The story of the three Beechcraft E18super aircraft of the Ceylon Survey Department


By Gihan Fernando

In the mid-seventies the Flying Training School (FTS) Ratmalana, didn’t have a suitably equipped aircraft to do the five-hour Instrument Flying (IF) experience in an aircraft to satisfy the minimum requirement for the Commercial Pilots’ Licence. The actual total required was ten hours, half of which was permitted to be completed in a D4 Link Instrument Trainer. The D4 Link was a flying training device gifted by UTA French Airlines to Air Ceylon. It was installed at the Air Ceylon Hangar at Ratmalana. The D4 Link was invented in 1927, by an American named Edwin Link who was an Organ maker’s son who had a passion for flying. The air driven, enclosed device was worked by a system of air pumps and  bellows which simulated the balance and motion of a fully instrumented light aircraft, the imaginary path of which could be monitored by an instructor, when traced on a glass topped table by a ‘crab like’ tracing device. We were told that it was always advisable to have a second person in the ‘Link Room’ with the trainee, just in case the unreliable electric power in the Ratmalana grid, failed while the device was unlocked and in motion, the device could ‘Topple’. Our Link Instructor was Navigator Roy J De Niese, a WWII veteran. He was also the Chief Navigator in Air Ceylon and would conduct our ground school studies.

The Beechcraft E18S Aircraft

4R-AAR, 4R- AAS and 4R-AAU

The story of the aircraft of the Survey Department was an interesting one. The original aircraft acquired in 1958 and was registered as 4R-AAR. It was brand new, off the Beechcraft factory in Wichita, Kansas, USA and fitted with expensive photographic survey equipment. It was a twin engine, ten seat passenger aircraft. 4R-AAR aircraft was planned to be ferry flown all the way from USA by a company called ‘Flightways Incorporated’. It had a limited range of 630 nautical miles on normal capacity fuel tanks. It must have had temporary extra fuel tanks fitted on board as the crew was attempting to fly Kansas City (USA), across the Atlantic Ocean to Lisbon (Portugal), to Naples (Rome) and then onwards to Ratmalana, nonstop. However, on the 4th of April 1958, the aircraft crashed into high ground 3 Nautical Miles short of the Naples airport, on its approach to land, in fading light, killing the ferry pilot William Palmer, his wife and a mechanic. (This was certified as a single pilot aircraft) The aircraft was destroyed by fire. So it can be assumed that they had adequate fuel on board and the crash was not due to fuel starvation.

That same year, the Ceylon Survey Department acquired a second brand new aircraft of the same type registered as 4R-AAS. That too had expensive photographic equipment fitted on board and arrived safely at Ratmalana on 20th August 1958. It is assumed that the prefix ‘AA’ in both AAR and AAS stood for the Ceylon Air Academy, which was supposed to manage the operation and crewing of the aircraft, on behalf of the Ceylon Survey Department. Unfortunately, while training pilots at Ratmalana, just five days later (25th August 1958), the aircraft crashed in the vicinity of the estuary of the Lunawa Lagoon, at Moratuwa. 

It is believed that the pilots under the supervision of a Beechcraft Company Flight Instructor were practising engine failures after take-off on this twin engine aircraft. In those days engines were actually failed by the instructor by switching off the fuel valve. The trainee had to identify the faulty engine and feather the propeller, to prevent it ‘wind-milling’. (Feathering, is a process by which the pitch of the propeller is made very coarse to reduce additional drag due to its rotation.) 

It seemed as if someone had shut down and feathered the good (working) engine by mistake! The Feathering buttons for the left and right engine were located in close proximity to each other. Disregarding the standard advice, not to be in a hurry but to "sit on your hands" and wait at least till 400 feet above ground and to positively identify the bad engine, before carrying out a non-reversible action like shutting down the defective engine. The initial lateral swing encountered in case of a sudden engine failure is counteracted with the rudder, controlled by the pilot’s feet. Because the thrust is now asymmetric (from one side), one leg will have to hold the rudder pressure while the other leg is relaxed and in the good old days, that was known as the ‘dead leg’. The primary means of identifying the dead engine was by identifying the ‘dead leg’. That is the dead engine is on the dead leg side! Even now in this day and age, mistakes like misidentifying and shutting down the wrong engine do happen, so the pilots are expected to confirm the failed engine by looking at the engine indicators as well. Two parameters or more must indicate failure because it may be the gauge that has failed! If another crew member is present, confirm that it is the correct engine. With both engines unserviceable the aircraft becomes a glider. Fortunately, this sort of exercises are now done in the Flight Simulator! However, when practising such critical manoeuvres in actual aircraft because of the possibility of the pilots making mistakes, the instructors are advised to simulate engine failures by throttling back and not to actually shutting down the engine as the engine won’t be available in case power is needed quickly. This practice was introduced with hind sight and air safety in mind, after many fatal accidents occurred. Where the Beechcraft aircraft was concerned there were no flight simulators and all training had to be done for real, in the aircraft. Although the crew survived the crash, 4R-AAS was a complete write off. The pieces of the aircraft were retrieved and stowed in a hangar at Ratmalana. The Beechcraft Company Flight Instructor was the pilot in command, so he had to take the blame.

A similar recent accident in Taiwan, of an ATR 72 comes to mind, where the Captain shut down the good engine (see picture).


When the third Survey Department aircraft was delivered in July 1959. By then a firm decision had been made to hand over its operations to Air Ceylon. The aircraft was painted light blue with a red nose and wingtips.  Roy De Niese became the regular Navigator for the Ceylon Survey Department flights. There were no Global Positioning Systems (GPS) then. The Beechcraft E18 Super aircraft registered as 4R-AAU which was now crewed by Pilots from Air Ceylon, like Captains. Peter Fernando, P B Mawalagedara, George Ferdinand, Simon Rasiah, S R Wikramanayaka, D Suhood, L B de Silva, Anil Rambukwelle, J A ‘Ossie’ Jayawardene, Dudley Ranabahu, Punch Nadarajah and Errol Cramer. By the mid-seventies the FTS Trainees could secure a slot in the right hand seat of a regular Photo Survey flight, through ‘Roy Boy’ as he was fondly known in the flying school circles, to practise their ‘IF’ skills and log in the required hours for the Commercial Pilots’ licence.  All the Photo Survey flights for the Mahawelli diversion project was done by this aircraft.

They timed their flight to depart at ‘first light’ to the survey area. Poor trainee pilots like me had to wake up at 0330 am, to catch the 0430 bus from Eye Hospital junction to Ratmalana and do a long walk down Airport Road to be at the airport by 0545am. This was 1974, we didn’t have cell phones and we dare not get late as time, tide and the crew would wait for no man! As I remember, the Air Ceylon engineers in charge were either Mr Collin Christy or Mr. ‘Sath’ Silva. We hung around with the engineering team till the operating crew arrived. ‘Roy Boy’ was the master of the operation. The Air Ceylon Captain who was on roster may not be too familiar with the operation, so Roy being the regular Navigator, called the shots. 

The FTS trainee would sit on the right hand seat with the Air Ceylon Captain on the left and Roy Boy standing in between. The aircraft was had lots of power and a handful on take-off which was performed by the Captain. Then the controls were handed over to the trainee to practise Instrument Flying. Although the aircraft was unfamiliar to the trainee the basic flight instruments were the same as in the D4 Link Trainer and set in a pattern known as a ‘Basic T’ the likes of which the trainee could cope with comfortably. Even today in all modern ‘Glass Cockpits’ aircraft, flight information, on their TV screens are laid out in this pattern.

Frequently, Roy would reach across and adjust the heading. The trainee’s task was to fly the instruments ‘as if the needles were glued’ and maintain the heading, ‘as if on rails’. When photo survey area was reached, Roy replaced the trainee in the right hand seat and then removed a cover of a glass window on the floor between the pilot seats that exposed the view of the ground, vertically down. On the glass was a yellow line. This allowed the pilot to fly in a straight and level line, so that the photos will be aligned fore and aft.

The Photo Survey Crew were highly trained and at the appropriate time would announce "Camera On". After a few runs, when the clouds start building up to a point that they begin to obscure ground features, Roy will declare that their work was done for the day, and then since they were close to the east coast, set course to Batticalloa for a landing. Once, I was on a flight with an Air Ceylon captain who had not flown the ‘Beech’ for some time. Coming into land and slowing down, Roy suddenly reached across, between the pilots and applied flaps saying "How about some flap, Boy?" (The flaps increases wing area for slow flight). The Captain had forgotten to use the Flaps, coming in to land!

Yes, Roy knew that aircraft well.

At ‘Batti’, they would arrange for some transport from the Civil Aviation Department and go down to the market and buy rice and jumbo prawn for a fraction of the Colombo prices and then fly back to Ratmalana with the trainee logging the much needed Instrument flying time.

By late seventies, 4R-AAU became an aging aircraft and needed a wing spar modification and Air Ceylon didn’t have the resources to carry out the repair. Therefore it had to be grounded. The engineer in charge was Timmy de Alwis. With the closure of Air Ceylon, it was taken over by the Sri Lanka Air CS 450 and flew again. The aircraft type was continuously manufactured from 1937 to November 1969. (Over 32 years). Eventually, over 9,000 aircraft were built and sold as a civilian executive, utility, cargo aircraft, military and passenger airliner. There were aircraft fitted with tail wheels, nose wheels, floats and skis. I believe the last pilot to fly the aircraft was Group Captain Chandra T Goonewardene (in 1982/1983). Now 4R-AAU/CS 450 is parked in the open air at the SLAF Museum at Ratmalana.

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