he did at Pearl Harbour. Had the British fleet been there on 5th April, they certainly would have all been sunk. of aeroplanes lost is very ambiguous, varying figures keep cropping up at each turn of a page. One states seven Japanese planes were shot down and the RAF lost 27; not possible, unless some of the Hurricanes were destroyed before they even got airborne. The Japanese were not interested in destroying Colombo or any other place in Ceylon. They could have easily done so, if that was the intent. They had so many aeroplanes and complete supremacy of the sky during that Easter morning. It is believed that Japanese aeroplanes crashed in the following sites. Near St. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia, Bellanwila, Pita Kotte, Horana, Galle Face green and on the Colombo Race Course grounds. Ceylon was saved, from whom and how? If the Japanese were planning on an invasion, it is logical to think they could have bombed Ceylon and devastated everything. The first wave of aeroplanes was a total of 180, and there would have been another 120 waiting in the carriers. The Japanese planes sank every ship that was visible in the water. A few days before the Japanese attack, most of the British fleet had been moved out to the Addu Atoll of the Maldives, South West of Colombo. This was in response to some intercepted massages received in the previous week about a possible invasion. “People knew of a likelihood of a Japanese attack. As a precaution, my father took the family to Bandarawela by train on the 1st of April.” So said the son of the then President of the Colombo Aero Club. The Japanese managed to sink the cruiser Hector and the destroyer Tenedos in the harbour itself. Then they located the Cornwall and the Dorsetshire 200 miles southwest of Colombo and sank them too. Some 424 sailors were killed and a 1,000 plus that survived were saved after hours in the water. It was the first air-raid in the Centenary Sky. Four days later, the Japanese attacked China Bay. This time they sank HMS Vampire and HMS Holyhock killing approximately 700 people. They hunted down the HMS Hermes and sank her near Batticaloa. The death toll on the doomed aircraft carrier was around 307 sailors. During the attack on China bay, pilot Shigenori Watanabe operating a Japanese fighter bomber circled around a huge oil tank near the harbour. He had two others in the crew with him, Tokya Goto and Sutumu Toshira. They then power-dived their plane aimed at the tank in Kamikaze fashion. The aeroplane exploded on impact, instantly killed the pilots and completely destroyed the installation. The Centenary sky saw for the first time suicide bombers killing themselves for their country. Similar actions were repeated many times in another war, in another place, under the same Centenary Sky. Friend or foe, the sadness is the same, they died for causes they believed in, and they were young. 93
  58. 58. Zero
  59. 59. Maybe he wasn’t learning to fly, but gathering information on what he saw from the Centenary Sky. Perhaps that was their plan, perhaps not. I wonder whether the answers will ever be known. Why did Admiral Nagumo take his winning fleet and move away without coming to Ceylon? He may have had his reasons or may have had his orders. The fact is Ceylon was saved, and that is what mattered. It was also said he simply vanished after some time. Star pilot Commander Mitsuo Fuchida became a defeated man after the war and started working as a farmer to feed his family. In 1950, he embraced Christianity and became an evangelist preaching salvation and converting people to the faith. Some stories came up of the people who played different roles when Japan invaded Ceylon on that Easter Sunday. Logically, they are all acceptable. Some have written evidence too. Each one merits mention. His book “From Pearl Harbour to Golgotha” was widely accepted in America and he toured the USA as an ambassador of peace, preaching the gospel. ‘Rathu Palliya’ is a little church somewhere in Kelaniya. There had been a small cemetery behind the church. People say they remember an unmarked grave there, swollen earth and a small white grave stone with no words to say who was buried. People also said that a Japanese pilot was buried there. He flew in on the Easter Sunday raid and was shot down and crashed and died. Like Birchall, Fuchida too came to Ceylon in later years. Not firing a machine gun from a fighter aeroplane, but carrying a Bible. Commander Mitsuo Fuchida led the attack on Pearl Harbour, the one on Darwin and on Colombo. He was also present at Midway when the famous air battle took place. Fuchida died in 1976 at the age of 73. Someone buried him, and marked his grave, no name. The cemetery is no more. New constructions are in place. There is no trace of the unmarked grave and the place and the people of the area had obviously forgotten the unknown Japanese fighter pilot. Squadron Leader Leonard Birchall spent the war years as a POW in Japan. After the war, he returned home to Canada and visited Ceylon on a later date. His aeroplane was the first known to be shot down in the Centenary Sky, and his three crew members, the first to die. The Catalina that flew out before Birchall’s fateful patrol, there never was any trace of it. It is logical to think that they were spotted by the Japanese fleet and some fighters would have shot them down. There is no record accept they were termed missing in action, the first to be so in the Centenary Sky. A young Japanese man came in 1939 to learn to fly in Ratmalana. He became a member of the Aero Club. He was attached to some Japanese mission. Though he came to learn, he had known how to fly, and that too very well, though he pretended he was a student pilot. That was what the instructors whispered to each other in ‘hangar small talk.’ The Japanese trainee pilot did many solo flights over and around Colombo and Ratmalana. 95
  60. 60. Katunayake 97
  61. 61. Ratmalana Airport was getting busy. This was 1939. Commercial traffic was at a minimum with only mail-carrying aeroplanes flying in and out. The pleasure fliers too were hardly flying with the onset of the war. But the military movements, in and out of Ceylon, had increased by mega numbers. That kept Ratmalana ticking at a pace it wasn’t used to. The RAF squadrons stationed there added a huge quantum to the number of aircraft taking off and landing. The Centenary Sky was very busy and Ratmalana was taking the brunt of it. An alternate airport became a pressing need. There was another paramount reason for the want of an alternate. A pilot flying to Ratmalana had nowhere to divert if he encountered bad weather on arrival. The Race Course landing strip was too close and in any case it was no longer a place where planes landed. Furthermore if Ratmalana was experiencing weather problems it was very unlikely that Colombo would be clear. The distance was too short. Puttalam was a possible choice, but way below the required standard as it was simply a cleared grass patch. Negombo was the answer they found. The Colonial Government authorised the RAF to build an airfield in Negombo, in the hamlet of Katunayake. About 40,000 coconut trees were felled and the land cleared and the new Negombo airfield took shape with a single runway and ample room for expansion. Today the name has changed. It is Bandaranaike International Airport. About 3,350 meters of runway is available, with instrument landing systems installed on both sides to guide aeroplanes safely home when in low visibility conditions. Departures and arrivals are handled by RADAR control and the airfield is open 24 hours of the day with only a three-hour closure for maintenance on Wednesdays. Average flight movements add up to 139 take-offs and landings per day. Six million passengers passed through the departure and arrival halls in 2011. Eight finger piers move like giant caterpillars to load and unload the aeroplanes. Twenty-three scheduled carriers have pitstops here and Qatar and Malaysian have dedicated cargo flights operating once a week. On a given day, approximately a thousand staff handles the services, from selling duty-free liquor to controlling aeroplanes ensconced in the ATC tower. 99
  62. 62. The construction of the field commenced in the early 40s and was operative from 1944. RAF Negombo was the name. There was a lot of Royal Air Force traffic that came to the new field in Negombo. Most were transiting from long-haul flying, arriving east-bound from Aden and west-bound from Singapore. The operation of the military airfield changed hands and came under the RCyAF in 1957. The name too changed, from Negombo to Katunayake Airport. The airfield catered to both military and civilian aircraft. Ratmalana located in urban Colombo had limitations of expansion. The jet age was coming and Ceylon needed a modern airport to fly into the future. It was the Canadians who stepped into assist in 1964. Upgrading plans were drawn and a modern aerodrome sprouted out from the old coconut estate. ‘Canada Friendship Road’ led to the international terminal from the trunk route between Colombo and Negombo. In 1968, the new airport opened and was renamed ‘Bandaranaike International Airport’ in 1970. 205 Shack As for the name, it has been through political musical chairs; the name changed to Katunayake again in 1977 and back to Bandaranaike in 1995. The reasons were obvious. The aerodrome had its share of woes during the war. The Lockheed TriStar bombed on the tarmac was the first. Then it was the carnage of 2001, when a Black Tiger suicide squad completely destroyed two SriLankan Airlines aircraft and damaged another three. It certainly was one of the saddest sights that was ever to be seen in a modern airport. The military side of the airfield was bombed on 25th March 2007. It was again a LTTE operation. Yes, Negombo, Katunayake or Bandaranaike airport has seen her share of woes and had witnessed the sadness of the death of innocent people at her doorstep. The new highway to the airport from Colombo is almost ready for opening. It would be a very welcome addition to beat the current traffic congestion to and from the airport to the capital. Mattala International is nearing completion, a sibling to her elder in Katunayake. The two aerodromes will share the projected influx of increased passengers and cargo that is expected in the coming years. The Centenary Sky has been faithfully served by the old airfield that saw its birth in a coconut estate. Though memories fade, remembrance does awake. Few remain of the people who served 101
  63. 63. at the Negombo airport in its infancy. But the stories are there, to be re-kindled, from time to time, of what it was like in the old days. An Air Ceylon Trident taking off, a BOAC Comet landing, or an Antonov loading cargo to be flown to a little-known place; such were common sights at Katunayake. They would always be recalled by people who were present in the old days and maybe the stories would be related to those who come after. Who knows what the future unfolds, someone may even fly to the moon from Katunayake one day. That is always a possibility that the probabilities favour 103
  64. 64. Air Ceylon 105

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