SLAF passage through the skies to take wing soon

A now complete state-of-the-art Air Force Museum which had its humble beginnings in one hangar at the Katunayake airbase with a few exhibits in 1979, is ready to re-open with a variety of aircraft and other items of historical value of the SLAF including a photo gallery
By Kumudini Hettiarachchi, Pix by Sanka Vidanagama

Found as pieces abandoned in garages or junkyards – now some of them are ready to fly. This is what a small “army” of airmen have achieved within a short span of time. Their achievements will wow not only aviation buffs but also people from across the country, when the Sri Lanka Air Force Museum re-opens its doors soon.

A museum is valuable if there are flying aircraft, says Air Commodore P.D. Jayanath Kumarasiri, Director of the Aeronautical Engineering Division, walking us through the sprawling area with strategically-placed exhibits.

The odour of fresh paint fills the air. The shrubs are flowering and the trees are growing tall. The area is a hive of activity, with men in blue overalls painting a wing-tip in one hangar or setting up panels in another.

The short but proud aviation history of the country, even though the Sri Lanka Air Force is the “baby” among the three armed forces having been set up in 1951, is being meticulously prepared indoors and outdoors on a large extent of land, cheek-by-jowl with the Ratmalana Airport and within the SLAF base.

“The museum will not only feature the history of our force but also some important aspects of the country’s passage through the skies,” explains Air Commodore Kumarasiri who was put in charge after closing the old museum in March last year for a complete re-haul. From the very top – at Commander level -- to the mechanic tinkering with an aircraft or tending the garden, this has been a team effort, he stresses.

In the main hangar home to several restored aircraft are some “firsts” -- the tiny aircraft that J.P. Obeyesekera flew solo from England to his homeland in an adventure that made headlines at that time in the 1940s; a De Havilland Chipmunk, one of the first set of aircraft inducted by the the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) in the 1950s and a Siai Marchetti, the first aircraft that was used to bomb LTTE targets in 1986. Here too lies the Dauphin that SLAF Commander Air Marshal Roshan Goonetileke himself had flown.

J.P. Obeyesekera was the first Ceylonese to fly solo from England to Ceylon. He piloted the Auster “Autocraft”, said Sq. Ldr. Harsha Fernando. “Later he gave it to the Flying Club which used it for training and one day it crashed just after take-off and caught fire, killing the two pilots. Mr. Obeyesekera took the wreck and his wish was its restoration. It was then handed over to our museum and that’s what we have done.”
Setting up planes in the first hangar

The museum has 47 craft with 31 varieties, of which six have been coaxed gently by skilled hands to fly again. Visitors will be kept enthralled when suddenly from the main hangar will zoom out an aircraft.

Air power has been vital to the county because it is not only used in the air but also over land and sea, points out SLAF spokesperson Wing Commander Janaka Nanayakkara, adding that both in natural disasters and the conflict that gripped the country for nearly 30 years, it has been a valuable asset.

The journey of the SLAF through the corridors of time……..its beginnings as part of the Royal Air Force which when the Britishers left became the RCyAF and finally evolved into the SLAF is documented here.
This state-of-the-art museum had humble beginnings in one hangar at the Katunayake airbase with a few exhibits in 1979 on a suggestion of then Commander Air Vice Marshal W.D.H.S.W. (Harry) Goonetileke with identification and collection of items of historical importance, the Sunday Times undersatnds.

“There are photographs of barefoot children viewing the exhibits with wonderment,” says Air Commodore Kumarasiri, adding that the museum was moved to Ratmalana to overcome space constraints by another Commander, Chief Marshal A.W. (Walter) Fernando. Then the museum project became part of the Aircraft Preservation & Storage Unit (AP&SU), with the aircraft that had been phased out from various flying formations being brought and built to display standards.

In March last year it was closed for refurbishment and expansion under Air Commodore Kumarasiri on a request of present Commander Roshan Goonetilleke.

His personal interest is such that he somehow finds time amidst his busy schedule to drop-by the museum, the officers say, adding that when restoring the aircraft Commander Goonetileke was the first person to indicate what the original colours were, for he had grown up with them while his father was the Commander

Not only aircraft but also other items of historical value of the SLAF are now under one roof. Going on a walkabout along the winding pathways, amidst the lush abundance of trees and shrubs dotted with ponds envisioned by veteran artist Laki Senanayake whose sketches on paper are now becoming a reality, one suddenly comes upon an MI 24 helicopter in its full glory, with its armaments spread around it.
Pride of place: The shot down LTTE aircraft

In another hangar lie vintage vehicles which have served the SLAF for many a long year – a Land Rover Defender bearing No. 2298, conjuring up visions of the first local Governor General amidst its cushioned seats at the Independence parade.

A little distance away is a Scammelle recovery vehicle with a crane at the back and guns and axe on the front seat. Then there is also the bullet-proof limousine handed over by then President R. Premadasa to the SLAF bearing No. Guvan 6023.

The exhibits are many and varied…..a virtual gallery on an Avro, the flying simulator developed by Edward Link which trained many a pilot, the list goes on.

The photo gallery takes pride of place, each era of the SLAF under the different commanders getting equal prominence, from sepia-toned photos to the current colour ones.

“We have more than 1,000 photos from the RAF through to RCyAF and to the SLAF. This was conceptualized by architect Jayantha Bibile, with the panels set on the sides of a runway, at the far end of which an aircraft noses out of the wall,” says Air Commodore Kumarasiri.

Even the two-storey cafeteria made of sleepers and asbestos, mind you no concrete, has got special attention from Mr. Senanayake, blending in with the environment. Adjacent to a water body, its gallery commands a picturesque view of water and greenery.

The pieces de resistance, however, are the LTTE’s ZLIN 143 which had terrorized Colombo but been shot down by the SLAF over Katunayake in February this year and the LTTE gun mounted on a tractor silenced by the SLAF in the Wanni while being taken to release mayhem during the last phase of the war.
The restored Auster “Autocraft” that was flown by J.P. Obeyesekera.

While celebrating its glorious history, the fallen airmen have not been forgotten. Prominently displayed, three aircraft sculptures will “fly” in formation with the fourth only in silhouette in tribute to them.

The verdict of all who have been involved in the project is that once opened, the SLAF Museum will be top-class, the best in South Asia.

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