Ninety-nine-year-old veteran recounts pioneering years of Ceylonese aviation


Air Ceylon Crew – D. Lionel Sirimanne, first crew member from right. He eventually married the Stewardess in the picture, Olga.

By Sajitha Prematunge

His first impression of flying was a deafening noise outside the school grounds. It was the mid 1920 and Sirimanne, the kindergartener, along with a bunch of other enthusiastic tots and teachers, ran outside to spy an aircraft pilot waving to them.

He left school in 1938 and all but forgot about the inspiring encounter. D. Lionel Sirimanne took up a stenographer job with Carson & Co., Ltd. But he couldn't stay a stenographer for long, fate was calling him, or rather it was the war. World War II broke out in 1939 and Sirimanne watched a fighter aircraft take off from the Colombo Race Course prior to the Japanese Air Raid on Colombo. "I thought it would be thrilling to fly an aircraft." He enlisted in the Royal Naval Air Service as a mechanic. He was trained and posted to the Katukurunda Naval Air Base where he and others of his kind maintained fighter and bomber aircraft such as Barracuda, Swordfish dive bombers, Seafires, Cosair fighters and Grummand Martlets.

After the war ended in 1944, he took a job at the Post and Telegraph Department as an engineer. But as fate would have it, he couldn't stay away from aircraft for too long. Civil aviation commenced in Ratmalana Airport, left behind by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Bombers such as Avro Lancaster were converted to passenger aircraft after the war. He joined the Department of Civil Aviation in 1946, got his Flight Radio Officers License and was posted at the newly opened airport in 1948 as an Air Ceylon radio officer. "Sir John Kothalawala obtained three Dakota DC3 aircraft and sent them to Hindustan to convert them to passenger aircraft. They came back with 21 beautiful slumber lounge seats," Sirimanne recalls.

First flight

His first charter flight on a DC3 was to Sydney. "The year was 1948," began the 99-year-old veteran. "The Civil Aviation Department arranged for a charter flight from Colombo to Brisbane to carry a Sri Lankan Royal Navy crew to bring back a ship from Brisbane." Captain Peter Fernando, Co-pilot P.B Mawalagedera, First Radio Officer John Vethavanam, Second Radio Officer cum Purser D.L Sirimanne and Flight Engineer Bunny Molamure were the crew selected for the trip. Sirimanne, for whom it was the first international flight, it was quite exhilarating. "The crew in Gabardine uniforms looked very impressive, especially Capt. Peter Fernando with his four striped epaulets."

On an interesting side note, Sirimanne recalls how he was forced to transmit a mayday signal on his very first flight. For those uninitiated in pre-60's aviation, a 'mayday' is a distress call. Morse code, those intriguing dots and dashes that translated to 'di di dit dah dah dah di di dits', was the only pre-60s form of wireless communication available to radio communicators.

They departed Colombo on May 30 at 7. 45 am and arrived in Madras at 10.30 am, departed Madras at 11.15 am and reached Calcutta at 4.35 pm. They availed themselves of a night stop to shop near the Howrah Bridge, the longest suspension bridge in India at that time. They departed Calcutta for Rangoon, but a tropical storm over Rangoon made it impossible for them to approach for a landing. Capt. Peter Fernando decided to fly direct to Singapore. The weather became more turbulent as they proceeded.

Back in the day, the radio communication and radio navigation equipment both on air and ground were primitive. "Other than visual flying, we could only depend on the radio compass to obtain a bearing as only Medium Frequency (MF) beacons were available to home in on, from one point to another." Their only navigational instrument, the Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) was compromised due to the storm. Bangkok and Singapore were inaudible and they couldn't raise Rangoon because their ADF was compromised. "On top of it, we were running short on fuel."

Sirimanne was asked by the captain to send an SOS. Singapore received their SOS and an airborne RAF search and rescue aircraft answered their distress call. Sirimanne tuned the ADF receiver to a particular frequency as advised and homed in on the signal. Within half an hour they were able to land on Changi Airport, Singapore, with only about 20 minutes fuel to spare.

What Sirimanne didn't know was that years later another ADF would eventually give him trouble. While transporting pilgrims from Colombo to Jeddah, a five-hour stretch over the Arabian sea was covered in thick fog. The descent to Salalah, Oman would prove to be nearly impossible, especially since Salalah had forgotten to turn on their ADF. Sirimanne transmitted a Morse Code SOS to Karachi and Aden to no avail. "The captain decided to go 20 miles out into the sea to break the clouds," Sirimanne recalled. Somewhere below the clouds, the Salalah ADF beacon kicked back into life and Sirimanne happily homed in on it. Upon landing an RAF base commandant profusely apologised as they had not been informed of an inbound aircraft. The staff were sea bathing when they heard the sound of an oncoming aircraft and quickly switched the ADF on.

Tying the knot

He later did flights to India and Karachi and several flights to Jeddah. In 1954 he got married to stewardess, Olga de Silva and was blessed with two children. After working for Air Ceylon for five years, he was posted in Amsterdam for six years to fly KLM Royal Dutch Airlines as a Radio officer on their entire international network to America, Canada, South America, Africa, India, Thailand, Burma, Singapore, Java, Australia, Philippines, Japan and China. He also visited Switzerland, England, France, Belgium, Cairo, Istanbul, Vienna and Venice, Lourdes, Bombay, Karachchi, Bangkok and Tokyo on sightseeing trips. Later he got KLM training as a Navigator and flew transatlantic flights.

"There weren't much red tape back in the day. Your passport would get you anywhere. There were no visa and payment issues, it was only a matter of getting your passport stamped," said Sirimanne. He explained that back in the 50's there wasn't much of a tourism trade. "Only those who could afford to travel, did. It was a luxury. International airlines like British Airways and KLM had no class distinction. All the seats were similar."

In 1961 he terminated his contract with KLM and came back to Air Ceylon, as a Radio Officer cum Navigator. He was posted to the Engineering Department. In the 1950s Transatlantic flights were done in propeller driven aircraft at 18,000 feet and required a cockpit crew of five people; captain, co-pilot, radio officer, flight engineer and navigator. In the 60's the Boeings and Comet came into the picture and as the aircraft got bigger and tourism boomed, aviation improved in leaps and bounds from depending on the humble piston engine to the jet engine age.

To put the whole of aviation history in a nutshell, when the transistor was introduced to aviation, radio equipment that weighed about a quarter ton were miniaturised and the resulting loss of weight made higher altitude flight possible. "Communication got easier, air traffic all over the world got simplified," explained Sirimanne. But it also tolled the death knell on a dying breed of Radio Officers and Navigators.

"Radio Officers and Navigators became redundant with wide-bodied jet aircraft operating at almost the speed of sound, equipped with modern sophisticated radio and navigational equipment, flying at higher altitudes," said Sirimanne. "Now the cockpit crew is down to two and everything else is computerised."


He was posted as an Aircraft Radio and Electrical Maintenance Engineer after receiving training in England and Australia to handle aircraft maintenance and engineering. In 1979 Air Ceylon was liquidated. By the time they closed shop, Sirimanne was past the age of flying anyway. A friend suggested that he go into shipping, so he joined Merchant Shipping armed with a ship’s Radio Officers license. He sailed on a Singaporean ship for six years as a radio officer. He took off on his first voyage in 1979. Sirimanne says shipping was relatively more relaxing than flying.

Having been a member of air crews for little over three decades, Sirimanne felt if was natural to ask his captain their ETA (Estimated Time Of Arrival), which was met with a chuckle and the comeback, "Depends on when we can get a birth."

Nevertheless, the sight of harbour lights usually excited Sirimanne. "I got all dressed up, ready to go home," he reminisced with amusement. "I ended up having to wait for hours." Apparently the slow process of unloading cargo sometimes took up to a week. By the time the ship was sold for scrap, he had sailed six voyages, earning USD 1000 a month.

"I sailed seven voyages from Taiwan to Cuba and other South American and South African ports." During the Iran-Iraq war he sailed to the war zone at double the salary, and returned home in 1986. "A crew ship would spend up to three days on a single visit to a harbour. I was able to do a lot of sightseeing this way." On his seafaring jaunts, Sirimanne visited Hong Kong, Taiwan, Cuba, Argentina, Suriname and British Guiana. Sirimanne has visited 70 countries in total. Bali was particularly exiting no doubt. "We were highly tickled and excited seeing those shapely bare breasts," said Sirimanne about the beautiful fair skinned young bare-breasted women who went about their day with nonchalance. Sirimanne remembered that, in Australia, the coloured air crew were met with astonishment. "There was the White Australia Policy then and neither Asians nor Chinese were allowed to settle down in Australia."

In 1986 Sirimanne retired from shipping. Ships were getting more sophisticated and along with them, communication equipment. Radio operators became redundant again. Self diagnosed as having itchy feet, Sirimanne said that he always hated the idea of doing a desk job. "I simply enjoyed travelling."

Retired for many years now, Sirimanne spends his time between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, visiting children, when he is not at home in Sri Lanka busy being a handyman, mowing the lawn and driving himself around. Yes, at 99, having flown and sailed around the world, he still does attend to the sort of mundane matters as mowing the lawn.


animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...