It was ten minutes past 9 a.m. last Tuesday, when air traffic controllers at the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) main base at Katunayake cleared two Israeli-built Kfir multi role aircraft for take off.
Squadron Leader Vajira Jayakody rolled off first. Within seconds, his colleague, 28-year-old Flight Lieutenant (posthumously promoted Squadron Leader) Monath Perera followed. The two Kfirs were to form the tail end of the fly past the next day at the SLAF 60th anniversary celebrations.
Sqn. Ldr. Jayakody radioed Flt. Lt. Perera who was airborne to move closer to his aircraft to fly in formation. Their routine entailed a low flying circuit over the SLAF base at Ratmalana and return to Katunayake.
The two jets were over the skies of Yakkala, in the Gampaha district. Sqn. Ldr. Perera heeded his senior's call and moved his aircraft closer.
Within seconds, the unexpected occurred with a mid-air mishap bringing the jets crashing to the ground. Both pilots ejected from the planes, but while Sqn.Ldr Jayakody’s parachute opened and he landed safely in a paddy field, Flt.Lt Perera was not so lucky. All that the people on the ground saw was him plummeting down before he was killed on impact with a coconut tree.
In the quiet suburban area of Udatuttiripitiya and Nelligahamulla close to Yakkala town, residents had got used to hearing jets roaring by in the past few days. They were aware some flight drills were on but other than glancing up at the sky as the jets whisked by, not many paid much attention.
But all that changed by mid- morning Tuesday, by which time many residents had set off to work and the children were in school. B.G.Chandrika was putting the clothes out to dry when she heard the sound of the jets and instinctively looked up. Within a fraction of a second, she saw what seemed like the jets touching each other and almost instantly the two pilots ejecting from the aircraft. The jets continued to roar on and while Chandrika too shocked to react watched in frozen fear, one jet came crashing down into the bare land less than 30 feet from her home. What followed were deafening noises of explosions. The other jet moved further away exploding in mid air scattering debris over an area of about two kilometres.
|Collecting debris of the aircraft
|AVM Jayampathi visiting the site of the crash as part of the investigations
|All that remained of one Kfir: Moments after the crash.
Pix by M.A. Pushpa Kumara and Saman Kariyawasam
“When the planes touched, I saw some white smoke and then the pilots ejected. The jets went roaring almost over my house and crashed. I could not move for a while and then when I realised what was happening, I started screaming and ran,” she said.
Having seen the mid-air collision, many were rushing to see where the jets would crash.
Shirani Jayaratna was watering the plants in the garden when she heard the usual roar of the jets. “When I looked up, I saw some white smoke emitting from the aircraft. Then within a few seconds I saw black smoke from one side while I heard a huge explosion from the other,” she said. Her immediate reaction was to run not knowing what was going on. It was later that she realised that one of the jets had landed just across the road from her house while the other had crashed some distance away.
One who came closest to being a victim, herself was Kamala De Silva also of Udatuttiripitiya. She recalled what a narrow escape she had had that morning. Kamala had been planting chillies in the bare plot of land belonging to her just minutes before one of the jets crashed there but had decided to go indoors to watch a Sinhala teledrama that had re-runs in the morning .As she sat in front of the television in her drawing room, she heard a loud noise, saw a flash of light followed by loud explosions. “I was sure a plane had crashed into my house. I just ran out of the gate in shock.”
What Mrs.de Silva did not notice was that one of the wings of the jet had hit the roof of her two storied house and had crashed in her front garden just a few feet away from the front door. It was only later when she came back to her house after the bedlam had died down that she realised how close she had come to being a victim herself. However, she is more saddened by the tragic death of the young pilot than by any temporary damage to her home having herself lost her 23-year-old son in 2001 to an LTTE attack while serving in the Navy. The incident brought back memories of her own loss.
A love for flying had propelled Monath Perera to join the Sri Lanka Air Force. Born in 1982 he completed his schooling at Mahinda College, Galle, enlisted in 2004 and was commissioned as a Pilot officer in July, 2005. Colleagues remember him as an outgoing person who endeared himself to many in the service. Monath was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant in 2010 and played a major role during the humanitarian operation having joined the jet squadron to fly the Kfirs in 2007.
Within hours of the crash the recently appointed Air Force Commander Air Vice Marshal Harsha Abeywickrama, on March 1, setup a five member committee headed by Air Vice Marshal Kapila Jayampathi to investigate the cause of the crash as well as assess the damage caused to private properties by falling debris.
AVM Jayampathi who visited the site of the crash as part of the investigations said it was a complex investigation as the damage caused to private properties too had to be assessed.
The debris from the aircraft was transported to the Air Base at Katunayaka where they would be used for reconstruction purposes to facilitate the investigation, he said. The flight date recorders of the two jets as well as the communication between the pilots and the communication towers too would be scrutinized to ascertain the possible cause of the crash, he added.
Meanwhile, Air Force spokesman Wing Commander Andy Weerasuirya said the report of the committee was expected within two to three weeks from the date of its appointment.
Peace-time death hard to bear– Monath’s mother
By Gamini Mahadura in Galle
procession on Saturday of Monath Perera
The parents of Flight Lieutenant Monath Perera thought the danger to their son’s life had ended with the end of the war against the LTTE in May, 2009. Monath was involved in the crucial period of the war when air support was put to optimum use to minimize casualties among ground troops.
But last Tuesday, they heard the news that no parent wants to hear—that their only child died in a mid air mishap over the Yakkala area.
“My son rendered an invaluable service during the years of war but no harm came to him. His death at a time when there is peace in the country is hard to bear,” Dalci Kumari Sumathipala (60) his mother said.
An old boy of Mahinda College, Galle, Monath was one of the three recipients of the annual awards given by the college to distinguished past pupils. Having excelled in school, Monath became the Deputy Head prefect of the school in 2002.
The funeral of Sqn. Ldr. Monath Perera (promoted posthumously) was held with full military honours in Galle last evening.