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A sad night to remember



By Capt Elmo Jayawardena

A DC-8 aircraft, belonging to Martinair, crashed into the Anjimalai mountain range, also known as the Seven Virgins, on 04 December 1974. The accident happened around 1015 PM and the location was in the vicinity of Maskeliya. This has been the worst ever air disaster in Sri Lanka; 191 lives were lost with no survivors.

Corona curfews give us time to read, and in my isolation, at home, I have been pulling out ‘bucket-listed’ stories to munch. Most articles I browsed through about the Martinair DC-8 crash had covered all aspects of this horrible disaster. Adequate details were available to re-construct the story and come to reasonable conclusions on what may have happened.

We know the easy way out as regards most aeroplane crashes has been the first-choice of the hit-parade – PILOT ERROR. The captain is buried beneath the Seven Virgins hills in a shamed silence. So is his First Officer and the Flight Engineer. The case is closed and forgotten. I have no defence to rub on behalf of the crew to give even a shallow coating of an excuse. There, however, is a ‘BUT’ I need to mention here. On one side, we have technology inundated with fancy aviation jargon. Add to that a half-burnt Black Box and communication tapes between the pilot and the controller, plus all the details of the flying records of the crew and what they have done and what they have not done. Then comes a hundred titbits of aeronautical specifics that act as tinsel to an investigation.

All that is fine and valid to be used at roundtable conferences where aviation-related head umpires and leg umpires, third umpires plus match referees discuss and make decisions, taking all the time in the world. It is not the same for the Captain and his crew. No doubt they are professionally competent, but some decisions to be made in an aeroplane are instant. You win some and you lose some and the ones you lose may have devastating repercussions. You may not even be living to tell your side of the story. A few seconds make the difference between life and death. In such calamitous situations we tend to forget that the most lethal ingredient in an aviation disaster is the Human Factor.

The Captain is not an infallible demigod who jumped out of Mount Olympus and sits in the cockpit of his aeroplane. He is human and so are his crew. They are not different from the ordinary people like you and me. I have been a Captain for a considerable number of years. I have made many mistakes flying aeroplanes. I humbly say I was lucky that I escaped without an accident. There is nothing courageous or brilliant about that; it is simply the way fate rolled the dice. Such would be the story of any Captain. Admitted or not, it is the truth, the absolute truth.


Scales of justice

The scales of justice in an aviation accident investigation is held by competent authorities. In the case of the Martinair DC-8 crash, there were three Civil Aviation Departments associated with the inquiry. Sri Lanka, the Netherlands, and Indonesia, plus there would have been the McDonnell Douglas Company that built the aeroplane and insurance companies that were present to protect their dollar. There were whispers about the Doppler system in this aeroplane having errors that caused inaccuracies in the ‘distance to go’. It was also said that the crew had not been informed of this. There is nothing to substantiate such statements and as such, it is best that I leave them out and let them lie buried along with the aeroplane. I also read that the co-pilot had a traumatic childhood and that could have affected his behaviour when approaching to land. I make no comment on such absurdities.

Let me now take you to the story of the DC 8 that crashed into the Seven Virgins mountain range. The accident tragically killed 191 innocent people (182 passengers + 9 crew). It sure is a terrible night to remember.

The flight was from Surabaya, Java, to Jeddah via Colombo, which was a re-fuelling stop. This was Muslim pilgrimage time to Mecca for the Haj. Devotees came from all parts of the world. Some flew in on private jets but most travelled on chartered aeroplanes. The flight that took off from Surabaya was a DC-8 55CF aeroplane, owned by Martinair of the Netherlands; it had been leased by Garuda Indonesia to fly the Haj charters. In command was Capt Hendrik Lamme, a 58-year-old very experienced pilot who had flown 27,000 plus flying hours, of which 4,000 were on DC-8s. The First Officer Robert Blomsma had 2,480 hours and was new on the DC-8 type with 47 hours. The third crew member, the flight engineer was Johannes Wijnands, who had flown 3,000 hours on DC-8 type aeroplanes. Back in the cabin there were six crew members, four were Dutch and others Indonesian. The aircraft had a Dutch registration of PH-MBH and was less than 10 years old. The flight plan filed call-sign for the flight was MP 138.

Here, I must explain to the reader something about the navigational instruments that the aeroplane had. I want to make it as simple as possible for a non-aviator to understand.

The route from Surabaya to Sri Lanka is mostly oceanic. It starts with an airway called Red-61 and extends on a North-Westerly direction till it reaches the Sri Lankan Flight Information Region (FIR – 92 East longitude) and follows route Golf-462 to cross the coast at a waypoint located over Yala. This reporting point, unfortunately, had no Radio Aid for the pilots to cross-check their navigation when flying overhead. The primary navigation system that was in use by Martinair was called Doppler. This was operated worldwide by many airlines, and during that era it was a primary navigational aid for jet aeroplanes flying long haul sectors. Doppler gave the pilots a digital reading of the distance to go to the waypoint it was heading to. However, Doppler system was not overly accurate when flying over water for a long period and had to be updated over a radio beacon or a known geographical position (maybe a river or town) to maintain its accuracy. Flight MP 138’s route initially had radio beacons to update the Doppler. But the final ocean crossing before the coast of Sri Lanka had no radio beacon for the crew to update the Doppler position. That was a long leg, too long to fly without an update.

The last point the DC-8 could have done a navigational cross-check would have been at a waypoint closer to Banda Archi airport, which was about 135 miles right of their track. From there Capt. Lamme still had to fly close to two hours to reach the coast of Sri Lanka. He was navigating now purely by rudimentary ‘dead-reckoning’ and Doppler ‘distance to go’ readouts without any cross-check to update his position.

Flight MP138 crossed the FIR at 8.27 pm local time – six minutes earlier than the estimate. Calculating its speed by distance between two waypoints and time taken, the ground speed would be 478 at eight miles a minute. Six minutes would be almost 50 miles. The FIR was about 850 miles from the Sri Lankan coastal waypoint. Maybe, Capt. Lamme and his crew were getting a wrong ‘distance to go’ reading from their Doppler. It is difficult to fathom whether it was because of the reported fault in this particular aeroplane Doppler or it was because of a very long sea track flown without an update. It could even have been both.

Already there had been a six-minute (50 miles) correction made. Was it correct or was it a Doppler error? There was no way to cross check and update. If it had been a Doppler fault, that could have caused the Martinair DC-8 to fly all the way to its death in Maskeliya.

Flight MP 138 first contacted the Colombo Air Traffic Control located at Ratmalana at 9.52 PM and reported 130 miles out at 35,000ft. They were only going by the Doppler. The controller answered ‘MP-138 clear descend 10,000 when ready and call 50 miles from Katunayake.” When Capt. Lamme commenced his descent by what his Doppler reading displayed, his actual position would have been 50 miles east of where he thought he was. Unfortunately, Katunayake Airport at that time did not have Approach Radar nor a Distance Measuring Equipment (DME), which would have digitally told the pilot exactly how far he was from the airfield.

Few minutes later the DC-8 called “50 miles” and was cleared to 6,000 and handed over to Colombo Approach Control at Katunayake. The First Officer who was doing the radio called Colombo Approach at 10.08 PM and reported he was ‘one four” (14) miles from the Katunayake airport passing 7,000 for 6,000. Approach Control had no Radar to see him. The controller had to go purely by the MP 138’s estimate of 14 miles from the airfield. He cleared MP 138 to 2000 ft and told him to call “field in sight” or overhead the KAT radio beacon.

“Roger, cleared 2000, to KAT or field in sight.” This was at 1010 by the first Officer.

That sadly was the last communication!

On descent, the DC-8 hit the 5th of the Seven Virgins mountains at a height of 4,354 feet. The impact place was about 65 miles from Katunayake. When F/O Blomsma reported 14 miles from the airport, he was most certainly giving the distance from the cockpit Doppler. He had to read from a possible error-tainted Doppler. If you add 14 miles to the error of 50 miles on the Doppler the answer is 64. Give or take a few miles for the random calculation I am doing, and then perhaps the 64 coincides with the distance from Katunayake to the place where the crash occurred in the Anjimalai hills.

The only other explanation for Capt. Lamme to initiate an early descent could have been a wrongly interpreted weather radar sighting of the eastern coast. These were black and white radar displays and it is possible that a low cloud could have been mistaken for the coast maybe 50 miles before ALGET.

I, in no way, can say what I have written is the gospel truth. I have no crystal-clear facts to ponder on. It is just my opinion I am stating. I do have some knowledge on Doppler matters as I have flown these routes in similar aeroplanes using Doppler navigation. Many opinions are expressed by journalists about this disaster. How true such inferences are is debatable.

I was greatly assisted by Sri Lankan Air Traffic Controllers and communication officers; some of them handled MP 138 arrival. I am deeply grateful to them for their first-hand information.

The possibility remains that Capt. Lamme may have commenced his descent approximately 50 miles before the planned point to leave 35,000.

The aeroplane crashed. There were many factors that left room for or would have contributed to human error.

Capt. Hendrik Lamme was guilty of being a human being!

Today, people driving past the Norton Bridge town see a strange sight. A structure displaying a large tyre. It is a wheel from the DC-8 that crashed into the Seven Virgins mountains. It could be all that was left of that magnificent aeroplane owned and flown by the Dutch. If one is interested, there is a place where one should stop on the road from Norton Bridge to Maskeliya. A plaque of remembrance is there, erected in memory of those who are buried around this place at the foot of this hill. The Martinair crew and the Indonesian pilgrims who died on the slopes of the mountain were buried in a common grave by the roadside. People say flowers do get placed, off and on, at the memorial. In remembrance of whom we know, but by whom is the question.

Up in the mountain is the main memorial, a stone pillar-like monument erected at the actual crash site. Wind-swept and rain-soaked it stands in its forgotten loneliness. Perhaps, it whispers its sadness amidst the Seven Virgins mountain range. The column has been erected in remembrance of the 191 innocent people who died there on a sorrowful December night, a long time ago.

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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development



There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka



By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?



Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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