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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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Features

Investigative Journalism?

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I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.

We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?

At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!

We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?

We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.

I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?

In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.

Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.

Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.

Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.

All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!

 

 

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Features

The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants

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Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.

It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.

On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.

My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.

Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!

Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.

And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.

I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.

There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.

But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.

When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.

Come on, they are no babes!

On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.

It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.

Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.

The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.

The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.

I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.

Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!

Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!

Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.

The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.

They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.

Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.

My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.

For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.

In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’

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Better use of vanity projects; Cass apologises, and New Year graciousness

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A wise one, with the interests of the country at heart, calling himself ‘A Member of the Silent Majority’, wrote in The Island of Friday, April 9, offering an excellent solution for the better and genuine use of the Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport which was built at a stupendous cost to both the Treasury, and wildlife abundant in the area, to satisfy an ego and sycophants’ cries of Hail to the King. Even sans Covid and lockdowns and shut downs of airports, the Mattala Airport was a white elephant, endangering and displacing the black elephants, roaming along their familiar corridors; receiving such few airplanes. Thus, as the writer Cass mentions says, convert the airport to a super hotel with excellent and sure-fire access to wildlife watching, like referred to hotels in Kenya and elsewhere. Yes, it will definitely be a bigger money earner than an airport waiting for a plane to land. Expensive equipment going rusty could be transferred to smaller airports being developed all over the island. There was such a hue and cry when storerooms, within the deserted airport, were used for paddy storage, but not even a whimper of concerted protest when the vanity projects were being built. We also heard that on the rare occasions a plane was to land/take off, peacocks in the area were shot at to prevent them flying into the planes. Aney, what a sin, just to have a name on a nameboard! Use the Suriyawewa Cricket Stadium too for a better purpose and less costly to water and maintain green in near desert climate conditions. What about a residential training institute for youth, perhaps in small industries? If the king-sized ego demands the name be present, OK, leave it. What’s in a name?

Any matter, financial or economic, with benefit to country buttressing it – refer to Dr Harsha de Silva and Eran Wickremaratne. Likewise, anything pertaining to fauna, flora and preservation of natural habitats ask Devani Jayathilake. Cassandra would give two years of her life (she does not have 10 left, she suspects) to know what the answers of the three wise and sincere ones mentioned would be to the proposal to convert the Mattala Airport, oops sorry – Mattala Mahinda Rajapaksa International Airport – to a 7 star hotel for wildlife watching and then tourists proceeding to Yala and other places that were touted to be reached easier if planes brimful of tourists, landed in Mattala. Pipe dream even sans Covid-19.

The thought of the millions, nay billions, our country was indebted to China to construct these vanity projects aka white elephants of the Rajapaksa fiefdom sends Cass’s blood racing in her contracting veins. And now another hair-brained scheme is being exposed, not new but re-exposed: that of the stupendous amount sent direct from the Central Bank with no nod, as reported, from the then Cabinet or Parliament, to an American-resident con-man to improve our appearance on the world stage or at least American stage. My word!! Cosmetics of creams and colours and such like can improve the face of an already beautiful woman. But a country that was once beautiful, glorified, accepted internationally and then politician-spoilt, cannot be redeemed by PR work, however expensively. Nivard Cabraal was the then Govenor of the CB. Of course, as every Banda, Singho and their women say, nothing will come of this. Powerful political sweeping under the carpet in the presence of cardboard administrators and sycophantic hosanna singers, makes the matter disappear and not merely hides it. Unless of course there are enough intrepid outers-of-truths and persistent protestors, brave and national minded enough to continuously tease the matter like a cat its caught rat. Ranjan is locked away in hard labour for four solid years, losing his Parliamentary seat for misusing the gift of his gab, while convicted murderers of the right colour attend Parliament, escorted and all.

Cass apologises

To the reigning Mrs World, Mrs Caroline Jurie, for crowning, uncrowning and recrowning of the winner of the recent Mrs Sri Lanka contest. Caroline Jurie took this stride because the winning contestant was four years on the way to being a divorcee, which status forbids a woman from attempting to wear the crown of Mrs…. (country) with a view to becoming Mrs World. This title and honour is bestowed on a woman who promotes, holds sacred the institution of marriage and is a married woman. Cass castigated Caroline Jurie without knowing then the fact that Jurie had protested about this candidate being considered due to her impending divorce; and allowed to contest. She said she withdrew from the panel of judges since her point was not taken by the others. WHY is the Q. Easy to answer. The new beauty queen of shaky married status was a loud speaker in favour of Presidential Candidate Gotabaya R in Polonnaruwa (captured on social media) and probably spoke on stages for SLPP Parliamentary candidates. So of course she was slated to win; vision impaired over rules and future probabilities, She has her height – one advantage. Beauty can always be dexterously rubbed and painted in. But honesty is important and cannot be cloned or grafted in.

Cass now definitely faults the new Mrs Sri Lanka. She should not have contested, having her papers sent in for divorce and not retracted. What happens when she wins the divorce (or her husband wins it, however the divorce was first mooted). Another local contest? And if the divorce was still pending and she went overseas at great expense and won THE crown or a lesser one. To be returned forthwith when she has to remove the present gold band from her third finger, which probably she has already removed but hastily wore for the contest and when preparing for it? This is why Cass avows that many young women particularly, are so very selfish and forward and uppity and even dishonest now. In Cass’ time and even a decade or two later, a girl would never do what this new beauty has done, flipped aside a core rule and necessity of the contest, just to win by honest means or foul. Way the country’s going, my friend.

Post – Aluth Avurudhu

Cassandra is stuffed gill-high with kavun, aluwa and crunchy kokis, preceded by kiributh and lunumiris. She is fending for herself because a dip in Covid numbers and having had the jab, her domestic wished to enjoy a family new year having missed the last one, locked down as we were. Cass made her own kiributh – tasting somewhat like it should, but the sweets were all gifted her. So, also the offers of help, sleep-ins at others’ homes and solicitous frequent inquiries of ‘how are you?’ Kind and gracious relatives and friends, acquaintances too are thanked; and the most appreciated being neighbouring kitchen helps and care givers. Three-wheeler drivers who spin Cass around on errands too make enquiries. And thus her thoughts when resuming work at the nekath time and word processing this article. Sri Lankans are such good people: kind, caring, willing to share and genuine. And then specters themselves on this very sunny landscape: the dishonest, selfish, revengeful and disgraceful. Shrug them off, clear the mental picture and pronounce thank goodness for goodness around.

May all of us (decent people) have a very good year to follow today –Subha Aluth Avuruddhak!

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