Whither Civil Aviation in Sri Lanka?


By Capt. G A Fernando

(Ret. Airline Pilot)

RCyAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, Singapore Airlines and SirLankan Airlines

In 1950 Ceylon promulgated the Air Navigation Act "to give effect to certain international conventions relating to Air Navigation and carriage by air, to make provision for the general regulation and control of air navigation and for purposes connected therewith or incidental thereto". This involved the licensing of men, machines and airlines. Regulations in accordance with international practice were also put in place. The Minister of Transport or Aviation, as the case may be, was the sole authority.

In section 21 of the Air Navigation Act all power was delegated to the Director of Civil Aviation. "The Minister may for the purpose of Civil Aviation, generally or specially delegate the Director of Civil Aviation any powers (other than powers to make regulations or orders), duties and functions conferred or imposed upon or vested in the Ministry by or under this act".

In accordance with the above, the Minister "owned" the air space and the Director of Civil Aviation was empowered to act on his behalf. Then in 1954 came the Air Force Act. There were two specific tasks allocated to the air force by the Governor General: (a) In the defence of Ceylon in the time of war, whether apprehended, or (b) for the prevention or suppression of any rebellion, insurrection or other civil disturbance in Ceylon. There was absolutely no conflict in the two Acts as the Minister of Transport (or Civil Aviation) was empowered to grant exemptions from the operation of the (Air Navigation) Act.

As history reflects, things went smoothly for many years, with the Department of Civil Aviation and Royal Ceylon Air Force working with each other without conflict. The RCyAF was largely a ceremonial air force. Sometimes, during general strikes the airmen worked equipment in the Colombo Harbour. They took part in flood relief. During civil disturbances they flew their noisy Hunting Percival Jet Provosts over the city as a show of strength. I remember how the air force put out a fire at Adam's Peak. During this time some air force pilots were even granted exemptions from the Commercial Pilots Licence (CPL) based on an air force rating called the 'Master Green'. The air force even loaned a de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunk to the Civil Flying School at Ratmalana. Some of the top instructors of the air force got involved in civil pilot training as well. The first civil-registered helicopter in Ceylon, a Hiller UH-12B that was extensively used by Sir John Kotalawela, was given to the air force.

However, in 1968/69 when the Bandaranaike International Airport (BIA) was opened at Katunayake and the Civil Aviation Department's Air Traffic Controllers took over operations, there were overtures made to the then Government by the RCyAF to take over Air Traffic control at BIA. Before, they had been controlling air traffic to/from the old Katunayake Airport. Then came the April 1971 JVP Insurgency, when the RCyAF acquired extra men and equipment. In 'peacetime', under the leadership of AVM Pathman ('Paddy') Mendis, the air force got involved. Launching 'Helitours' and Air Maldives, activities not strictly in their line of business.

Besides, while the only civil flying training school was struggling to train fledgling pilots with only two airworthy aircraft, the RCyAF, using a French line of credit, had purchased six Cessna 150s and four Cessna 337 Skymaster twin-engine aircraft. These were essentially civil aircraft. The deal was so secretive that even the local agents, De Soysa and Company, didn't know about it until a handsome commission was reflected in their bank account! Many civil pilots at that time thought that these airplanes should have been allocated to the Department of Civil Aviation's Flying School. But it was not to be. By the early Seventies the granting of exemptions to air force pilots was stopped by the Director of Civil Aviation, and they were required to pass the UK CPL exam like all other civil pilots.

Gradually, the ceremonial air force became a fighting force, one to be reckoned with. After 1977, General aviation (GA) was privatised. The GA companies could not compete with the air force. Little by little, the air force began to restrict air space over Sri Lanka to General Aviation operators. This state of affairs killed recreational flying. It was all done in the name of "security". For the gentlemen of the air force, a safe aircraft was an aircraft on ground! The main reason was that both the Civil Aviation Department and the air force came under the same authority, the Ministry of Defence. It was far easier for the Chief of the Air Force to speak directly with the then President (as she was the Commander-in-Chief) than for the Director General of Civil Aviation (as he was now called), who had to go through a longer chain of command. All the air force commanders stifled the wide powers that the DG of Civil Aviation had, with no legal power whatsoever. There was no provision to do so in the Air Force Act.

Unfortunately, in the recent past, priorities were mixed up where Civil Aviation development was concerned. The administrators were more interested in constructing the seen elements, such as new terminal buildings and shops, rather than the unseen such as electronic radio aids for navigation, which are indispensable for air safety. Ratmalana, although designated as a Business Jet and General Aviation Airport by the last administration, is critically deficient as it does not even have a single Radio Navigational Aid, forcing pilots to fly solely by visual means. BIA is also without a single electronic homing device for aircraft to navigate by. If cost is a problem, Radio Navigational Aids presently at Mattala Airport (MRIA) could be installed at both Ratmalana and Katunayake to bring the latter two airports up to scratch. This is known as 'cannibalisation'.

Mattala Airport has all the necessary equipment but not the required volume of air traffic. MRIA was built - among other reasons - to accommodate diverting international air traffic unable to land at Katunayake due to bad weather or unserviceability such as an obstruction of the runway. The reality of only two or three days of bad weather per year do not justify its use for that purpose. Even then, because commercial airplanes usually carry fuel reserves for only half an hour of 'holding time', they cannot stay overhead Katunayake for long. If more than three aircraft divert to Mattala simultaneously, the airport cannot accommodate them all within half an hour, as the runway occupancy time for each landing aircraft is excessive due to the lack of a parallel taxiway. After landing, an aircraft has to 'roll' to the end of the runway and then backtrack along the runway, thereby preventing following traffic from landing immediately. By the time the last aircraft is cleared to land, it will have run out of fuel! Therefore, pilots have sometimes found it prudent to divert to Chennai or Trivandrum in India, as before, instead of Mattala.

As a matter of interest - but something that most readers would not find surprising - Sri Lankan pilots were not consulted when MRIA was constructed. Today, aircraft landing there in the afternoon experience crosswinds of over 30 knots, which could be over the demonstrated crosswind limits for some aircraft.

The above problems could be rectified by having a second runway at Katunayake. Then, aircraft will need to divert only in case of bad weather. If one runway becomes blocked for whatever reason, the second runway could be used. Katunayake also lacks a domestic terminal building, which would enable passengers to fly to and from more than 11 airports all over the island with minimum fuss. Floatplane operations should be brought closer to BIA by using the Negombo Lagoon. Past protests against that practice were carried out not by fishermen but by kasippu (moonshine) mudalalis. Unfortunately, the church and politicians got involved. Just think: if floatplane operations affect fishing so much, how do seaplanes fly so successfully in the pristine waters of Alaska, USA?

General Aviation in Sri Lanka really needs improvement. Recreational flying is virtually dead. Where trainee pilots are concerned, long delays are experienced at the hands of the Ministry of Defence when obtaining security clearance to enter Ratmalana and Katukurunda airports. This writer believes that it could be made simpler and expeditious. The additional expense of using two airports for flying training cannot be overemphasised here. Some light training aircraft are parked at Ratmalana overnight and must be 'ferried' to Katukurunda for training purposes every day. This writer also believes that, as at the inception of aviation in Ceylon, the authorities should designate one airfield exclusively for civil flying training, and that should be Ratmalana. Training could be done south of Ratmalana, between the airport and Kalu Ganga. The possibilities are unlimited, if only the air force returns the administration of the skies to its legitimate owner, the Civil Aviation Authority Sri Lanka as it is now known.

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