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First Ceylonese pilgrimage to Mecca by air

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by Capt Elmo Jayawardena
Elmojay1@gmail.com

This is an ancient story; most records are lost, buried or moth-eaten. Still, there is a lot remaining in the minds of men who heard how things happened and what was commercial flying like in its infant days in Ceylon.

The aeroplane popularly known as ‘Dakota’ had been the workhorse of most allied forces during the Second World War. I do not know how many DC-3s were produced during the war years but they sure were somewhere around 16,000, or possibly even more. The aircraft came in various models whilst the prototype remained the fundamental ‘Dakota’ flying machine. After the war ended, most of the surplus DC-3s were converted into passenger-carrying aircraft. The new-born airlines popping up all over the world in ‘born again’ independent countries started their airline operations with secondhand military-used ‘Dakotas’.

On the 10th of December 1947, Air Ceylon took off from the Ratmalana Airport on its maiden international commercial flight to Madras via Jaffna, operated with a DC-3, placing our little island on the world map of aviation.

That was the beginning and then came the cautious expansion.

Those were the times, when the Haj and Umra pilgrims from Sri Lanka went to Mecca by travelling to Bombay and taking a flight from there. Some preferred the sea route from Colombo to Jeddah and then to Mecca by air or overland. As Air Ceylon tested its wings flying from Ratmalana to Jaffna and a few Indian airports, they began looking for new destinations. It was then that the Haj pilgrims negotiated with the National Carrier to charter a ‘Dakota’ to fly Muslim devotees from Ratmalana to Jeddah and back.

The commercial part of the matter was all-settled at the Airline head office and the task fell on the fledgling flight operations section to find a way to fly to Jeddah. The DC-3 was more than capable of the journey, of course, with multiple pit-stops for re-fueling and overnight stays. A fully loaded ‘Dakota’ weighing 26,200 Ib could carry 21 passengers. Its fuel capacity was 822 gallons and its two Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Radial engines drank 73 gallons per hour. The aeroplane had a ‘nil-wind’ range of approx. 1,500 nautical miles (nm) cruising at 6,000 ft. These were the performance data the flight crew had to work with, but there was a problem, a huge one at that. None of the Air Ceylon crew had flown those desert routes. Their exposure was limited to India, and to make it worse the Flight Operations office had no charts of the air-routes that could take them from Ratmalana to Jeddah! They were OK up to Bombay, but what lay beyond that was unknown or even a possible damnation.

There was no way to go from Ratmalana to Jeddah as the crow flies. The crew had to consider the range capacity of their ‘Dakota’ and make their flight plan. The answer was at the Katunayaka RAF base. where they had all the necessary charts that covered the entire Middle Eastern sky. Post-war long-range operations were well-organised by the RAF, and they very generously shared all the information for route planning with details of radio beacons for navigation and radio frequencies for en-route communication.

Air Ceylon was now equipped to make their flight plan. They worked out the route from Ratmalana to Bombay (840 nm) and then to Karachi (471 nm), to Salalah (RAF base in Oman by the Arabian Sea – distance 871 nm), then to Aden (583 nm) and finally to Jeddah (627 nm).

Night stops were planned in Karachi and Aden with accommodation for crew and passengers. Everything was ready to fly to the unknown destinations through unknown territory and an unknown sky.

When I flew to Jeddah from BIA in the 80s it was on state-of-the-art Tri- Stars. We sat in the cockpit and punched into computers our route and destination Jeddah. We took off and engaged the autopilot and the automation did the rest and took us on the planned route to King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah. Even with all the sophisticated equipment we carried it was difficult to spot the runway when approaching the airfield. Everything was dusty, brown and hazy; it was either radar vectors or the instrument landing system that brought us to touch down. I often wonder what it would have been to fly a DC-3 to that same airport in 1950. The route they flew and how they found the airfields and countered the 40-degree heat in un-airconditioned cockpits would have been nothing less than the zenith of professional ‘seat of the pants’ flying. Perhaps it may have been the romance of it too, the true essence of flying which modern day pilots like me would hardly know.

They took off from Ratmalana with 21 Haj pilgrims bound for Jeddah. The flight crew comprised Capt Peter Fernando the Commander, Capt Emil Jayawardena the Co-Captain, Lionel Sirimanne the Radio Officer and G. V. Perera the Engineering Officer. Capt Peter was a veteran and the Flight Operations Manager of Air Ceylon. Capt Emil was an ex-RAF ‘Spitfire’ fighter pilot, who flew in the war; Mr Sirimanne and Mr Perera were experts in their allocated roles of communications and engineering. Off they flew, from Ratmalana, tracking to Bombay, where they stopped to refuel; everyone had lunch there. The next sector was to Karachi and as the sun went down in the Western sky, the ‘Dakota’ made its approach to land in Karachi’s Drigh Road Airport (currently known as Jinnah International). Now, it was night-stop time and the entourage moved to the BOAC crew hotel called ‘Speedbird’ located right next to the airport.

End of day one.

So far so good, they had flown 1,311 nm staying in the sky the whole day. Even though the first day’s route was quite familiar the navigation would have been very demanding as there were only a handful of non-directional beacons (NDBs) to tune to and use as nav-aids to make course corrections. The crew depended a lot on topographical maps and cautiously calculated aircraft positions by dead reckoning. This was real hard work by any standard.

The following morning, they departed Karachi and headed to Salalah Airport in Oman located by the Arabian Sea. This was an RAF base and the ‘Dakota’ was stopping there to refuel before flying on to Aden. Nearing Salalah they noticed the ground below completely covered with a thick stratiform-type cloud that stretched like a sheet as far as the eye could see. To make the situation worse, the Salalah Airport NDB was not working and the control tower too was silent. Radio Officer Sirimanne kept trying to raise Salalah and repeatedly failed. By dead reckoning the crew knew they were somewhere near Salalah Airport but with the beacon not working and without a visual sighting they simply could not descend through the cloud cover. Salalah aerodrome had considerable amount of high ground in the vicinity and the ‘Dakota’ descending through the cloud layer without a visual sighting could possibly plough into a hill killing everyone.

The crew had no fuel to go anywhere other than Salalah and they circled above the cloud layer for a while hoping to see a break in the clouds. They kept calling Salalah and re-tuning the beacon without any success. That, no doubt, was a tight situation. Truth be told, it was a very tight situation. The pilots played their last possible trump. Their plan was totally out of the box, yet sound and safe. They flew south/east from the place they were hovering, knowing they would now certainly be over the Arabian Sea. Then they slowly descended in cloud looking for the blue waters below. The plan was to get under the cloud base and fly above the water and make a 180 degree turn and fly towards land. They were experienced pilots who flew more with common sense and airmanship than fancy flight instruments. They were right. They broke cloud and saw the water and some boats, too. Now they were safe from the rugged terrain. Then they turned back, saw land below the cloud and headed to Salalah approaching from the seaside.

The radio crackled and the beacon came alive and Salalah tower was calling them. The ‘Dakota’ was safe and they flew towards the NDB at the airport and made a safe landing in Salalah. Many a pilot could have panicked in a situation like this. What the ‘Dakota’ crew did by flying out to sea to find a safe way to descend was a class act, and in my humble opinion deserves to be remembered and reminded to others as a hallmark of the type of gutsy people who flew aeroplanes in the bygone days.

The RAF base had not received the departure signal from Karachi that a DC-3 was flying to Salalah. The skeleton staff at the airport had shut down the aerodrome and gone for a sea bath. While they were frolicking in the water they heard an aircraft circling above the cloud layer and knew some pilot was desperately trying to land in Salalah. The RAF staff ran ashore and got into their vehicles and raced to the airport. That is how the radio came alive and the beacon started working. This was 1950, and such incidents did happen in aviation. The crew received a case of beer as a gift from the RAF boys and they took off, again after refueling, to Aden.

High frequency (HF) weather broadcasts were forecasting thunderstorms over Aden. The ‘Dakota’ had no radar unlike modern aeroplanes with colour screens to detect storm cells. The DC-3 pilots depended solely on their sight to carve a safe path weaving in and out of clouds to avoid weather. At night they went by the lightning flashes to stay away from thunderstorms. An old trick in flying DC-3 was to lower the landing gear if flying in bad weather. (I really can’t remember why, but we did it when flying ‘Dakotas’). The two pilots who were flying the Haj pilgrims were well-seasoned veterans who were a rare breed of aviators; they were so different from the people like me who flew modern jets. We can only imagine their feats and marvel on how they survived in unfriendly skies in their unsophisticated flying machines which hardly had any automation.

The ‘Dakota’ arrived in Aden safely and the crew and passengers did their second night stop after a weary, event-filled day flying the unknown skies. The following morning, they flew the last leg from Aden to Jeddah, flying over the Red Sea. It sure must have been a pleasant trip of 627 nm. The ‘Dakota’ crew brought their 21 passengers safely from Ratmalana to Jeddah flying a total of 3,392 nm. The pilgrims said their good-byes and disembarked to travel to Mecca overland.

The ‘DC-3 turned back and flew to Aden for another night stop. The return journey was in an empty aeroplane. That made it possible for the crew to fly direct to Karachi from Aden. The final night-stop was again at the Speedbird Hotel. The following day they flew to Ratmalana via Bombay after a pit-stop in Santa Cruz airport to re-fuel. A little more than a week later another Air Ceylon DC-3 flew from Ratmalana to Jeddah following the first flight’s flight-plan to bring back the Haj pilgrims home.

Those who know aeroplanes and the sky would cheer such aviators who blazed their way to the unknown in the magnificent ‘Dakotas’. To the non-aviators, I can only say this was flying at its optimum best, flown by men who knew what the flying game was all about.

I knew the entire crew that flew the ‘Dakota’ very well. Capt. Peter drove a yellow and black Riley and lived in Uyana, Moratuwa, next to St Joseph’s Church. Capt. Emil, the ex-RAF fighter pilot I knew from the day I was born to the day he said his final good-bye to this world. He was my father. Mr. G.V. Perera was a very senior aeronautical engineer, a wonderful man who even had a flying license. And the Radio Officer, Uncle Siri, he is only 101 years old and is active on ‘Facebook’. Lionel Sirimanne still mows his lawn in Kohuwela and drives his car to Keell’s supermarket. I am deeply grateful to him for some of the details he gave me about this flight to Jeddah. As for the old warrior, the ‘Dakota’, one of them is spruced up and kept in the Air Force Museum in Ratmalana. It is a worthy sight to see as it majestically rests its soul among airmen and aeroplanes and aviation lovers who come to see this historical aeroplane.


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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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

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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?

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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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