The pioneering Air Ceylon days

Saturday, 6 September 2014 00:05 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

SriLankan Airlines (SLA) has just completed 35 years. SLA was really the re-branding of the previous national carrier Airlanka. Sri Lanka has an airline history of 67 years. The first flag carrier airline, Air Ceylon (Sri Lanka was then Ceylon) was formed in 1947. The State-owned airline began by operating domestic flights using Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft. International services began two years later in 1949 with Douglas DC-4 planes. It was a four-engine propeller-driven aircraft developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company in USA. Air Ceylon operated the international services in cooperation with Australian National Airways (ANA) which had a 49 per cent stake in the airline. The longest route flown at the time was from Colombo to London. In the 1950s Air Ceylon offered multiple- stopover flights in three routes – to Europe, to Australia and a regional flight to India. Over the years Air Ceylon partnered with different airlines leasing their airliners for long-haul flights. After ANA it partnered with KOL from 1956 leasing two Lockheed Constellation planes. In 1962 BOAC came on the scene when de Havilland Comet was used for long distance flights. Until 1967 Ratmalana was the only airport which operated in Sri Lanka. It had been established in 1935 following a decision made by the State Council to build an aerodrome close to Colombo. A Madras Flying Club’s chief flying instructor, TyndalleBisco is credited with piloting the first aircraft – a De Vailland Puss Moth – to land at Ratmalana airport on 27 November 1935. Ratmalana airport became a Royal Air Force base during the Second World War (1939 onwards). Royal Air Force aircraft attacked Japanese Navy aircraft from Ratmalana when they came to bomb Colombo. Records mention that civilian B-24 Liberator and Avro Lancastrian aeroplanes made what at that time was the world’s longest non-stop air route from Ratmalana to Perth in Western Australia with an intermediate re-fuelling stop at the Cocos Islands. In 1947, KLM flew Douglas DC-4 Skymasters through Ratmalana on the route from the Netherlands to Indonesia – then known as the Dutch East Indies because the country was occupied by the Dutch. On 11 August 1952, three months after the inaugural service of a passenger jet aircraft, BOAC began its Comet service between Colombo and London. Meanwhile, RAF had set up an air base at Katunayake in 1944. World War II was still on at the time. The S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike Government took it over in 1957 following Government policy to take over the British bases in Sri Lanka. It was handed over to the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCAF). With the expansion of air traffic there was a need to have a bigger airport. In the early 1960s the Government selected a big coconut estate at Katunayake – it was called Goluwa Pokuna – to build a new international airport. It was adjoining the RCAF air field. After Parliament approved the project proposed by Minister of Communications Anil Munasinghe during the Sirimavo Bandaranaike-led United Front Government in 1964, construction started and was completed in 1967. Thereafter Ratmalana came to be used for domestic air travel, which was not big business at the time. Air Ceylon opened its hub at Katunayake. It purchased a Hawker Siddeley Trident jet airliner in 1969. It operated on regional routes until 1978. In 1978, Air Ceylon was shut down by the Sri Lankan Government due to bankruptcy, and Air Lanka was established as the new national carrier. The rest is recent history.