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"Juliet is no more!"

It happened on Thursday, September 7, 1978, the day of the official opening of the Parliament of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. That morning I was spending some quality time at home with my wife and two-week-old firstborn son when our peace was disturbed by the urgent tooting of a car horn outside our house. Upon investigating, I discovered my Air Ceylon pilot colleague, Capt. Herby Wanigatunga, behind the wheel of his white Holden, obviously trying to attract my attention. I rushed out to meet Herby who, still seated in the car, exclaimed, "Putha, Juliet is no more!" For a fleeting moment I thought he was referring to some lady of our mutual acquaintance who had might have met an untimely and unfortunate demise; but I couldn’t recall anyone with that name. I then wondered if, perhaps, Herby had suddenly become a fan of William Shakespeare and, having just read the Bard of Avon’s legendary story of star-crossed lovers, discovered - for the first time in his life - the tragic ending to that tale.

No, this was a different Juliet entirely. It was our beloved Air Ceylon aircraft whose recent and tragic demise he had come to tell me about. ‘Juliet’ was the name by which we referred to one of two Hawker Siddeley (Avro) 748s then operated by Air Ceylon. It was registered 4R-ACJ, or ‘Four Romeo Alpha Charlie Juliet’ according to the international phonetic alphabet, with the last word ‘Juliet’ used by pilots and ground crew to abbreviate the airplane’s identity for the sake of convenience.

(Ironically, Air Ceylon’s other Avro, 4R-ACR, was, for the same reason, known by us as ‘Romeo’!) Indeed, 4R-ACJ, or ‘Juliet’, was Air Ceylon’s first, wholly-owned turbine-powered aircraft. As a brand-new aeroplane it arrived at Ratmalana Airport on Friday, October 30, 1964, on its delivery flight from Manchester, England, with Air Ceylon’s famous duo, Capt. P.B. Mawalagedera (‘Captain Ma ‘) and Capt. George Ferdinand (‘Captain Ferdy’), at the controls. Herby, my friend and neighbour, was President of the Air Ceylon Pilots’ Guild while I was its Secretary.

He had just received information that a bomb had been placed aboard Avro ‘Juliet’ and it had been destroyed on the ground at Ratmalana Airport. I immediately boarded a bus and went to the airport. When I got to the holding area/restaurant (run by Grosvenor Caterers), I saw Capt. Errol Cramer and First Officer (FO) Trevor Vander Straaten being interviewed by members of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID). Apparently, earlier that morning Cramer and Vander Straaten had flown the airplane to Jaffna (KKS) and back.

When I exited the door which opened to the parking apron, I was shocked by the sad sight of the now-destroyed aircraft. The centre section of the fuselage was practically non-existent, leaving only the nose and tail area relatively unscathed. The wings and two Rolls-Royce Dart turboprop engines had also survived.

As I spoke to some of the eyewitnesses to this great tragedy, pieces of the story emerged. Capt. Cramer and FO Vander Straaten had completed an uneventful return flight to KKS, but after they had performed their shut-down checks, they noticed two stragglers still onboard. But they didn’t give them much thought as this was quite a common occurrence on domestic flights.

The Avro was soon to take off on a ferry flight from Ratmalana to Katunayake - ahead of another flight from Colombo’s international airport to Malé in the Maldives Islands. The crew assigned to operate those next flights comprised Capt. Ronnie Perera and FO Ranjit Pedris.

When Perera and Pedris boarded the Avro to prepare for the ferry flight, they found the aircraft cabin in disarray and untidy with litter from the earlier KKS flight. Although the crew had the option of flying the aircraft in that condition to Katunayake and getting it cleaned there before departure for Malé, Captain Ronnie Perera opted to have the cleaning of the cabin carried out at Ratmalana instead. It would turn out to be probably the most fortuitous decision he ever made. Capt. Ronnie Perera was known for always being ‘on the go’ when it came to flying. A common expression you would hear when flying with him would be, "Young man, let’s go!" So it was very strange that he decided to delay the ferry flight so that the cabin could be cleaned then and there rather than at Katunayake. In fact it was FO Pedris, knowing Ronnie’s impatience to get the show on the road, who had first suggested that they get the aircraft cleaned in Katunayake - only to be overruled by Capt. Perera.

As luck would have it, FO Pedris was doing his pre-flight check while Capt. Perera was in the back of the airplane supervising the cleaning. The electrical power fed to the aircraft when the engines were not running was Direct Current (DC) from a battery pack on ground.

As some of the equipment onboard required Alternating Current (AC), the airplane was equipped with alternators to convert DC to AC. Pedris had just switched on the alternators when there was loud explosion. For a moment he thought that he had done something wrong! Looking back toward the cabin, he saw that the rear of the aircraft was on fire. Not wasting any time, Ranjit Pedris got out of his seat and ran.

To this day he cannot remember whether he used the boarding steps at the front entry door or just jumped from the door directly onto the tarmac. Miraculously, Captain Perera happened to be standing close to the rear passenger entry door when the explosion occurred, so he made a hasty exit from there, along with the cleaner.

What followed can only be described as a comedy of errors. As soon as the control tower staff heard and saw the explosion, they activated the crash alarm at the airport fire station. But when the fire tender arrived at the burning aircraft, the firemen lost valuable time searching frantically for the fire hydrants. Then it was discovered that the water pressure was inadequate, while leaks in the hoses didn’t help either.

Above all, the heat of the resulting fire was so intense that the fire fighters could not get close to the aircraft. Their heat-resistant asbestos suits were locked inside a cupboard at the airport fire station and the key was with a senior officer under interdiction! Meanwhile, an ambulance rushing to Ratmalana Airport from Colombo caught fire at Kollupitiya! What staRted as a relatively small fire ended up destroying the whole aircraft. While the fire was raging out of control, serious thought was given to evacuating the terminal building, but this proved to be unnecessary. As later investigations revealed, the bomb had been placed under a seat above the main spar of the Avro’s wing assembly.

If it had exploded in mid-air, the wings would have failed, leaving no chance, however slim, of the pilots returning for an emergency landing. This was the first time that Tamil separatist militants had destroyed an aircraft on ground. It was believed that the bomb was timed to detonate over Colombo, for maximum effect. Fortunately, the Avro was still on ground and no-one was injured or killed. Probably because there was, miraculously, no loss of life, the incident was soon forgotten by the general populace of Sri Lanka.

Even to this day, it is often confused with the much more serious action by Tamil Tiger terrorists, when a bomb placed onboard an Air Lanka Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, 4R-ULD, on ground at Katunayake Airport - ironically also being prepared for a flight to Malé - killed 14 persons on May 3, 1986. But back in September 1978, the day after the sad demise of ‘Juliet’, Herby Wanigatunga and I, in our respective capacities as office-bearers of the Air Ceylon Pilots’ Guild, forwarded security recommendations from the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations (IFALPA) to Mr. Keble de Silva, the then General Manager of Air Ceylon. Some of the recommendations such as baggage screening and reconciliation of passengers with checked bags onboard were adopted with immediate effect.

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