Sri Lanka Air Force Museum in Ratmalana invites you to take wing into
the distant past
By Ruwanthi Herat Gunaratne
coloured uniforms of yesteryear
1952. The tinkle of cutlery and a buzz of conversation fill the
air. The occasion is a grand dinner at the Officers' Mess of the
Royal Ceylon Air Force Base in Katunayake. On the menu; Fried Fillet
of Seer with Lime, Mushroom and Butter Sauce, Roast Turkey and Chipolatas.
Swirls of cigarette smoke rise up toward the ceiling. The officers
and their wives seem to sparkle.....
The wind whips
my face and I stumble back to reality. The year is 2002 and I am
at the Sri Lanka Air Force Museum in Ratmalana. The document in
my hand is an old menu card left over from that night, fifty years
ago. One of many mementos that were part of the history of this
The Sri Lanka
Air Force, the youngest military establishment in Sri Lanka now
boasts a well-maintained museum within the boundaries of the base
at Ratmalana. The menu card is one of the many exhibits.
aircraft. Pix by J. Weerasekera
Located by the
side of the airport, there are no pristine white buildings adorning
the museum grounds. Instead, the exhibits and all their secrets
lie in four old, disused hangars, now redone to house them.
in and around the museum is unique. The wind hums softly, while
aircraft from the nearby airport whiz past as we watch in fascination.
aircraft is vital for the Air Force. Initially, this was done at
the base in Katunayake, where aircraft that had exceeded their flying
hours were carefully maintained, not as exhibits but as proud members
of the organization. It was in 1985 that the idea of making these
aircraft museum exhibits came up. Preservation of aircraft comes
under the Directorate of Aeronautical Engineering and the then Commanding
Officer of the Museum is incidentally now its Director, Air Vice
Marshal Lal Perera.
boast only of four discarded aircraft and a plot of marshy land
- it's through sheer hard work and dedication that the museum is
what it is today," he reminisces. After the initial plans were
laid, it was only in 1993 that the museum was officially declared
2 helicopter landing on McCallum Road - April 2, 1976
Until very recently,
few members of the public could view this great collection of vintage
aircraft. It was under the present government's 100-day programme
that the museum saw new light. On March 20, the Aircraft Preservation
and Storage Unit of the Sri Lanka Air Force was reopened amidst
great fanfare to all visitors.
has been great," says Air Marshal J. Weerakkody. "The
number of schoolchildren flocking to see the museum is astounding."
The main hangar
holds some of the oldest aircraft in the Air Force. Though each
aircraft looks new, they have all been part of this organization
for many years. By the side of each is a placard giving information.
A Dakota, 'a true workhorse' which performed a 'yeoman's service'
to the country looms over the other aircraft. A Pazmany PL2, the
first aircraft manufactured by the Air Force occupies another corner.
exhibit is a Tiger Moth - which had been in service during the early
1950s. This now pristine aircraft which was acquired by the SLAF
in 1982 in a dilapidated state was completely restored and rebuilt
by the Aircraft Engineering Wing at Katunayake. The Tiger Moth takes
pride in being among the few serviceable of its type in the world
has a story to tell. Next to the Dakota is a Beechcraft Super 18
which was acquired by the SLAF from the Survey Department. It was
last flown at the museum opening in 1993.
The most valuable
of the exhibits is a Boulton Paul Balliol manufactured in the United
Kingdom. The Royal Ceylon Air Force, as it was then called had purchased
a total of nine aircraft in 1954. Incidentally, the only two surviving
Balliols in the world are both part of the SLAF collection. One
is exhibited in the museum and the other at the Diyatalawa Air Force
the main hangar lies a Pucara fighter aircraft, the latest addition
to the museum.
A marked path
leads visitors to the next attraction. A lush garden which is the
'Open Air Display Area'. The aircraft exhibited here are open for
viewing. The guide whom the museum provides at no extra fee acts
the part of an old field marshal - baton in hand, decidedly firm
but gentle. The museum has 85 personnel and each visiting group
can ask for a guide.
a Hunting Percival Jet Provost and a De-Havilland 104 decorate the
path leading to the first hangar. Groups of schoolchildren who visit
the museum gaze eagerly into the cockpits of these aircraft that
once adorned our skies, attempting to catch a glimpse of the past.
The first hangar
houses smaller aircraft, among them the Siai Marchetti, the famous
De Havilland Chipmunk and the MiG 15. A passage on the side is lined
with photographs of various historical events. Air Force Commanders
past and present gaze back at visitors, as do the first pilots,
first aircraft and the first helicopters. Here too is a photo of
Arthur C. Clarke and the Apollo 12 astronauts at the SLAF Base in
Katunayake in 1970.
photograph is that of a KA 26 helicopter landing on McCallum Road
in 1976. There's also one of a flawless formation of Chipmunks flying
in tribute to Adam's Peak. AVM Paddy Mendis, the second Ceylonese
Commander of the SLAF and also the youngest commander to take office
says that the Chipmunks were brought to Sri Lanka in early 1951
and were the founders of the fleet. "These were the aircraft
I trained in - it's a fantastic feat to restore them this way."
again and a look at a few other aircraft and the Decca Airfield
Radar Antenna, a bulky mass of red iron, waving in the wind. One
cannot help wondering how many aircraft it would have led to safety
during its lifetime.
The No: 2 Hangar,
the third of the four main buildings houses vintage helicopters
and exhibition stalls of the various other directorates of the SLAF.
The booth of the Directorate of Electronic and Telecommunications
Engineering boasts an array of equipment with the first telephone
exchange used at the base in China Bay taking centrestage. Adjoining
this is a Flight Simulation Area where visitors can experience the
joys of actually handling a aircraft on their own. Starting this
week there will also be live projections at each of the hangars
on Aviation History and other such subjects.
The Air Force
does not simply comprise aircraft and more aircraft. The organization
is a culmination of various fields. The next booth was that of the
Directorate of Health Services. The first X'ray machine, a few of
the snakes that have been found at bases through the years and needless
to say caused havoc are also to be seen.
that are the main focus of this hangar seem bulky and out of place
compared to their sleek cousins placed outside. The Dragonfly, the
first helicopter to enter the Royal Ceylon Air Force, the 'Belle
of the Ball' in its time is also on display.
Another interesting exhibit here is a helicopter completely stripped
down. Our guide patiently worked the engine showing us exactly how
a helicopter flies.
The final hangar
contains the least expected, a collection of ground force vehicles
used in the Air Force. Occupying its own corner is an ancient Mercedes
Benz, the official vehicle of the first Commander of the Air Force.
It still looks as good as new.
of uniforms in the Sri Lanka Air Force is presented too. Unbelievable
as it may seem, the uniforms of the first officers of the Air Force
were khaki in colour. According to AVM Lal Perera, the tropical
uniform of the Royal Air Force was khaki and we immediately adopted
it after independence. But as time passed and the Royal Ceylon Air
Force became the Sri Lanka Air Force, the blue that is now synonymous
with the SLAF took its place.
My visit almost
over, I walk into what was previously a marsh. This area has been
converted into two sections, a play area for children and a patch
of green grass to lie on and recollect those glory days.
During the past
51 years of its existence, the Air Force has gone from being the
smallest military outfit in the country to a fighting force. The
neatly documented and lovingly preserved exhibits at the museum
tell many a story of its transition.
takes off. Standing on the boundary between the museum and the airport
I glimpse the past, the present and the future simultaneously. It
The Sri Lanka
Air Force Museum is situated at the Ratmalana Air Force Base adjoining
the Ratmalana Airport.
It is open
to the public every day except on Sundays, Wednesdays and Public
Holidays.It permits 20 school groups daily. For group visits fax
the Commanding Officer Squadron Leader A. Wijesiri on 632790.