Captain ‘Sus’ Jayasekera


Captain ‘Sus’ Jayasekera


The death occurred on 15th June of Capt. Susantha Wijesoma Jayasekara. A former airline pilot, officer in the Royal Ceylon Air Force Volunteer Reserve, flying instructor, and businessman, he was better known to all and sundry as ‘Sus’, or ‘Captain Sus’.

Born on July 8, 1925, the only son of Sam and Emily Jayasekera, he studied at Royal College and Pembroke Academy. When World War II broke out, Sus attempted to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) even though he was under age. But his father followed Sus to the recruiting office and ‘persuaded’ him to return home.

Speaking to this writer and aviation magazine editor Roger Thiedeman in August 1997, Sus reflected that his interest in flying originated at a very young age, probably in the mid-to-late 1930s, when he was taken by an uncle to watch a small aircraft take off and land on the infield of the Colombo Racecourse. Later, as a teenager, he would go with friends to observe aviation activity at Ratmalana Airport, then little more than a rudimentary airfield.

During the war years, he often rode his bicycle to the ‘Thunmulla’ junction’ at Bullers Road to watch RAF aircraft operating from the Racecourse airstrip - Ceylon’s ‘secret weapon’ in repulsing the Japanese air raids of Easter Sunday, 1942.

‘Sus’ also recalled watching seaplanes at Colombo Harbour, from the family home in Kotahena. All this fanned the flames of his aeronautical ambitions. But his father, who wanted Sus to become to be an engineer, tried to dissuade him from a career amongst the clouds by telling Sus that "only birds and fools fly". After the war, when Sus was 22, his father took him to meet a friend, Capt.

David Peiris, the civil aviation commandant of Ratmalana Airport. After a short interview, Sus was asked to report to the chief engineer of the Colombo Flying Club to commence work as an apprentice aeronautical engineer.

But that only served to strengthen Sus’s resolve to take to the air. He went on his first flight in a Tiger Moth biplane flown by a pilot named Srikantha, becoming even more captivated by the desire to learn to fly.

Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that for his maiden flight Sus wore the flying helmet of the club’s legendary and much-respected chief instructor, Flt. Lt. Robert ‘Dunkie’ Duncanson.

Eventually, Sus’s persistence paid off, when his father relented and agreed to pay for flying lessons. Sus counted it a privilege to have Duncanson as his flying instructor.

While continuing to work as an apprentice engineer at the flying club, Sus had several opportunities to fly with pilots who had returned to ‘civvy street’ after war service. One of them was a young pilot named P.B. Mawalagedera (later to become one of Sri Lanka’s most senior and experienced airline pilots and managers), who gave Sus his first demonstration of a loop, in a Stinson L-5 airplane. In time, Sus became an accomplished light aircraft pilot and instructor in his own right, while accumulating flight time (hours) for his ‘B’ (commercial pilot’s) licence. Earlier, after he had earned his ‘A’ (private pilot’s) licence, his ‘gold wings’ were pinned on his chest by his mother at an awards ceremony. Subsequently, Sus was appointed assistant flying instructor at the Ceylon Air Academy, which had been established by the Ceylon government. In 1953, when Ceylon acquired its first helicopter, a Hiller UH-12B (4R-AAO) - which preceded the purchase of two Westland-Sikorsky S-51 Dragonfly helicopters for the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF) in 1955 - he was one of the first pilots to receive rotary-wing training along with Captains C.H.S. Amerasekara and David Peiris.

Prime Minister Sir John Kotelawala and other government officials used the helicopter extensively. When Sir John went on weekend trips to his Kahatagaha Mines, Captain Sus often served as his personal helicopter pilot.

Also with Sus at the controls, the Hiller was used to convey Santa Claus to Christmas parties and Carols by Candlelight at Police Park, as well as conducting nocturnal joy flights at carnivals. Sus also flew the helicopter and fixed-wing airplanes on aerial photography sorties, including one memorable assignment in an Auster with a visiting photographer from Time magazine to take a photo of sunrise over Adam’s Peak.

In 1956 Sus was sent to Australia on a Colombo Plan Fellowship. While Down Under, in addition to an Australian ‘B1’ instructor’s rating he obtained endorsement to fly the Douglas DC-3 Dakota. On his return to Ceylon, Sus was invited by Capt. Peter Fernando, then operations manager of Air Ceylon, to join the airline. Toward the end of 1959 the national carrier had only two DC-3s for domestic and regional services.

To boost the modest fleet a third DC-3 was purchased in the UK, and Captain Sus was chosen to command its delivery flight to Ceylon in January 1960. Assisting him on the flightdeck were First Officer Harry Ratnapala (later Hatharasinghe) as co-pilot and Radio Officer Geoff Frugtneit as navigator. That aircraft, which was registered 4R-ACI, survives - but only just - in non-airworthy condition at the Sri Lanka Air Force Museum at Ratmalana.

Later, Sus went to London and obtained a British Air Transport Licence using his own resources. He was founder-secretary of the Air Ceylon Airline Pilots ‘ Association, which was formed during the time of the Air Ceylon/KLM partnership, which ran from 1956 to 1962. Sus and his fellow unionists even shared the dubious distinction of organising Ceylon’s first pilots’ strike! Sometime afterward there was a vacancy for the post of general manager of Air Ceylon.

The Pilots’ Association backed Capt. Peter Fernando, while other pilots lobbied for the airline’s engineering manager to be awarded the job. In 1962, when the latter was appointed, Captain Sus quit his job and went back to Australia, returning to Ceylon only in 1966. Perhaps not surprisingly, Air Ceylon didn’t re-hire him, probably because of his ‘track record’ with union activity. So he got involved in the family business of running the Armour Restaurant in Kotahena.

I got to know Captain Sus in 1969 when I joined the Flying Training School at Ratmalana. He was my basic flying instructor on the Tiger Moth, his other two student pilots at the time being Hiranjan Bibile and Rohan Wijesinhe. Today, Capt. Hiranjan flies for SriLankan Airlines, Capt. Rohan for Qatar Airways, and I am with Singapore Airlines. Sus was a soft-spoken gentleman, not known for using strong language while teaching us fledgling pilots.

I remember how, as a ‘night owl’, he found it difficult to rouse himself from bed in the mornings - while we waited at the airport for him to arrive for our flying lessons! In 1971, when the JVP insurgency broke out, Captain Sus volunteered along with a few of us to join the RCyAF as reserve pilots. He was the oldest civil pilot to join the first batch of volunteers and I was the youngest.

Other cadets were Senerath Wattewewa, Herbie Karunatileka, Faizal Abdeen, Sriyan Wanigasekara, and David Pieris (not to be confused with the former airport commandant and helicopter pilot of similar name). At China Bay, our ground instructor, Corporal Jayakody, took us for PT (physical training) in the wee hours of the morning. He dismissed us at 0630hrs, but because our No. 1 Squadron commenced duties at 0700, that gave us only half an hour to shower, shave, have breakfast, and report to the Squadron for flying training.

But because ‘Corporal Jack’, as we called him, didn’t wear a watch and depended on us for the time, our modus operandi was to advance our watches by about ten minutes. Captain Sus was also party to this ruse, to make our life easier. This went on for several days until the officer in charge noticed Jayakody getting back to his billet early!

Subsequently, after being demobilised from the air force, during Minister Leslie Goonewardene’s period in office as Minister of Communications, Captain Sus was able to join Air Ceylon again. He was assistant to training manager Capt. C.K. Pathy. During his second stint with Air Ceylon, Captain Sus flew the DC-3, Hawker Siddeley (Avro) 748, and the Hawker Siddeley (D.H. 121) Trident jetliner. He was a ‘good operator’ who kept abreast of all the modern trends in aviation.

In 1977, when the International Federation of Air Line Pilots Associations (IFALPA) threatened to blacklist Colombo International Airport-Katunayake on the grounds that it was unsafe, Captain Sus and First Officer Milinda Ratnayake went to Amsterdam to plead for a moratorium on such action, based on an assurance given by Sri Lanka’s President J.R. Jayawardene that steps would be taken to improve air safety facilities in Colombo. In 1979, after Air Ceylon ceased to exist and flying schools were privatised, Captain Sus flew light aircraft for the Maharajah Organisation’s Air Taxis training school at Ratmalana. He was elected president of the Air Line Pilots Guild of Sri Lanka and I was its secretary. Meanwhile, he kept up his business interests at the Armour Restaurant. Sadly, Captain Sus’s wife Ganji predeceased him after a protracted illness.

Although he retired prematurely from active flying, Sus remained a mentor to all. His students, wherever they were based, often dropped in at his home down Fredrica Road, Wellawatte, to ‘talk shop’.

I am privileged to share his birthday: July 8. A few years ago I called Captain Sus on our mutual birthday while flying over Istanbul, Turkey, at 30,000ft, using one of the aircraft cabin telephones - he was thrilled! Unfortunately in latter years Captain Sus lost hearing in both ears, probably a legacy of all those hours aloft in noisy DC-3 cockpits. A few years ago he gave me all his aviation books, knowing that I will look after them. As time went by our visits became few and far between; but it never diminished Captain Sus in my estimation as an aviator in a million.

To paraphrase Anglo-American aviator and poet John Gillespie Magee, Jr, from his legendary poem ‘High Flight’:

Sus slipped the surly bonds of Earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings; sunward he climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth of sun-split clouds - and did a hundred things others have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung high in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there, he chased the shouting wind along, and flung his eager craft through footless halls of air.Up, up the long delirious burning blue he topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace where never lark or even eagle flew. In conclusion, as another unknown but famous author put it: ‘To fly West, my friend, is a flight we must all take for a final check.’ May he attain the supreme bliss of nibbana.

Capt. Gihan A. Fernando Singapore

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