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Ratmalana airport’s operations and unplanned development

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Wellington Airport, New Zealand, Control Tower, in a shopping Mall
 

By Capt G A Fernando MBA
gafplane@sltnet.lk
President, Aircraft Owners and Operators Association
RCyAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, SIA, SriLankan Airlines

In 1934 the State Council of Ceylon decided that an airport with easy access to Colombo was a necessity and declared that Ratmalana was the best site available. Accordingly an airfield was built and the first landing took place on 27 November 1935. This was Ceylon’s first Airfield. With the advent of WW II, the airport expanded and a runway was also built. The Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Fleet Air Arm used it.

To assist aircraft landing in bad weather and resulting bad visibility, a transmitter was built at Thalangama to generate a Radio Signal Beam directed along the extended centre line of the runway at Ratmalana. If the aircraft was tracking the correct path, the pilots would hear a continuous tone on their head sets. However if they were left of the desired track, the pilots would hear a letter ‘A’ in Morse code (dit dah) or if right, a letter ‘N’ which was a (dah dit) in Morse. The objective was to hear a continuous signal in the ears, which guided them towards Ratmalana. The decent to lower altitude was at the pilot’s discretion.

As time went by, there was a low frequency, Non Directional Radio Beacon (NDB) placed in the vicinity of the airport (Attidiya) and used with an Automatic Direction Finder (ADF) on board the aircraft. A needle over a compass dial pointed to Attidiya and gave directional guidance to international air traffic. Although it could accommodate an unlimited number of aircraft, when they needed it most like during thunderstorms activity, there was static interference and the needles pointed towards the thunderstorms instead of Attidiya. So a Very High Frequency Omni Directional Radio Range known as a ‘VOR’ for short was installed for more accuracy.

Then in 1968, Ratmalana International Airport lost its ‘International’ status when the Bandaranaike International Airport opened and all international operations moved to Katunayake. The equipment at the airport was allowed to deteriorate. The Radio Navigational let down aids ran down. There was no proper Control Tower. Even the runway lights were not working and night flights had to depend on Kerosene Lamps. One redeeming grace, in the night, in those days, was that the Sapugaskanda Oil Refinery was in full production and the giant flare of the burning gasses was the guiding light to the Ratmalana Airport. The Pilots spotted the flare from far away and flew over the Refinery and then turned on the runway heading and could see the runway edge kerosene flares, flickering dimly in a dark patch that was the Ratmalana airport! The civil training aircraft of the Government Flying School of those days had neither radios nor any radio aids to navigation.

Post 1977, after the ‘Dharmista’ Government created another problem for Ratmalana operations. The authorities decided to build a new Capital in Sri Jayewardenepura, Kotte, and also move the New Parliament to that neck of the woods. Unfortunately, the Parliament was just 3.6 Nautical Miles from the end of the Ratmalana runway ‘as the crow flies’ and less than 1NM from the Thalangama Transmitters. In most countries overflying the Parliament is prohibited. Therefore the Authorities blindly decreed the same in Sri Lanka. Thus restricting the freedom of aircraft movements to the Ratmalana Runway and preventing safer, conventional landing approaches. It must be noted that Air Ceylon and other domestic flights were still using Ratmalana. Many professionals were quick to observe that it was akin to someone building a house near a railway line and then complaining that it was too noisy and requiring the railway to divert!

Everyone had learnt to live with the non-availability of precision Navigational aids at Ratmalana. Thalangama Transmitters lost its significance. The Urban Development Authority (UDA) eventually, took vacant procession and the SL Army (Gemunu watch) established a camp there.  During December, with clear nights and cooler mornings, (Temperature inversions) combined with the North Easterly winds blowing smoke from the Sapugaskanda Refinery, the visibility on the final approach tends to get very bad at the Ratmalana airport.

In fact, on the morning of 14 December 2014, a SLAF Antonov AN 32, ferry flight from Katunayake, attempted to approach for landing at Ratmalana and crashed killing the crew. This prompted the then Air Force Commander to write to the then Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) to reinstall Navigational Facilities (See Letter below). Now almost five years have gone by and at last the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL) is slowly waking up to the fact that not only the seen but also the unseen facilities at Ratmalana should be brought up to standard in the name of air safety. Wide publicity is given to the fact that the Government’s intention is to make Ratmalana an International Business aircraft hub and regain its lost glory. 

While this concept is being actively pursued by the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka Ltd (AASL) and the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL), another security sensitive building has been erected in the vacant land at Thalangama, barely 1 NM from the Parliament and 4.4 NM from the runway end. That being the Akuregoda Military Headquarters. This has created an effective barrier for operation of legitimate air traffic. As a direct result more restrictions are bound to be imposed on inbound air traffic. Furthermore, it does seem like that there was no ‘master plan’ and the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing.

Air safety dictates that jet planes should have at least an eight mile straight in (no turns) final approach. Now it is not possible to do that with the unplanned sensitive buildings on the final approach to Ratmalana. Ideally, like in other countries, all three parties, the Local Municipality Town Planer, the Civil Aviation Authority/ Airport and Aviation Ltd (CAASL/ AASL), and the Building developer, must make these long term decisions. In Australia for instance the CAA’ Airports Authority has control of manmade obstacles for a radius of 25 miles. Unplanned buildings, called ‘man made relief’ as against ‘Geographic Relief’ (terrain) has spoilt the feasibility of the intended City Airport. Another case in point is the Kotalawala Defence University (K DU). Which is the tallest building in the vicinity of the airport that should never have been allowed to be built that high. This seems to be the malady this whole country is suffering from. The people in the know are afraid to speak. Subsequently, no one is held accountable for these poor, uncoordinated decisions. The true professionals are not consulted. As a result vision is ‘tunnelled’. The Sinhala saying “Leda malath, bada suddai” seems to be very appropriate. (Although the patient died, the bowels were clean!)  

It is believed that accommodating Business Jets inbound to Ratmalana airport will be a money spinner and a step in the correct direction. There is no point in crying over spilt milk one would say. What is done is done. I write to offer a practical solution.to mitigate the adverse effects of unplanned buildings. While the Military Base is working 24/7 (around the clock) and overflying prohibition may be justified, the Parliament ‘works’ only on certain days and for limited hours. The Authorities should provisionally allow air traffic, inbound to Ratmalana to overfly the Parliament on days and times that there are no sittings. A Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) could be issued as and when necessary. In other words let’s share the airspace for the benefit of all, without attempting to kill the goose that may lay the golden egg. Then longer and therefore safer approaches could be designed to facilitate these small but fast Business Jets which will be operating in and out of the Ratmalana Airport.

The Ratmalana Airport lacks a proper Control Tower with a 360 degree visibility of the area. A new Control Tower could be sited in the highest point in the vicinity. Perhaps at KDU to mitigate the hopeless situation. The Wellington, New Zealand Control Tower is on top of a Shopping Mall!

To put this in the correct perspective, according to the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) USA, research shows that light training aircraft and other small aircraft of the size and mass of business jets cannot create catastrophic destruction to strong buildings like our Parliament or the Military Base, like what happened on 9/11 with large passenger jets. Some even say that the Pentagon was damaged by a missile and not a passenger aircraft. But that’s another story.

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SLAF on hazardous wall, Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement……

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Sri Lanka Air Force has sent us the following statement in response to an article (That hazardous Ratmalana Wall) published on 21 Jan.

It is with regret that I would like to inform you that the newspaper article titled “That Hazardous Ratmalana Wall” published in The “Island” newspaper of 21 January 2021 contains false information which has not been clarified from the Air Force Director Media nor any other official channel of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF).

It should also be highlighted that the Sri Lanka Air Force does not wish to challenge the freedom of reporting information by journalists. However, news articles of this nature published with the use of unsubstantiated information tarnishes the image of Sri Lanka Air Force.

The newspaper article in concern has caught the attention of the Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force. As alleged in the article, the Commander has not declared on behalf of the SLAF that there is no objection for the removal of the wall and replacing it with a fence. On the contrary he had in fact stated that a collapsible wall could be put in place of the permanent wall which should have a solid finish obstructing the view from outside due to security reasons.

In addition, to date there has been no incident/accident reported at the Ratmalana Airfield related to the wall along the Galle Road. Further, vehicles such as passenger coach/container etc; travelling on the main road would be taller than the wall in concern and according to the article, the main road would also have to be closed each and every time when an aircraft approaching of taking off from that end of the runway. International runway due to limitations which is also can be considered as hazardous to flight safety, SLAF consider Flight Safety is a paramount important factor as an organization which operates different types of aircraft over the years from this airfield.

It is pertinent to mention the wall in concern was erected by the SLAF before year 2009 with the consent of the Airport and Aviation Sri Lanka (AASL) to address the security concerns at that time and maintained to date. The outer perimeter security of the Colombo International Airport at Ratmalana is being provided by the SLAF free of charge over years. As a measure of gratitude, with the consent of AASL and the approval of the Ministry of Defence (MOD), SLAF authorized to erect hoardings along this wall and to utilize the funds generated for welfare measures of airmen.

Further, publishing of an article which has an author with a fictional name will have serious and adverse effects on the newspaper as well as the goodwill which prevails between SLAF and AASL. The goodwill which prevails between the SLAF and your esteemed Organization will also be adversely effected by articles of this nature. SLAF Directorate of Media always provide accurate and precise information to media institutions which has an impact on general public as well as to other organizations. Undersigned is contactable any time of the day through mobile (0772229270) to clarify ambiguities of SLAF related information.

In conclusion, I would like to express our displeasure regarding the newspaper article in concern and the damage which has been done to the good name of the Sri Lanka Air Force and in particular to the Commander of Air Force.

 

WADC WIJESINGHE

Group Captain

DIRECTOR MEDIA

for COMMANDER OF THE AIR FORCEs

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Dog-eat-dog culture

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By Rajitha Ratwatte

There is an old joke that goes around regularly about Sri Lankans’ in hell. How absolutely no guards are needed to keep Lankans in hell because they do a very good job of pulling each other down into hell when anyone even looks like they will escape. When you extrapolate that into real life in the Pearl, the examples are plenty. All of us have personal experiences of neighbours, peers, relations and even our bosses “cutting us” as the popular phrase goes. It is mostly those who either realise and watch out for these pitfalls or those who clearly identify a powerful figure to “bum suck” for want of a better word that display pure unadulterated sycophancy to, that “progress” to propagate these trends in the future. This I believe is something that is triggered by the basest of all human emotions, jealousy, and probably egged on by a sense of insecurity as well.

One would expect that in a nation of devout Buddhists such reprehensible behaviour would be addressed and controlled. Alas it is not to be and looks like it never will be.

It is rather disconcerting to observe that this behaviour is ‘going strong’ among the Lankan community in this the land of the “long White Cloud” as well. The more I live here and mix with the community, the more I hear about people who try to start new projects or give fruition to new and possibly brilliant schemes who have been stymied by fellow citizens born in the Pearl. They indulge in the anonymous letter method (that dates back from time immemorial) made even easier by using false identities, and “one-off” e mail addresses on the web. They inform all government authorities of what they believe are attempts to break the law of their adopted country. If there are bilateral trade agreements, they diligently contact the other parties and try to cast aspersions on the people concerned. They even inform the management of any company that these people with the new ideas may be working at, that their employee may be breaking a sub clause in his contract and thinking of doing some other business while working for them. All triggered by a wonderful sense of self-righteousness from people who don’t think twice about breaking the law when it concerns their own affairs!

As a result, those who have had a measure of success, guard their positions very carefully and a few who have tried to include other Lankans in their operations have learned hard lessons from those who stole their trade secrets and started rival businesses on their own. I daresay this happens in other communities too, but among the Chinese and Indian communities that form similar minorities in Aotearoa, there are official networks formed to help new immigrants. There are schemes and methods in place to help their people do business, especially in the field of imports, to try and reach some sort of equilibrium with regard to the balance of trade between Aotearoa and their home countries. Sri Lanka imports so much milk from New Zealand but almost nothing of our spices, gems and jewellery, tourism products or even our tea that used to have a much larger share of the market, are imported.

In these desperate economic times, shouldn’t the government be looking at ways to improve our export trade? There are so many pockets and communities of Lankans in so many different countries who are doing well enough to be able to afford some luxuries from their home countries but have to pay exorbitant prices or do without. A recent import of ‘sweet meats’ for Sinhala New Year saw such a massive offtake that great plans for expansion were disrupted by Covid-19, before the Lankan rivals could put paid to it. Although such plans were in place!

Something that is rather obvious to those observing the antics in the Pearl from outside is that there seems to be no plan. Innovative thinking, especially in the field of ‘non-traditional’ exports does not exist. We have all seen how fickle tourism is. Using our fertile soil and the artistic skills of our people to build a reputation for quality exports has been totally neglected in recent times. I daresay the relevant ministries and export bodies exist, but it is a well-known fact that they simply serve as JOBS for political catchers, who do nothing except enjoy a foreign junket or two every year on account of the taxpayer.

That brilliant marketing idea of the Ceylon Tea Centers was so far ahead of its time that no one really understood it. We had the best retail locations in some of the greatest cities in Europe and the UK and were building up a great reputation for serving quality tea and promoting our cuisine. It should have been expanded to handle handicraft products on the lines of Laksala and even spices. Of course, promoting our culture, hospitality and tourism would have followed. There are two ways to handle a crisis. We can either put up our shutters and slide deeper and deeper into the mire of debt and economic ruin, or take some bold steps, make innovative investments and take a gamble on products and ideas that are endemic to our country.

 

Even if the latter method fails the end result couldn’t be much worse! Go down fighting I say! Rather than ask expatriates to come back and try to work in a totally corrupt and politician dominated society, approach expatriates with ideas in other countries and back them to promote those ideas if they show real economic benefits to our land. Not everything will work but even a 5% success rate is better than nothing at all.

It is also acknowledged that RANIL has been reappointed as leader of the UNP. Now then, what does this mean? Is it that the Uncle-Nephew party has stuck to tradition or does it mean that at least some people have realized that an experienced politician with world recognition and a certain amount of credibility in the first world, is useful to have around? Search your minds all you critics who blamed absolutely everything on Ranil. Have a dispassionate look at the Muppets in parliament and think for yourself what sort of account they would give of themselves on the world stage. After you do this, place Ranil on the world stage next to those morons and realize for yourself the DIFFERENCE!

 

fromoutsidethepearl@gmail.com

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Lenin comes to town (again)

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By Gwynne Dyer

When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny returned to Moscow on Sunday after convalescing in Germany from an attempted poisoning by the FSB domestic spy agency, the regime-friendly media loyally failed to mention his arrival. With one striking exception: Vremya, the flagship news show of Russian state television.

Presumably, somebody there was hoping to win favour with the Kremlin, because they briefly mentioned Navalny three-quarters of the way through Sunday’s two-hour programme. In fact, they compared Navalny’s trip home to Vladimir Lenin’s famous return to Russia in 1917, and suggested that he was as great a danger to Russia as Lenin had been.

As every Russian knows, the Germans plucked Lenin from exile in Switzerland in the middle of the First World War. He was sent across Germany in a ‘sealed train’ (so he wouldn’t spread the infection of Communism there) to St. Petersburg, then in the throes of Russia’s first democratic revolution – and he did just what the Germans had hoped he would.

Lenin overthrew the fumbling democratic ‘Provisional Government’ in a military coup, took Russia out of the First World War – and launched a 73-year totalitarian Communist regime that cost at least 20 million Russian lives in purges, famines and lesser acts of repression. Is Navalny really that great a danger?

The ambitious presenter at Vremya probably won’t get the job he wanted, because President Vladimir Putin really won’t have liked seeing his noisiest critic compared in stature to Lenin, a genuine world-historical figure. Putin himself never mentions Navalny’s name at all.

Russians cannot even put a name to the system they live under, as the poor Vremya presenter’s confusion illustrates. It’s certainly not a democracy, although there are regular elections. It’s definitely not Communist, although most of the regime’s senior figures were Communists before they discovered a better route to power and wealth.

It’s not a monarchy, although Putin has been in power for twenty years and is surrounded by a court of extremely rich allies and cronies. And ‘kleptocracy’ is just a pejorative term used mostly by foreigners, although Navalny does habitually refer to Putin and his cronies as “crooks and thieves”.

In fact, Putin’s regime is not a system at all. Its only ideology is a traditional Russian nationalism that is lightweight compared to blood-and-soil religious and racist movements like Trump’s in the United States and Modi’s in India. It’s a purely personal regime, and it is very unlikely to survive his dethronement or demise.

Putin has been in power for twenty years, and he has just changed the constitution with a referendum that lets him stay in power until 2036. But that seems unlikely, partly because he is already 68 and partly because the younger generation of Russians is getting restless and bored.

Navalny is a brave man who has gone home voluntarily to face a spell in Putin’s jails. (He missed two parole appointments for a suspended sentence on trumped-up embezzlement charges because he was in Germany recovering from the FSB assassination attempt.) But his role in Russian politics so far had been more gadfly than revolutionary.

His supporters do their homework and make clever, witty videos detailing the scandalous financial abuses of the regime (the latest is a virtual tour of Putin’s new $1 billion seaside palace on the Black Sea near Novorossiysk), but he is probably not the man who will finally take Putin down. What he is doing to great effect is mobilising the tech-savvy young.

Since 2018 the average age of protesters at anti-Putin demos, mostly linked to Navalny one way or another, has dropped by a decade, and their boldness has risen in proportion. Moreover, their attitude to the regime now verges on contempt. Rightly so: consider, for example, the last two assassination attempts by regime operatives.

In 2018, the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency, sent two agents to England to kill defector Sergei Skripov and his daughter Yulia. The agents made two trips to Salisbury because they couldn’t find the right house, they were tracked by CCTV every step of the way, and in the end, they left too little novichok (nerve poison) on the doorknob to kill the targets.

Equally crude and bumbling was the FSB’s attack on Navalny in Tomsk, where the novichok was put on his underpants. Once again, the target survived, and afterwards the investigative site Bellingcat was able to trace FSB agents tracking Navalny on forty flights over several years before the murder was attempted.

Neither agency is fit for 21st-century service, nor is the regime they both serve. Russians have put up with it for a long time because they were exhausted and shamed by the wild political banditry of the 1990s, but Putin’s credit for having put an end to that has been exhausted. He may still be in power for years, but this is a regime on the skids.

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