a non-English speaking, sarong-clad, konde-wearing rustic dared
to reach for his dreams
All in a knot
By Roger Thiedeman
One morning in August 1952, a shy, nervous man arrived at the Ceylon
Air Academy at Ratmalana Airport for his first flying lesson. Aged
in his mid-forties, he was considerably older than most other would-be
flyers. But that was not the only thing unusual about this man.
Speaking Sinhala only, he was attired in the traditional garb of
the unsophisticated village mudalali: shirt, coat and sarong, with
hair tied at the back of his head in a konde (knot).
without exception, the world of private flying was then populated
by more 'refined' folk from wealthy aristocratic families, educated
at so-called 'good' schools. So, not surprisingly, this aspiring
aviator and his 'country bumpkin' demeanour attracted disbelieving
stares and derisory comments from sundry onlookers. Who, some sniggered,
did this sarong-clad gamarala with a konde think he was by climbing
into the cockpit of a trainer aircraft, the hallowed preserve of
only the rich and well-bred?
even if Attanagalley Wickramarachchi Millawalage Don John Paulis
Appuhamy understood such comments, he pretended not to hear. He
was, after all, made of sterner stuff. One day not long before that
August morning, Paulis Appuhamy (also nicknamed 'Ukku Mahathmaya')
went to Ratmalana Airport with his eldest son Vijitha Kumara, who
wanted to watch the aeroplanes taking off and landing. Soon, Paulis
became fascinated by the thought of flying those machines, and diffidently
approached one of the flying school instructors. Speaking in Sinhala
he said, "Sir, I would love to fly a 'plane. Can you teach
instructor turned to him in surprise and replied, "But how
can you fly with your hair in a konde?" In those days, instructors
and student pilots wore close-fitting leather helmets with built-in
headphones for communicating with each other in open-cockpit aircraft
like the de Havilland D.H.82 Tiger Moth. Obviously, such headgear
would be difficult, if not impossible, to fit over someone's head
with a tonsorial protruberance at the rear. However, Paulis was
not dissuaded. Proudly caressing his konde he insisted, "I
have no problem with my konde, sir, so I would still love to fly."
the instructor had further concerns. Apart from the added discomfort-not
to mention safety hazards-that someone might encounter in a cockpit
whilst wearing a loose, flowing sarong (instead of 'streamlined'
flying overalls), it would be difficult, if not impossible, for
a trainee who spoke no English to absorb instruction both in the
air and in the classroom; not to mention reading the theory material
that all pupil pilots had to study.
taking the man on a brief joyflight, it soon became apparent to
the instructor that this man of simple, 'rural' appearance was an
enthusiastic individual who was determined to learn how to fly an
aeroplane. Moreover, he seemed to have an intimate knowledge of
technical matters. So, he was introduced to the flying school's
Chief Flying Instructor, Captain C.H.S. Amarasekera, and another
instructor, Susantha ('Sus') Jayasekera. Unlike the other scoffers
and 'doubting Thomases' at Ratmalana, Amarasekera and Jayasekera
saw the potential in this callow villager and to their credit-decided
to take a chance on teaching him to fly.
they did not realize at the time was that Paulis Appuhamy, despite
his 'native' bearing and inability to speak English, had a proud
family heritage and was a talented and respected person in his own
right. Born on December 21, 1905, in the Attanagalla area, as a
young boy Paulis discovered an aptitude for all things mechanical.
Despite his village upbringing, he was fortunate to attend Ananda
College, Colombo, thanks to the support of a family friend, Mr.
Paulis inherited his father's bus transport business. At its prime,
the modestly successful private company boasted a fleet of 36 buses
operating to such destinations as Colombo, Kandy, Kurunegala and
around 1940, the prosperous 'bus mudalali' married a 17-year-old
girl, many years his junior. Today, Paulis Appuhamy's widow-who
is alternatively known by her maiden name of Annette de Saram or
Mrs. Wickramarachchi-remains in residence at the family's Attanagalla
walauwa 'Siri Medura', not far from the Colombo-Kandy Road. A formidable,
intelligent lady with sharp memory recall, this matriarchal figure
has her finger firmly on the pulse of all matters concerning the
family's estate and fibre-milling business.
de Saram blushingly recalls the early days of her marriage: "Though
we were well-developed physically I was only a child. Because of
that, even after marriage, my father wanted me to stay with my parents
for another two years." In time, her union with Paulis Appuhamy
was blessed with two sons and two daughters.
his public transport business prospered, Paulis continued applying
his mechanical talents to the operation of his buses, the family's
motor cars, as well as to the fibre-milling machinery. He also acquired
a keen interest in, and talent for, photography, while building
up an impressive collection of rare and expensive cameras.
his mastery of mechanical matters, it was hardly surprising that
when the time came for Paulis to learn flying, he took to it with
ease. 'Sus' Jayasekera was impressed by the fact that this non-English
speaking pilot wearing a sarong (attire hitherto unheard of in an
aircraft cockpit!) with his hair in a konde proved to be a keen
and competent pupil. For his part, Paulis Appuhamy is reported to
have said: "Guwan yana padhaveemeydi mata kondaya bhadavak
vuney nehe." ("While flying a 'plane, my konde was not
to 'Siri Medura' after his first flying lesson, he told his wife,
"Menike, I'm not afraid to fly. I will somehow get my licence."
And indeed he did. After the usual course of instruction, during
which he sometimes flew with bare feet on the rudder bar (pedals)-another
unconventional practice, A.W.M.D.J. Paulis Appuhamy was issued with
Private Pilot Licence No. 139, on October 5, 1953. Faithful to Sinhalese
custom, he presented his instructor with a bulath atha (betel leaf
sheaf) as a mark of gratitude and respect on that momentous occasion.
gaining more experience, Paulis progressed from the Tiger Moth biplane
to the Academy's newly-acquired and more advanced de Havilland DHC-1
Chipmunk monoplane. Now qualified to carry passengers, he would
often take his son Vijitha Kumara on joyflights. One day, he lost
his way but had the good sense to make a precautionary landing at
the Puttalam (Palavi) airstrip. Just as the people at Ratmalana
Airport were preparing to send a search aircraft, Paulis and his
son returned in the Chipmunk, much to the relief of everybody, not
least his wife Annette.
Mrs. Wickramarachchi continued to worry about her husband's new
love affair with airplanes. Her concern was not eased when she witnessed
the fiery, fatal crash of a Tiger Moth one day when she had accompanied
Paulis to Ratmalana for his lesson. Yet, she remained supportive
of his aviating activities, and in 1953, at a special function for
Academy pilots who had made their first solo flights, Annette de
Saram was chosen to greet the chief guest, Sir John Kotelawala (then
Minister of Transport & Works; later Prime Minister of Ceylon),
with a bulath atha.
Paulis Appuhamy enjoyed his freedom as a private pilot, he did not
neglect the running of his bus company. But later, he gradually
scaled down his aeronautical pursuits and, around 1954/55, eventually
stopped flying altogether.
January 1, 1958, all private bus companies in Ceylon were nationalised
by the Bandaranaike government, to form the Ceylon Transport Board
(C.T.B.). Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, whose ancestral
estate in Horagolla is also in the vicinity of Attanagalla, had
been friendly with Paulis Appuhamy since their younger days. But
the sudden loss of his family bus transport business-for which he
received no compensation-was a bitter pill for Paulis to swallow,
and his relationship with the Prime Minister was soured as a result.
1963 Paulis Appuhamy suffered a stroke, and continued to battle
its debilitating effects for another ten years. He passed away on
February 23, 1973. Today, even in death Paulis is revered with affection
and pride by his widow and their children-not least for creating
Sri Lankan aviation history by successfully rising above prejudice
and discouragement to become the nation's first (and probably to
this day the only) non-English speaking, sarong-clad, konde-wearing
(With acknowledgements to Mrs. Annette de Saram-Wickramarachchi,
Capt. G.A. Fernando, Mrs. Ivy Fernando and Capt 'Sus' Jayasekera
for their invaluable assistance in the preparation of this article.)