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ON THE TRAIL OF VICTORY - Sunday Observer pays tribute to the Security Forces on Second Anniversary

Air Force: Sri Lanka's wings of hope

It was November 26, 2007. Two Fighter jets of the Sri Lanka Air Force were hovering the skies over Kilinochchi. Cadres of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were gathering at a ground for a special celebration. Though the LTTE had units on standby for a sudden attack they were unaware of the two stealthy warriors in the skies right above them. Reliable intelligence information received by the Sri Lanka Air Force predicted that several LTTE leaders including Prabhakaran were to attend the annual celebrations held at a ground in Kilinochchi towards the east of the A9 road. They were also informed there would be a well fortified underground bunker as well.

Though the area didn't seem to be heavily populated the pilots were requested to swoop down to specifically aim at the target. The people observed on the land were carrying weapons and they were in uniform. The weather over Kilinochchi that day was quite unfavourable for a fighter pilot.

It was thickened with a cloud layer. After a thorough search one jet dived in closer to the target and the LTTE started heavy resistance. Yet the pilot managed to drop all four bombs and ascend. The bullets of the anti-aircraft guns exploded in the air after reaching a certain distance creating a scene of fire and smoke and the pilots got surrounded with this though they tried to keep a safe distance. The second pilot dived amidst the resistance to drop bombs on the target. Unfortunately only one bomb was released. He ascended.

The pilot wanted to dive in for another chance to drop the other bombs very well knowing the consequences of returning to the target when the LTTE have fully identified these two aircraft. Yet with their Commanding Officer's approval the second pilot swooped in while his colleague waited in the air. Even in that second only the two bombs on the right side were released leaving the two on the left intact. Amidst the fire and the smoke in the sky the worst thing happened to the pilot - even with full power from the engines the aircraft did not ascend. It was just 900m above ground level and was an easy target for the enemy. Fuel was in critical condition and an engine nozzle was problematic.

The pilot was unable to give full power as the craft started vibrating. The then Director Operations, their Commanding Officer and the respective senior officers were right behind the operation continuously directing the two pilots, guiding them during this entire mission. Slowly and steadily the two pilots reached Katunayake taking double the time they usually take. This was just a mere description of a day of a fighter pilot of the Sri Lanka Air Force.

For the hardcore fighters of the Sri Lanka Air Force a failed mission's ultimate consequence means nothing but death. Every mission was equally daring for them. Their operations were atypical. The outside world gets to know only the result - the damage to the enemy, for these hardcore fighters behind the scene and their stories of bravery hardly come into the limelight.

What matters to them is a job well done. Enjoying the peaceful country they saved. It's time for us to salute these true heroes for bringing in peace over their blood, toil and tears.

Sixty years ago, no one would have ever thought the then Royal Ceylon Air Force would ever be facing one of the world's most ruthless terrorist organisation - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

By then (during the Eelam War IV) the Sri Lanka Air Force was one of the most active of the world's Air Forces.

The round the clock job carried maritime strikes, close air support, CASEVAC, ground attacks, transport, air defence, surveillance.

Be it either a close air support, dropping bombs on targets causing maximum attrition to the enemy or evacuating injured Army personnel, obviously they were clear targets of the enemy.

During 2002-05 period the great deal of training carried out by the SLAF to master their equipment was a major contributor to their success. This involved more recce work with UAVs and Beechcraft 200s .

On November 2, 2007 it was a unique SLAF attack that resulted in a dramatic turning point in Eelam War IV. A Kfir and a MiG-27 aimed at a prime target of the LTTE, its Political Wing Leader S. P. Thamilselvan. This was a severe blow to the LTTE which became a turning point in their downfall. This crucial attack made history in the two fighter jet squadrons. The Kfir C7s that were purchased in 2000/2001 had better Weapons Delivery Navigation System which supported more accurate targeting.

Among the number of daring flights of the fighter aircraft the F7s created another turning point in war history by destroying a LTTE airfraft over Iranapalai in the North of Pudukudduyirippu on March 26, 2007. They had to fly like LTTE aircraft in pitch dark and as low as 500 metres above the ground.

It needed great expertise and fortunately the Air Force had pilots of that calibre.

The F7, on many occasions supported the Army as well as the Navy during their operations.

Penetrating enemy lines, hitting by 320, 80mm rockets by a formation of four helicopters the MI 24s caused utter devastation to the enemy and there were no doubts about the results. Yet for precise targeting they need to fly low thus making them an easy target. Everyday in the final battle the MI24s carried direct attacks in all the frontlines breaking positions of the entire enemy line.

Though the LTTE were able to temporarily dominate the ground the air space was always ours. Bell 212s accompanied by the MI24 helicopters carried risky evacuation missions (CASEVAC) when the Army troops got trapped inside enemy terrain.

This is the squadron which was involved in evacuating a Sri Lanka Army Special Forces Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol at any given time of need. For many months the Bell 212s were flying more hours than any other unit due primarily to their CASEVAC role, which led to them evacuating injured soldiers and civilians that were caught up in the battles. The Zlin143s owned by the LTTE terrorists faced their fate when confronted by a F7 and later by the attacks of the Air Defence System of the SLAF.

Two Zlin143s were shot down by air gunners positioned at Katunayake and SLAF headquarters Colombo on February 20, 2008. Both pilots were killed. This was believed to be the last plane LTTE was able to smuggle in to Sri Lanka.

Exceeding 5000 flying hours and lifting and transporting more than 71 tons of cargo and over 6,000 injured soldiers the MI 17s helicopters have done an outstanding job in their usual silent manner. Troop movements, casualty transportation and moving Army's Air Mobile brigades increased immensely during the recent operations and meeting the demand was crucial.

Their first mission in the Vanni Operation would give enough and more evidence of the gravity of their responsibilities.

In it the squadron had to move 500 officers and soldiers of the Army's Air Mobile Brigade using six MI 17s where one could only carry 30 fully equipped personnel. Professionalism of pilots along with the skillful technicians they performed their duties avoiding enemy threats.

The last but not the least giants of the Air Force fleet - the C130s and AN32s - carried the heaviest loads of war. From people to soldiers and vegetable to arms and ammunition they were the bloodline when the ground routes were blocked, destroyed and shut down by the terrorists. Flying a transport aircraft in Sri Lanka was a high-risk business. Facing the threats of the Surface to Air Missiles the giants roared the skies putting their lives second to service.

The SLAF had to ensure that civilians were not in their scene and avoid hospitals or any religious buildings while making sure that troops were not in their target area.

Having to pick through all these is like eating with chopsticks. Yet, the great warriors of the Sri Lanka Air Force were ready to face any enemy, challenge or threat to save their Motherland; they were not ready to compromise the country's sovereignty.

Today the SLAF faces a greater challenge as protecting Sri Lankan waters is their duty today. They are the saviours of Sri Lankans at any disastrous situation. During the recent flash floods in the Eastern Province. Bell 212 helicopters rescued 54 persons trapped in the devastating flash floods from Batticaloa and Ampara in two days in early January 2011.

The chopper carried out three shuttles for the rescue mission where 32 individuals from Tampitiya, 14 from Bogamuyaya, seven from Rambakan Oya and one from Valaichenai were flown away for safety from the flood waters. The SLAF carried relief aid to victims of flash floods in the Eastern province by airlifting consignments of dry rations using MI-17 helicopters.

The operations which began on January 11 from SLAF China Bay, airlifted 5200 kilograms of dry rations including dhal, sugar, rice, milk powder in a Mi-17 heavy-lift helicopter bound for Somawathiya area in the Polonnaruwa District.

This was followed by another consignment carrying 9,700 kilograms of essential goods sent by a MI-17 from SLAF Base Hingurakgoda to the same location. Both consignments were dropped at the school grounds of Somawathi Devi Vidyalaya.

Later another consignment of wheat flour weighing 2,800 kilograms was airlifted to Somawathiya from Hingurakgoda. Within a week the MI-17s of the Air Force airlifted 30,000 kilograms of dry rations and essential items to Batticaloa, Sampur, Somawathiya, Ella, Kantale, Serunuwara and Vakarai areas. Surely their wings will protect the country and its people for ever.

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