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
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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.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
Yes, “A Centenary Sky” demanded a huge effort and I certainly was
not flying solo, so many others surrounded me so willingly in the
1. The Present
2. Where did it all begin?
3. First into the Centenary Sky
4. An Aeroplane called Jaffna
5. Inbound from India
7. Little Moths in the Wide Sky
8. The Tower Men
9. Royal Air Force
10. Intruders into the Centenary Sky
12. Air Ceylon
13. The Maintenance Men
14. The Custodian of the Centenary Sky
15. Fledglings to Pilots
16. SLAF, a Sentinel in the Centenary Sky
17. Cargo through the clouds
18. Tears of a Sky
19. The UL Story
20. Model Aeroplanes
21. A Toll to the Sky
22. Baloons in the Sky
23. Mihin Lanka
24. Para Motoring
25. From the waves to the winds
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”
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
“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
“Good morning Colombo Approach this is SriLankan 162 at three
“Good morning, pick up heading two zero zero and descend two
“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
“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
“SriLankan 162, contact ground on 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
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
The offering is not perfect, but then how often are we perfect?
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 was the beginning of the story of modern aviation in the Paradise
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.’
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.
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
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.
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
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
That is what I write, and that is what you read, and that is how
memories stay alive for the generations to come.
Early aeroplanes speeded communication by carrying mail between
cities and then graduated to go across continents as aviation
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
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
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
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
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
Vincent’s Puss Moth carried 25 copies of ‘The Times of Ceylon”
marked ‘First Airmail Edition.’
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.
“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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
“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
From then on, it was RCyAF and the airport was officially christened
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.
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
The Japanese trainee pilot did many solo flights over and around
Colombo and Ratmalana.
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
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.
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.
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
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