Flight of the Tiger Moth | Sunday Observer

Flight of the Tiger Moth

The afternoon sun had engulfed the Ratmalana airfield last Saturday, as the Sri Lanka Air Force was celebrating 66 years of unblemished service to the motherland. People had come in thousands to witness the spectacular aerial displays. I hurriedly made my way to the runway, in search of one vintage aircraft and her pilot. As I got near I could see the red and white tail of the Tiger Moth bi-plane and her registration CX-123. This model of aircraft was built in London in the 1930s. It was amazing to see that this plane was in top airworthy condition.

Her flight maintenance crew were doing last minute checks under the watchful eye of engineer Squadron Leader Pushpakumara. The dozen crew are made up of aeronautical and airframe mechanics. I exchanged greetings with the young pilot, Wing Commander Kuruvita, a distinguished past pupil of Royal College, Colombo. He told me “Flying is my passion”. Prasanna Kuruvita is a veteran pilot with 6,000 hours of flying, having obtained a VVIP clearance as well. It was time to be airborne. I stepped aside, as the Warrant Officer began giving hand signals to the crew. A lone firefighter is on standby, extinguisher in hand. This Tiger Moth bearing SLAF call sign “AAB” made in 1937, uses a tail skid and two front wheels and was designed for take off from a grass patch. However, the pilot showed his flying prowess by slowly moving the aircraft onto the runway. Eight members of the team manually carried the tailend. The engine spurted to life, as the propeller was cranked by hand. Within seconds the 80 year old bi-plane made a steady lift off into the blue skies of Attidiya. The flight crew remained alert as they scanned the sky, keeping track of the plane. Wing Commander Kuruvita did a few loops and then came in for a smooth touchdown, amid thunderous applause from the stunned crowd.

I met up with him again on the runway, and he showed me the aircraft. It is made up of wood and fabric. The Tiger Moth has two cockpits. It does not have any electric system, no communications and in an emergency the pilot has to boldly walk onto the wing (after setting the plane on glide) and deploy his parachute, before reaching 5,000 feet. Prasanna told me, “This aircraft first came into Ceylon as a civil plane and was used by the Colombo Flying Club. It crashed in 1970 and was later handed to the Air Force.” It was then brilliantly restored by SLAF engineers to its present condition. It was first test flown by SLAF in 1983. In 2010, Wing Commander Kuruvita received a commendation from the Commander for his dedication in flying this vintage bi-plane which has a London built Major class engine with a fuel capacity of 80 litres and an air ceiling of 10,000 feet. The Tiger Moth has an air endurance of two hours, a takeoff speed of 45 knots and approach speed of 57 knots.

When asked to pose for a photograph, Prasanna shows the hallmarks of a true team leader and invites his entire flight team to stand beside him. Having joined the SLAF as an officer cadet in 1996, he was absorbed into the General Duties Pilot Branch and first flew the SF-260 Warrior. Moving onto advanced training on the Y-12 Twin engine plane, Prasanna was subsequently posted to Heavy Transport Squadron where he flew the massive C-130 Hercules and Antonov 32. He recalls the flights during the period of war and said, “we faced anti aircraft fire but flew our missions, as we carried vital supplies.”

This gallant father of two boys is presently the Commanding Officer of the No 8 Light Transport Squadron and is in charge of 30 pilots who fly the Y-12 and B-200 aircraft, which are also used for maritime surveillance and anti- narcotic operations. As we shake hands to depart, two jets did a magnificent manoeuvre and painted the serene sky with the number 66, to indicate the SLAF anniversary. The flight of the vintage Tiger Moth is testament to the passion of SLAF pilots.