Remembering heroes of ‘Operation Eagle’ | Sunday Observer

Remembering heroes of ‘Operation Eagle’

19 July, 2020

Thirty years ago on July 3, 1990, ‘Operation Eagle’ was launched to evacuate a group of critically wounded soldiers of the 6th Singha regiment (6SR) and Policemen who were trapped inside the Jaffna Fort for more than three weeks and to deliver weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to the besieged soldiers in the Fort.

The situation in Jaffna 30 years ago was a far cry from what it is today. Tiger terrorists held the upper hand. They had taken advantage of a phony peace accord that prevailed earlier and surrounded them and isolated the Fort.

The only access to the Fort was by air and this too was extremely dangerous as the terrorists fired constantly at any low flying aircraft. A think tank of senior officers headed by Maj Gen Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Group Captain Anselem Peiris as Operations Commander and Wing Commander Sunil Cabraal as Mission Commander, had planned the operation and finally decided on whom to be assigned and how to execute the operation. The most risky and dangerous part of the operation was the landing of the helicopter for the rescue operation.

Operation in Jaffna

Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratne was to be the Pilot of the rescue chopper with Flying Officer Avindra Mirando as his copilot. While Maj Gen Kobbekaduwa was engrossed in planning the overall operation in Jaffna, in the Operation Room of the Joint Operation Command (JOC) HQ in Colombo, Brig Wijaya Wimalaratne, was busy discussing the final details of the crucial mission with a few of his trusted officers, including Sqd. Ldr Waidyaratne.

Sqd. Ldr. Waidyaratne, after studying maps and aerial photographs of the designated landing site, was not hundred percent happy, as he observed a small speck on one of the photographs. On discussing his concerns with Brig Wimalaratne, he called on Capt. Viraja Leelaratne for his expert opinion.

Capt Leelaratne was a Civil Engineer of the Army Engineer Regiment, but at the time was attached to the JOC. Capt. Leelaratne, who had graduated from the Moratuwa University and the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA was the precursor to the KDU) with a BSc (Hons) Engineering Degree, had specialised in Remote Sensing techniques to Present Precision Aerial photographs.

Telephone pole

Cpl Sooriyadasa, Fly Off Avindra Mirando, Sqd Ldr Lasantha Waidyaratne, LAC Rahula Fernando soon after Operation Eagle and landed at Palay Air Base around 6. 25am

On analysing the photographs of the landing area, Capt. Leelaratne identified the speck that was bothering Sqd. Ldr Waidyaratne as a telephone pole. He also observed there was a couple of wires still attached to the pole, as well as a fairly large tree which was on the flight path to the landing area. While it was decided to instruct the troops in the Fort to remove the telephone wires under the cover of darkness, Sqd. Ldr. Waidyaratne had opted not to have the tree nor the telephone posts removed as it would alert the enemy of the impending operation and as Capt Viraja had estimated the distance from Rampart to the telephone post by calculating length of Helicopter Rotor blades, and deemed it safe.

The professionalism of Capt. Viraja Leelaratne and the instincts of Sqd. Leader Waidyaratne saved Operation Eagle from what could have ended up as a disaster. It also speaks volumes of the meticulous planning of Maj. Gen Kobbekaduwa and Brig Wimalaratne, the legendary duo who were responsible for many successful operations.

At the crack of dawn on July 3, Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratne and Flying Officer Avindra Mirando, (who was a product of the Pakistan Air Force Academy) took their Bell-412 helicopter from the Palaly Air Base for the mission. With them were another 17 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters and three Chinese built Y-12 and one Y-8 fixed wing planes stationed at Mannar on standby for possible support.

The Navy was monitoring the seas of Jaffna, and the Army was well deployed with the mission ahead. The troops inside the Fort had been informed of the Top Secret operation earlier on June 29 by dropping the documents concealed in a Dummy bomb from an SLAF aircraft during a pre-planned attack on terrorist positions around the Fort.

Though these two brave pilots had not flown together before, knowing each other’s strengths accompanied by two Airmen, Rahula Fernando and Sooriyadasa as gunners had worked in perfect harmony as a team.

Lasantha had handpicked these two gunners. Rahula was selected for his bravery on previous missions as a gunner for Lasantha’s Operations and Sooriyadasa was also a skilled airman having escaped death on three previous air operations. Also onboard were Capt Jayantha Fernando and other three soldiers who joined them to be with the rest of their 6SR colleagues. All of them had volunteered for the mission even though they were well aware of the dangers they would be faced with.

While most of the aircraft approached the Jaffna Fort from the northeast flying from Palaly and started attacking the enemy positions as a distraction, the rescue helicopter piloted by Sqd. Ldr Lasantha Waidyaratne and Flying Officer Avindra Mirando approached the Fort from the direction of Mandaitivu from the West, coming under heavy enemy fire, hovered for a short while and suddenly manoeuvred the chopper towards the predetermined landing spot and swiftly landed. No sooner they landed, Capt Anura Perera and seven casualties were loaded and all supplies, including medicine, vegetables and most 81mm Mortars and other vital ammunition were off loaded.

Limited fire power and food supplies

Capt Jayantha Fernando joined the rest of 6SR men who were holding the Fort with limited fire power and food supplies, and straightaway assumed duties as the Commanding Officer. Lt Ramesh Fernando was the only Officer who was there from day one holding the Fort until the siege was successfully ended in mid-September with Operation ‘Thrivida Balaya’.

The process of off loading and loading took less than 45 seconds though they had been planned for around 60 seconds. Under those circumstances, even 60 seconds could be an eternity! They took off immediately and though still under enemy fire landed safely at Palaly Base by 06.30 am without any harm or damage to the helicopter.

The dedication to duty, great application and unwavering determination of these two flyers speak volumes of their ability, integrity and selfless bravely. Incidentally, both these heroic flyers are from Ananda College, and both of them were hostellers as well.

Sqd Ldr Lasantha Waidyaratne is much senior to Fly Off Avindra Mirando at Ananda. Lasantha was an athlete and Avindra was a good Basketball player and racing motorcyclist. At the time of the mission, Lasantha’s wife Dilrukshi was six months pregnant and their only son Uwin is now a Medical Doctor in UK.

Family mission

Avindra met his sweetheart Chelaka at Airforce itself, got married on January 20, 1992. They are blessed with two daughters Layanvi and Kishali both of whom are professionally qualified. Both Lasantha and Avindra opted for an early retirement from SLAF after their duty for the nation.

Lasantha retired in 1992 with the same rank and Avindra retired as Wing Commander in 2005. Lasantha was attached to SriLankan Airlines and Avindra is attached to Abu Dhabi Oil Company. Viraja Leelaratne, retired as Major in 1996, was educated at Dharmasoka College, Ambalangoda where he excelled in art, winning the prestigious President’s Award for Art in 1981.

He was a Senior Cadet Cpl and a Basketball player and also excelled in his studies. He found his lifetime partner Lakmini also from Dharmashoka. They got married on January 18, 1991, and as they stepped down from the Poruwa, starting their new life together, Brig Wijaya Wimalaratne was there to bless them, taking time off from his busy schedule as the Overall Commander of Jaffna.

This was testimony of the high regard Brig Wimalaratne had for Viraja. After leaving the Army, Viraja migrated to Auckland, New Zealand in 2000, and presently works as a Senior Planning Engineer at Downer NZ Limited. Viraja and Lakmini are blessed with two sons, Vibhava and Nikhila doing higher studies in Auckland.

Jayantha Fernando retired from the Army as a Major in 2004. A product of Thurstan College, he excelled in Rugby. This officer volunteered to join the besieged soldiers of his Regiment within the Fort. As the Commanding Officer Captain Anura Perera had been sick and had to be evacuated, Capt Jayantha Fernando as the most senior officer within the Fort had to take over as the CO. He remained as the CO giving leadership to his troops until the end of the siege in mid-September.

The stress of the operation took a massive toll on his family too. He had got married to Wasanthi five months before Ops Eagle on February 19, 1990 and the first pregnancy ended tragically due to stress following an incident pertaining to fights erupted in the Jaffna Fort.

One could only imagine the stress and trauma the wives of these young officers would have gone through during those tough times. However, later they were blessed with a son, Janith Angelo and a daughter, Vinuri Anjali. On leaving the Army, he worked for a Company in Dubai, but after meeting with an accident which necessitated internal fixation of the hip with three steel plates, he returned to Sri Lanka. Jayantha is not employed and lives in Kurunegala with his family.

The other officer who fought during the toughest era was Lt Ramesh Fernando, former Cadeting Sgt and Rugby player from St Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya. He got married to Iresha, his childhood lover on May 25, 1995 and blessed with son, Kamesh Manchana and daughter Nishmi Warsha. Ramesh retired from the Army on July 30, 2012 as a Colonel and works for a Multinational Company.

Gunner Rahula Fernando migrated to Italy with his family, but the other Gunner, Sooriyapala died in another Chopper crash a few years later. He was the only survivor of a Helicopter crash in Kimbulapitiya on June 3, 1988.

Today we live peacefully thanks to the brave and selfless service of these officers and soldiers. May their names be etched in gold when the history of Sri Lanka is rewritten in the future!