Connect with us

Features

The Nicosia Tragedy – lest such be forgotten

Published

on

By Capt Elmo Jayawardena
elmojay1@gmail.com

It was a lazy April morning in Bangkok’s Don Muang Airport. The Globe Air Charter flight carrying 120 Swiss and German passengers was about to taxi out for takeoff. The planned journey was long, starting in Thailand and ending up in Switzerland, with re-fueling stops in Colombo, Bombay and Cairo, before flying the last leg to its destination – Basel. The plane carried 10 crew – five in the cabin and five in the cockpit, comprising three pilots and two flight engineers, what they called a heavy crew to fly multi-sector long haul flights. In command was Capt. St Elmo Muller, a Ceylonese pilot who had served in the RAF during the second world war.

Capt. Muller was born in Colombo and educated at St. Joseph’s College. He learnt to fly as a teenager and obtained an ‘A’ licence at Ratmalana. They say that Muller used to cycle from Colombo to Ratmalana Airport to take his flying lessons from renowned flying instructor, Flight Lieutenant Robert Duncanson. Subsequently, Elmo Muller was one of the first 15 Ceylonese to join the Royal Air Force and leave for training to the UK. Four of the 15 were selected as fighter pilots and Elmo Muller trained to fly heavier bombers. He also flew reconnaissance Spitfires attached to Squadron 543 of the RAF. Having entered the RAF as a Sergeant Pilot he rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant by 1945, when he was just 24 years of age. His quick rise through the ranks says much about Muller as an officer and a pilot.

After the war, Muller remained in Europe, flew charter aeroplanes for different companies, and served as a commercial pilot with EL AL, the national carrier of Israel.

This was Capt. St Elmo Muller, aged 45, who took off from Bangkok on the19th of April 1967 – an experienced airman with 8285 flying hours, of which 1,493 were logged on Britannia aircraft. The co-pilot was P. Hippenmeyer, aged 24, a Swiss national, with a total of 1860 hours, of which 785 were on Britannia aeroplanes. The extra pilot – Capt. H. M. Day, a 40-year old DC-3 pilot, with 9,680 flying hours to his credit – was not rated on the Britannia, but may have been under training as he had 49 hours on this type. The three pilots together totalled almost 20,000 flying hours. Rated or not, there was a considerable amount of experience in that flight deck. As for the two flight engineers, H. W Saunders and H.J. Geisen, they both held valid Swiss Flight Engineer Licences endorsed to operate Britannias.

The aeroplane was a 10-year old Bristol Britannia powered by four Wright R-3350 turbo-compound engines. The Britannia was certainly the best British long range aeroplane at the time, fighting for its place among the Boeing Stratocruisers, Douglas DC-6s and the Lockheed Constellations that were built across the Atlantic. The Bristol Britannia was as good a plane as any, ranked alongside the best of aeroplanes until the jets, mainly 707s and DC-8s, took to the skies.

The first sector from Bangkok was uneventful. They had five crew members who could swap places in the flight deck which needed three crew members to man. However, as pilot Day was not qualified on the type, whatever resting Capt. Muller did, needed to happen while seated at the Captain’s seat; not the best manner to rest, but a common practice among long haul operators. Doubtless, the journey from Bangkok to Basel, with its three mandatory stops, required great endurance from Capt. Muller. As for the others, they would have managed their in-flight rest periods to stay fresh and focused for the shifts they had to work.

Being late April with the South West monsoon active in Ceylon the Britannia would have landed on Runway (R/W) 22 in Colombo. The crew likely stretched their legs while the plane re-fueled, before setting off for Santa Cruz Airport in Bombay. That sector would have been the shortest in the flight plan and the easiest to fly. It was bright day light, and the track was over land with adequate navigational beacons for route corrections, dotted with en-route alternates across western India in case of an emergency.

By the time the Globe Air Britannia reached Bombay, they had flown two sectors of the four they were to fly and likely clocked over 10 hours of duty time. Duty time includes the 90 minutes of pre-flight preparation and another 30 – in some companies, 60 – minutes of post flight work.

Several factors influence the calculation of flight time and duty time. Suffice it to say that by the time they were to land in Cairo after the nine-hour leg from Bombay, the crew would have well exceeded their duty time limitations. However, this was an unscheduled charter, and it was 1967. It may not have been considered a mortal sin to stretch the limits of duty time. After all, they had five crew members to share the workload.

Departing Bombay, the Britannia took off with 11 hours and 10 minutes’ fuel endurance for the nine-hour flight. Capt. Muller headed west crossing the Arabian Sea to enter Omani Airspace. This was the longest leg of the trip – destination Cairo, the penultimate stop before Basel. I do not know the exact route they flew, but they would have flown over the Middle Eastern Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and past the Eastern Mediterranean to reach Cairo. By this time, the crew would have been on duty for over 20 hours and Capt. Muller, in command, would have been confined to his seat throughout except for his toilet breaks. That the crew was fatigued is doubtless; the limit for a present-day modern jet, flying a three-pilot operation, is around 12 hours.

As the Britannia approached Cairo, the weather gods played their Ace of Trumps. The airport was covered with thunderstorms and arriving pilots diverted to safe havens around the edge of the Mediterranean looking for alternates to land. Globe Air Britannia, after flying nine hours from Bombay, probably had approximately two hours of fuel left in the tanks when Capt. Muller made his decision to divert. The designated alternate for Globe Air was Beirut. The weather there was good – calm winds with one Okta (1/8th of the sky) of cumulus clouds. Cairo being equidistant from Beirut and Nicosia, just a little over 300 nautical miles, Capt. Muller opted to re-nominate Nicosia airport as his preferred alternate and headed to Cyprus.

Nicosia Airport was forecasting intermittent weather with thunderstorms. Capt Muller was no fool; he was a very experienced pilot. He must have had very good reasons for choosing Nicosia. The question remains unanswered why Capt. Muller did not divert to Beirut. I can only surmise, of course, that there might have been other aircraft diverting to Beirut from Cairo. The congestion may have been a reason why Capt. Muller decided to go to Nicosia as he could not have had the comfort of adequate fuel to go into a long holding pattern in Beirut.

There is no doubt that Capt. Muller made a professionally reasoned Commander’s decision to land in Nicosia. Given his experience and in the absence of evidence to the contrary, we can determine that the decision to go to Nicosia would have been made for very valid reasons. We must remember that a Captain diverting an aeroplane after a long flight may not have the luxury of time.

I do not know why the Britannia diverted to Nicosia. I will leave it at that. Let me get on with the story.

At 2215 GMT, other aeroplanes in the area heard Globe Air calling Nicosia. Beirut heard it too and passed a message to Nicosia Control that Globe Air was making attempts to contact them. At 2300 Nicosia Approach talked to Globe Air and gave them the latest weather report. With 5/8 of the sky around the Nicosia aerodrome covered with thunderstorms, this was always going to be a difficult arrival. The airport did not have an Instrument Landing System (ILS) and was only fitted with a VOR for a non-precision approach. Globe Air came over the airfield at 2306 and was cleared for a right hand downwind to approach on R/W 32. At 2310 the Britannia reported it was over the R/W 32 threshold but as it was slightly high, the Captain executed a missed approach. The Tower then cleared Globe Air for a left-hand downwind circuit for R/W 32. Capt. Muller accepted the clearance and said he would fly a low-level visual circuit, doing his best to keep the runway in sight on his left.

The Swiss registered HB-ITB Britannia that Capt. Muller was flying did not have a Flight Recorder fitted. The airport did not have RADAR to track the path of the aeroplane. The only evidence available after the accident for investigations were the Air Traffic Control tapes, which recorded the communications between Globe Air and the Tower. The last message on tape was the pilot stating he was doing a low-level circuit. Sitting at my desk, more than fifty years later, I can only give careful consideration to all the circumstances and make an educated guess as to what happened next.

The Britannia was probably flying at 1000 feet, maybe 800 ft, on a left-hand downwind heading of 140 degrees. The dark midnight sky was covered with 5 oktas of thundery cumulonimbus, the visibility further reduced by rain. I picture Capt. Muller looking out of the left window to keep the runway in sight, as well as scanning his flight instruments to stay on track, speed and altitude. His fuel too may not have been much, as he started with 11 hours and 10 minutes from Bombay and burnt nine hours to get to Cairo. The diversion to Nicosia would have cost him another hour of fuel and the missed approach he executed in Nicosia may have burnt at least another 10 minutes of the precious little left. Capt. Muller was likely sitting on less than one hour’s worth of fuel when he was flying the low-level circuit: not enough to go anywhere except Nicosia.

In addition to all these calamitous facts, St Elmo Muller had sat on his Captain’s seat for more than 22 hours. If ever a deck was stacked against an Airline Captain, this was it.

45 seconds after passing the R/W 32 threshold, the Britannia commenced its left turn to the base leg heading of 050, which would have brought it perpendicular to R/W 32.

It was then, at 2313, that the left wing of the aeroplane hit the side of a hill at a height of 820 ft, 22 feet below the crest. The heading at point of impact was 068 degrees, the aircraft still turning to 050, the base leg heading. The wing broke and the aircraft rolled and hit another hillock, bursting into flames and killing 126 of the occupants. Almost impossibly, four survived, three of them severely injured. The fourth walked away from the crash without a scratch.

“The accident resulted from an attempt to make an approach at a height too low to clear rising ground.” That was the conclusion of the Nicosia Civil Aviation Authority after their investigation.

Without the information from a flight recorder it is difficult to know what really happened. The conclusions from different sources who were associated with the investigations are rather contradictory. As with most airline crashes, none of the flight crew lived to tell the tale.

Capt. St Elmo Muller’s remains were brought to Ceylon in a sealed coffin and placed in the Muller family vault at the Kanatte Cemetery.

I sincerely hope what I wrote would bring memories of an honourable Ceylonese aviator who should be remembered.

The truth of what happened on that fateful night remains lost forever on a Cypriot hill.



Continue Reading
Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Features

Why record export earnings may not be good news

Published

on

By Gomi Senadhira

The press release by the Central Bank on the external sector performance ,in June 2022, perhaps was the first piece of good news we had received for a long time. According to the press release, “Earnings from merchandise exports, in June 2022, increased by 23.9 percent over the corresponding month, in 2021, recording US dollars 1,248 million, which is the highest ever monthly export earnings recorded. An increase in earnings of both industrial and agricultural exports contributed to this favourable outcome, …. Cumulative export earnings, from January to June 2022, also increased by 14.3 percent, over the same period in the last year, amounting to US dollars 6,514 million.” So, most of us would think we have enough dollars to cover our essential imports. But, apparently, that is not the case.

Earlier, the Central Bank Governor, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, had said that exporters only converted about 20% of their export earnings into Sri Lankan Rupees and the rest was not brought back to Sri Lanka. That amounts to the US $800 million a month! The Governor had also said “… At least 40% of the total export earnings should be added to the formal financial system of the country. So exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system, and if that happens, then we can resolve the fuel crisis comfortably.”

(Diesel shipment that arrived in Colombo, on 16 July, still not paid for want of dollars – The Island July 30th) It appears as if the Governor is pleading with the exporters to bring back at least 40% of their export earnings. More notably, from Dr Weerasinghe’s statement, it is clear that the exporter had only converted 20% of their export earnings to rupees during the last five months. Did they convert their export earnings to rupees during the last year, or in the previous years? For how long has this been going on? When the Central Bank says “… exporters have a responsibility, at a very difficult time like this, to bring back their foreign exchange, through the banking system,” does that mean the foreign exchange earned, with the exports, is brought through the hawala network, or other similar arrangements?

Exporters deserve credit for the great service they provide and should be rewarded, appropriately. But not disproportionately. The export earnings are not earned by the exporters alone. These earnings are earned by all those who contribute to manufacturing the export products. All of them should be getting their fair share of the export proceeds. If not, there is something terribly wrong with the system. Is this normal in international trade?

During the last few years, some of the studies by Indian scholars, including Utsa Patnaik and Shashi Tharoor, have placed in the public domain some of the less known facts on the effects of the British colonial rule on India. They explain how the British seized India, “… one of the richest countries in the world – accounting for 27% of global GDP in 1700 – and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the world’s poorest,” and how during the period British Raj siphoned out $45 trillion from India.

How was this done? Patnaik explains, “In the colonial era, most of India’s sizeable foreign exchange earnings went straight to London—severely hampering the country’s ability to import machinery and technology in order to embark on a modernisation path, similar to what Japan did in the 1870s. …, a third of India’s budgetary revenues was … set aside as ‘expenditure abroad’. The secretary of state (SoS) for India, based in London, invited foreign importers to deposit with him the payment (in gold and sterling) for their net imports from India, which disappeared into the SoS’s account in the Bank of England. Against these Indian earnings he issued bills… to an equivalent rupee value—which was paid out of the budget, from the part called ‘expenditure abroad’.” Patnaik underlines that this was “something you’d never find in any independent country,”

But it appears something very similar is happening in Sri Lanka, many years after the independence! If the exporters do not “bring back their foreign exchange ,through the banking system,” or only bring back 20% of it, then how do they pay for goods and services obtained locally? The local value addition for most of our exports is 70% to 80% or higher! The only major exception is cut and polished diamonds. Tea exporters buy tea with rupees. Some of the imported inputs, like fertiliser, or diesel, are sourced locally! The garment industry had moved up the value chain during the last 40 years and provide many value-added services, like designing, locally.

How do the exporters pay for all these goods and services, if they keep more than 60% of their export earnings outside the country? Do they get it through “hawala” or similar arrangements? During the British Raj, payments to local producers were done with the taxes collected by the Raj. In present-day Sri Lanka, how does one manage to raise a large amount of cash to operate such a system?

If a sizeable chunk of Sri Lanka’s foreign exchange earnings goes straight to banks in London, New York, Zurich, or elsewhere, severely hampering the country’s ability to import essential items, doesn’t that mean, Sri Lanka’s wealth is getting siphoned out through our exports? And there is not much of a difference between what happened during the colonial period and the post independent Sri Lanka!

So, June’s record export earnings also mean nearly US$ billion was siphoned off during the month! A new record for the month of June! And that means Patnaik was wrong when she said this was not “something you’d never find in any independent country”

That is not good news.

(The writer is a specialist on trade and development issues and can be contacted at senadhiragomi@gmail.com)

Continue Reading

Features

Improving trend needs to be sustained on multiple fronts

Published

on

by Jehan Perera

The government appears to have secured political stability in the short term.  So far President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s efforts to restore stability appear to be working. Political stability is necessary for decisions to be made and kept.  It is a necessary element for international support to come in.  One of the IMF’s conditions to provide the country with the multi-billion-dollar loan it seeks is political stability that would ensure that commitments that are made will be kept.  The protest movement has not mobilised public demonstrations on the very large scale of the past after the appearance of Ranil Wickremesinghe in leadership positions, initially as prime minister and subsequently as president. This would be seen as an achievement by the government.  The present governmental line that protests should be within the law is difficult, and also frightening, to challenge when a state of emergency is in force.

The government has shown its ability to wield the emergency law with deterrent effect. Under the state of emergency that President Wickremesinghe declared on July 18, the period that a person may be detained before being brought before a magistrate has been increased from 24 to 72 hours. The authorities have been granted additional powers of search and arrest, and the military has been empowered to detain people for up to a day without disclosing their detention. The state of emergency also gives the president and the police broad powers to ban public gatherings, allows the police or military to order anyone to leave any public place or face arrest, and makes it an offense to cause “disaffection” or to spread “rumours.” However, in a sign that Sri Lanka’s system of checks and balances is still working, the Colombo Chief Magistrate’s Court has rejected a request by the police to ban a public protest planned by political parties and multiple organisations on September 9.

Human Rights watch has pointed out that “these provisions are vague, overly broad, and disproportionate in violation of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association, and movement.”  The midnight strike on the protestors who had camped for over three months at the main protest site at Galle Face would make any reasonable person think twice before getting into physical confrontation with the government.  The social media coverage of events that night showed men in black uniform and wearing masks, attacking the unarmed protestors.  As these men did not wear identification badges, there is a question whether they were part of the official security forces or drawn from other groups that work with them.  This response brought discredit to the perpetrators and disturbed both Sri Lankan people and the international community that have the welfare of Sri Lanka at heart.

The government has also used the full power of the draconian law to ensure that the leadership of the protest movement is neutralised. Several of them have been arrested, some of them given bail, others remanded, which would send a chilling message to the others.  The government has also shown its willingness to offer high positions to those who are prepared to join it.  This has led to a situation where two trade union leaders active in the protest movement have been treated very differently.  One has been offered a high post while the other has been put into prison, although he has now been given bail.  In a signal that he is sensitive to public pressure and human rights concerns, President Wickremesinghe had spoken to leader of the Ceylon Teachers Union, Joseph Stalin, after he was remanded and reportedly said he admires the members of the protest movement who talk of a system change.

ECONOMIC STABILISATION

Apart from the appearance of political stability there is also the appearance of economic stabilisation.  The shortages of cooking gas, petrol and diesel, and the 13-hour power cuts were among the main catalysts of the protest movement.  It was during the period of long power cuts, when staying at home became unbearable, that neigbourhood groups began to converge in urban centres to hold candlelight protests.  However, at this time the supply of gas, petrol and diesel has improved significantly and the kilomere-long lines in front of fuel stations are much less common.  Credit has gone to the QR code system put in place that gives to each vehicle a weekly quota.

The challenge for the government is to ensure that the economic situation continues to be stable without experiencing the acute shortages of key items that causes distress to the general population.  The QR code system can only work if there is petrol and diesel to be distributed.  The current imports of cooking gas, petrol and diesel appear to have been made possible by a World Bank loan which was re-purposed to the purchase of essential items.  However, these funds will dry up soon.  The question is what will happen after that.  There is apprehension that the country will fall once again into a situation of severe shortage.  The government needs to take the people into its confidence regarding the future.  The government also needs to be trusted if it is to be believed.

The World Bank has given an indication that they are still to be convinced regarding the provision of further assistance to Sri Lanka.  Earlier this month, the World Bank issued a statement “expressing deep concern about the dire economic situation and its impact on the people of Sri Lanka yesterday said it does not plan to offer new financing to Sri Lanka until an adequate macroeconomic policy framework is in place.  Issuing a statement, the World Bank Group said it is repurposing resources under existing loans in its portfolio to help alleviate severe shortages of essential items such as medicines, cooking gas, fertiliser, meals for school children and cash transfers for poor and vulnerable households.  To date, the World Bank has disbursed about US$160 million of these funds to meet urgent needs.”  This is extremely concerning as the World Bank is closely connected to the IMF on which Sri Lanka is pinning its hopes for a big loan.

POLITICAL STABILITY

The issue of political stability is highlighted by the government as being necessary to obtain international assistance and also as a justification for quelling the protest movement through emergency laws.  There is explicit blame being apportioned to the protest movement for creating instability in the polity that is deterring the influx of foreign assistance and investments.  However, the fuller picture needs to be seen.  The IMF as much as the World Bank, and indeed other potential sources of donor support, want their resources to be used for the intended purpose and not be squandered or siphoned away corrupt practices and in sustaining loss-making state institutions.

The hoped-for IMF-supported programme to provide assistance to Sri Lanka is being developed to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting the poor and vulnerable, safeguarding financial stability, and stepping up structural reforms to address corruption vulnerabilities and unlock the country’s growth potential. IMF mission team to Sri Lanka last month specifically mentioned the need to reduce corruption stating that “Other challenges that need addressing include containing rising levels of inflation, addressing the severe balance of payments pressures, reducing corruption vulnerabilities and embarking on growth-enhancing reforms.”

Both the international funding agencies and the protest movement are on the same page when it comes to opposing corrupt practices.  The main slogans of the protest movement during their heyday was the ouster of the then president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers, and indeed the entire parliament, on account of the corruption that they believed was responsible for having denuded the country of its foreign exchange reserves. This was not simply the replacement of one set of corrupt leaders by another. There are disturbing signs that some of those accused of corruption are once again on the ascendant.

The underlying demand of the protest movement was and continues to be the very “systems change” that the president has said he admires in his reported discussion with remanded trade union leader Joseph Stalin. Civil disobedience to obtain a government that is transparent and law abiding, that does not steal the wealth of the country, is a noble goal, no less sacred than the civil disobedience struggles engaged in by Mahatma Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King in the United States.  The ingredients for a rebound of the protest movement continue to be in place and hopefully the evidence of a systems change will become more convincing.

Continue Reading

Features

Brenda Mendis… ‘Gindara Kellek’

Published

on

I first got to know Brenda Mendis when she was very much a part of the group Aquarius, before joining Mirage..

With Aquarius, her dynamism bloomed, on stage, when she partnered two other female vocalists – from the Philippines.

And…yes, they certainly did rock the scene; the three girls were the talk-of the-town and they were featured at some of the best venues in the city.

She was also, at one time, associated with the band 2Forty2.

Brenda now operates with an outfit called C Plus Band, and with whatever free time, that comes her way, the talented artiste is now working on originals.

The latest is the song ‘Gindara Kellek’ and this is what Brenda has to say:

“I have known this guy Chathurangana de Silva for a very time and he has been involved in composing certain songs for the C Plus Band.

“We then got down to discussing about putting together a song which could be classified as a fast genre in music, and Chathurangana, along with Sampath Fernandopulle, came up with the suggestion for the lyrics, and they did so, based upon a proper observation of my lifestyle and the personality portrayal of myself, and that’s how “Gindara Kellek’ came into the scene.”

Brenda went on to say that the composing was done during a tight schedule.

“As I am the female vocalist, on a full time basis, with the C Plus Band, it took us more time than what is usual spent at a recording session, because of our public performances.”

‘Gindara Kellek’ is not Brenda’s maiden effort. She has been involved in quite a few other originals, including ‘Tharu Peedena Seethale,’ ‘Obai Mage Thaththe,’ ‘Mage Raththaran,’ ‘Kaprinna (Chooty),’ ‘You Never Know,’ ‘Mea Nilwan Nimnaye, and ‘Sitha Igilee Gihin.’ And, they are all uniquely different to each other, she says.

With the country going through a tough period, Brenda, spends her free time working out and reading.

“I would take this opportunity, through your very popular music page, to thank all those who helped me throughout my journey in this wonderful field of music.

“I shall continue to keep music lovers happy, with my music, and I would also thank my followers for supporting me and for being with me throughout my career in showbiz.”

Continue Reading

Trending