With a lethal cargo of four 250 kilogram bombs under its wings, Flying Officer Udena Rajapakse, rolled off the Argentine built Pucara bomber from the Sri Lanka Air Force Base at Hingurakgoda shortly after 10.30 p.m. last Sunday night.
Within minutes, he gained altitude and reached the regular flight level of 10,000 feet. Besides the bombs, the seven barrels of the 2.75 inch rockets mounted on the aircraft were full. So were the two 20 mm cannons and the four Browning M2 machine guns.
Like all other SLAF pilots, Udena had gone through gruelling gunnery training. That is to achieve versatility not only for accuracy in dropping the proximity bombs but also to single handedly operate the other weapons on board whilst keeping the twin engined turbo prop on course.
That Sunday night, the Pucara sped at 220 knots towards its target, thirty minutes away, at a location west of Batticaloa. The Army had called in for an air assault after reports of a build up of LTTE cadres.
Just ten minutes after take off, Flying Officer Rajapakse heard a strong thud. He looked around and saw a bright glow on the fuse attached to a 250 kilo bomb.
Soon the aircraft was on fire and the left wing separated from the body. The Pucara began to roll in the sky. Flying Officer Rajapakse, who for a moment thought a surface-to-air missile had hit the bomber, activated the eject mechanism. He was thrust into the sky.
Just seconds after he ejected, the Pucara was engulfed in a ball of fire. The collapsing wing, which had one of the fuel tanks, spewed avtur in the air. The twisted and charred wreckage fell on the dry tank bed of Kaudulwewa, near Hatharas Kotuwa, the gate-way to Trincomalee. The bombs fell and the one with the glowing fuse exploded creating a deep crater. Flying Officer Rajapakse landed safely, some 500 metres away from the wreckage.
The SLAF Air Traffic Control Tower at Hingurakgoda, which maintained radio contact with the Pucara, knew problems had cropped up. Men at the Army Guard Point at Hatharas Kotuwa had seen a huge fireball drop from the sky and heard a loud explosion. Officials at the SLAF Operations Room in Hingurakgoda alerted their top brass in Colombo and rushed a helicopter to the scene to ascertain what had happened. An hour later, they learnt that the pilot was safe.
The next morning (Monday), senior Air Force officials from Colombo visited the scene and later interviewed Flying Officer Rajapakse at Hingurakgoda. There was a sigh of relief that the bomb did not explode in mid air. Otherwise, both the aircraft and the pilot would have been blown to smithereens. They ruled out enemy action after shrapnel from the bomb that exploded upon hitting the ground was found in the debris of the engine parts too.
The four proximity bombs had been manufactured in a factory located in the north western province. A local arms dealer had secured the contract to install the bomb manufacturing plant obtained from South Africa.
Air Force Commander, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, named a three member Court of Inquiry to probe the Pucara incident. It is headed by Air Commodore Donald Perera (attached to the SLAF Headquarters in Colombo), Air Commodore Ranjit Yapa, Commanding Officer, Aeronautical Engineering Wing (AEW) and Squadron Leader Rajiv Senanayake, Commanding Officer, Eight Squadron.
The loss of that Pucara leaves the SLAF with no aircraft of that category operational. The SLAF acquired four Pucaras from Argentina in 1985 at a cost of US dollars 2.6 million each. Even at the time of purchase, the Pucaras apparently were out of production. These fixed wing turbo prop bombers were procured to provide close air support (cas) to troops operating on the ground.
The SLAF lost its first Pucara on July 14, 1995, when it was on an operational sortie near Sandilipay during "Operation Leap Forward." Besides the one lost last Sunday, two more Pucaras have remained grounded for over an year due to non availability of spares. Not surprisingly the Pucara is now out of production.
It was exactly 22 days before the loss of the Pucara bomber that a Russian built AN 32 transport plane crashed at the Ratmalana airport. A Court of Inquiry revealed that there was a misunderstanding between the Pilot, (a veteran who counts 13,000 hours of flying) and his co-pilot, an Ukrainian. The Pilot had applied full thrust for take off, later shut down and braked when he found that his co-pilot had prematurely retrieved the landing gear. The aircraft over-shot the runway, crashed through the outlying area and came to rest on the marsh. At least four security forces personnel died in the incident.
One lesser known secret associated with this incident can now be revealed. Officials of the defence establishment were greatly relieved that the crash did not occur outside the perimeters of the Ratmalana airport. The reason - among the cargo was twenty three million rupees packed in secure bags. A bundle totalling Rs 90,000 was picked up by an honest airman and returned to a senior officer. Only Rs 12,000 was unaccounted for.
The incident at Ratmalana led to the grounding of all SLAF aircraft. When flights resumed on March 7, another SLAF AN 32 was involved in a near disaster. It was on its last flight for the day from Ratmalana to Palaly. As it prepared to land, one of the engines stalled. When soldiers on board were told, there was panic. Later, the aircraft made an emergency landing.
Some senior SLAF officials were speaking of an unlikely reason for the sudden seizure of the engine. They ask whether it was caused by a mud cage built by a wasp in the engine compartment while the aircraft remained grounded. This, however, could not be verified.
If last Sunday's loss of the Pucara bomber became the 16th SLAF aircraft to be lost since "Eelam War Three" broke out, there were more shocks to come. Just two days after the loss of the Pucara, a Russian built Mi 24 Hind armour plated helicopter gunship went missing.
Two of these gunships, most dreaded by the LTTE cadres, were assigned to take on targets north of Chalai (a Sea Tiger base north of Mullaitivu) early Wednesday morning. They accomplished their mission and flew to Palaly.
Just half an hour past noon, the two Mi 24s were airborne to return to the SLAF Base at Hingurakgoda. Their flight path, as they left Palaly was over the sea, four kilometres away from the shore, maintaining an altitude of ten metres or 33 feet, almost hugging the sea. They were flying in formation.
The lead helicopte r gunship was piloted by Squadron Leader Thilina Kaluaratchchi (co-pilot was an Ukrainian) answered the call sign "Romeo Fox-trot One" whilst the second one that trailed, was piloted by Flight Lieutenant J.N. Malalasekera (also with an Ukrainian co-pilot) was "Romeo Fox-trot Two" They had been separated by a distance of only some 15 metres.
From the time they were airborne, the two Mi 24s and the Air Traffic Controllers in Palaly were in radio communication. Things were so uneventful that there was no radio communications for a while.
It was exactly seven minutes from that moment when Sqn. Ldr. Kaluaratchchi chose to routinely speak to the trail helicopter gunship. He kept calling but there was no response from "Romeo Fox-trot Two." He advised Air Traffic Controllers at Palaly, immediately turned his Mi 24 and re-traced the flight path. There was no sign of the other helicopter.
Whilst searching for the missing Mi 24, Sqn. Ldr. Kaluaratchchi reported that there was not a shred of evidence to ascertain what had happened. If it had been shot down, there was no floating debris. Nor were there any boats spotted in the area. If it had crashed into the sea, there were no signs of any oil slick or air bubbles.
Air Traffic Controllers at Palaly informed the SLAF Base at Vavuniya. Two Soviet built Mi 17 helicopters joined in the search. Also joining in the search operation later was a Chinese built Y 12 aircraft. Sqn. Ldr. Kaluaratchchi returned to Palaly to re-fuel and was on the search mission which continued till dusk Wednesday.
By that evening, LTTE bases in the area had picked up radio communications of the aircraft involved in the search and learnt something was going on. Later on, Military Intelligence intercepted an interesting radio talk between two bases of the LTTE.
One base reported to another that they had hit an aircraft. It was engulfed in a ball of fire and had dropped from the sky into the sea. A second aircraft came into the area and began strafing at us, the caller claimed. Barring these details, the message was cryptic.
This radio transmission intercept bared how the LTTE was trying to seize the opportunity to take credit for what it has not done. If it did attack, that would have left behind some shreds of evidence like floating debris. If a surface-to-air missile or an anti-aircraft gun hit the Mi 24, it should have been fired from a boat and not from the shore, four kilometres away. Sqn. Ldr. Kaluaratchchi reported seeing no boats. And more important, he put paid to the LTTE claims by pointing out that not a single shot was fired from his MI 24 since the trail gunship went missing.
There were no air searches on Thursday. The SLAF had grounded all its aircraft. A fleet of naval craft moved into the area on this day. Their search continued through Friday but there was no find. Even a private airline which was carrying troops and cargo for the SLAF didn't operate reportedly over a dispute involving outstanding payments.
The fate of the Mi 24 with Flight Lieutenant Malala-sekera, a Regimental Officer, four other ranks - all from the SLAF - and two Ukrainian officers working on assignment will remain a mystery unless any evidence of what happened surfaces. The latter seems most unlikely.
Some senior SLAF officials in Colombo wondered whether a sudden rotor failure plunged the MI 24 into the sea. The helicopter gunship is very heavy in view of its thick armour plating. Hence they conjecture it may have hit the bottom of the sea in no time. This is one of the many and varied aspects the Court of Inquiry into this incident will go into.
Even before the Court of Inquiry is to begin its sittings, the loss of the Mi 24 has jolted the SLAF hierarchy into action. The Chief Provost Marshal, Group Captain E. Vijitha Tennekoon, set in motion a series of measures to ascertain whether there was sabotage internally.
Not only some SLAF personnel but members of their families in SLAF's Zonal Headquarters for the North, located at Anuradhapura were confined to the camp until checks were completed.
Although the JVP is now a legitimate political party (and even contested Friday's local elections), checks are under- way to ascertain whether anyone had JVP connections. Presumably this is prompted by actions of the JVP in the late 1980s.
If the loss earlier of the 15 SLAF aircraft in "Eelam War Three" met with official silence, the disappearance of the Mi 24 (the 16th SLAF aircraft) was different. Some eight hours after it went missing, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) announced that it had landed safely in area under security forces control. But that same night Sri Lankans who heard the SLBC news also saw the Rupavahini broadcast a press release by the Ministry of Defence. It said:
"Mr. Chandrananda de Silva, Secretary (Defence) stated last night that an order has been issued for full scale investigation into the recent air crashes. Commander, Sri Lanka Air Force has been instructed to conduct detailed inquiries in an attempt to identify the causes that led to the crashes and whether there were attacks from outside. Recommendations to arrest deficiencies in the proper maintenance of aircraft should also be identified at such inquiries.
"In addition several foreign teams who have specialised in the examination of air accidents, have been invited for the purpose of conducting separate inquiries."
Whether instructed or not, the Commander of the SLAF did appoint Courts of Inquiries to ascertain "the causes" every time there has been an aircraft loss. As is the standard practice, these courts do make recommendations not only to "arrest deficiencies" but also to deal with lapses on the part of those concerned.
What then was the Defence Ministry's press release trying to say? After a prolonged silence in the wake of aircraft losses, why did it suddenly become necessary to merely repeat what is acknowledgly the standard procedure ? The last paragraph of the press release, to say the least, is misleading. The Ministry says: "In addition, several foreign teams who have specialised in the examination of air accidents, have been invited for the purpose of conducting separate inquiries."
What does this mean? Have foreign teams been invited to probe all SLAF aircraft losses? Or have they been invited to probe the recent loss of the Pucara and the Mi 24 ? If it was to probe earlier losses (like the reported LTTE missile attack on the AN 32), surely, some of the findings they made would have become useful to avoid more catastrophe. Or was it because these findings did not confirm what happened on the ground ?
One glaring instance of an SLAF inquiry, that still remains a mystery, is one which the entire nation awaits. That is findings into the incident that occurred on December 7, 1996. This is where none other than the Deputy Minister of Defence, General Anuruddha Ratwatte and his front line commanders travelling in an SLAF helicopter made a forced landing in LTTE dominated territory outside the Vavuniya defences. If they fell into enemy hands, the destiny of Sri Lanka would have been in jeopardy. Ironically four months have elapsed since the incident and there is still no official word on what went wrong.
SLAF Commander, Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe, has forwarded the report of the Court of Inquiry into the incident to the Ministry of Defence, with his own observations and recommendations. Now, Defence Secretary Chandrananda de Silva, is conducting a follow-up inquiry. It seems, serious in-fighting at the SLAF upper echelons has led to charges and counter charges over the incident.
Like the other services, the SLAF has also brought on itself controversy. Some of them have been management and some procurement related - the latter brought about by a fortuitous fall out from the privilege (without questions) the PA Government granted the security forces after 100 days of peace talks failed and all out war was declared on the LTTE.
Take for example the procurement of the Mi 24 Hind helicopter gunships. A high powered SLAF purchase mission went to Kazakhstan in 1995 and identified three Mi 24 helicopter gunships they would purchase. When the gunships arrived, it was found that they were not the ones that were selected. Although they were Mi 24s, they were three different helicopter gunships, ones that were outdated with spares that were old.
They were confined to an SLAF hangar whilst a war of words went on with the supplier (who was not the manufacturer). At the end, the dispute was resolved with the supplier taking back two of the helicopter gunships. The third was overhauled in Colombo by the supplier who flew in spares and equipment. The two other gunships were later replaced.
It was one of these three Mi 24 helicopter gunships that has gone missing. Besides the remaining two owned by it, the SLAF has also leased out another fleet of Mi 24s from Kazakhstan.
The lavish expenditure style of the SLAF has come into sharp public focus in the recent months. Early this month, DUNF Parliamentarian Ravi Karunanayake bared in Parliament how the SLAF had spent Rs 5.1 million as advertising costs only for February, this year.
Mr. Karunanayake said yesterday that this sum was for advertising in the English print media only. "The commission alone on this sum works out to one million rupees. That's for a month. Who gets it ?," he asked.
Paradoxically, the SLAF inserted full page newspaper supplements after winning a National Quality Award early this year. SLAF advertisements on January 26, this year, on a single state run English newspaper numbered eight and cost a staggering Rs 499,595.
Mr. Karunanayake has now given notice of a question in Parliament to the Deputy Minister of Defence, Anuruddha Ratwatte. Among other things, he wants to know whether advertising agencies are selected through a tender process.
A sizeable volume of repair and maintenance work of SLAF aircraft has been entrusted to a facility headed by a foreign national. His monthly fee is said to be around 4,000 US dollars or Rs. 228,000. Many ex-SLAF employees are among those hired on attractive remuneration packages by this facility.
For the first three months of 1997, the SLAF has so far lost an Israeli built Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), a Chinese built Y 12 fixed wing aircraft, an Israeli built Kfir interceptor jet, a Russian built Antonov 32 passenger aircraft, a Russian built Mi 17 transport helicopter, an Argentine built Pucara bomber and a Russian built Mi 24 helicopter gunship.
The SLAF losses not only led to serious public concern but also had an adverse impact on the other services, particularly the Army.
The impact on the Army is better explained in the words of a soldier who arrived at the Ratmalana Airport last week and rode the three wheeler taxi of Thushara Perera to visit his girl friend in Moratuwa. The conversation was in Sinhala and underscored the deep rooted nuances of the situation.
Translated into English, some of it is lost but the message it conveyed was quite clear. "The war in the north", the soldier told Malli (that was how he addressed the taxi driver) "is now over." He added "we are in the bunkers. We are ready to respond to the enemy (...game eka denna laasthi...) at anytime. We are not frightened (....kisima bayak ne...) We have all the stuff (...okkoma badu thiyanawa....).."
"But, Malli, the one hour in the air when coming home is the most frightening one. We pray to God that nothing untoward happens. I don't want to die that way. We don't have the stuff (....badu...) to overcome this..." he lamented.
That's the tale of the soldier. A senior Brigadier, who like all other officers, is posted to the front rows in SLAF aircraft, had a different story to tell me. "Usually I catch 40 winks during the flight. But, nowadays I am both alert and awake till the plane touches down...," he said.
A series of mishaps to SLAF aircraft totally unrelated to enemy action clearly manifests that there is something radically wrong. The views expressed by serving personnel, retired officers and others attribute many factors which could either singularly or in combination have contributed to these accidents. Amongst the reasons are crew fatigue, pilot error, training short-comings, mechanical failures due to maintenance lapses etc.
If one were to look at these reasons in depth, it finally points the finger of responsibility at the SLAF itself.
Inadequate training and poor maintenance are matters which are rectifiable. If it is a question of crew fatigue due to excess flying hours, then again the SLAF has to answer as to why it did not advise the defence planners of their service limitations.
The success of operations depend on many factors not the least is the soundness of the logistics base. There is no doubt that both the Air Force and the Navy have been fully stretched to maintain an air and maritime logistics bridge in support of operations. In as much as the logistics effort is to maximize resources for operations, it is essential, if not vital, that operations also be tailored and limited to what could be logistically supported. The success of operations depend on harmony between logistical possibilities and operational realities.
If the SLAF has been taxed to the extent where its operational capability has been so drastically reduced by over commitment, then there is something radically wrong in planning. In this instance too, therefore, the finger of blame points at the SLAF and the defence establishment.
It's Clausewitzian philosophy that a successful war must have the harmonised mutual support of the trinity of the Government, the public and the military.
Any weakness in this arrangement will have its adverse effects on the outcome of war policies.
The war, therefore, is not just a matter for the Government and the armed forces. A high ranking military official even called for a totalmedia ban on reportage of the separatist war. At a top level nationalsecurity discussion, he even wanted legislation enacted for this purpose.
That would have totally shut out the public, the concernedparticipants, who either provide their sons and daughters to fight the separatist war or provide the capital to fund it.
It is unfortunate that in the years past and to-date the public have not been taken into confidence. Nor have the Government and the military accounted to the public for their responsibilities.
Too many disasters and too many debacles have been unaccounted to the public. The human disasters and the capital losses a result of Pooneryn, Mandativu, Mullaitivu etc. have lapsed in tot he limbo of bad memories except for the next of kin of those who perished there.
What is happening to the SLAF today is a repetition of similar debacles that have taken place in the Army and the Navy.
Only exposure of accountability and impartial investigations can eliminate a repetition of these debacles and disasters. Only this will erase any public suspicion of gross inefficiency and alleged corruption (including commissions).
This is the total responsibility of the Government. Continued inaction will only further erode public support for the war effort.
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