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A Tale of three aeroplanes



The present-day sky is crowded. Airways crisscross above continents and oceans and are severely congested with all kinds of aeroplanes carrying passengers and cargo. Then someone crashes, people die, and we say, “What a shame!” The manufacturers start defending their aeroplane, the insurance companies look for loopholes to creep through and save their bacon. Of course, there is always the ever-present ‘pilot error’ verdict to take the final blame. That is what happens in air crashes and crash causes. The dying or the surviving is seldom man-made. It is all done upstairs and has little to do with what we deduce from what we know or hear. I have seen enough of the sky and what happens in it to figure that out.

On 7 August 1997, a Fine Air DC-8-61F took off from Miami International on a direct flight to Santo Domingo. It was a cargo flight, two pilots and a Flight Engineer plus a security officer were the only occupants. The DC-8 rolled off on Runway 27 Right and eased into the azure blue Florida sky.

That’s when the trouble started. The first officer was flying, and he could not control the pitch attitude of the aeroplane, and the nose kept creeping up. The speed started bleeding off and the big cargo jet stalled and crashed 3000 ft beyond the end of the runway. It instantly killed the four people on board and also a luckless motorist who was passing on the road beyond the airfield.

The investigation proved the DC-8 was loaded incorrectly by the cargo people and the trim settings shown were wrong.

The load sheet is given to the Captain a few minutes before the doors are closed. It shows how the aeroplane is loaded and how the centre of gravity is calculated by the load master who decides how the payload should be distributed. If he makes a mistake, and the Captain fails to notice it, no one would know that till the aeroplane rotates and the pitch attitude misbehaves. At times it could become almost impossible to fly the aeroplane.

That’s one down and two to go of the three stories.

The Ethiopian 707 cargo aeroplane was loaded and ready for takeoff in Fiumicino Airport in Rome on 19th November 1977. It was a two-sector flight, first to Asmara and then to Addis Ababa, carrying a consignment of tyres. There were five onboard, the two pilots and the Flight Engineer and two security officers.

The aeroplane was almost fully loaded with heavy cargo plus 11,000 gallons of fuel. The Captain checked the load sheet and calculated the take-off power needed and set the stabilizer trim according to the units that were displayed in the load sheet.

The 707 rolled out of Fiumicino and took off. It is not clear what happened; the theories are multiple. The 707 could not be controlled in the pitching and nosedived to a scrub bush jungle on the extended centerline of the runway.

All five people in the aircraft died. The 11,000 gallons of fuel burned the fuselage to cinders. Maybe the calculated trim was wrong or maybe the loading of the cargo was not according to centre of gravity limits. Some even said the cargo pallets may have shifted. Either way, the five people who died lost their lives in vain, perhaps due to a loading mistake.

And now I come to the third aeroplane, the one that got away.

No, this I did not take from any record book; nor is it a trumped-up story from a third or fourth party. This is straight from the horse’s mouth. It was the surviving pilot who laid bare all the facts of this incredible story. Captain Jaya Seneviratne is no more, he passed away some years ago. First Officer Nihal Jayawickrema flew almost every jet aeroplane that served Sri Lanka and retired after being the Director of Flight Operations in the national carrier. I write this in honour of these two pilots. Let the truth be on record, stated as it happened so that such professional pinnacles are remembered and told and re-told for future generations.

The year was 1971. The JVP had taken up arms to fight the ruling coalition of the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government. At the start the armed forces were ill-prepared to contain the onslaught of the youth uprising. The pendulum swung both ways and hundreds from the two sides died in vain. I better stop that sad story now before I forget my purpose and blast away at things that are best left unsaid.

Ammunition and soldiers had to be moved to fight the JVP. Road transport was difficult due to guerilla-type ambushers. The safest was by air, load an old DC-3 and fly wherever you wanted. Such was the plan when Capt. Seneviratne and F/O Jayawickrema got onboard to fly from Ratmalana to Vavuniya. They had to carry some soldiers and a lot of ammunition boxes that weighed like concrete blocks. Of course, there were no cabin crew, and strangely more passengers than seats, more like military musical chairs. The plane had to fly to Vavuniya, unload soldiers and ammo and return empty to Ratmalana. Of course, whoever ordered the flight had thrown away the rule book. There was no LOAD SHEET. This was an emergency; nobody knew how much the payload weighed and where the trim sheet centre of gravity was. The Captain was a grizzly old school veteran, and the F/O was a bright young spark, and between them they were more than capable of flying to Vavuniya and back. Passengers seated and standing, limitlessly over-loading, and with enough ammunition to make it a flying bomb if any emergency occurred, somebody sure had vapourised the rule book. Had to be somebody big!

They started engines and taxied to line up on runway 04 (heading north/east) and opened full power for the take-off. It was slow to gather speed and almost ran to the other end before the Captain gently eased the control column back and got the lumbering DC-3 to get airborne. The instant Capt. Seneviratne lifted the plane he would have known something was very wrong. The old Dakota was climbing foot by foot while the F/O retracted the gear and the flaps. The aeroplane was still not climbing, the two pilots knew they were flying a heavily over-weight aeroplane which had been loaded with total disregard for its centre of gravity.

From here onwards I am writing exactly what First Officer Jayawickrema told me. This is no fairy tale, but some clever piece of flying which was completely out of the box.

The old Dakota crawled to 1500 feet and stopped climbing. Too heavy and completely out of trim. The Captain turned left and stayed on top of the northern Bolgoda Lake and followed the waterway to Dehiwela. There they turned left and followed the snaking canal to the sea, safe from tall buildings at 1500 ft. Once they crossed the rail-track and the beach, they turned North and flew over the water parallel to the coast. Now they were safe at this low altitude and the Captain sent the First Officer to check the situation in the cabin. There were 24 seats and 38 passengers and so many ammunition boxes that were loaded on the floor at the back. The seatless passengers had conveniently sat on the iron boxes and made themselves comfortable. No wonder the Dakota was over-weight and completely out of trim. It was a minor miracle the Dakota made it to 1500 ft. The pilots decided to fly low level over the sea and head North and somewhere near Kalpitiya to turn right and make a direct track to Vavuniya.

The Captain called the leader of the soldiers and explained and requested the passengers who had no seats to bring the ammo boxes forward along the aisle and the soldiers to sit on them. This was clever thinking. Boxes and men shifted up the aisle, the aircraft was better balanced after the seatless passengers re-located. However, the crew stuck to their original plan to coast-crawl and managed to climb a little too. They flew past Negombo, Chilaw, spotted Deduru-Oya and Puttalam and reached Kalpitiya. There they turned right to track to Vauniya, flying over Wilpattu and Thanthirimalai. The fading sun was still giving enough light and they came to Vavuniya and spotted a clearing amidst the scrub bush. The runway was just a flat strip, a relic from the old second world war days where the RAF had a squadron of Hurricanes based in Vavuniya. That was all gone now and there was only a little hut and a watcher who was there to guard (I do not know from what) but perhaps to chase the cattle that strayed on to the airfield.

The DC-3 usually approached to land at 65-70 knots. But the crew knew she weighed so much more than her maximum landing weight with ammo boxes and 38 passengers. The pilots had to come much faster to land and to avoid stalling the plane. The Dakota did not have stall warning devices. Capt. Seneviratne compromised and made his approach to runway 05 at 100 knots. It would have been an extremely difficult task, an over-weight DC-3 approaching at 100 knots, on a short field of around 1500 meters. There were no guide lights or runway markings to gauge the descent path. The flare alone would have been so difficult to judge; the deck sure was stacked against the pilots, nerve-racking to say the least.

They touched down and went straight for the brakes, but the speed was too high and the runway too short. The Dakota over ran the threshold on the far end and went into a ditch that was full of mud. The nose was down, and the tail was up but no one was hurt.

Considering all factors including the part they over ran the short, unmarked runway, I think it was a brilliant piece of flying. From take-off to touch down it was all seat of the pants out of the box handling and decision-making. My humble opinion says if one was to study everything that happened and how they survived – this sure was a class act.

The soldiers disembarked carrying their ammunition and the crew followed. They inspected the Dakota and saw nothing had happened to the rugged aeroplane except some torn canvases in the tailplane. Ropes were brought and the 38 soldiers pushed and pulled the Dakota and got it out of the ditch. Her wheels were caked with mud and the wheel bays too were pretty badly soiled. Once the soldiers got the aeroplane to hard ground they turned it to face runway 23. The pilots got in and they had to do a battery start. This was tricky, but the crew knew their business. The starter rotated the prop, fuel flowed, ignitors fired, and the engine coughed and smoked as the 14 cylinders came to life. That sure is the sweetest sound from a Pratt and Whitney engine. Both engines started singing and it was all set to go; the Dakota took off on runway 23 and flew to Ratmalana.

They radioed Engineering in Ratmalana and told the Vavuniya story. The men who manned Ratmalana were a special breed.They were ‘Hammer and Spanner’ trouble-fixers who were Grand Masters of the DC-3. By the time the Dakota landed the engineers were ready with high pressure hoses to peel the mud off and also had an expert to stitch the torn tail plane canvas. Some names I remember. It is my privilege to mention them. G.V. Perera, Noel Peiris, Sath Silva, JCT, Quintus Gunasekara, Piya. I remember, the rest were equally good, but I am sad I cannot re-collect all the names.

The engineers took over the aeroplane and the pilots went home.

The following morning my friend Jayawickrema rode his bicycle and came to the airport. The DC-3 was taxiing out for take-off, on the morning flight to Jaffna.

“She looked the beauty she always was” he nostalgically murmured. “Even spruced up by her high-pressure water bath. I couldn’t believe this was the same aeroplane that made an approach at 100 knots to land at a short strip in Vavuniya and ended up in a ditch, full of mud.”

Some pilots crash and die, and some survive. The script is decided by fate that flings the dice. You win some, you lose some and if you are lucky, you live to tell the tale.

Some call it consecration; some call it God.

It is as simple as that.

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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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