Plight of civil aviation in Sri Lanka

by Hemasiri Fernando}
Former Chairman Aviation and Telecom

Koggala Lake: A wartime emergency service linking Perth with Ceylon (Sri Lanka) using Catalina Flying Boats began in June 1943. This remains the world’s longest duration scheduled airline service, with the longest crossing (taking 32 hours, 9 minutes non-stop!) from the Swan River in Perth, Australia to Koggala Lake in southern Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

"Sri Lanka is a nation steeped in history and its rich culture dating back several thousands of years before the birth of Christ. From its crystal lakes and rivers down to its golden beaches, the call of Lanka has beckoned to travellers through the ages from all corners of the globe to savour its charm, its tranquillity and the warm hospitality of its people."

— Mangala Samaraweera, Minister of Ports, Aviation and Media addressing a recently concluded ICAO Meeting.

The Minister was extolling the virtues of the Sri Lankan geography and extending this warm invitation in his own enviable style at a gathering of aviation and airport experts.

Given the minister was focusing on our rich history, it is of interest to note that even in the field of global aviation, Sri Lanka has a long history and was a major player even before the start of commercial flying.

According to records maintained at Perth’s Aviation Museum, QEA, now Qantas commenced a wartime emergency service linking Perth with Ceylon (Sri Lanka) using Catalina flying boats in June 1943. This remains the world’s longest duration scheduled airline service, with the longest crossing (taking 32 hours, 9 minutes non-stop!) from the Swan River in Perth to Koggala Lake in southern Ceylon (Sri Lanka). From there, connecting services were provided on to England by the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC, as Imperial Airways had been renamed following its nationalisation).

This 3,512 mile (5,652km) non-stop leg was the longest flown by a commercial airline to that time. At an average journey time of 28 hours, it remains the longest in time ever flown on a regular basis. The main cargo was fuel; so only very urgent mail and three passengers could be carried. The operation ended just before the War did, on 18 July 1945, and despite its hazards, lasted for two years without a single serious incident.

In addition to the landing facilities at Koggala, the British built a number of other aerodromes in all parts of the country, except in the Uva province. Records maintained at the Fleet Air Arm (FAA), part of the British Naval Force (Royal Navy -RN) indicates that in addition to Royal Air Force (RAF) bases, the FAA also maintained facilities around the island. These include:

`95 China Bay (facilities on RAF Station, then RAF on books of HMS Lanka naval base, later commissioned with Clappenburg bay as HMS Bambara, later renamed RNAS Trincomalee. Operational with RN detachments throughout WW2.

`95 RNAS Colombo, Ceylon. Colombo racecourse (HMS Bherunda)

`95 Gan, Addu atoll, Indian ocean, 2nd base of Trincomalee, on books HMS Haitan, renamed HMS Moraga

`95 Kantaie (airfield under construction 1945 — not completed by VJ-day)

`95 Katukurunda (HMS Ukussa). RNAS Katukurunda, Ceylon

`95 Maharagama, RN aircraft training establishment (HMS Monara)

`95 Minneriya RAF station. RAF Minneriya, Ceylon (1942-1946).

`95 RNAS Puttalam, Ceylon. Puttalam (under control of HMS Lanka, later became a RNAS, HMS Rajaliya

`95 Ratmalana RAF station (named HMS Seruwa post-war].

`95 Sigiriya facilities on RAF Station in Ceylon

`95 RNAS Trincomalee (China Bay), Ceylon (1939-1957)

`95 Vavuniya — facilities on RAF station in Ceylon

With the advent of independence and the withdrawal of the British Forces following the change of government in 1956, a gradual decline of the facilities started. However, even in the early 1960’s, Sri Lanka, still Ceylon, was recognised as a leader in the field and aviation experts from Sri Lanka were sought after for their wisdom and experience. Records maintained by aviation authorities in Male indicates that on 3rd August 1964 a survey team from Ceylon (Sri Lanka) came to Maldives for the Male airport project undertaken under the Colombo Plan.

The members of this team were:

1- Mr. D. J. I Panditharathuna

2- Mr. K. Dharumaratnam

3- Mr. C.C. Chinnappa

The resident engineer for the airport scheme Mr. S. Alagananda of Ceylon Public Works Department arrived Male on 14th August 1965.

While our engineers were building airports overseas, a slightly different story was unfolding back at home and the purpose of this Article is to critically review the progress made by us in the field of civil aviation after obtaining independence in 1948 in comparison with other States in the region and to examine how best we have nurtured the legacies left behind by the British for the betterment of our people. Have we done the right things at the right time in the right manner?

Records show that after a detailed study conducted with the assistance of the Government of Netherlands, the Government of Sri Lanka decided in 1959 to locate the international airport in Katunayake. The other two locations considered at that time were Ratmalana and Katukurunda. The main reason for not developing Ratmalana as an international airport was the inadequacy of land space to meet the requirements of an international airport. Katunayake Airport had more than 2,000 acres of land available at that moment in time and considered the ideal airport to be developed to international standards devoid of any restriction about land requirements for future expansion purposes.

The government constructed a runway of 3368 m in length and terminal facilities with the assistance of Canadian Government at Katunayake in 1963. This was the time when States preferred lengthening of runways to accommodate bigger jets rather than waiting for aircraft manufactures to design aircraft that could land on the existing runways that were comparatively shorter in length.

In 1977, with the establishment of a Free Trade Zone right at the southern threshold ‘of the airport the possibility of BIA being expanded towards the south was severely curtailed. Sri Lanka Air Force was already occupying a major part of the land north of the airport and making BIA sandwiched between these two State organs which had different plans in regard to use of land under their purview. In addition, the adjacent private lands were densely populated due to influx of labour forces of FTZ. The main factor considered in 1959 when shifting the international airport to Katunayake thus became invalid.

The runway at BIA was replaced with a new runway in 1982. It was constructed 16 metres (50 ft) shorter than the old runway contrary to the world’s trend of constructing longer runways as mentioned earlier. The old runway was reduced to a taxiway and the possibility of it being used even as an emergency runway was quashed due to a new control tower that was constructed much closer to the old runway, projecting above the established Obstacle limiting Surfaces, which made it unsafe to be used.

Consequently, due to lack of foresight of both the planners and decision makers, even after construction of a "second runway" at BIA, it remained as an airport with a single runway due to foregoing reasons. The entire, country witnessed manifestly the harmful effect of operating the country’s only international airport with a single runway in February 2004, when the runway was blocked due to an aircraft accident and the consequential closure of the airport for international operations until the debris were removed. The situation would have been more damaging and disturbing had it happened when, the LTTE was at war with the Government!

The expansion of Ratmalana Airport is hindered due to location of Parliamentary Complex, which is just a 3.8 km away and 250 m off the extended centreline of the north-easterly end of the runway. Since an area encompassed by a circle of one (01) nautical mile radius centred from Parliamentary complex is declared to be a prohibited area, extension of the existing runway of the Ratmalana airport towards Weras Ganga, at least to accommodate medium size aircraft operations has become a futile exercise.

Chimneys of both Prima Factory at China bay and Puttalam Cement Corporation at Aerodromes at China Bay and Puttalam are constructed in the Approach Paths of the respective aerodromes. They are penetrating the established Obstacle Limiting Surfaces in the Approach/Take off Areas and development of such aerodromes for civil use is no longer feasible due to safety issues.

The Aerodrome at Katukurunda was provided with two runways perpendicular to each other so it could be used for aircraft operations under any wind condition. However, one runway was subsequently dug- up and a hospital was constructed causing a severe damage to the effective use of the aerodrome.

Accordingly, we have already either destroyed or reduced significantly the effective use of four aerodromes.

Due to suspension imposed on domestic civil flights in 1995, the domestic civil aviation sector that was booming was crippled. Profit making Flying Schools had to be closed down. The country did not have avenues to produce aviation professionals. The companies that were operating air taxi services using small aircraft and helicopters disappeared leaving a huge void in the domestic transport sector. Since the contribution of aviation sector for the growth of national economy had not been quantified or documented, the sector became voiceless and helpless. In the meantime, defence requirements dominated over the civil aviation requirements and the country’s airspace was managed with only according I to the defence whims and fancies. Nevertheless, the LTTE which did not have any aerodrome or aircraft at the time of imposing the ban, attained aviation capabilities when the legitimate domestic civil operators succumbed to many predicaments due to loss of opportunities because of baseless and short-sighted decisions of bureaucrats.

The national airline entered into agreements with Emirates with State’s vital properties, and resources such as traffic rights, franchise for ground handling and catering services as legacies of the airline. It was too late when the real impact of the conditions in the agreement on State was realised.

The annual capacity of the Katunayake airport is currently limited to 3 million passengers and 150,000 metric tons (MT) of cargo. The parking apron has a capacity to accommodate a mix of 17 wide/narrow body aircraft and 5 small aircraft. Domestic air travel is currently limited to Jaffna.

Initiation of Stage I of Phase 11 of the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) Development Project was a significant step towards enhancing the aviation infrastructure in the country.

(Continued tomorrow)


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