23rd November 1997


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Those soaring memories

By Roger Thiedeman (in Melbourne)

Ratmalana AirportIn August this year I stood outside the Ratmalana airbase and watched a Sri Lanka Air Force Antonov An-32 take off. As the transport plane soared aloft in a climbing turn towards the north, my memories and imagination also took flight.

I thought back to more peaceful times when Ratmalana was just a civil aerodrome, and the many happy hours I spent there as a boy and young adult. A smile creased my face when I remembered the first time I flew in an aeroplane. A Christmas present from my parents in 1962, that nocturnal joy flight from Ratmalana in an Air Ceylon DC-3 piloted by Captain Harry Hatharasinghe remains one of my happiest memories. Also happy to relate, that selfsame Dakota is still at Ratmalana, on static display at the SLAF Museum.

Then there was an equally pleasant jaunt one Sunday (or was it Poya day?) morning in the early 1970s, aboard a vintage Dragon Rapide wood-and-fabric biplane flown by Nihal Jayawickrema. Joining me in the air that day were my sister Rosanne and girlfriend Ingrid (who later became my wife).

Another Ratmalana memory was the time Dad took me to see the aftermath of the Indian Airlines Viscount crash in November 1961. Landing in pelting rain, the plane slid off the runway and across Airport Road, demolishing fences as it went. The Viscount ended up on its belly, on the manicured lawns and flower beds of the Bata Shoe Company, never to fly again. Fortunately, there were no fatalities or serious injuries, only one passenger suffering a mild heart attack.

Gazing at the diminishing smoke trails of the An-32, now merely a speck in the sky, other memories of Ratmalana came flooding back. Like the day in 1964 when Air Ceylon received its first, very own jet-prop aircraft - an Avro 748. I still recall, vividly, the festive atmosphere as the Avro touched down at Ratmalana at the end of its delivery flight from Manchester, with Captains P.B. Mawalagedera and George Ferdinand in charge.

Fourteen years elapsed before I got the opportunity to travel on board that Avro. Less than three weeks after I flew in it to Jaffna and back, I heard the chilling news that the aircraft was destroyed by a bomb while parked at Ratmalana. Again, miraculously, no lives were lost.

How could I forget an air display staged by the Ratmalana Flying School sometime in the mid-to-late 1960s?

Two memorable highlights capped off the day. The first, a masterful exhibition in a Tiger Moth by Captain Dudley Ranabahu, who still serves as Upali Aviation's Chief Flying Instructor at Ratmalana.

His breath-taking routine of stunts and aerobatics, choreographed into a comedy act belying the skill involved, was titled Ranabahu-ge Naaki Kotiya (Ranabahu's Old Tiger) - much to everyone's delight.

The other highlight that day was a Bristol Britannia of British Eagle Airlines, en route from Katunayake to Singapore, that was requested to make a slight detour for the benefit of spectators at Ratmalana. The large, four-engine turboprop whistled overhead in near-silence, just a few hundred feet above the runway, making it easy to understand why BOAC used to call their Britannias 'Whispering Giants'.

Although not there when it happened, I remembered the night in February 1964 when a carrier-based Alize aircraft of the Indian Navy landed at Ratmalana without permission, triggering an international incident. I did, however, see the Alize fly low over our home in Wellawatte just a few minutes before it touched down. The aircraft was totally unlit, having lost all its electrical power. With inoperative radio and navigational equipment, the pilot could not find his way back to the aircraft carrier, so decided to make for the safety of Ratmalana instead.

My memories of Ratmalana all but exhausted, my imagination now took over. I tried to visualise the 'glory days' of Ratmalana, when it was Ceylon's international airport. The days of the 1950s and early 1960s, when Skymasters, Constellations, Viscounts, Comets and Electras brought passengers from, and took them to, far corners of the globe.

In my mind's eye I saw another time when, like today, Ratmalana was given over to less peaceful pursuits. My mental calendar rewound to Easter Sunday 1942, imagining Hurricanes and Fulmars of the Royal Air Force scrambling from Ratmalana to intercept and repulse Japanese planes coming to drop their lethal loads over Ceylon.

Yet another image swam into view. The date was November 13, 1946. A large crowd had thronged Ratmalana to greet a young Cambridge graduate named J. P. Obeyesekere. He was expected at any moment in his tiny Auster aeroplane, having left England at the start of a marathon journey home over a month before. Soon after Obeyesekere landed he was followed down by an Englishman named Farquharson, who had closely accompanied the Ceylonese flyer all the way in an identical Auster.

I mentally pictured the 10th day of December 1947, a Wednesday, when the Air Ceylon DC-3 Sita Devi, with Captain Peter Fernando in command, operated the airline's inaugural flight from Ratmalana to Kankesanturai (Jaffna) and Madras. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the birth of Air Ceylon, the airline that never recorded a single passenger fatality throughout its 32 years of existence.

The SLAF Antonov had disappeared into the distance. Dusk began to cast its mantle over Ratmalana on that August evening. My imagination conjured up one last scene. November 27, 1935, nearly 62 years ago today, when Mr. H. Tyndale-Biscoe of the Madras Flying Club piloted the first aeroplane to land at Ratmalana. Accompanying him from Madras in the 3-seater De Havilland Puss Moth were Mr. W.B. Schleiter and Mr. C.B. Darius, a Ceylonese.

That night, back in bed at Borella, I slept soundly. Peace had returned to Sri Lanka.

Ratmalana was once again a civil airport. Gone were the security barriers, gun emplacements, watch towers and other trappings of a wartime military airfield. Then I woke up and realised with a sigh ... yes, it was only a dream.

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