By Capt. Gihan A Fernando
RCyAF/ SLAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, Singapore Airlines and SriLankan Airlines.
Early on Saturday, October 18, 1969, my pilot-trainee colleague Sudhila and I borrowed a bicycle from Jinadasa, the mechanic at the Ratmalana Flying School, and rode to the home of Capt. Anil Rambukwella, not far from the airport. We needed his authorisation to carry out a flight in the local area. It was a standing rule at the time that all such flights must be sanctioned by an instructor who is physically present at the airport. Therefore, it was quite normal for us trainees to arrive at Ratmalana Airport in the early hours of the morning and disturb the slumbers of one of our instructors residing in the vicinity of the airport in order to obtain his permission.
When we knocked on Capt. Rambukwella’s door, his wife Mumtaz opened it and told us that the captain was still asleep. However, he soon awoke and with a customary “Be careful, boys,” signed off Sudhila for the flight. I was going along for the ride because a ‘card attack’ (insufficient funds in my flying school ‘credit card’) had temporarily prevented me from taking the controls. Therefore, I had to content myself with going aloft as a passenger on Sudhila’s training exercise. Only when a trainee had obtained his Private Pilot’s Licence (as in Sudhila’s case) was he allowed to carry passengers.
Returning to the airport, we started to prepare our airplane for the flight. Just for the record, the Auster J/1 Autocrat, registered 4R-AAM (Four Romeo Alpha Alpha Mike), was the same aircraft that, in October/November 1946, wearing its original registration VP-CAO, was flown by the late Mr. J. P. Obeyesekere from England to Ceylon. Taking nearly 40 days for the epic journey, ‘JPO’ was closely accompanied by Royal Air Force (RAF) Squadron Leader R.A.F. Farquharson in an identical Auster—registered VP-CAP—for all but a few hours of the aerial odyssey (when a sandstorm separated the two flyers). Earlier in the trip, for eight consecutive days Obeyesekere had carried another RAF Squadron Leader, named Sleigh, as passenger in his Auster from England to Castel Benito in Libya. But that’s another story…
Just before we started up the Auster’s de Havilland Gipsy Major engine (which had replaced its original Blackburn Cirrus Minor), Sudhila and I were informed by the flying school authorities that a German man who was visiting the school wanted to go on a joy flight. It was not unusual for strangers and visitors to be taken on such rides, so I volunteered to forego my jaunt with Sudhila and give the German the opportunity instead. It soon became apparent that the German, who was introduced to us as Reine Franck, didn’t speak much English. After I strapped him securely into the passenger seat, I watched the Auster take off, and then went home. Another wasted day at the flying school…
The following morning, I was greatly surprised to see, in the morning newspaper, a photograph of Sudhila’s Auster upside down in a paddy field near Mirigama. A few minutes later Sudhila himself phoned me, and we decided to visit the scene of his recent accident. On the way there by train, he told me what had happened.
It was the time of the South West monsoon, and, taking off from the Attidiya end of the airport, along what is known as the Runway 22 direction, Sudhila had proceeded north of Ratmalana, on a sightseeing trip over the city of Colombo. After overflying the usual landmarks and areas of interest such as the Colombo Town Hall and the harbour, he attempted to head back to Ratmalana but found that cloud and rain were engulfing his return track. Our instructors had cautioned us never to fly beneath heavy rain in our light aircraft as there is always a possibility of encountering severe down draughts. Although the aircraft was equipped to be flown with reference to its instruments, Sudhila had only five hours of instrument flying time—the absolute minimum for a private pilot. Therefore, he was forced to remain clear of cloud (and rain), and always in sight of land or water.
His immediate alternative was to proceed to the Bandaranaike International Airport, Katunayake. However, as he approached Katunayake, that airport also became obscured by rain. Next, Sudhila decided to continue farther along the coast to Puttalam. But there were heavy showers. Now literally between a ‘rock and a hard place’, Sudhila and his German passenger were trapped between the central hills and the approaching rain, while fast running out of fuel. Worse still, the Auster wasn’t equipped with a radio, so Sudhila was unable to inform anyone on the ground of his plight. By now, the aircraft was being buffeted by strong winds and shaking like a leaf.
The previous day, with me on board, Sudhila had carried out a practice forced-landing (emergency landing) at Ratmalana, and it went off perfectly. We were able to touch down at the Attidiya end and stop at the first intersecting road. Therefore, Sudhila was confident of his ability to safely carry out an emergency landing—but this time ‘for real’—and he decided to put the aircraft down in a paddy field immediately below, at Pallewala, near Mirigama. He saw it as his safest option. Now, before an emergency landing a pilot should do a precautionary approach to check for any obvious impediments on the chosen landing site. So, he flew low and slow over the paddy field on which he intended to land. In doing so, the Auster attracted the attention of the people living along ‘Malaria Road’, so named because it had been cut during a malaria prevention campaign. Deciding that the makeshift ‘landing ground’ was suitable, Sudhila then executed a perfect touchdown in the mud, pulled the joy stick all the way back to his stomach, stood on his heels and slid along (the heel brakes were ineffective) until, now moving at very slow speed, the airplane struck a bund at the far end of the field. Its progress thus arrested, the Auster stood on its nose for a few seconds before tipping over onto its back (upper surface) in slow motion. As a result, the Perspex windscreen cracked while Sudhila and the hapless Herr Franck hung by their safety belts with mud pouring in through a gaping hole in the broken windshield.
Sudhila didn’t speak any German. The only German he knew was what he had gleaned from the Air Ace Picture Library war adventure comic books. So, he shouted “Schnell! Schnell!” (“Quick! Quick!”), released his safety belt, and promptly fell on his head into the mud. The German passenger did the same and suffered the same consequences as Sudhila, but was immersed in mud to a lesser degree as he was taller. The pair then pushed open the doors, wriggled out, and got away from the aircraft. By now, curious onlookers had begun approaching the inverted Auster. With a strong smell of high-octane fuel making its presence felt, Sudhila shouted to the villagers to stay away from the aircraft, but to no avail. All he got in response was a hearty “Hoooooo!” Because Sudhila, a recent school-leaver, was smaller in stature and a ‘local’, the onlookers assumed that he was the passenger and that the suddha was the pilot, so they directed their jeers at what they perceived was the foreigner’s comedy of errors.
Sudhila soon learned that they had landed in the vicinity of the road to Kukulnape, with the Mirigama railway station close by. After commandeering a rider and bicycle, he proceeded to the railway station intending to call the Ratmalana flying school and inform them of the forced landing. When he entered the Station Master’s office, explained about the crash, and requested the use of the station telephone, the SM flatly refused, stating that people often come there with all kinds of “cock-and-bull stories” to obtain free calls. After a short silence, the SM asked Sudhila whether he knew Capt. ‘Punch’ (Panchalingam) Nadarajah; to which Sudhila replied in the affirmative, adding that he was an Air Ceylon captain. The Station Master’s face immediately lit up and he said, “He is a relative of mine, you may take a call.”
Meanwhile, the authorities at the Ratmalana flying school had pressed the ‘panic button’ and informed Police stations to look out for a cream-coloured light aircraft. Capt. J. A. (Ossie) Jayawardene, our night flying instructor, who happened to be at the flying school, looked at his watch at almost the time Sudhila was landing in the mud, and declared that the aircraft should be running out of fuel about then.
Returning from the Mirigama railway station to the crash site, Sudhila awaited the arrival of the recovery team led by the flying school’s commandant Lionel A. Loos. After handing over the aircraft to them, he took a train to Colombo, and by evening he was back home. Without telling his parents about the incident, Sudhila went to bed early. Perhaps he was still suffering from shock.
The following morning, he was woken by his excited father who told him that the morning newspaper carried a report and photo of a light aircraft crash at Mirigama. It had even mentioned the name of the pilot. The cat was out of the bag. After a brief explanation, Sudhila left quickly for Ratmalana Airport—from where he had phoned me. An enquiry was subsequently held as to how an aircraft that was authorised for a ‘local flight’ ended up, upside down no less, in a paddy field in Mirigama. Sudhila was grounded for three months.
Surprisingly, the sturdy British-built Auster aircraft had suffered only minor damage, (mainly resulting from the recovery action) and was brought back to Ratmalana by lorry. After repairs, a few months later it was back in the air, helping more young fledgling pilots to learn the art and craft of aviating. Sudhila flew for the national carrier and now lives in retirement. The whereabouts of Reine Franck are unknown.
Sadly, however, on March 11, 1971, Auster 4R-AAM was destroyed by fire in a takeoff accident at the Ratmalana airport, with both occupants losing their lives. The aircraft is now displayed in the SLAF Museum. But that also is another story.