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“The Flyer With a Big Heart”

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Remembering Thibba –

by Nilakshan Perera

My acquaintance with Thibba goes back to March 1979, when I was being inducted as a prefect. As prefects, we had to report to the college and be at the duty points by 6.55am. So I used to travel on the Moratuwa bus instead of my usual 100 Panadura school bus which usually arrived at college by 7.05am, where I met Thibba from opposite Airport Ratmalana, where he was residing down Airport Road. We used to occupy the long seat at the rear of the bus which was shared by the most “mischievous students” on the bus. This friendship blossomed with our shared interests in Cadetting, Cricket, Table tennis, and Swimming. Though Thibba was senior to me by one year we became good friends. After leaving college this great friendship strengthened even further. While Thibba joined the Airforce as an Officer Cadet I had the good fortune to be selected as an Officer Cadet at the Kotelawela Defence Academy (KDA). It so happened that Thibba, TTK Seneviratne, and Ruwan Punchihetti were stationed with us in our final year at the Cadet Wing of KDA in 1985, while doing their flying training attached to Ratmalana Airport which was adjoining KDA. As young cadets we shared many memorable adventures laced with strenuous training, partying, visiting friends, and sometimes playing truant.

 

28th Oct 1985 one of Thibba’s close friends and batchmate Harshan Jayasinghe ( retired as Squadron Leader in Dec 1996, presently residing in Perth Western Australia, Harshan is an experience banker cum lawyer) disclosed to Thibba from Batticolo where he was the OC of SLAF Batticaloa detachment, one of our schoolmates who played in the pivotal position of the full-back for many years in the Ananda Rugby team, SI Athula Perera (fondly known as Sudu Athula) died during a terrorist landmine explosion at Vellavali in Kalawanchikudy. Thibba suggested we pay our last respects and asked me to be ready by 2300hrs and came to pick me on a motorcycle. It was a blue color Honda CD 200 Roadmaster which he had borrowed from a friend of his down Borupone Road. On our way to the funeral house at Maharagama, Thibba asked me to ride as I love riding and especially this CD 200 as it gives a nice beat. When we were there at the funeral house I noticed that late Athula’s IP insignias were placed wrongly, so I rearranged it correctly. Then Thibba said, “You got a good eye for detail Machan, so please do the same at my funeral as well, and check that everything is in its correct place, if I die during the war”. I never realized nor believed it would happen nor the gravity of it. We spent a few hours there and came back via Bellanwila, not forgetting to have a good load of Koththu and Egg Hoppers from a Ra Kade at Bellaththara.

On our last day at KDA in Nov 1985, Thibba exchanged his photograph with me as this was a custom at KDA. TTK and Ruwan Punchihetti too did likewise and this was an emotional time for all of us( I still have those). During this period the War had escalated and we were all well aware we were facing uncertain times. Each of us embarked on our journeys chartering our destinies.

 

I well remember my last meeting with Thibba and that day is vividly etched in my memory. It was on 11th Sept 1995 at Maj Jagath Rambukpotha’s ( retired as Major General on 7th July 2016 as Chief of Staff of the Office of Chief of Defence Staff, General with an abundance of military knowledge. A professional Gunnery Officer, who initiated and put in place many new ventures in the SL Artillery and who wears a pleasant smile always) wedding at Grand Orient Hotel. At our table, either side of me was Thibba, and my Course Officer, Lt Col Jayavi Fernando (An architect of Motive and Fighting skills of Special Forces, led troops from the front in many Special Forces battles and shared the pain. Lethal but human great officer lives in the hearts of as highly respected by his subordinates. Retired as Colonel on 31st Oct 1998 as Brigade Commander of Elite Special Forces ) we were reminiscing of our good old days and all those stories were related by Thibba to my wife Rasadari with great humor and laughter, as Thibba was a great storyteller with a lot of humor and light-heartedness.

 

Thejananda Jayanthalal Chandrasiri Bandara Thibbotumunuwe was born on 8th Nov 1961 to Mr. Ukkubanda Thibbotumunuwe ( A Locomotive Engineer) & Mrs. Somawathi Manike Thiibbotumunuwe (Housewife). He was the 7th child of their family of 9 children. Growing up in a large family may have had a very positive influence on him, as while at school and later on as an Officer in the Sri Lanka Air Force he had proved himself to be an absolute “Team Man” and had always put others before self. This supreme quality of his was displayed to the very end of his life. Like his father and older brother he too had his entire education at Ananda. While in school he was affectionately known as Thibba and even after leaving college this name stuck to him so much so that even after joining the Air Force he would be referred to as Squadron Leader Thibba or even as “Thibba Sir” to some of his juniors.

Even while at school, Thibba’s only ambition was to become a Flyer in the Air Force. His elder brother was an officer attached to Regiment of Artillery ( Maj Gen HB Thibbotumunuwe, retired on 08th Dec 2004, as Quarter Master General) and this too may have inspired Thibba (Jr) to aspire to join the Air Force. While at school Thibba was a keen sportsman. He was a great swimmer having represented the college at the highest level, member of the Under 17 Cricket Team which became All Island Runners up in 1979 under Lasitha Cumarathunge’s Captaincy. Senior Cadet in 1981 which Udeni Jayathillake led the Platoon, and he was also a keen Table Tennis player at college.

 

 

One day Thibba took a News Paper advertisement to his swimming teammate Lasitha Devendra. ( Known as Deva to his batchmates, left the SLAF and presently serves as an IT Consultant, also as a senior IT lecturer in leading state Universities, former Dean of Faculty of Information Technology at Aquinas ) On the same day, they both applied for the Cadetships of SLAF. After successful preliminary interviews, they both with 20 others were finally enlisted to the 11th Intake of Sri Lanka Air Force as Officer Cadets on 18th April 1983. There were 4 from Ananda, Thibba, Razali Noordeen, Lasitha Devendra, and Ushan Wickramasinghe, 3 from Royal, Harshan Jayasinghe, Buwaneka Abeysuriya, Kumar Kiridena, 2 from Nalanda, Chandana Welkala, Mahesh Jayasuriya, 2 from St Thomes’s Mt Lavina, Arulampalam & Kolitha Sri Nissanka, Prashan de Mel from Prince of Wales, TTK Seneviratne from Trinity, Indika Fernando from Joseph Vas Wennappuwa, Harsha Fernando from St Peter’s, Senerath Dissanayake from Gampola Central, Firshan Hassim from DS Senanayake, Rohintha Fernando from St Joseph’s, Suresh Nicholus from Maris Stella Negombo, Asitha Kodithuwakku from St Anthony’s Kandy, Sanjaka Wijemanne from St Anne’s Kurunegala, and Rohan Corea from St Anthony’s Wattala.

 

They were directly sent to Diyatalawa for Basic Military Training. His batch mates got to know the real Thibba during this physically enduring training programs. His patience, comradeship, dedication to supporting others under extreme conditions was par excellence. One can identify their true self only under very hard times during training. Tibba was a great team player. After exhaustive training days, Tibba was used to sleeping the entire night in a seated position and refused to use his arranged bed prepared for the next day’s morning inspections. He always encouraged, supported all his batch mates, and was probably the friendliest colleague to all. After completing the basic course, they were sent to ChinaBay, Trincomalee for their branch specialization training. Thibba was selected to be a pilot with TTK Seneviratne, while 5 joined Technical Engineering Branch and 15 joined Admin / Regiment Branch.

 

After being Commissioned as a Flyer Thibba was fully engaged in the flight operations of the Transport Squadron. He was very well conversant as a Captain of Y-8, Y-12, AN 32, and AVRO aircrafts used for air transportation of Troops and Logistics of the Three Services. Under normal situations, SLAF Base Ratmalana was the main airfield used for operating transport flights to Palaly, China Bay. Batticoloa, Vavuniya, etc. However when the ongoing war intensified SLAF decided to use SLAF Base Anuradhapura as the Central Airfield so that it could increase the number of sorties done per day as a result of this reduced flight time, enabling better utilization of available resources. During this period Thibba as well as other flyers were starting flights early in the morning and continuing till late at night. Their selfless, dedicated, and unconditional services were unmatched and greatly admired and appreciated by everyone in our Tri Forces. Thibba was a very familiar figure to everyone who sought Air passage for their leave or getting back to service.

 

In mid-1990 the LTTE suddenly started attacking military camps in the East. At that time SLAF had only Italian made SIAI-Marchetti SF 260TP as ground-attack aircraft powered by a single Allison 250 Turboprop engine which could carry only 2 X 100Kg bombs as external loads. The entire fleet was fully deployed for air to ground attacks. These aircraft were stationed at Hingurakkoda, even though it was not a Base Camp then. At that time SLAF was short of qualified pilots for SIAI-Marchetti aircraft. As such few pilots including Thibba, Harsha Abeywickrama (a former Commander of the SLAF in 2012-14 and retired as Air Chief Marshel) RP Parkiyanathan ( Wing Commander died, on 13th Sept 1995 Aircraft crash), Bandu Kumbalathara ( retired as Wing Commander in 1999) who were flying transport flights volunteered to fly SIAI- Marchetti Aircraft. Once Thibba had been on a mission to destroy LTTE targets and after accomplishing it returned to base. Soon after he touched the runway the engine had stalled. The Engineering Officer in charge of the fleet, Flight Lieutenant Ruwan Upul Perera (retired in 2005 as Wing Commander) had got the ground crew to tow the aircraft to the Parking Apron. Subsequent checks revealed that the engine stopped due to fuel starvation as Thibba had used maximum fuel that was available to accomplish the mission to the best of his ability, Thibba was solucky that day that he could make a safe landing. If his mission got delayed by another few seconds he would have been in great danger.

 

Another incident was when Thibba was flying from Palali to Ratmalana with 120 soldiers on board coming on leave. When he was about to land he observed on the control panel that the wheels were not coming out for landing. Now his only option was to attempt a crash-landing without the wheels. To minimize the risk of a fire and even a possible explosion Thibba decided to empty the fuel tank by flying a few rounds above the sea and do a belly landing at Ratmalana. While he was flying around the Airport, a higher rank army officer who was on board had asked, “Aren’t we landing?” Thibba answered quietly and calmly that there was a problem with the landing gear and that he was trying to empty the fuel tank so that the risk of fire will be minimized while landing. After listening to this, everyone was most anxious and extremely worried. By now the airport control tower was informed and all firefighters and other emergency procedures were ready on either side of the runway. When he approached the runway to crash-land, Air Traffic Control had informed that the wheels had come out to do a normal safe landing. It turned out that it was only a faulty indicator on the control panel. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that they can safely land. While everyone on board was anxious and even panicked, Thibba had been as cool as a cucumber even in the face of death. That speaks volumes for the great temperament of this gallant flyer. Thibba was a very skillful and adventurous pilot.

 

When Palali was under siege in the early 1990s and an Aircraft could not land, Thibba innovated new landing techniques, which surprised the SLAF top-brass, and continued to deliver rations and military hardware to troops stationed in the North. Once, at an airshow in China, Thibba piloted a Y-12 Chinese-made aircraft, and the maneuvering techniques he displayed astonished all the spectators, including the aircraft manufacturers. Thibba, with over 5000 flying hours, was not only one of the most experienced pilots, he was one of the most innovative pilots and was able to “make even the impossible possible.”

 

Thibba met Asintha Jayawardane, former Vishaka Vidyalaya Western Band Leader, through his batch-mate and pilot buddy TTK Seneviratne ( who died in an SIAI-Marchetti crash at Beruwala on 26th March 1986 with pilot, Officer Cadet Ruwan Punchihette). Asintha is TTK’s cousin. After a few years of association, they got married on 8th March 1990. Asintha and Thibba had decided to stay at Ratmalana Married Officer’s quarters. They were blessed with two sons, Menuka and Diluka.

 

Thibba was a very trusted and very sincere friend to many. He was chubby, round-faced and always with a smile, blessed with a great sense of humor and was extremely kindhearted and sympathetic towards everyone. These qualities were displayed many times to security force personnel who were at Palali Airport waiting desperately to go back home. Especially if your name was not in the flight manifest, you earnestly prayed to be sent by Thibba in his AVRO, Y-8, or Y -12. If he comes, he will ensure that you will be onboard. There was a period where Thibba was flying AVRO aircrafts continuously without any rest. Nobody knows how many casualties he flew. He had spoken to most of them personally, and reassured them, wishing them a speedy recovery. How many lives Thibba has saved is anyone’s guess. On many occasions, he has gone to the extent of arranging his vehicle to transport colleagues to let them attend family events, like birthdays or weddings. He has also spoken to his Zonal Commander during the flight and has arranged transport for others on many occasions regardless of rank or file.

 

‘No’ and ‘can’t’ were nonexistent in his vocabulary. If anyone ever wanted anything of him, he would do his utmost to oblige. He would even go to the extent of bending the rules as his desire to be of help to others took precedence over everything else. In short, “he had a heart of gold”. To add to his heart of gold he was blessed with exceptional skills and nerves of steel. He was a pilot par excellence. Adverse and risky encounters he took on his stride. It was almost second nature to him. On two occasions he had landed SLAFs “trusted Old War Horse” Avro’s with jammed nose wheels, for example. His dedication and commitment to duty were way beyond what was expected and he had been commended personally by the Commander of the Air Force on several occasions.

 

Operation Rivirasa was a combined military operation launched by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces in Jaffna in October 1995. The primary objective of the operation was the capture of the city of Jaffna and the rest of the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE It is believed that Operation Riviresa was the largest and most successful military operation at that point in time. SLAF flights were fully engaged with heavy flying commitments and SLAF had lost three Transport and Ground Attack Aircraft during 1995 due to terrorist missile fire and none of them survived. The ever-present possibility of a surface-to-air missile was a relatively new phenomenon in the war and even though the pilots were well aware of the imminent danger there were many brave pilots like Thibba who volunteered to fly to Palali to facilitate troop movements and keep the vital air supply line open.

 

On 18th Nov 1995, there was a very important flight to be made, with a consignment of urgently needed military cargo for advancing troops of Operation Rivirasa as they were just two kilometers from the City of Jaffna. Around 6.00 am on that fateful day Thibba on his Maruti Jeep went to pick Sqd Ldr Lalith Nanayakkara,and then to pick up Sqd Ldr Bandu Kumbalathara. The flight was a Y-8 that could carry 120 onboard or 20,000kgs of cargo. Onboard with Thibba as Captain, Copilot Sqd Ldr Bandu Kumalatara, Squadron Leader Lalith Nanayakkara as Engineering Officer with Flight Lieutenant Prasanna Balasuriya as communicator, Flying Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardena the navigator, and Corporal Jayasinghe as loadmaster. They took off from Ratmalana by 6.50 am. When they hit 13,000 feet and approached Mannar Island they were all alert and serious about the territory and maintained a safe distance from the coastline to avoid possible ground attacks by the terrorists. Using a pre-arranged coded message Thibba informed the Palali control tower of their estimated time of arrival and started descending. Thibba reduced the engine power and set the Y – 8 in the descending altitude. The most prudent and safes air-path to Pallali was over the sea as the runway was only one kilometer from the coastal belt. Flying Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardane was searching for any unidentified boat movements as the sea was very calm. The flight now descended to 500 feet and speed was almost 300 kmph. They were 7-8 Kms from the airfield but over the sea as they did a low-level approach to avoid possible enemy missile attacks from the uncleared Thondamannar area. SL Navy Dvoras were visible patrolling the area as well as an armored helicopter already placed on their approach path to protect the Y-8. They descended to 300 feet now, and the runway and Palali communication tower were visible. Just then the navigator Fly Off Sanjeewa Gunawardane shouted “two high-speed boats are approaching on our left.” At the same time, Palali Control Tower also informed the same but before they could complete the message they heard the loud explosion on the left-wing.

 

Simultaneously the Aircraft went into an uncontrollable nosedive. Thibba and his co-pilot Kumbalathara tried their best to control the plane but within a few seconds of the explosion, the Shaanxi Y- 8, one of the most popular Aircraft of SL Security forces crashed into the sea almost 3 kms from the coastline with 6 persons onboard and a payload of 35,490Kgs. Before the huge aircraft submerged Thibba, Co-pilot, and Flight Engineer managed to creep through a window and get out of the Aircraft. They removed their boots and were floating expecting the hovering Helicopters which were giving air cover or Naval boats which were giving sea cover to come and rescue. Both Thibba and his Copilot were great swimmers having participated in the Mt Lavinia 2 miles swimming event as schoolboys, but unfortunately, the Flight Engineer was not good at swimming. By this time they were caught in the crossfire between Navy and LTTE. Flight Engineer Sqd Ldr Lalith Nanayakkara was a big made officer and bigger than Thibba. Thibba tried his best to hold him and swim and Kumbalatara drifted away with the waves. The rest of the crew were sadly trapped in the aircraft not being able to come out and they went down with the Aircraft. The BELL 212 helicopter which was hovering above was unable to reach them as the fire from LTTE was so intense. The Helicopter crew spotted the copilot who was drifting towards the other side and they threw an inflated tube connected to a lifeline and rescued him into the chopper.

 

Later Thubba and Lalith Nanayakkara were spotted floating very close to each other and their heads were beneath the water. They both were unconscious and the helicopter crew could not take them on board and the pilot directed Naval crafts to that location and flew off to Palali. Naval crafts managed to reach Thibba and Nanayakkara and took them to Palali Military hospital, but sadly by that time both were pronounced dead.

 

Wing Commander TJCB Thibbatumunawe RWP had made the supreme sacrifice not just protecting his Motherland but also doing his utmost to save his friend and colleague. Later that afternoon a Sri Lanka Air Force Antonon AN 32 carried the bodies of Thibba and Nana to Ratmalana. The next day the body of Bala was found trapped inside the ill-fated aircraft by divers but the bodies of Fly Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardane and Sgt Jayasinghe were not found. Thibba being an experienced swimmer and lifeguard had done his utmost to help his Flight Engineer even at the last minutes of his life. Thibba being a strong swimmer there was every possibility that he could have saved himself by swimming towards one of the Naval vessels which were in the vicinity. But our Thibba, “The Lion Heart” ,was not going to let go of his mate to save himself.

 

Thibba’s body was taken to their residence at Wewalduwa Road Kelaniya and the funeral was held on the 20th evening with full Military Honors at Borella Kanatta amidst a large gathering of Military personnel, his college friends, and relatives. To bid my final farewell to my dear friend Thibba was a heart-wrenching moment for me. What he said to me at our former schoolmate IP Athula Perera’s funeral was ringing in my ears –”You got a good eye for detail Machan, so please do the same at my funeral aswell, and check that everything is in its correct place, if I die during the war”. Through tear-filled eyes, when I looked, there was nothing left for me to do, everything was in perfect order. Only survivor Wing Commander Bandu Kumbalathara retired from SLAF in 1999 and is now a Captain for Sri Lankan flying A320/A330.

 

At the time of Thibba’s sudden demise, his loving wife Asintha was six months pregnant with their third son. The eldest Menuka was just 5 years and Dliuka was 3 1/2 years. Asintha being a courageous lady singlehandedly brought up the 3 children with sheer dedication and commitment. She volunteered to offer her services at Ananda primary Library as Librarian until her three sons completed their primary schooling. She was a dedicated mother and was right behind her three sons when they were doing after school activities. She truly was Mother Courage personified. Like Thibba all three sons were highly involved in Swimming and Basketball and they won Island championships while representing Ananda. The eldest, Menuka, joined Sri Lanka Air Force as a Pilot like his beloved father and he is a Flight Lieutenant and Helicopter Pilot based in Anuradhapura Air Base MI Squadron.

 

Menuka married Sahani Jayathilake ( Familien, Executive in Commercial Bank) on 16th May 2019 and were blessed with a baby boy, Ayuk Kiveth Bandara Thibbotumunuwe ( 4th Generation of Anandians)

Second son Diluka, former National record holder for breaststroke with many national records for swimming and also a South Asian Games Bronze Medalist while still a schoolboy at Ananda joined Sri Lanka Navy and is presently holding the rank of Lt attached to an Auxiliary Vessel A521 as a Diving Officer. Diluka is a qualified Diver having completed specialized courses in China and India and winning the accolades of Best Clearance Diving Officer and Best Combat Diver. Diluka got married to Madusha Welihinda (Vishakian, Senior Software Engineer at IFS) on 8th January 2020.

 

The youngest son, Chamika, who had not seen his father, is reading his MBA at the University of Wolverhampton after graduating with first-class Honors.

 

It is now 25 years since Thibba left us forever. We all miss him dearly but still relive some of the wonderful memories he left us with. Where ever he may be his heart must be filled with pride at how his boys have turned out to be. Asinitha the love of his life took on the mantle of bringing up his sons for both of them. How proud and happy he would have been to be with his family and friends today. We miss you Thibba but we all are so proud and privileged to have known you and thankful for the time we shared with you. I wish to end this tribute to my gallant friend with the following dedication to Thibba.

 

With nerves of steel and a heart of gold

Thibba you Legend – our Flyer so bold

Three sons and a loving wife, you cherished to hold

You left behind with sorrow untold.

You served Sri Lanka with flamboyant flair.

Always considerate kind and fair

You flew many sorties with no rest or care

You were the best – a flyer so rare.

From where you left, your sons take on

Protecting Lanka – their lives go on

Brave Flyer, true friend, you soldier on

You may be gone but your legend lives on…….

 

May you Rest In Peace my gallant friend and may your journey through Sansara be short.

Features

Scholar, Advisor, Innovator and Great Friend

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by AUSTIN FERNANDO

Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria, son of Queen’s Counsel NE Weerasooria, studied at Royal College, and entered the University of Ceylon, Peradeniya, and won Harvard Memorial Prize and the Governor General’s Prize. He graduated in Law from Peradeniya, with First-Class Honours, and was later called to the Bar, as an Advocate.

I have known and associated with Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria in different capacities. First, I knew him as a pioneer Law Educator at Vidyodaya University. His students at Vidyodaya, and later even at the Post-Graduate Institute of Management, recall how he lectured, without even a short note in hand, attracting students’ attention, and enthusiasm. Additionally, he focused on teaching Commercial, Administrative, and Constitutional laws, and published texts in Sinhala, one on the Law of Contracts, another on Commercial Law.

His vast knowledge as an author was exhibited, mostly in Banking Law. Some of his publications were on Australian banking systems. Later, he delved into Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law, which produced a monumental work and a Treatise on Sri Lankan Statute Law and Judicial Decisions on Buddhist Temples and Temporalities.

His book ‘The Law Governing Public Administration in Sri Lanka,’ is a text that must be read by all public administrators and politicians. Whilst at Monash University, he wrote ‘Links between Sri Lanka and Australia: A Book about Sri Lankans (Ceylonese) in Australia’, dealing with Sri Lanka- Australia links.

With President JR Jayewardene in Office, Wickrema was appointed as the Secretary to the Ministry of Plan Implementation– a completely different role for him in public service. Working with him was also a novel experience and challenge for officers too, since he pushed them to the deep end to make quick, practical, non-traditional, sometimes unsavoury decisions for the benefit of the public.

He was the innovator of Integrated Rural Development Projects, for which he harnessed foreign assistance, and a performer, evaluator, programmer, and institution builder, proven by the establishment of Secretariats for Women, Children, Fertilizer, Nutrition, Population under his Ministry.

Sri Lanka Planning Service was made a professional service in 1985, for which the initiatives and support given by Wickrema were substantial. Accordingly, planners were made responsible for planning to achieve the goals of the respective institutions, formulate policies, strategies, and evaluate the development projects and programmes.

Wickrema was responsible for enhancing human resources among cadres through foreign exposures, which culminated with some officers obtaining post-graduate degrees, some even PhDs, and reaching apex ranks in public services, i.e. Secretaries of Ministries.

Specifically, his contribution to my work when I served as Government Agent, Nuwara Eliya was substantial. He was the guide, mentor, and sometimes savior. His involvement was on behalf of his brother-in-law Minister Gamini Dissanayake. Wickrema was instrumental in planning Nuwara Eliya through the establishment of Nuwara- Eliya Development Commissioners Committee, where I served as Chairman, with professionals as Commissioners. The initial planning was done by the Urban Development Authority.

He was the key organizer of the Spring Festival in Nuwara-Eliya. I remember how he planned the city and revived the Car Racing event, after a lapse of some years. I remember Upali Wijewardena taking part in the first motor car road race. The new Motor-Cross racing event on the newly constructed track was added to the Mahagastota Hill Climb for motor racers. Motor-Cross racing spread to other areas later. He attended these events and enjoyed the great company.

A little-known fact about Wickrema is that the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind (as President) and Sri Lanka Federation of the Blind (as Advisor) still appreciate his services rendered to the blind community, especially in resource mobilization and housing.

He was a person with subtle wit and humour. While teaching, he used this talent, as a student has reminisced, for “easing the pressure and stress of learning.” His lighter vein utterances and behaviour in groups made him a more sought-after teacher, friend, relative, colleague, and boss. His wit and humour depicted by cartoons in political campaigning, (i.e. The Family Tree), left an indelible mark in canvassing votes at the 1977 Elections. It is recycled even today, making Wickrema’s talent eternal.

I am reminded that even regarding efficiency creation he had humorous comments. I remember his “evaluation of the efficiency” of public officers. He used to quip that when asked to produce relevant documentation within two days to send an officer on a foreign scholarship, knowing it would take weeks, he would swear with utmost certainty that the officer would fulfill the requirement within two days. The best litmus test of the efficiency of an officer is the offer of a foreign scholarship! He lamented that such efficiency is lacking to serve the people.

I have a personal regret. Just before I left for India as High Commissioner, he promised to visit me in Delhi with his dear wife Rohini, which he could not fulfill, bidding adieu in weeks. Hence, I missed his company, advice, wit, and humor before departure.

I may say, he was a great student, scholar, academic, educator, public officer, diplomat, social worker, an advisor, innovator, and above all a great friendly human being, who enjoyed life and made others enjoy too, with his friendship, and camaraderie. Sadly, we will miss him forever.

May he attain the Supreme Bliss of Nibbana!

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Ethiopia: War in Tigray

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By Gwynne Dyer

“Love always wins. Killing others is a defeat,” said Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in June 2018, shortly after surviving a grenade attack at a rally in Meskel Square in the capital, Addis Ababa. How was he to know that just thirty months after saying that he would have to stop loving and start killing?

That’s the problem with being a reforming zealot who becomes Prime Minister: you have to deal with some really stubborn people, and sometimes it’s hard to shift them without a resort to force. That’s why Abiy launched an invasion of Tigray state on 4 November, and so far it’s been doing very well.

“The next phases are the decisive part of the operation, which is to encircle Mekelle using tanks, finishing the battle in the mountainous areas, and advancing to the fields,” Col. Dejene Tsegaye told the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation on 22 November.

Here we are only less than two weeks later, and the federal government’s troops have already captured Mekelle, a city of half a million people that is Tigray’s capital. It’s not clear how many people were hurt or killed in the fighting, but it went so fast that the butcher’s bill can’t be all that high.

In fact, it has all gone so well that Abiy Ahmed’s soldiers are probably thinking they might be home in time for Christmas. When Col. Dejene talked about “finishing the battle in the mountainous areas and advancing to the fields,” however, he was talking about the nine-tenths of Tigray that has seen no federal government troops at all, or at most a brief glimpse as they passed through.

Tigray is exactly the size of Switzerland, with about the same ratio of mountains to fields (although the mountains are somewhat lower). In other words, it is ideal guerilla territory, and a high proportion of the seven million Tigrayans are rural people who know the land. Moreover, they have long experience in fighting the central government’s troops.

That was the old central government, of course: the Communist dictatorship called the Derg, led by Mengistu Haile Mariam, that murdered the emperor and ruled the country with an iron fist from 1977 to 1991.

Tigrayans were the first ethnic group to rebel against Mengistu’s rule. They are only 6% of Ethiopia’s population, but the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) was the most effective of the ethnically-based rebel groups that finally defeated the Derg.

The federal government that took over afterwards, called the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF), was formally a multi-ethnic alliance. In practice, however, TPLF cadres controlled most senior posts and prospered greatly as a result – a situation that continued until the EPRDF appointed Abiy Ahmed prime minister in 2018.

It was a non-violent revolution, conducted not in the streets but in ranks of the federal bureaucracy. Abiy was the ideal candidate: in religion and ethnicity he is Ethiopian everyman, with a Muslim Oromo father and a Christian Amhara mother. (In person he is Pentecostal Christian, and very devout.)

As a young man Abiy fought in the war against Eritrea; he has served as a senior intelligence official and knows where the bodies are buried; he is well educated and speaks Amharic, Afaan Oromo, Tigrinya and English fluently. His first and most important job was to prise the fingers of the Tigrayan elite off the levers of government without a civil war.

Unfortunately, Abiy’s approach – merging all the parties based on the various ethnic militias into a single ‘Prosperity Party’ – didn’t work. The resentful TPLF cadres refused to join, and gradually withdrew to their heartland in Tigray. They don’t yet openly advocate secession, but they do point out that they have that right under the current federal constitution.

Whether or not the shooting war began with an unprovoked attack by the Tigrayan militia on the federal army’s base in Mekelle at the start of last month, as Abiy’s spokesmen claim, it was bound to end up here. All Tigray’s cities have now been taken by federal troops, but almost none of the rural areas.

This could be a brilliant victory for the federal troops that puts a swift end to the fighting. It’s more likely to be the result of a decision by the TPLF leadership to skip the conventional battles they were almost bound to lose, and go straight to the long and bloody guerilla war that they might eventually win.

That would mean secession, in the end, for they can never win power back in Addis Ababa. The risk is that if the war goes on long enough, other major ethnic groups may break away from Ethiopia as well. Abiy’s loosening of the tight centralised control that prevailed under the emperor, the Derg and the TPLF has already unleashed ethnic and sectarian violence that has rendered 2 million Ethiopians homeless.

Abiy recently got a PhD in peace and security studies from Addis Ababa University, but he’ll be concentrating on the ‘security’ part for the foreseeable future.

 

 

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Safety Equipment and Procedures and Exploding Fire Extinguishes

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by Capt. G A Fernando MBA

gafplane@sltnet.lk

RCyAF, SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, SIA, SriLankan Airlines

Former SEP instructor/ Examiner Air Lanka

By law the Regulator Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka (CAASL) requires all Airline Crew to annually undergo continuous training and achieving proficiency in Safety Equipment and Procedures (SEP). At the end of the training, also answer a written examination to prove to all and sundry that the particular Flight Crew Member has sufficient SEP knowledge to continue serving in the Cabin or Flight Deck of that Airline, for another year. The SEP questions were relatively easy (no tricks) but each crew member had to score over 80% and carry out mandatory, practical proficiency tests such as operation of aircraft doors and Emergency exits, conduct evacuations, Life Raft operations (in the swimming pool), know the location and use of emergency equipment such as megaphones, Crash Axes, Asbestos Gloves, Emergency Locater Transmitters (ELT’s), the administration of Oxygen, First Aid and use of equipment such as smoke hoods and fire extinguishers to combat Cabin smoke and Fires, The airline is usually delegated to carry out these duties and functions at the behest of the Civil Aviation Authority.

The first year after Air Lanka was established (September 1979), crew members had to go to Singapore Airlines or get the instructors across to Colombo to carry out these checks on behalf of Air Lanka. After about the second year of existence, it was decided that a team SEP instructors/ examiners would be appointed ‘in house’ to carry out this training and mandatory checks. Three of us from the ‘Flight Deck’ crew were appointed to the team. They were First Officer Elmo Jayawardene, Flight Engineer Gerrard Jansz and yours truly. We had, had some experience in crew SEP training in Air Ceylon.

We were sent to the British Airways (BA) Flight Training (Cranebank), UK, during our regular stay overs in London, to undergo refresher training, so that we could incorporate some of the BA curricula in our own (Air Lanka) programs. The then Air Lanka Manager Operations had been an ex BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) Captain. As a direct result of our visit to BA, the then airline doctor (Dr Mrs Sherene Wilathgamuwa) was inducted to the SEP team to lecture the ‘troops’ on not only First Aid but also on delivering babies, with limited facilities on board!  I believe that this information has been extremely useful many times during the last 40 years of Air Lanka. This was not taught to us in Air Ceylon. The training curriculum was developed by the SEP team.  

The early days of Air Lanka wasn’t easy. While an operational profit was made, the ‘debt servicing’ put an unbearable strain on the overall profitability. We had neither a designated training department nor proper equipment. Our ‘wet drill’ constituted jumping into the pool in shirts and trousers for the boys and ‘made up’ Sarees without the ‘fall’ for the Girls, wearing life jackets of course. Initially the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Katunayake pool was used and subsequently the pools of the two hotels down Katunayake airport road were used till Air Lanka got its own pool. We didn’t even have a permanently deployed Slide/ Raft either for teaching purposes. It all cost money. I was the Instructor in charge of the ‘wet drill’. In contrast SIA I worked for subsequently, had a pool with a ‘wave maker’ to give a realistic experience. There was no doubt Air Lanka at that point of time was ‘pinching pennies’ where crew SEP training was concerned.

To provide fire fighting experience to the Flight Crews we were forced to use regular Industrial Fire Extinguishing equipment to keep the costs down. That was acceptable since the basic fire fighting principles were the same. The fire fighting part of the training was carried out by the Ground Safety Section Instructors who were mainly ex SLAF types. A few months before, Lalantha one of the Chief Stewards was practicing the use of a Carbon Dioxide (CO2) extinguisher on a fire and the extinguisher exploded and flew off his hand, narrowly missing Leone who was just behind him. The on-board extinguishers were much smaller, lighter and more manageable than the industrial ones. A complaint was filed by me, but treated by the ‘Management’ as a one off case! It seemed as if one swallow doesn’t make a summer!  The extinguisher had been certified as serviced. The Administrative Executive in charge of SEP those days was a young man who had a degree in Marine Biology and perhaps was clueless on safety issues and couldn’t champion our cause.  We were all part time Instructors.

The annual recurrent training programme took two days. On one particular day, Chief Stewardess Jayantha and I were the instructors in charge. When it came to the Fire Fighting exercise, we handed over students of our class to the Air Lanka Ground Instructors and proceeded to the parking apron (opposite the Terminal Building), to check out a Lockheed L1011 ‘Tri-Star’ aircraft which was newly leased, by Air Lanka. It was a pre-owned, aircraft that had arrived the day before. Unfortunately, the locations of and the make of emergency equipment in the same type of aircraft (L-1011) differed from airline to airline. Therefore in the name of air safety and standardisation, it was important to resolve matters before the said aircraft saw service on the line on regular revenue flight services. It was a big deal as all Flight Crew had to know by memory as to where the specific locations of safety equipment were, so that when a ‘push’ came to a ‘shove’, no time would be wasted by the crew members involved, looking for these essential items. It could be a matter of life and death.

 I was not too happy sending the participant boys and girls by themselves for fire fighting and had an uneasy feeling. On other hand, our task too was also extremely important. So it was a case of ‘risk management’ and gave in. 

While we were checking out the new addition to our L 1011 Tri-Star fleet, we received a frantic message saying that another water type extinguisher had exploded and the injured had been removed to the Air Force Hospital across the runway to the Northern side.

Jayantha and I rushed to the SLAF Base Hospital in her ‘Mini -moke’ the long way around, up the Airport Road and via the 20th milepost main entrance along the Negombo road and found two crew members injured and in shock. Steward Senaka who had got the wheel shaped handle smack on his face, had injuries in the same shape and Naomal too had some minor injuries. We were assured by the Air Force doctor, Dr Narmasena Wickremasinghe that injuries were not too serious. We stayed there till the arrival of the next of kin who had been informed and went back to Office to meet Mr Wilmot Jayewardena, the Air Lanka Senior Manager Inflight Services.

When Jayantha and I sheepishly walked into his office he gave us the silent treatment initially and then softly declared that being responsible for the wellbeing of the participants, at least one of us Instructors should have been present when fire fighting was going on, even under the supervision of the Ground Safety Instructors. We accepted our mistake and defused the situation. When I look back now I am amazed as to how we coped with such limited resources to keep the National Carrier going. Safety Experts today, recommend that during risky activity, we should trust our ‘gut feeling’. It is usually correct as there is a connection between the brain and the gut resulting in feelings like ‘butterflies’ in the stomach. Needless to say the lesson was learnt.  

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