By D. L. Sirimanne
A 100-year-old Veteran Aviator
Going back in time, 1945 World War II ended suddenly with a big bang after Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wiped out in an instant by America dropping two atom bombs on them. Ceylon was still under British Rule. The Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims, Burgher and the Borah communities lived in harmony. The world was once more an enormous beautiful and wonderful place to live in. Aviation progressed in leaps and bounds, and one could travel to any country without, travel restrictions, by land, sea or air. It was a pleasure to go to embassies and obtain visas which were immediately issued over the counter courteously.
The international flight passing through Ceylon was BOAC, with converted propeller driven war surplus bombers, such as the Avro Lancaster, Avro York and troop carriers DC3, DC4, etc. Aviation expanded at a tremendous rate, aircraft were built to carry hundreds of passengers with turbo prop engines followed by pure jets that fly enormous distances at almost the speed of sound and at great altitudes, up to 40,000 feet or more.
At that time, intercity flights in India were operated by TATA AIRLINES and a few other private owners such as DECCAN AIRWAYS with Douglas DC3s and Wickers Viscounts. Tata Airlines operated a schedule between Bombay and Ratmalana. Later, when India gained Independence, the domestic airlines combined and formed AIR INDIA for their interstate operations and AIR INDIA INTERNATIONAL for international operations. America, Britain, Australia and a few affluent European countries commenced again, operating their international airlines such as PANAM, BOAC, KLM, AIR FRANCE, etc.
Air Ceylon inaugurated its regional flight on 10th December 1947 with a fleet of three refurbished Douglas DC3 aircraft with Ceylonese crew. It operated daily flights to Jaffna, Madras, Trichy and a weekly flight to Karachi via Bombay. During that time, neither Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) nor Singapore International Airlines (SIA) existed. Tribute should be paid to the pioneers of Commercial Aviation in Sri Lanka; Air Ceylon commenced operations with its three Douglas DC3 aircraft VIHARA MAHA DEVI, SUNETHRA DEVI and SITA DEVI being names of ancient Sinhalese Queens.
The Ceylonese Pioneers of Civil Aviation in the late 1940s were:
Sir John Kotalawala – Minister of Public Works
Mr. L .S. B. Perera – 1st Director of Aviation.
The flight Crews were:
Captains: Peter Fernando, Capt. David Peiris, M.R. de Silva, Emil Jayawardena, Ken Joachim, .
Co-pilots: P. B. Mawalagedera, George Ferdinand, Noël Peiris, Simon Rasiah, Rajarayan. They later became Captains.
Radio Officers: J. Vethavanam, D. L. Sirimanne, A. Massalamany, Hector Fernando and Jeff Fruitneit.
Air Hostesses: Cynthia Philips, Olga Rupesinghe, Olga de Silva, Ranee Ranawaka, Dharma Canagasabai, Mavis Wijeyeratne.
Station Managers: Mr. Reggie Santhiapillai in Jaffna, Mr. V. J. M. Perera in Madras.
Later many young trainee pilots, who received their training at the Colombo Flying Club by Ex-RAF Flight Lieut. Duncunson, got their PPL and CPL joined Air Ceylon and became Captains, such as Rakitha Wickremanayake, Sus Jayasekera, Anil Rambukwella Dudley Ranabahu, Dinham Souud, Simon Rasiah, Nadarajah, Ossie Jayawardena, Shelton Goonawardena etc.
In 1950, IATA (International Air Transport Association) granted Air Ceylon route rights to operate to London and Singapore. Australian National Airlines (ANA) which operated DC4s on the Melbourne/Singapore route had to terminate their flights at Singapore as they had no route rights to operate to Europe. They signed an Agreement with Air Ceylon to use Air Ceylon’s route rights to enable them to continue flight to London. Thus, ANA and Air Ceylon’s first international flights with the Air Ceylon logo on DC4s operated between Singapore and London via Colombo.
The domestic and regional flights commenced with DC3s and Ceylonese air crew. Since the ex-RAF pilots were not familiar with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Regulations, ANA lent Capt. Gibbs, an amiable Australian, who was ANA Operations Manager to organized flight operations and run a proper and safe airline. Capt Gibbs took over pilot training, Instrument Flying, night landing practice, schedule flight operations and adhere to exact departure and landing times to the minute. He introduced preflight checks and cockpit drills with a checklist. Unfortunately, with change of government the contract with ANA terminated after four years of smooth faultless operations.
Subsequently, in 1955 Air Ceylon teamed up with K.L. M. Royal Dutch Airlines on a Contract to operate the international service with Lockheed Constellation L749 and later Super Constellations L1049 with a new eye-catching bright yellow and red logo painted on the rudder and across the fuselage AIR CEYLON, beautifully advertising the airline. Mr. J. L. M Fernando was the Chairman of Air Ceylon. That was the time of Air Ceylon’s peak performance and a golden era. It was a treat to see an Air Ceylon Super Constellation majestically parked side by side with other giant airlines at international airports en route to London and Amsterdam. Cockpit crews consisted of KLM captains, Sri Lankan Co-Captains, Radio Officers and Flight Engineers. The cabin crews were Sri Lankan pursers and stewards in smart dark blue uniforms and the stewardesses in beautiful light blue sari with a dark blue border. Later, the Lockheed Electra L-188 with four turboprop engines was introduced as they were better equipped to fly much faster and at higher altitudes. After five years, sadly that contract too terminated in 1961.
In 1962, the next agreement was signed with BOAC. Air Ceylon International was flown with a Comet 4 and later with Vickers VC10 and VC1011 aircraft with British crews. It was disheartening that no cockpit crews were employed.
In the meantime, Air Ceylon domestic and regional flights were operated with three Douglas DC3 and two superb twin jet engine Hawker Siddeley Avro 748 aircraft, which need little maintenance and did regular flights to Jaffna, Madras, Trichy and the Maldives. In 1969, an expensive aircraft the Trident 1E was added to the fleet, one of the sleekest and fastest medium range jet passenger aircraft at that time. British Airways recommended this aircraft for regional operations, as PIA which operated a fleet of Tridents would assist in the supply of spare parts, Major Inspections and overhauls. Unfortunately, soon after Air Ceylon took delivery of the Trident, PIA sold their fleet of Tridents. That left Air Ceylon high and dry and in an awkward situation. Moreover, there was no other airline flying Tridents in the region and spare parts had to be flown from England. The Trident with Sri Lankan crew operated to Singapore, Colombo, Dubai, Sarjah and Muscat, etc. Due to inadvertent delays in obtaining spares from London the Trident operation suffered setbacks and sometimes cancellations gave Air Ceylon a bad name.
In 1972, a socialist-oriented government was elected and the BOAC Agreement terminated. Aa fresh Agreement to operate the international service was signed with French Union de Transports Aeriens (UTA) with DC8s and Sri Lankan cabin crews. The Minister of Aviation was Leslie Gunawardena, a staunch Socialist, and Mr. Sam de Silva was appointed Chairman of Air Ceylon. On the domestic and regional operations, the leader of the powerful labour union had direct contact with the Minister much to the annoyance of the management.
On the International operations UTA used Air Ceylon’s route rights but no markings of Air Ceylon logo displayed on the aircraft. Only cabin crews were taken as stewards and stewardesses. With the change of government, the contract with UTA ended in 1977 and the international operations ceased without any further foreign intervention.
In 1977, UNP government, Prime Minister J.R. Jayawardena appointed Mr. Glennie Peiris as Chairman. Since inception, Air Ceylon was financed by the Treasury for prestige and domestic and regional air travel. Unfortunately, the operation of an airline became a heavy burden on the country’s finances.
Unnecessary expenses were curtailed. Even toilet paper rationed and the flight stewardesses had to collect what was left before landing. It came to a sad dismal state and President J. R. Jayewardene ordered Air Ceylon to close down. On 31st December 1979 Air Ceylon terminated its operations and went into liquidation.
Air Ceylon’s Trident did its last flight on 31st August 1979 from Singapore to BIA piloted by Capt. George Ferdinand. It circled the airfield, dipped its wings in adieu and did a graceful landing never to fly again leaving all the staff in tears.
I wrote the following epitaph, a farewell to Air Ceylon, which appeared in the Newspapers:
WHEN AIR CEYLON DIPPED HER WINGS IN ADIEU
Created for fame, to carry the good name,
Of this Paradise Isle so green,
An airline was born, with trumpet and song,
And christened AIR CEYLON, the queen.
Across the great oceans, knew her reputation,
As the safest airline to fly,
Nymph of the skies, Sri Lanka’s great pride,
Her fame has spread far and wide.
On a BBC quiz, once a question was this:
‘What’s the safest airline to fly,
That carried loving souls, for thirty odd years,
Without any loss of life?’
KLM, PANAM, BOAC they hollered,
“Oh no! Oh no!! the compeer refuted.
In the silence that followed, a little child whispered,
‘AIR CEYLON, THE QUEEN OF THE SKIES.’
Thunderous applause from the audience arose,
To the beautiful sprite of the skies,
Long live her reputation in the annals of aviation
The safest airline to fly.
Alas, they who controlled her destiny blundered.
A Commission was appointed by the President to find out,
And Lo and behold, O’God, Oh my God,
Why was she sentenced to death?
When a nymph of the skies, do fly in the night,
As one hears a soft drone in the sky,
Do whisper a prayer and entrust to God’s care,
All souls that are cradled inside.
In 1980 President J. R. Jayewardene authorized International operations to continue as a semi-government corporation. Out of the ashes of Air Ceylon, AIR LANKA rose like Phoenix with a new logo with Capt. Rakitha Wickremanayake as Chairman and a fleet of Tri Stars. In 1998, it went into partnership with Emirates and change its logo to SRILANKAN AIRLINES. It had a very successful career, when the partnership was rescinded in 2008 due to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s intervention. He cancelled the partnership and took over the Airline, which was operating as a profitable venture. But now heavily in debt, it is on a nose dive unable to recover unless a foreign airline takes control of it.
In 1960, when Air Ceylon was still in partnership with KLM, an Air Ceylon Electra, captained by a KLM Swedish Captain Stoltenberg, Co-Captain P. B. Mawalagedera, Navro D. L. Sirimanne and Flight Engineers W. A. Sugathadasa and Quintus Goonesekera, flew some Civil Aviation and Diplomatic Officials to Canton, now known as Guangzhou, penetrating the so-called ‘Bamboo Curtain’ of Communist China, which prohibited foreigners to enter China, to sign a bilateral agreement to operate a service to Canton. Unfortunately, it did not materialize. Now that China is friendly and willing to help Sri Lanka, there would be a remote possibility of China and Sri Lanka agreeing to a partnership to assist SriLankan Airlines to recover from its steep dive. Who knows? It might work.