Memories of our flying days

By Suren Ratwatte, Dubai

“So you are determined to be a pilot?” my father despairingly asked me many years ago. “In that case you had better go and see Ray – he might be able to talk you out of it.”

On that promising note I was despatched, on my bicycle, this being an earlier and simpler era, to Turret Road to meet Ray Wijewardene. A scholar, businessman, agriculturist, inventor, Olympian and pilot, Mr. Wijewardena did nothing of the sort, of course. Instead he encouraged, nurtured and enjoyed my success in my chosen field, as proud as my father would have been were he alive to have seen it.

That first visit was to be followed by many more. Both to the garage in his house, filled with the latest creations he was working on, the office above with one of the first PCs in the country and also to the Ratmalana airfield, where accompanied by the faithful Cyril, his chauffeur, co-pilot and general factotum, he would fly any number of the aircraft he built from scratch.

I was but one of the many young people Mr. Wijewardene was to take under his wing. Being a naturally modest person, it took me years to piece together everything he had done in an incredibly diverse career. References to representing Ceylon in the Olympics, inventing the ‘half-tractor’, serving on the Board of Directors of Air Ceylon and many other accomplishments were mentioned casually during the many conversations we enjoyed after flying, while watching the sun gradually set over the sea, and nursing steaming cups of tea produced by Cyril.

Once airborne of course, conversation was no longer possible and was conducted by gesturing, as we enjoyed the sensation of flying through the air in an ‘ultra-light’ aircraft. By this time I was fortunate enough to be flying for AirLanka, and it was a huge change from the much larger aircraft I flew professionally.

In fact there it is, in an old logbook, nestled between flights on AirLanka’s 737; From Ratmalana to Ratmalana, Type - Experimental, Registration 4R-RAW!

This was Ray’s greatest creation, the Kitfox he built and flew at Ratmalana. The manqué is now 25 years old and very popular all over the world. His was almost certainly the first Kitfox aircraft in Asia, probably one of the first sold outside the USA. As aficionado of the world-famous Oshkosh Airshow, Ray had first seen the aircraft there and fallen in love. His enthusiasm, and mechanical aptitude, was so great that he travelled to the factory in far off Idaho, USA in order to do the welding of the frame himself.

“I couldn’t claim to have built it myself, if they did the welding, could I?” he barked when I (who can barely change a light bulb) inquired as to the reason. “This is my aircraft son, I have made every bit of it.”

The most bizarre of Ray’s flying machines was the Gyrocopter he produced, a weird and wonderful machine that terrified this airline pilot. So much so that it was the last aircraft we flew together
Sadly, as the years went by and my career progressed elsewhere than Sri Lanka, we gradually lost touch. The plans we had to go to Oshkosh together never materialised as the burdens of marriage and parenthood ate up all my spare time. Many times I meant to take my sons, now older than I was when I first met my mentor, to see him while on holiday in Colombo but somehow it never happened. Now of course it is too late.

Happy Landings Sir, it was a privilege to have known you.

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