101 years of aviation in Sri Lanka

Saturday, 14 December 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By H.M.C. Nimalsiri The first aeroplane arrived on the shores of Sri Lanka by sea in a ship called ‘Rabenfels’ on 12 September 1911 for the use of an Englishman named Colin Brown. The aircraft had an Anzani 25 horse power engine and was built in France. 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 25 July 1909. The Bleriot aircraft did not fly during the first few months after arrival in Sri Lanka. It had been exhibited in different locations and people had bought tickets to see the wonder machine that was capable of travelling in air. Oster’s sorties A German pilot named Franz Oster arrived in Sri Lanka in December 1911. He brought with him a monoplane called an Etrich Taube, an Austrian machine which was designed by Igo Etrich, of Austrian-Hungarian 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. In the first attempt Oster 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 managed to reach a height of 40 feet but crashed and sustained minor injuries. Oster made another attempt which was also not successful. For his third attempt at flying the Sri Lankan skies, Oster used Colin Brown’s Bleriot monoplane which was on exhibition. The third time too, Oster was unlucky. He brought the Bleriot that was being displayed at the Colombo Racquet Club to fly. That time he collided with a bamboo sticking out of the Royal College building and crash-landed onto the Race Course grounds. Oster suffered a shoulder dislocation, cuts and bruises. The plane was badly damaged. None of Oster’s sorties into the skies qualified to be considered the first flight in Sri Lanka as those sorties could not complete the essential basic characteristics of a full flight: the takeoff, circuit and landing safely. First flight Early morning on 7 December 1912, at Colombo Race Course grounds, two Frenchmen – Georges Verminck and Marc Pourpre – managed to take-off in Bleriot aircraft, fly and land safely, thus recording the first flight in the skies of Sri Lanka. Ratmalana airport The State acquired 242 acres of coconut plantation at Ratmalana in 1934 for the construction of an airstrip of 600 yards. The first plane, a De Havilland Puss Moth flown by Flt/Lt Harold Tyndale-Biscoe, the Chief Flying Instructor of the Madras Flying Club, landed on this new airstrip on 27 November 1935. It was considered the ‘soft opening’ of the airport. Sir John Kotelawala, then Minister for Transport and Works, promoted private flying through the Aero Club of Ceylon in the 1930s. On 28 February 1938, the formal opening of the Ratmalana Airport for civil aviation and the official inauguration of the first direct regular airmail service under the British Empire Air Mail Scheme (AMS) from Sri Lanka was performed by the Governor Sir Andrew Caldecott at the invitation of Sir John L. Kotelawala, Minister of Communications and Works. At this occasion the Governor Caldecott handed over three official mail bags containing messages to the Secretary of State for the Colonies and the Governors of Bombay and Madras, to the Captain of the American Waco 4-Seater aircraft operated by Tata Sons Ltd., of Bombay, India, registering the first air mail service in Sri Lanka. After the inauguration ceremony, several Tiger Moth planes of the Aero Club staged a fly-past, to the delight of the large and distinguished gathering present, at which Governor Caldecott took the salute. At the height of World War II in the early 1940s, Allied military came to the island and established airstrips at Katunayake, Vavuniya, Puttalam, Trincomalee, and Palaly. A sea-plane base was also established in Koggala, for the operation of military aircraft. Until the early 1960s, Ratmalana was the primary airport for overseas-bound commercial flights. Department of Civil Aviation In 1947, the Government appointed L.S.B. (Leslie) Perera to head the newly-created Department of Civil Aviation and M. Chandrasoma, an experienced civil servant, as Perera’s Secretary to functions under the Ministry of Communications and Works. The office of the DCA was established at the Trans Works House, at Colombo Fort. In 1947, the Government purchased three war-surplus Douglas DC 3 Dakota aeroplanes. The DC-3s were all named after queens – Sita Devi, Viharamahadevi and Sunethra Devi, a tradition which continued for some years. But the birth of the new State airline was still a few months in the future. So the three aircraft, under the aegis of the Civil Aviation Department, were extensively used for pilot training and route proving duties. In June 1947, at the suggestion of Sir John Kotelawala, Viharamahadevi flew to London to collect a valuable cargo of electoral registers for the coming elections. The historic nine-day flight supplied further proof of what Sri Lankan aviators, and the trusty DC 3, could accomplish. Air Ceylon On Wednesday 10 December 1947, with Capt. Peter Fernando at the controls and a complement of 16 passengers, Sita Devi rose gracefully from the Ratmalana runway soon after 8 a.m., inaugurating the Air Ceylon commercial flights and headed for Palaly. After a brief stop there, the Dakota proceeded to Madras, returning to Colombo by the same route later that day. The honour of becoming Air Ceylon’s first air hostess fell to Mavis Wijeratne, who was Air Ceylon’s receptionist. The air hostess designated to crew the inaugural flight took ill suddenly so Wijeratne was quickly substituted. Air Ceylon achieved the distinction of one of the world’s safest airlines, never recording a single passenger fatality throughout its 32-year history, apart from an accident on 21 December 1949 in which Douglas C-47 Dakota (registered VP-CAT) was damaged beyond repair in a crash landing at Tiruchirapalli Airport following a scheduled passenger flight from Jaffna. The 21 passengers and three crew members survived the accident. During its lifespan from 1947 to 1978, Air Ceylon entered into partnership with four international airlines viz. Australian National Airways (ANA), KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) and French airline UTA. Becoming Air Ceylon’s fourth international partner in 25 years, UTA provided a Douglas DC-8 jet for the long-haul services. Originally operated by UTA pilots with Sri Lankan cabin attendants, the DC-8 was subsequently bought outright by Air Ceylon and flown with a 100% Air Ceylon crew. This purchase was applauded as a breakthrough in Air Ceylon’s struggle to shed the shackles of foreign influence. Air Ceylon had, at last, come of age. As the last of the airline’s faithful DC-3s were phased out, a second Avro HS 748 was bought. Cruel blow However before long, the first signs began emerging that all was not well with the national carrier. Authorities in Europe impounded a DC-8 for non-payment of fuel bills, and staff morale plummeted when international services were suspended towards the end of 1977. A reduced domestic and regional operation soldiered on valiantly with the Trident and two Avros. On 7 September 1978, Air Ceylon suffered a cruel blow. One of the Avros, just back from a trip to Jaffna, which parked at Ratmalana, was exploded by a bomb planted inside aircraft, reducing it to a charred, twisted hulk. Miraculously no lives were lost. The surviving Avro and Trident struggled to maintain a semblance of an operation. Air Lanka Air Lanka was set up by the Government of Sri Lanka in July 1979 following the closure of Air Ceylon in 1978. Initially, the new air carrier operated two Boeing 707 jets on lease from Singapore Airlines, but Air Lanka ended up keeping the Boeing 707s, which were purchased in 1979, while a Boeing 737 was acquired for shorter routes. During the 1980s, the airline increased the number of destinations served and made additions to its fleet. During the mid-1980s the airline operated two Boeing 747-200 aircraft to a number of European destinations. The airline’s golden aircraft was the Lockheed L1011 Tristar, which served the airline from 1980 to 2000. Air Lanka, which was State-owned, was part-privatised to the Dubai-based Emirates Group in 1998, when Emirates and the Sri Lankan Government signed an agreement for a 10-year strategic partnership. This agreement included exclusive rights for all aircraft ground handling, airline catering at Colombo-Bandaranaike Airport for a 10-year period and use of country’s traffic rights for six years. Emirates bought a 40% stake worth US$70 million (which it later increased to 43.6%) in Air Lanka, and sought to refurbish the airline’s image and fleet. The Government retained a majority stake in the airline, but gave full control to Emirates for investment and management decisions. SriLankan Airlines In 1998, the Air Lanka was rebranded ‘SriLankan Airlines’. SriLankan acquired 6 Airbus A330-200s to complement its fleet of Airbus A340-300 and A320-200 aircraft. SriLankan was the first airline in Asia to induct fly-by-wire state of art Airbus A320 aircraft, giving a tremendous boost to the airline’s image. The A330-200 aircraft joined the airline between October 1999 and July 2000. The management contract between Emirates and the Sri Lanka Government expired on 31 March 2008. Emirates sold its stake in shares to the Government of Sri Lanka at US$ 53 million in 2010, thus ending any affiliations. The airline joined the one world alliance in 2012. Mihin Lanka Mihin Lanka which was incorporated on 27 October 2006 is a low-fare airline based in Colombo. It is wholly-owned by the Sri Lankan Government and commenced operations on 24 April 2007. The airline operates scheduled flights from its hub at Bandaranaike International Airport to a number of cities in the Indian subcontinent, the Gulf States and Southeast Asia. It code-shares with its partner SriLankan Airlines on several routes, as part of a consolidation exercise between the two airlines. Civil Aviation Authority In response to a recommendation made by the International Civil Aviation Organisation for enhancement of the State’s capability to conduct Safety Oversight functions, the Government abolished the Department of Civil Aviation in 2002 and created the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka in terms of Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka Act No. 34 of 2002. The Air Navigation Act No. 15 of 1950 was replaced by Civil Aviation Act No. 14 of 2010 and made wide provisions for the administration of the civil aviation in keeping pace with the present day requirements. The International Civil Aviation Organisation which conducted an audit on the safety and security oversight capabilities of sri Lanka from 24-30 October 2010 found that the State’s compliance in the implementation of international standards and recommended practices is well over the world average with the overall compliance of over 85%. As per the overall audit results, Sri Lanka has been ranked number four amongst 34 states in Asia and Pacific Regions and 19 amongst 181 states in world. Airports and Aviation Services The Government created an Airports Authority in 1979 for the development, operation and maintenance of civil airports in Sri Lanka and it survived only for three years. In 1983, the Government created an agent established under the Companies Act to succeed the Airports Authority and to also provide air traffic services which were hitherto handled by the Department of Civil Aviation. The Agent was identified as the Airports and Aviation Services (Sri Lanka) Ltd., which has later been identified as the Statutory Service Provider under the Civil Aviation Act. Katunayake International Airport Katunayake International Airport was developed under the Canadian Government’s assistance in 1963. With the development work was completed in 1968, international air transport operations were shifted from Ratmalana to Katunayake. The airport had a passenger handling capacity of 1.5 million per annum at the beginning and it was subsequently expanded to six million passenger per annum with one pier and connecting eight aerobridges, under the Stage I-Phase II of the Airport Development Program which was completed in November 2005. Mattala Airport The Government decided to construct the country’s second international airport at Mattala, Hambantota. President Mahinda Rajapaksa launched the airport development on 19 November 2009. The foundation stone for the terminal building which can handle one million passengers was laid on 24 April 2011. The airport was declared open in March 2013.The writer is Director General of Civil Aviation and Chief Executive Officer of the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka.)