The Sunday Leader

Protecting The Skies Of Lanka

  • The Sri Lanka Air Force’s Journey of Sixty Four Years.
The Sri Lanka Air Force celebrates its 64th Anniversary tomorrow.  Its journey of 64 years since its inception has been eventful and significant.  Here we will revisit some parts of that history as we reminisce about the progress of the Air Arm of the Sri Lankan military.

The Start

On 2nd March 1951, when the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) was born, it was an Air Force in name only.  It possessed no Aircraft, and remained without till the arrival of the first four Chipmunks, its first trainer aircraft in October of that year.

Group Captain Graham Clerke Bladon, seconded by the British Government to set up the RCyAF, commanded it through its formative years.  A Senior Air Staff Officer of the RAF’s 62 Group, the Reserve Command covering the whole of the South West of England, Bladon had also been in charge of training auxiliary squadrons, volunteer reserves and the RAF cadets. In 1946, he was Commander of the RAF base in Singapore, and later, Staff Officer (Administration) at Air HQ Malaya. He was honoured with the Order of the British Empire in 1951, whilst serving in Ceylon.

The receipt of the first batch of Chipmunk aircraft heralded the conferring of Station status on RCyAF, Katunayake. A second batch of five Chipmunks joined the fleet in July 1952 and began flying in November 1952.

The last batch of Chipmunks was purchased in March 1953 and commissioned in August the same year. Also in 1953, the Air Force took delivery of three Airspeed Oxford aircraft. The arrival of the twin-engined Airspeed Oxford aircraft enabled the Flying wing to become operational, engaging in anti-illicit immigrant sorties.

Three years after birth, the RCyAF took delivery of its first batch of Merlin-engined Boulton Paul Balliol aircraft, heralding the commencement of advanced flying training activities, long delayed up to that juncture. The Balliols were significantly more powerful than the sedate Oxfords and Chipmunks, and many an RCyAF Cadet pilot found them brutes to fly yet a few of those Cadets like Paddy Mendis, Harry Goonetileke and Dick Perera have admitted that of all the aircraft they had flown, the most challenging and rewarding to fly, were the Balliols.

The De Havilland Dove joined the fleet in 1955, and the Air Force began to operate two squadrons – No. 1 Squadron, to which the Chipmunks and Balliols were attached (and consequently was the training wing) and No. 2 Squadron to which the Doves were attached. With the arrival of the Doves, the force also acquired two Westland S 51 helicopters, commonly known as the Dragonfly and four Prestwick single engine Pioneer aircraft which were deployed in the role of crop sprayers and transporters.


The RAF Departs

The late 1950s saw the departure of the RAF from the shores of Lanka and RAF bases at Katunayake and China Bay became RCyAF Stations.  A year after the take over of the Katunayake Base, Air Commodore Bladon relinquished Command of the RCyAF to Air Commodore J.L. Barker.  Under his command, in 1958, the RCyAF acquired two De Havilland Heron Aircraft. A team comprising Squadron Leader Short, Flight Lieutenants Harry Goonetileke, Dick C. Perera and A. Walter Fernando set off for the UK in a Dove, to bring back two De Havilland Heron aircraft purchased by Ceylon. On the ferry flight back from the UK, they were in formation sharing the service of just one navigator.

The First jets arrived in Ceylon in the form of the De Havilland Vampires. These were followed by the Hunting Percival Jet Provosts.  When the RCyAF was practicing for the Independence Day Fly Past in 1960 the Jet Provosts were in flight formation when one of the aircraft experienced a flame out. This triggered the RCyAF’s first case of ejection, when Squadron Leader Noel Lokuge ejected from his aircraft over the Negombo Lagoon.

Air Commodore E. Rohan Amarasekera DFC took over as the first Ceylonese Commander of the RCyAF, succeeding AVM Barker.  Rohan Amarasekara was RCyAF’s very own World War II hero, having served with distinction as a navigator in the RAF Bomber Command. He had flown on as many as 52 raids, mostly over Nazi Germany. His gallant and selfless contribution during World War II earned him the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross twice.

AVM Amarasekara pursued the Ceylonisation of the Air Force. He was instrumental in drafting the Queen’s Regulations to suit local conditions. The official language was introduced into day to day administration of the Air Force. He also played a key role in quelling the coup-d’ètat that threatened to overthrow the government. Amarasekara relinquished command on 01 January 1971. He passed away on 20 March 1974.

Pathman ‘Paddy’ Mendis took over the reins from Amarasekera and skilfully and meticulously guided the Air Force through trying times. The most notable being the 1971 insurrection – the first major operational call for the Air Force. It was during his tenure that the RCyAF transformed into the Sri Lanka Air Force. Many pioneering projects were initiated during the tenure of ACM Mendis. Completing an eventful tour of duty as the Commander he relinquished office on 01 November 1976. He continued to contribute towards the development of aviation in Sri Lanka. In honour of his service to the Air Force and the nation he was promoted to the rank of Air Chief Marshal on 01 October 2007. He was also bestowed with the honorary title “Deshamanya” for his invaluable contributions to the nation.

Air Commodore Harry Goonetileke became the fifth Commander of the Air Force on 1st November 1976. Goonetileke’s period of command saw the beginnings of some important reclamation work, in terms of restoring disused RAF air fields; a task that was pursued with great vigour by his successor AVM Dick Perera in later years. He also began the archival process that led in later years to the formation of the SLAF Museum and contributed greatly to SLAF sports particularly Rugby Football.

During Goonetileke’s Commandership, only two aircraft were purchased – two Dauphin SA 365c helicopters for VIP transport duties. This reflected the return to normalcy in the island.

March of 1976 marked the Silver Jubilee of the Sri Lanka Air Force and Pedestrians on D. R. Wijewardene Mawatha received the shock of their life, when a Russian built KA 26 helicopter crash landed on the street!It was an exhibit and was towed to the site after removing its rotor blades, and brought plenty of attention to the event of the 25th Anniversary of the Air Force.   Later, on the 31st of March, the Air Force was honoured when it was bestowed with the President’s Colours at a colourful ceremony held at the Sugathadasa Stadium.

On 1st May 1981 Air Vice Marshal Dick Cuthbert Perera succeeded Air Vice Marshal Harry Goonetileke as Commander of the Air Force.AVM Perera continued where his predecessor left off, reclaiming disused airfields and runways across the country.  His tenure also saw the acquisition of many new aircraft including the Bell 212, Bell 412, SiaiMarchetti SF 260 TP.

On the 1st of May 1985, Andibuduge Walter Fernando rose to the highest echelon of the Sri Lanka Air Force, having being promoted to the rank of Air Marshal – the first Air Force commander to be promoted to this rank on appointment.  He was followed by Makalandage Johnny Terrence De Silva Gunawardena who took over as the eighth commander of the Sri Lanka Air Forceon the 1stof August 1990.  Air Marshal Gunawardena was instrumental in reviving the fighter jet capability of the Sri Lanka Air Force – an aspect that had long been forgotten and neglected.  The SLAF acquired the Chinese F 7 which spawned a new generation of men and machines. The Argentinian FMA IA 58 Pucara and the Mil Mi 17 were two other notable acquisitions to the SLAF during his tenure. Both the F 7 and Mi 17 proved to be invaluable during the campaign against terrorism. He also introduced the zonal concept which was used in administration of the Air Force.

Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe took over the Command of the SLAF on 17th Feb 1994 and remained in the appointment till 5th Mar 1998.  The period saw a significant boom in technological advancement within the Air Force. The acquisition of the legendary Kfir fighter, devastating Mi 24 attack helicopter, and the logistical workhorse AN 32B aircraft took place under his purview. The SLAF also took a giant step forward when it acquired the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle which provided invaluable intelligence and reconnaissance services in the war against terrorism.

Jayalath Weerakkody, who rose to the rank of Air Marshal on 6 March 1998, became the Sri Lanka Air Force’s tenth Commander.  He earned a reputation as a taskmaster, initiating and fast tracking many infrastructure development projects throughout the Air Force, of which the gymnasiums, swimming pools and Married Quarters projects stand out. He was also instrumental in the acquisition of the MiG 27 fighters, K 8 jet trainers and PT 6 basic trainers. He displayed outstanding leadership when he personally directed offensive operations having actively taken part in them whilst holding senior appointments such as Director Operations. Next at the helm was Air Marshal GD Perera who took over as Commander on 16 July 2002.  He served in this capacity till 11 June 2006.  Following in the footsteps of his illustrious father and the 5th Commander Harry, Air Marshal Roshan Gunatilleke took over as the 12th Commander of the Air Force.

On 18 May 2009, with the successful conclusion of the Humanitarian Operations, he was promoted to the rank of Air Chief Marshal by His Excellency the President in appreciation of the valuable service rendered. His promotion was very significant as he was the only Air Force Commander to be promoted to the rank of Air Chief Marshal whilst on active service. Air Marshal HD Abeywickrama took over as the 13th Commander of the Air Force on the 27th of February 2011.  During his tenure of appointment as Commander, the Sri Lanka Air Force engaged in post conflict Nation Building projects as well as effective utilization of the SLAF Aircraft fleet in revenue generating commercial ventures.

As a sequel to these projects, the ‘Heli-Tours’ was re-launched in a more professional manner with the induction MA-60 aircraft and Mi-17 Helicopters together with the upgrading of some of the available aircraft to commercial status resulting in the SLAF taking the prime position in domestic air travel of Sri Lanka. Similar commercial ventures such as the ‘Marble Beach Resort’, 2 Golf Links, ‘Eagles’ Lagoon View’ and the ‘Eagles’ Lakeside Banquet and Convention Hall’ contributed towards the promotion of tourism in Sri Lanka.He relinquished command as the 13th Commander of the SLAF on 27th February 2014 and was promoted to the rank of Air Chief Marshal in recognition of his invaluable service to the Nation. Under the leadership of the present Commander, Air Marshal Kolitha Gunatilleke, who took over the reins of the Air Force on 28th February 2014, the Air Force continues to contribute to post conflict Nation building efforts while also developing capacity and quality of life of its members.

The Air Force saw its first Aircraft deployment to United Nations missions when three Mi171 helicopters deployed to the Central African Republic.  Another three helicopters are due to deploy to South Sudan.  Helitours also continues to stimulate the Civil Air Transportation sector in Sri Lanka where the civil aviation industry is starting to pick up. The Air Force is also expanding into new spheres of activity utilizing its technically proficient and disciplined membership. The Air Force strives to stay on the leading edge of technology, to retain control of the air above Sri Lanka and to fulfil the expectations of its ultimate customer, the people of Sri Lanka.

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