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SLAF - highly professional outfit


The 60th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) falls on March 02, 2011. The Sri Lanka Air Force which was initiated by the British 60 years ago has turned out to be a highly professional outfit with its servicemen and playing a pivotal and indispensable role in defeating LTTE terrorism on May 19, 2009 along with the other forces of Sri Lanka

This is how the SLAF developed to its present standard.Sri Lanka Air Force Mi-24 & Pilots

Royal Air Force and World War II

The precursor of Sri Lankan Air Force were the elements of the British Royal Air Force based in Sri Lanka during the World War II.

Japan entered World War II with the bombing of the Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. The Japanese fleet with a force of about 125 aircraft attacked strategic targets in Colombo on April 5, 1942 and the China Bay airfield in Trincomalee on April 8, 1942. Between the late 1930s and the early 1950s a great deal of military flying activities took place in and from Sri Lanka. These activities were conducted by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm (FAA). RAF Airfields were established at Colombo Racecourse, Ratmalana, Katukurunda, Negombo, China Bay, Minneriya, Vavuniya, Kankesanthurai, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Mawanella, Koggala, Kalametiya and Puttalam.

RCyAF pilots

Later on the Royal Ceylon Air Force was born on March 2, 1951 with a Regular Air Force, a Regular Air Force Reserve, a Volunteer Air Force and a Volunteer Air Force Reserve becoming the youngest of the Defence Services of Ceylon. Cadets D De S Seneviratne and Paddy Mendis were recruited to the RCyAF on August 8, 1951.

When at last training got under way at Katunayake, the first batch of Officer Cadets were Ivor De Abrew, L B Tissa, R Varatharasa, C Chelvarajan, Mike Phoebus, D Nicolle, Dick C Perera, R Vivekananthan, Harry Goonetileke and Jayasena. An Air Force HQ Unit was formed in 1952 and was located at McCallum Road.

At inception, the RCyAF owned no aircraft. The RCyAF’s first trainer, the Chipmunk arrived in 1950 and another two batches joined the fleet in 1952 and 1953. The aircraft were assembled at Katunayake, under the guidance of RAF Engineers and were first flown in February 1951.

Many an RCyAF Cadet pilot found the next batch of Balliols 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 RCyAF took delivery of Merlin-engined Boulton Paul Balliol aircraft in 1955, heralding the commencement of advanced flying training activities, long delayed up to that juncture. But the prowess of our young RCyAF pilots did Ceylon proud in the UK. Squadron Leader S V Mahendra Situnayake became the second Asian pilot to win the Groves Memorial Prize for Flying and Airmanship at Cranwell while Squadron Leader J E M Nihal Ratnayake became the first Asian pilot to win the Hicks Memorial Prize for Aerobatics, also at Cranwell.

A De Havilland Dove aircraft, two Westland S 51 helicopters, commonly known as the Dragonfly and four Prestwick single engine Pioneer aircraft joined the fleet in 1955.

The RCyAF’s first major tragedy took place in 1958 in the form of an air accident. It involved a Dove aircraft from No 2 Squadron piloted by Flt Lt Varatharasa which crashed on take-off into the oil storage tanks at China Bay airfield in the Trincomalee area, killing all five persons on board. In addition to the pilot, there were Flt Lt Shibley and Lt Peiris and an Engineering Officer of the British Army, Major Hacker and Sergeant Guy.

The Civil side of things

The first signs of civil unrest in Ceylon was witnessed in 1958. The RCyAF was called upon to assist the other armed services in maintaining law and order.

Air Vice Marshal John Lindsay Barker relinquished command of the RCyAF in 1962 and bade Ceylon farewell and Air Commodore E Rohan Amarasekera DFC took over it as the first Ceylonese Commander of the RCyAF.

Air Cdre Amarasekera introduced the official language, Sinhala, into the day to day working of the Force.

RCyAF Trade Training School, Katunayake, came into being to provide formal training for Officers and Aircraftsmen in their branch or trade on January 15,1971.

The No 1 Flying Training School which went to China Bay in 1963, was re-established with effect from January 15, 1971 to undertake ab-initio and advanced flying training of students to wings standard. It also handled the training of qualified pilots to Flying Instructor category and the standardisation of Flying Instructors and Pilots of the RCyAF.

The RCyAF at the outbreak of the Southern-led insurgency in the island in 1971 which was the first serious internal threat faced by Ceylon, five Jet Provosts were flown to Katunayake from China Bay attacking a target on the way on April 9. With the hurried purchase of 60 lb rockets, the Jet Provosts became an effective weapon against insurgent concentrations.

During this period the RAFs heavy transports and AN-22 transport aircraft from Russia were streaming into Katunayake carrying 2 KA-26 helicopters and 6 MIG ground attack aircraft with their associated arms and servicing and control equipment.

By the end of April the Government Security Forces were well in control of the situation.

Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka on May 22,1972 and the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) became the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).

Commander Mendis saw the need for a fully-fledged Air Force Academy to train pilots, engineers and administrators under one roof in the early 70’s.

The RCyAF China Bay was incorporated into establishment as the Air Force Academy on April 17, 1975. The No 1 Flying Training School and Aeronautical and Administrative Training School Katunayake were combined to establish the Academy.

The new Academy provided basic and advanced training in approximately 50 trades. Officer cadets who completed basic combat training at Diyatalawa, could now obtain their professional training at the Academy.

Flying Training School

Six Cessna twin and single engined aircraft were purchased and placed under the command of the Flying Training School to help put trainee pilots through their paces.

An important event was also recorded in 1972 in the field of aeronautical engineering by enhancing a De Havilland Heron MK11D aircraft to a super luxury flying machine at the Technical Maintenance Depot, Katunayake headed by Group Captain M Herbert Marasinghe.

During AVM Mendis’ command that lasted November 1, 1976 the SLAF had grown in manpower from 1,400 to 3,100 personnel, an increase of over 150 percent, occasioned largely by the requirements to counter the insurgency of 1971.

Air Commodore Harry Goonetileke became the fifth Commander of the Air Force on November 1, 1976. His period of command saw the beginnings of some important reclamation work, in terms of restoring disused RAF airfields; 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.

Another development in 1976 was the setting up of the Air Force Commando Unit headed by Flt Lt J Eksith Peiris.

Rugby tournament

SLAF detachments were established at Wirawila on July 1, 1978, Vavuniya on August 1, 1978 and Minneriya on November 20, 1978. They went on to become fully-fledged independent Bases and Stations later.

During AVM Goonetileke’s Commandship two Dauphin SA 365c helicopters were purchased for VIP transport duties.

He was one of the more obvious sporting Commanders the Air Force has seen over the years.

Under his guidance, sports flourished and reached great heights. He was popularly called the father of Air Force Rugby. The Air Force team was placed in the B Division of the premier Rugby tournament in the country. He raised standards, groomed players and brought them into the A Division.

He also extended great support to the setting up of the Families Welfare Association (FWA) was formed to look after the interests of Air Force families and the Ex-Servicemen’s Association.

Air Vice Marshal Dick Cuthbert Perera succeeded Air Vice Marshal Harry Goonetileke as Commander of the Air Force on May 1,1981 established SLAF units at Batticaloa, Anuradhapura, Koggala and Sigiriya.

The first three Mi-17 helicopters joined the fleet in 1993. A real workhorse the Mi-24 attack helicopter joined the fleet later. Another three IA58 Pucara aircraft were also acquired, further enhancing the Air Force’s ground attack capabilities.

During the period of Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe as the Air Force Commander in 1994 another Pucara and three Mi-17 helicopters joined the SLAF fleet. The SLAF carried out flying support actions for 20 missions in the North and East in 1994.

However the then People’s Alliance Government’s ceasefire and discussions ended and fighting began after three months in 1995.

Naval vessels in the Trincomalee Harbour were attacked on April 19. Thus began a particularly intense and bloody period in the war!

Battle areas

The escalation of hostilities prompted further aircraft acquisitions and six more Mi-17 tactical helicopters were purchased. For the first time, an attack helicopter, the Mi-24 joined the SLAF fleet.

At the same time, three Antonov AN-32B transport aircraft joined No. 201 Heavy Transport Squadron (later No. 2 Heavy Transport Squadron).

Six aircraft were lost and even more tragically 14 experienced pilots lost their lives in 1995. Two Avro HS748 aircraft were downed by enemy fire on April 28 and 29. In July, an IA58 Pucara was lost.

One of the newly added AN32Bs went down in September, a Y-8 in November and another AN32B also in November.

The bringing down of the two Avro HS748s revealed a new capability of the terrorist’s anti-aircraft missile power. However a total of 25 missions were supported by the SLAF in the battle areas.

The main thrust was Operation Riviresa, stages one, two and three, up to that time the largest military operation conducted by the Army. These missions helped capture large areas of the Jaffna Peninsula.

The newly acquired Mi-24 attack helicopters played a significant role in the battles. In 1997 the SLAF flew over 20,000 hours, operationally for the first time ever, logging 21,895 hours in total and they did this despite losing nine manned aircraft.

The Air Force supported 14 operations throughout 1997, of these, Operation Jayasikuru launched in May was one the most significant.

Dawn of new era

During the period of Air Marshal Jayalath Weerakkody as the AF Commander, he re-organized the SLAF’s Flying Formations into effective squadrons. The Junior Command and Staff College at China Bay, a College designed to prepare officers in the rank of Squadron Leader and Flight Lieutenant for managerial appointments opened on March 4, 1999. The SLAF began to induct an unprecedented number of aircraft to fulfil to increase ground attack capabilities in 2000. Six MIG 27s, a MIG trainer, Mi-35 helicopters joined the fleet and were technically enhanced with electronic equipment, to undertake night attack duties. Heavy Transport Squadron took delivery of the SLAF’s first two Hercules C130 aircraft in March and September 2000.

Air Chief Marshal WDMRJ Goonetileke was appointed as the SLAF Commander on June 11, 2006 and he is the Commander and the chief of the Defence Staff.

He commanded the SL Air Force during the humanitarian operation that eliminated LTTE terrorism on May 19, 2009. The Air Force has rendered an indispensable service in the fight against terrorism.

from: by Sandasen Marasinghe