Fun flying

Saturday, 26 April 2014 00:16 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • A personal experience with Captain Elmo
By Srilal Miththapala I read with great interest Captain Elmo Jayawardane’s article entitled ‘Where have all the fun flyers gone?’ in a recent newspaper, which brought back some memories of my experience ‘fun flying’ with him. I got to know Elmo about 20 years ago, through a mutual, late and dear friend Phillip Cooray, former Deputy Editor of Straits Times, Singapore. I developed the friendship over the years, visiting Elmo in Singapore whenever I could, when I was on business visits there. I came to realise that this well loved and respected Senior Singapore Airlines Captain, was actually still a good old Moratuwa boy at heart,  who still  loved  his sarong,  a good drink and baila in the company of his friends. My visits to his elegant apartment in Singapore were fuelled not only by Elmo and his wife Dil’s warm and friendly company, but also my childhood fantasy of aircraft and flying. My interest in flying was quite serious and I was quite adamant to become a pilot in my early career, and I did apply to the newly-formed Air Lanka in the late 1970s. At the interview, I was offered training as a flight engineer with the first batch of Sri Lankan recruits, who would be going across to Singapore for training. After much thought, I declined the offer, since by that time I had already completed my degree in Electrical Engineering at the University of Moratuwa. As my career in Engineering and subsequently in Tourism developed, I still pursued my interest in flying and aircraft, by keeping abreast of airline news by reading technical books on aircraft. I still love to fly and like to watch the planes at the airports and identify them, and see them being readied and refuelled. Therefore, the few evenings spent with Elmo in Singapore were always of a great interest to me, as I would pepper him with questions about aircraft and flying, over a couple of drinks. A dream comes true During one such visit, perhaps due to my persistent questions about flying, Elmo told me that I should really try my hand at piloting a plane. I did not believe him, but he said that the next time he was in Colombo he will try to arrange for a short training flight for me. I forgot the incident, and was quite astonished to receive a call from him one evening a few months later, saying that he was in Colombo for few days, and that if I was free the next morning, we could go on a flight. I could not believe what I had heard; I jumped at the offer, cancelling all my appointments, all of which were suddenly of secondary importance As agreed, I was at the Ratmalana ‘Bata Junction’ at 5:30 a.m. the next morning where I met up with Elmo and drove to the Ratmalana Airport. Since, this was during the initial stages of the civil strife we went through some security checks. Everyone seemed to know Elmo at the small airport and there soon was a small crowd of officers talking to him. He accompanied them to the office and did the necessary paperwork and came out and went to the tarmac with me. He told the chattering officers “please get the Cessna ready and do a quick 360 check”. I was so excited that I my knees were like jelly, and as we went into the hanger and I saw the small white and blue trainer Cessna aircraft being wheeled out and made ready for us. I kept pinching myself and wondering whether this was a dream that I would wake up from. When everything was ready, Elmo said “let’s go Srilal” and we climbed into the plane helped by the friendly officers. It was evident to me that Elmo was an extremely popular person and well loved by the officers, even though at that time, he was no longer with SriLankan Airlines and working for Singapore Airlines. We strapped ourselves into the twin-seater with dual controls, and Elmo gave me a quick overview of the controls. In typical ‘Elmo style’ he told me: “Machang, you know the drill no? Now don’t worry, this bird will start rattling like a Bug Fiat when we open up the throttle. Don’t worry, nothing will fall off. I will throttle and when I say rotate; you pull the yoke gently towards you ok?” He then gave the thumbs up and shouted to the person below “Kollo, fire it up” and the propellers started turning and we start taxing to the end of the runaway, while I gingerly started getting the feel of the rudder pedals and the controls. At the end of the runaway, we paused for a while and Elmo said “right machang here we go” and the small plane lurched forward. The sound was deafening in spite of the earmuffs and, as Elmo had warned me, I felt the whole plane vibrating and thought it was coming apart. As we accelerated, I could see the ground rushing past me, faster and faster, as Elmo opened up the throttle.  Once we reached the correct speed I heard him say “rotate now Srilal” and I gently pulled the yoke towards me and got the most exhilarating feeling as the small plane soared into the sky. Bird’s eye view It was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life as the wings caught the airflow and I felt the strong up-thrust as the plane climbed. The ear shattering crescendo went silent suddenly, and I was engulfed in cotton white clouds and sense of floating. There was a soothing calmness as the plane climbed steeply and we levelled out, and even the drone of the engine was also soothing. Elmo then told me to slowly bank and I got the feel of the rudder as the plane responded to my controls. I slowly banked, learning to gain some altitude prior to banking, working the rudder and yoke gently and getting the feel of the controls responding. We flew southwards talking to each other and admiring the beauty of the greenery of the country, until we reached the Kalutara temple, at which point, we turned back. Elmo let me do a few slow turns, and climbs as I soared above the heavens having the greatest experience in my life. It’s a feeling one cannot quite describe. Peace tranquillity and calmness is what I recollect, far above the cares of this world. Unfinished beach business As we returned back along the coast near Wadduwa, Elmo told me that he wanted to show me something, and that he would take over the controls for a little while. He aligned the plane along the beach, went into a steep dive and I saw several fishermen, who had come to the beach in the early hours of the morning for their morning ‘constitution’. We laughed as we saw their astonished faces as they squatted on the beach, and saw this aircraft diving at them. In fact I saw some of them run for cover, leaving important ‘unfinished business’! We got back to proper altitude and then meandered back towards Ratmalana chatting away about the beauty of flying. We circled the airport, and Elmo helped me align the plane towards the runaway and he said that he would land it, since landing was little bit too complex for me to try out at first attempt.  We made a perfect touchdown and taxied back to the hangar, ending one of the most memorable events of my life.  We spent another half an hour at the airport with the junior officers preparing tea for us and talking with Elmo about old times. Hence, reading through Elmo’s article about ‘fun flying’ I can definitely vouch for everything he says and I do regret that I did not pursue my dream to at least get a private pilot license subsequently. I often think back of the wonderful experience Elmo gave me, for which I am ever grateful.