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Sri Lanka Air Force anniversary:

SLAF rebuilds North and East



Air Vice Marshal Duncan Dissanayake

On March 2, 1951, against all the odds that happened in the world simultaneously, Sri Lanka got its safety wings fixed. It was the establishment of a native air force to protect the sovereignty of the country which was then known as Ceylon.

Speaking of a tremendous past, Air Vice Marshal Duncan Dissanayake who was a former Director (Logistics) and a former Commanding Officer of the Katunayake Air Force Base explained the tedious process of forming bases for the then Royal Ceylon Air Force under the then Commander Air Vice Marshal J.L. Barker.

Commander Barker succeeded the first Commander of the Air Force history, Air Commodore G.C. Baldon.

“It was very challenging as myself, as a junior officer I was working as a logistics officer as well as the Aide de Camp to Commander Barker,” he said. “By this time the Air Force had bought many houses and buildings, especially while establishing the China Bay Base, we didn’t know where to start,” he said.

On his journey on nostalgic memories Dissanayake recalled the difficulty they had to find for the proposed building for Commander Barker’s house.

“China Bay was a jungle by then and after landing there in a Chipmunk and finding the right house we had to mark the paths with white coloured rock stones,” he said.

There had been no access route to this house called Barbara House which belonged to the Royal Air Force at that time.

Now at the age of 78 Air Vice Marshal Dissanayake was able to relate the tough journey of the youngest member of the Sri Lankan Tri Forces which today has achieved an unbeatable position in the military world. “This wasn’t a job that could be done seated in an office room,” he said.

With his experience as a young officer during Sri Lanka’s first coup d’etat to topple the then Government under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and during the 1971 insurrections as a senior officer, Dissanayake witnessed the growth of the Air Force from its ceremonial outfit to combat level.

“Till about 1971 the Air Force had more or less a peaceful time,” he said. “The Air Force a security force of the country did what it was duty bound to do to serve the country,” Dissanayake added.

With the rise of terrorism, Sri Lanka Air Force had to strengthen themselves offensively as well as defensively. “In order to do so Air Force had to buy new aircrafts, ammunition and the demand was such that decisions and actions had to be taken rapidly,” he said.

“During the time I was sent to USA for my higher education and training as an officer the Commander of the Air Force wanted me to negotiate with Aircraft manufacturing companies in USA to buy new aircrafts. With the assistance of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Washington I was able to meet the requirement as my commander ordered to fulfil the need of the hour.

At that time there was need of an extra effort to get things done,” he explained.

During the escalation of LTTE violence Dissanayake served as the Director Logistics and at times transportation of goods became impossible. “Transporting fuel to Palali in Jaffna was crucial at that time but using the A9 road was impossible. I myself had to go in a Ceylon Petroleum Corporation truck to see the ground situation of the road in Vavuniya and onwards,” he said.

Then taking a calculated risk the Air Force decided to transport fuel by air. “It was a risky task but it had to be done until sea transportation became safe,” he said. “Both the land and sea routes were too threatened to be used to transport and only mode was air transport,” he said.

At that time meeting the mission of the Air Force was a tiring process as it stressed on achieving professional excellence in rapid mobility and precision engagement by developing core capabilities based on technological superiority, to ensure readiness and operational success in exploiting the competent human resources and equipment of the Sri Lanka Air Force.

It was the time that the intensity of LTTE activities were on the rise and was moving slowly but, inexorably to form the darkest hours of the Northern insurgency. During this time SLAF was supplemented with Bell 212 helicopters and HS 748 Avro air crafts with additional aircraft while introducing SF260TP light ground attack aircraft, Y 12 and Y8 transport air craft to its inventory, mainly in view of supporting the military operations in the North and East.

As AVM Dissanayake recalled the Air Force, had to find another manufacturer for guns of the Bell212s. “Luckily in no time we managed to find an Italian manufacturer to buy guns for the first Bell212s we received and install them,” he explained.

Commenting on the present expansion of the Air Force, Wing Commander Eddie Buell, who is now retired, said those days we used to know each and every person in the institute and today it has expanded to a greater extend.

“Our batch had only six officers,” he said talking about the history of Air Force in 1962. “Our batch was the first to be trained locally,” he said. “Our Commanding officer at Diyathalawa at that time was Squadron Leader Samarasinghe,” he said recalling his memories of the past.

Wing Commander Buell, in his first appointment was deployed in China bay. “It will be interesting to recall that at that time in China Bay there was no railway station. They had an old Railway goods carriage that took the place of a station,” he said.

“Before the Air Force band was formed we used to borrow the band mainly from the Army or from the Navy. This was for any ceremonial functions, be it the Commander’s visit or anything else,” he said. In about 1968, Flying Officer Eddie Buell was the Aid De camp to the then Commander AVM E.R. Amarasekara – the first Sri Lanka Commander of the Air Force.

Seeing two Army buglers for the flag hoisting at one of the Commander’s visit to the Air Force Hospital Buell suggests that at least with two or three the Air Force could establish a band.

“I went and spoke to the Navy Band Master at that time who was Lt. Danwatte. He agreed to help on Navy Commander’s approval,” Buell said. This was the beginning of the Air Force band.

With the end of this 30-year-long conflict in Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Air Force is now encountered with the new challenges of transition from war time operations to peace time operations. At present the SLAF is actively involved in rebuilding efforts in the Northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

In any scenario, the process to acquire this experience and expertise was done in the toughest way possible, through hard work, dedication, commitment and sacrifice.

And in time to come the SLAF will thrive further towards excellence, preserving the sovereignty of the country.

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