Operating under missile threat…
Palaly Air Base late 1980s: (L-R) Flight Lt. Lasantha Waidyaratne, Flight Lt. Roshan Goonetileke, Pilot Officer Romesh Mendis and Pilot Officer Kapila Jayampathy. Waidyaratne is a celebrated flyer remembered for his exploits, particularly the daring landing outside the Jaffna fort during the first week of July 1990 to evacuate casualties. The SLAF conducted the operation under intense LTTE fire. Waidyaratne was a Squadron Leader at that time, while the co-pilot was Flight Lt. Avindra Mirando. The operation codenamed ‘Eagle’ was conducted by the then Northern Zonal Commander Wing Commander Sunil Cabral, who had been the instructor to many helicopter pilots, including Roger Weerasinghe and Roshan Goonetileke. AVM Goonetileke remembered Cabral, then a Flight Lt and Squadron Leader Mahesh Gunatilleke, CO of the No 4 helicopter squadron for their role in building up the squadron’s capacity.
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The then Squadron Leader Roshan Goonetileke was at the Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Alabama, when SLAF Commander Air Vice Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe informed him of his brother, Wing Commander (WC) Shirantha Goonetileke’s death on the morning of April 29, 1995, due to a missile attack.
It was a special Avro flight to Palaly from Ratmalana via Anuradhapura carrying 49 security forces personnel and three journalists.
WC Goonetileke was heading a team on its way to investigate the shooting down of a British built Avro on the evening of the previous day as it took off from Palaly air base. Forty security forces officers and men were killed in the attack. Among those dead was the then Northern Zonal Commander WC Roger Weerasinghe. The second Avro was targeted as it was approaching Palaly. Obviously, the SLAF would never have dispatched the second Avro if it suspected a surface-to-air missile had brought down the first one.
Outgoing Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)
Goonetileke said that his brother was to
succeed WC Weerasinghe as the Northern
Zonal Commander at a crucial stage of
the conflict. "As the first Avro crashed
within the security forces held area,
the SLAF was in a position to examine
the wreckage to determine the possible
cause for the tragedy. But, the second
Avro crashed beyond the area held by the
security forces, hence nothing could be
done. Shooting down of two Avros killing
100 officers and men on two consecutive
days sent shock waves through the
defence establishment. The military
faced a catastrophic situation with the
LTTE making a determined bid to cut off
the Jaffna peninsula."
Shocking failure to take precautions
Although the Indian army as well as intelligence services had conclusive evidence that the LTTE had acquired heat seeking missiles of Soviet origin as confirmed by one-time Indian High Commissioner in Colombo, Nerupam Sen during the deployment of the Indian army here, the April 1995 attacks revealed that the country hadn’t been ready to face a possible escalation of the conflict with the introduction of missiles.
ACM Goonetileke grudgingly admitted that the failure to sustain a lifeline between Ratmalana and Palaly would have had a devastating impact on the security forces, particularly those stationed in the Jaffna peninsula. The entire security forces deployment in the peninsula would have been vulnerable for want of continuous supply by air. Those at the Elephant Pass base wouldn’t have been able to survive if the SLAF had failed to sustain air operations over the northern theatre of operations, ACM Goonetileke said.
In hindsight, the sinking of two gunboats at Trincomalee at the onset of Eelam War III and the shooting down of two Avros a week later in April 1995 was calculated to isolate the Jaffna peninsula. For want of an effective anti-missile system, the SLAF struggled to sustain both fixed wing flights to Palaly as well as helicopter operations. Since losing the Kandy-Jaffna overland Main Supply Route (MSR) beyond Vavuniya at the onset of eelam war II during the second week of June 1990, the SLAF and the SLN had to meet the growing demands of the army.
ACM Goonetileke admitted that the deployment of missiles had taken the conflict to a new level overnight. "Obviously, the shocking loss of two valuable transport aircraft, the biggest in the SLAF’s inventory at that time, had a demoralising effect not only on the SLAF, but the entire country. For want of large fixed wing aircraft, we faced the daunting task of sustaining an air bridge. The SLAF inventory included four Avros, including two obtained from the then Air Ceylon."
Avros aka Hawker Siddley 748 Avro powered by two Rolls Royce engines had been in service with the SLAF since 1979 and was undoubtedly the best in its inventory. Unfortunately, the SLAF lost its latest additions to missiles. By then, the SLAF had lost both its Y12 fixed wing aircraft of Chinese origin, leaving it with several Y12s capable of carrying about 16 passengers each. ACM Goonetileke explained the extremely difficult circumstances under which the No 2 Transport Squadron based at Ratmalana as well as the No 4 helicopter squadron had to operate in the immediate aftermath of missile attacks.
ACM Goonetileke recalled meeting SLAF chief, Air Vice Marshal and Director Operations Air Commodore Jayalath Weerakkody at the headquarters soon after returning from the US course to take over the northern command. When Goonetileke had inquired from the Director Operations how he was supposed to fly from Anuradhapura, where the Northern Zonal Command was situated to Palaly, Air Commodore Weerakkody bluntly told him to motivate the pilot. The remark was made in the wake of the SLAF failing to sustain regular operations following the late April missile attacks.
Heli squadron upgraded
Air crews operated at the risk of their lives until the then government acquired expensive anti-missile systems from Israel. Appreciating the assistance provided by Israel at the hour of Sri Lanka’s need, ACM Goonetileke said that in spite of setbacks, the SLAF had sustained helicopter operations, thereby paving the way for an unprecedented expansion. With the acquisition of Mi 17s and Mi 24s in 1993 and 1995, respectively, the helicopter operations underwent major changes with the helicopter assets being grouped under a Wing. The formation comprised No 4 squadron responsible for VVIP transport, No 7 assigned Bell 212 and jet rangers, No 6 given Mi 17s and No 9 the celebrated attack squadron consisted of Mi 24s. Although a Wing comprised three squadrons, the helicopter Wing had four squadrons, namely No 4, 6, 7 and 9.
ACM Goonetileke said that the deployment of Israeli anti-missile systems had saved many SLAF assets and given the much needed confidence to air crews, though there were some unfortunate incidents. Once, the LTTE fired a heat seeking missile at a chopper as it was taking off from Muhamalai in the Jaffna peninsula in spite of it being equipped with an anti-missile system. ACM Goonetileke said: "It was routine for pilots to switch off the system as when touching down. In this particular instance, the LTTE had targeted the helicopter before the pilot activated the anti-missile system. In spite of operating under threat, air crews displayed unprecedented courage. They gained valuable experience, though some of their colleagues perished in battle. In some cases, the SLAF couldn’t even locate the wreckage of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft. Sometimes, the LTTE displayed aircraft wreckage in Jaffna."
Measures taken by the SLAF to protect its assets from small arms fire, 5 zero fire as well as rocket propelled grenades would not have been enough in case the enemy missile targeted a chopper. The SLAF provided floorboard armour as well as armour plated seating to helicopter gunships, but that wouldn’t have been enough to thwart a missile attack. ACM Goonetileke said that Israel had come to Sri Lanka’s rescue at a crucial stage of the battle. A delay on the part of Israel to provide Sri Lanka with the required equipment would have compelled the country to suspend operations in the northern region. Such an eventuality would have placed troops deployed in the Jaffna peninsula in jeopardy. The loss of the Ratmalana-Palaly Air Bridge at the commencement of eelam war II in April 1995, five years after losing the overland MSR would have compelled the government to reconsider the presence of troops in Jaffna. The SLN wouldn’t have been able to sustain the armed forces’ Jaffna presence on its own, as it did not have the capacity to undertake such a huge task at that time.
At that time the LTTE was in the process of expanding its operations at sea with more men and material support for Sea Tigers. The navy would have found it extremely difficult to launch regular supply convoys from Trincomalee due to the strong Sea Tiger presence in the Mullaitivu seas.
An unprecedented confrontation
A chance encounter between an SLAF Bell 412 piloted by the then Flying Officer Gagan Bulathsinghala and a small group of LTTE cadres at Poovarasankulam during day time on December 18, 1986 could have caused a major catastrophe. The then cadet Sagara Kotakadeniya had been the co-pilot. The 412 acquired for VIP travel was probably deployed on the northern front due to a dearth of helicopter gunships as well as troop carriers. The SLAF stationed choppers at Jaffna, Vavuniya, Trincomalee and Batticaloa to ensure regular supplies to isolated detachments. In fact, those going on leave as well as returning to their detachments had to depend on the SLAF. By late 1986, mine warfare had greatly restricted the overland movements not only in the Jaffna peninsula but in the Vanni mainland as well. The SLAF had an unenviable task to play. Bulathsinghala stationed at Vavuniya was returning to base following a routine mission to Talladi, Mannar, when he swung into action after seeing a truck at Poovarasankulam. After having held several important positions, including the first Commanding Officer of the Mi 17 squadron during his career, AVM Bulathsinghala now functions as the Director Air Operations. AVM Bulathsinghala related what could be considered a freak incident.
On Bulathsinghala’s orders, door gunners engaged the truck triggering a brief but fierce exchange of fire with one of those in the vehicle firing a rocket propelled grenade. AVM Bulathsinghala said: "In fact, we observed the truck while it was on the way to Talladi and the confrontation took place on our way back. During the exchange, someone in the chopper shouted that we had been hit. In spite of losing one engine, we managed to reach Vavuniya and land there safely after having declared an emergency. A quick examination of the machine revealed that a rocket propelled grenade had caused severe damage to engine Number 2 before being embedded in the other engine. The enemy had fired the grenade without removing the ‘cap’ a hence there was no explosion though the firing was accurate."
Had the enemy got an opportunity to ‘arm’ the grenade there wouldn’t have been any survivors to tell the circumstances under which the chopper exploded, the AVM said. Of course, there would have been various theories, including the possibility of a missile attack, he said, adding that would have had a demoralising impact on the armed forces during eelam war I.
AVM Bulathsinghala recollected the presence of the then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa in Vavuniya when he touched down in Vavuniya under emergency conditions. The soft-spoken officer recalled another instance also in the same theatre when he flew a Bell 212 to evacuate casualties in the wake of a bloody confrontation in the Adampan area. Bulathsinghala, though being certain that the then Colonel P. A. Karunatilleke had been based at Talladi from where he launched the daring rescue mission, could not recall whether it had taken place before or after the confrontation at Poovarasankulam. Flying a single pilot on a casualty evacuation mission could be deadly, particularly during an ongoing confrontation. However, Bulathsinghala had no option but to intervene in the wake of the enemy causing damage to the other helicopter providing close air support to troops engaged in action at Adampan.
ACM Goonetileke asserted that helicopter operations had been a pivotal element in the overall security strategy throughout the three decade long conflict. The gradual evolution of helicopter operations since the acquisition of two jet ranger helicopter gunships in 1984, the service took delivery of Mi 24s 11 years later during the then Air Vice Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe tenure as commander. Dubbed the flying tank, the SLAF had never deployed a similar asset against the LTTE during the conflict. But, the LTTE had experienced the lethal firepower of Mi 24s when it battled the Indian army in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in the Vanni mainland. India deployed Mi 24s in support of its ground forces soon after fighting erupted in the north in the wake of a disastrous heli-borne assault on the Jaffna campus on the night of Oct 10/11 1987. The SLAF deployed Mi 24s a decade later. ACM Goonetileke said that Mi 24s carried an awesome array of armaments, including forward firing rocket pods, forward firing 23 mm cannon, 37 mm weapon, Gatlin 5 zero and one 250 kg bomb depending on the requirement. According to him, the Mi 24s could have carried missiles, but the SLAF had not felt the need for it.