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The Nicosia Tragedy – lest such be forgotten



By Capt Elmo Jayawardena

It was a lazy April morning in Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport. The Globe Air Charter flight carrying 120 Swiss and German passengers was about to taxi out for takeoff. The planned journey was long, starting in Thailand and ending up in Switzerland, with re-fueling stops in Colombo, Bombay and Cairo, before flying the last leg to its destination – Basel. The plane carried 10 crew – five in the cabin and five in the cockpit, comprising three pilots and two flight engineers, what they called a heavy crew to fly multi-sector long haul flights. In command was Capt. St Elmo Muller, a Ceylonese pilot who had served in the RAF during the second world war.

Capt. Muller was born in Colombo and educated at St. Joseph’s College. He learnt to fly as a teenager and obtained an ‘A’ licence at Ratmalana. They say that Muller used to cycle from Colombo to Ratmalana Airport to take his flying lessons from renowned flying instructor, Flight Lieutenant Robert Duncanson. Subsequently, Elmo Muller was one of the first 15 Ceylonese to join the Royal Air Force and leave for training to the UK. Four of the 15 were selected as fighter pilots and Elmo Muller trained to fly heavier bombers. He also flew reconnaissance Spitfires attached to Squadron 543 of the RAF. Having entered the RAF as a Sergeant Pilot he rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant by 1945, when he was just 24 years of age. His quick rise through the ranks says much about Muller as an officer and a pilot.

After the war, Muller remained in Europe, flew charter aeroplanes for different companies, and served as a commercial pilot with EL AL, the national carrier of Israel.

This was Capt. St Elmo Muller, aged 45, who took off from Bangkok on the19th of April 1967 – an experienced airman with 8285 flying hours, of which 1,493 were logged on Britannia aircraft. The co-pilot was P. Hippenmeyer, aged 24, a Swiss national, with a total of 1860 hours, of which 785 were on Britannia aeroplanes. The extra pilot – Capt. H. M. Day, a 40-year old DC-3 pilot, with 9,680 flying hours to his credit – was not rated on the Britannia, but may have been under training as he had 49 hours on this type. The three pilots together totalled almost 20,000 flying hours. Rated or not, there was a considerable amount of experience in that flight deck. As for the two flight engineers, H. W Saunders and H.J. Geisen, they both held valid Swiss Flight Engineer Licences endorsed to operate Britannias.

The aeroplane was a 10-year old Bristol Britannia powered by four Wright R-3350 turbo-compound engines. The Britannia was certainly the best British long range aeroplane at the time, fighting for its place among the Boeing Stratocruisers, Douglas DC-6s and the Lockheed Constellations that were built across the Atlantic. The Bristol Britannia was as good a plane as any, ranked alongside the best of aeroplanes until the jets, mainly 707s and DC-8s, took to the skies.

The first sector from Bangkok was uneventful. They had five crew members who could swap places in the flight deck which needed three crew members to man. However, as pilot Day was not qualified on the type, whatever resting Capt. Muller did, needed to happen while seated at the Captain’s seat; not the best manner to rest, but a common practice among long haul operators. Doubtless, the journey from Bangkok to Basel, with its three mandatory stops, required great endurance from Capt. Muller. As for the others, they would have managed their in-flight rest periods to stay fresh and focused for the shifts they had to work.

Being late April with the South West monsoon active in Ceylon the Britannia would have landed on Runway (R/W) 22 in Colombo. The crew likely stretched their legs while the plane re-fueled, before setting off for Santa Cruz Airport in Bombay. That sector would have been the shortest in the flight plan and the easiest to fly. It was bright day light, and the track was over land with adequate navigational beacons for route corrections, dotted with en-route alternates across western India in case of an emergency.

By the time the Globe Air Britannia reached Bombay, they had flown two sectors of the four they were to fly and likely clocked over 10 hours of duty time. Duty time includes the 90 minutes of pre-flight preparation and another 30 – in some companies, 60 – minutes of post flight work.

Several factors influence the calculation of flight time and duty time. Suffice it to say that by the time they were to land in Cairo after the nine-hour leg from Bombay, the crew would have well exceeded their duty time limitations. However, this was an unscheduled charter, and it was 1967. It may not have been considered a mortal sin to stretch the limits of duty time. After all, they had five crew members to share the workload.

Departing Bombay, the Britannia took off with 11 hours and 10 minutes’ fuel endurance for the nine-hour flight. Capt. Muller headed west crossing the Arabian Sea to enter Omani Airspace. This was the longest leg of the trip – destination Cairo, the penultimate stop before Basel. I do not know the exact route they flew, but they would have flown over the Middle Eastern Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and past the Eastern Mediterranean to reach Cairo. By this time, the crew would have been on duty for over 20 hours and Capt. Muller, in command, would have been confined to his seat throughout except for his toilet breaks. That the crew was fatigued is doubtless; the limit for a present-day modern jet, flying a three-pilot operation, is around 12 hours.

As the Britannia approached Cairo, the weather gods played their Ace of Trumps. The airport was covered with thunderstorms and arriving pilots diverted to safe havens around the edge of the Mediterranean looking for alternates to land. Globe Air Britannia, after flying nine hours from Bombay, probably had approximately two hours of fuel left in the tanks when Capt. Muller made his decision to divert. The designated alternate for Globe Air was Beirut. The weather there was good – calm winds with one Okta (1/8th of the sky) of cumulus clouds. Cairo being equidistant from Beirut and Nicosia, just a little over 300 nautical miles, Capt. Muller opted to re-nominate Nicosia airport as his preferred alternate and headed to Cyprus.

Nicosia Airport was forecasting intermittent weather with thunderstorms. Capt Muller was no fool; he was a very experienced pilot. He must have had very good reasons for choosing Nicosia. The question remains unanswered why Capt. Muller did not divert to Beirut. I can only surmise, of course, that there might have been other aircraft diverting to Beirut from Cairo. The congestion may have been a reason why Capt. Muller decided to go to Nicosia as he could not have had the comfort of adequate fuel to go into a long holding pattern in Beirut.

There is no doubt that Capt. Muller made a professionally reasoned Commander’s decision to land in Nicosia. Given his experience and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can determine that the decision to go to Nicosia would have been made for very valid reasons. We must remember that a Captain diverting an aeroplane after a long flight may not have the luxury of time.

I do not know why the Britannia diverted to Nicosia. I will leave it at that. Let me get on with the story.

At 2215 GMT, other aeroplanes in the area heard Globe Air calling Nicosia. Beirut heard it too and passed a message to Nicosia Control that Globe Air was making attempts to contact them. At 2300 Nicosia Approach talked to Globe Air and gave them the latest weather report. With 5/8 of the sky around the Nicosia aerodrome covered with thunderstorms, this was always going to be a difficult arrival. The airport did not have an Instrument Landing System (ILS) and was only fitted with a VOR for a non-precision approach. Globe Air came over the airfield at 2306 and was cleared for a right hand downwind to approach on R/W 32. At 2310 the Britannia reported it was over the R/W 32 threshold but as it was slightly high, the Captain executed a missed approach. The Tower then cleared Globe Air for a left-hand downwind circuit for R/W 32. Capt. Muller accepted the clearance and said he would fly a low-level visual circuit, doing his best to keep the runway in sight on his left.

The Swiss registered HB-ITB Britannia that Capt. Muller was flying did not have a Flight Recorder fitted. The airport did not have RADAR to track the path of the aeroplane. The only evidence available after the accident for investigations were the Air Traffic Control tapes, which recorded the communications between Globe Air and the Tower. The last message on tape was the pilot stating he was doing a low-level circuit. Sitting at my desk, more than fifty years later, I can only give careful consideration to all the circumstances and make an educated guess as to what happened next.

The Britannia was probably flying at 1000 feet, maybe 800 ft, on a left-hand downwind heading of 140 degrees. The dark midnight sky was covered with 5 oktas of thundery cumulonimbus, the visibility further reduced by rain. I picture Capt. Muller looking out of the left window to keep the runway in sight, as well as scanning his flight instruments to stay on track, speed and altitude. His fuel too may not have been much, as he started with 11 hours and 10 minutes from Bombay and burnt nine hours to get to Cairo. The diversion to Nicosia would have cost him another hour of fuel and the missed approach he executed in Nicosia may have burnt at least another 10 minutes of the precious little left. Capt. Muller was likely sitting on less than one hour’s worth of fuel when he was flying the low-level circuit: not enough to go anywhere except Nicosia.

In addition to all these calamitous facts, St Elmo Muller had sat on his Captain’s seat for more than 22 hours. If ever a deck was stacked against an Airline Captain, this was it.

45 seconds after passing the R/W 32 threshold, the Britannia commenced its left turn to the base leg heading of 050, which would have brought it perpendicular to R/W 32.

It was then, at 2313, that the left wing of the aeroplane hit the side of a hill at a height of 820 ft, 22 feet below the crest. The heading at point of impact was 068 degrees, the aircraft still turning to 050, the base leg heading. The wing broke and the aircraft rolled and hit another hillock, bursting into flames and killing 126 of the occupants. Almost impossibly, four survived, three of them severely injured. The fourth walked away from the crash without a scratch.

“The accident resulted from an attempt to make an approach at a height too low to clear rising ground.” That was the conclusion of the Nicosia Civil Aviation Authority after their investigation.

Without the information from a flight recorder it is difficult to know what really happened. The conclusions from different sources who were associated with the investigations are rather contradictory. As with most airline crashes, none of the flight crew lived to tell the tale.

Capt. St Elmo Muller’s remains were brought to Ceylon in a sealed coffin and placed in the Muller family vault at the Kanatte Cemetery.

I sincerely hope what I wrote would bring memories of an honourable Ceylonese aviator who should be remembered.

The truth of what happened on that fateful night remains lost forever on a Cypriot hill.

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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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