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A Tale of three aeroplanes

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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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Rise of Dual Power amidst Covid 

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We had so many kings in our Sinhala Balaya of many centuries. There were many questionable deals on succession by members of this royalty, and others who came to those realms. But we have yet to hear of any brother of a ruling monarch rushing abroad in the midst of what may have been a national crisis, moving to a disaster.This is the stuff of Sinhala Power in the 21st Century. It is a show of the Raja Keliya – the power game, where dual citizenship is the dominant factor. The Sri Lanka, Mawbima home, is of lesser importance than the Videsha mawbima, especially if one’s health has to be handled by foreign medical sources; even if the Videsha Mawbima is the biggest affected by the Covid pandemic.

The appointment of Task Forces to deal with important issues facing the country and the people is the substance of the current Saubhagyaye Dekma – Vision of Prosperity and Splendour. Appointing a brother to head task forces of key importance is the show of dominant family power that prevails in this country today. But brotherly feelings are certainly not important when a dual citizen thinks of the greater importance of the Videsha Mawbima. The tasks of Economic Growth, Eradicating Poverty and Assuring Food Supply, as well as the more recent Green Socio-Economy must all be pushed aside, when the call of the Videsha Mawbima for healthcare is the stuff that matters.

This is the brotherly Vision of Prosperity and Splendour, or the Sahodara Saubhabyaye Dekma.

The Covid pandemic has certainly brought much contradictory thinking, especially in the government, on how the health of the people in this country, non-dual citizens, could be assured. Minister Udaya Gammanpila, a Cabinet spokesman too, is certain that mixed vaccinations of different brands and qualities, is the means to protect the people. 

Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle, State Minister on the subject, thinks differently, on the lines of the WHO specialists, who have stressed there is no evidence so far to authorize mixed vaccinations. The other minister of health and vaccination issues is somewhat silent on this confusion in official thinking. Is a new pandemic syrup to be promoted by the power handlers?

Thank heavens that the Cabinet Minister of Health, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, is so far silent on this matter. She could come up with a new Sri Lankan Deshamanya scientific solution, such as throwing some of the Sinopharm and Sputnik (Chinese and Russian) into the nearby river, and using the mixed and river blended vaccine for people of the related province. She is sure to obtain the support of Ministers Udaya Gammanpila and Prasanna Ranatunga for such a crafty thinking of science, just as they shared her belief in the Charmed Pot Game or Mantara Kala Keliya to fight the Covid-19.

  We are now in the midst of what is known as a Lockdown. It is not a “Vasaa thabeema” in Sinhala, but a limit on travel – a ‘Sancharana Seemava’. The Police are very clear that anyone who breaks the lockdown rules will be arrested and brought to justice. We have seen the great joy that policemen showed in carrying non-mask wearers and other violaters of Covid safety guidelines, to be shoved into buses. How much more of such delights would follow when Covid increases its hold on Sri Lanka? What was the related Task Force, and its ceremonial uniformed head doing, when Indians were brought to Sri Lankan hotels for quarantine before travel to some Middle Easter countries? What foreigner from the Covid battered India was carried or courteously conducted to a place where lawbreakers are detained?

As we keep wearing our masks and distancing ourselves from others, there is much cause for concern, even beyond the Covid pandemic, on how persons arrested and detained by the police are killed by or in the presence of the  police. Two suspected and arrested persons have been killed while in police custody this week.  They are Melon Mabula or ‘Uru Juva’ and Tharaka Perera Wijesekera or ‘Kosgoda Tharaka’ These are persons with records of major crimes, possibly with much strong evidence, but not presented in court and any punishment order through the judicial process.

The police spokesperson, a person with a legal background, too, tells the people the details of all the terrible crimes these persons are supposed to be guilty of. It is a contemptible move to get public support for the killings. The Bar Association has raised concerns about these departures from justice. There must be much more protests, even with the Covid dangers.

One gets the impression that the prevailing dangerous situation due to Covid, is being used to carry out increasing violations of the law and the judicial process. This is certainly a major step back to the earlier years of Rajapaksa Power, when many such suspects were killed in Colombo and elsewhere, showing off police escape power. It also brings back memories of the killing and attacks on journalists by similar police and official forces of crooked power.

Are we moving to a new sense of Dual Power — where the judiciary is ignored and official power is the Rule of the Day? Is the power of Dual Citizenry to be the dominant force once Covid puts down the people’s power?

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Should ASEAN Free Trade Area be considered model for SAFTA?

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By Dr. Srimal Fernando

Economic integration is more important today than it has ever been for South Asia’s development. When comparing the impact of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)s South Asian Free Trade Area (SAFTA) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) Free Trade Area (AFTA) in promoting trade amongst its member states, AFTA has been more effective in integrating the economies of its member states. SAFTA , on the other hand, has yet to make significant contributions to the integration of the economies of SAARC member states. The Success of ASEAN’s economic integration can be attributed to the willingness of Southeast Asian countries to embrace the tenets of regional integration. In contrast, SAARC’s model has failed to create a secure regional environment that is conducive for economic growth since its formation.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN ) member states signed the AFTA agreement on 28 January 1992. After the establishment of AFTA, the member states of ASEAN succeeded in signing trading protocols within the organization. The ASEAN model succeeded in creating one of the most successful free trade areas in Asia as well as globally. The establishment of AFTA has been an important milestone in Southeast Asia as a factor that facilitated the economic integration of ASEAN member states.

In the case of the SAARC, the signing of free trade protocols under the SAFTA agreement has been faced with several tariff and non-tariff barriers. Although both SASRC and ASEAN member states face unique challenges that affect trading within these organizations, it can be said that, unlike the SAARC, the ASEAN economic integration model has been far successful in promoting trade amongst its member states. For the SAARC, the liberalization of the economies of SAFTA signatories has been a crucial challenge. On the other hand, ASEAN has made notable progress with regards to trade liberalization, policy alignments, and intra-regional trade among Southeast Asian nations.

The specific trade liberalization challenges faced by the SAARC member states include concerns over SAFTA revenue allocation from member states, restrictive rules of origin, and negative sensitive lists. The sensitive lists adopted by SAARC member states have proven to be a significant hurdle to exportation amongst SAARC member states. This has particularly made it difficult for exports from small member states of the SAARC to enter into large markets such as India and Pakistan. Having failed to grant the application of  most favored nation (MFN) status that would have seen a significant reduction in the sensitive lists maintained by both countries, trade between these two regional powers has been problematic over the years. Notably, the trading commodities that are in the sensitive lists of a majority of the SAFTA member states have high export potential. Despite the various commitments made by SAFTA member states, countries continue to maintain long sensitive lists hence the dismal performance of SAFTA. 

In the case of ASEAN, the establishment of the AFTA agreement has provided ASEAN member states with a platform to exploit their export potential. The AFTA agreement has boosted the economies of ASEAN countries through its trade liberalization policies. AFTA has also entered into several free trade agreements with regional powers such as Australia, China, South Korea, India, and Japan. The ASEAN countries are now focused on creating an Economic Community for their member states. Notably, several countries have shown interest in being a part of the proposed ASEAN Economic Community.

It should however be noted that the massive success achieved by ASEAN’S AFTA as opposed to SAARC’s SAFTA is not flawless. For example, although ASEAN has made significant steps in eliminating tariff barriers amongst AFTA member states, Non-tariff barriers are still a key challenge to the AFTA agreement. However, when analyzing the progress made by ASEAN’s AFTA since its formation, the achievements and evolution are undeniable. ASEAN was formed in an era when interstate relations amongst Southeast Asian countries were characterized by political mistrust and strained interstate relations. Years later, the organization has succeeded in unifying its member states for a common course, an aspect that the SAARC still struggles with. 

Way Forward

If SAFTA is to become more effective and emulate AFTA’s success, the myriad of issues mentioned above needs to be addressed. First, downsizing the sensitive lists of countries in a time-bound manner will be necessary. Secondly, the issue of para tariffs needs to be squarely addressed. A starting point could be to reduce and accelerate the elimination of para tariffs on items not on sensitive lists and include para tariffs in SAFTA negotiations. Also, the non-tariff barriers to trade facing SAFTA member states need to be equally addressed like the tariff barriers. Finally, strengthening economic relations can be used to reinforce improving political relations in the region, particularly between India and Pakistan. To an extent, the success of ASEAN in achieving effective economic integration and its experience can be used as an external driver of SAARC and its SAFTA agreement.

About the author:

Dr. Srimal Fernando received his PhD in the area of International Affairs. He was the recipient of the prestigious O.P. Jindal Doctoral Fellowship and SAU Scholarship under the SAARC umbrella. He is also an Advisor/Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa in partnership with Diplomatic World Institute (Brussels). He has received accolades such as 2018/2019 ‘Best Journalist of the Year’ in South Africa, (GCA) Media Award for 2016 and the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA) accolade. He is the author of ‘Politics, Economics and Connectivity: In Search of South Asian Union’

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Ramazan spirit endures amid pandemic

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This will be a sombre Ramazan, indeed, with the country under a lockdown. But the spirit of Ramazan lives on in all Muslims. Ramadan, also referred to as Ramazan, Ramzan, or Ramadhan, in some countries, is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, and Muslims the world over dedicate this holy month for fasting, prayer, reflection and community.

Although most non-Muslims associate Ramazan, solely with fasting, it is believed to bring Muslims closer to God and inculcate in them qualities such as patience, spirituality, and humility. Those of the Islamic faith believe that fasting redirects one away from worldly activities, cleanses the inner soul and free it from harm. It also teaches self-discipline, self-control, sacrifice, and empathy for those who are less fortunate and encourage actions of generosity and charity. It is a time of self-examination and increased religious devotion.

Ramazan is a commemoration of Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation, and the annual observance of Ramazan is regarded as one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The Five Pillars are basic acts, considered mandatory by Muslims, namely Muslim life, prayer, concern for the needy, self-purification, and the pilgrimage. Prophet Muhammad’s first revelation is believed to have taken place in 610 AD, in a cave called Hira, located near Mecca, where Muhammad was visited by the angel Jibrīl, who revealed to him the beginnings of what would later become the Qur’an. The visitation occurred on Ramazan.

Ramazan lasts from one sighting of the crescent moon to the next and the local religious authority is tasked with announcing the date. The Colombo Grand Mosque announced on Wednesday (12) that Sri Lankan Muslims will celebrate Ramazan on Friday (14). Because the Muslims follow a lunar calendar, the start of Ramazan moves backwards by about 11 days, each year, in the Gregorian calendar. Fasting from dawn to sunset is considered fard (obligatory) for all adult Muslims who are not acutely, or chronically, ill, travelling, elderly, breastfeeding, diabetic, or menstruating.

During this month, Muslims refrain not only from partaking of meals, but also tobacco products, sexual relations, and sinful behaviour, devoting themselves to prayer or salat and recitation of the Quran. The pre-dawn meal is referred to as suhur, and the nightly feast that breaks fast is referred to as iftar. During Ramazan, Muslims wake up well before dawn to eat the pre-dawn meal. This is considered the most important meal, during Ramazan, since it has to sustain one until sunset. This means eating lots of high-protein food and drinking as much water as possible, right up until dawn, after which one cannot eat or drink anything. The day of fasting ends at sunset, the exact minute of which is signalled by the fourth call to prayer, at dusk.

It is believed that spiritual rewards, or thawab, of fasting multiply during Ramazan. Muslims do not Fast on Eid, but Sri Lankan Muslims believe that observing the six days of optional fasting, that follows Eid, multiplies spiritual rewards.

Eid-Ul-Fitr is the Festival of Breaking the Fast, also simply referred to as Eid, and marks the end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan, as well as the return to a more natural disposition of eating, drinking, and marital intimacy. In Sri Lanka, this Festival of Breaking the Fast is also referred to, colloquially, as Ramazan. Eid begins at sunset, on the night of the first sighting of the crescent moon. Muslims hand out money, to the poor and needy, as an obligatory act of charity, before performing the Eid prayer.

Globally, the Eid prayer is generally performed in open areas, like fields, community centres, or mosques in congregation. In Sri Lanka, the prayer is performed annually in Galle Face Green and mosques. The Eid prayer is followed by the sermon and then a supplication asking for Allah’s forgiveness, mercy, peace and blessings for all living beings across the world. The sermon encourages Muslims to engage in the rituals of Eid, such as zakat, almsgiving to other fellow Muslims. After the prayers, Muslims visit relatives, friends, and acquaintances, or hold large communal celebrations.

After prayer, Muslims celebrate Eid, with food being the central theme. Sri Lankans celebrate Ramazan with watalappam, falooda, samosa, gulab jamun and other national and regional dishes. The festivals were said to have initiated in Medina, after the migration of Muhammad from Mecca.

This year, as well as last year, Sri Lankan Muslims will have to forgo the custom of communal prayers, and celebrations, due to the ongoing pandemic, and will have to settle for private prayers and celebrations of Ramazan during this period of curfew. While these preventive measures are in place, during this year’s Ramazan, the principles of this holy month remain the same. Devout Muslims all over the world, will still be honouring this pillar of Islam, albeit from the security of their homes.

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