The flyer with a big heart | Sunday Observer
Remembering Thibba:

The flyer with a big heart

15 November, 2020
SLAF Intake 11- Thibba standing first row from the right
SLAF Intake 11- Thibba standing first row from the right

My acquaintance with Thibba goes back to March 1979, when I was being inducted as a prefect. As prefects, we had to report to the college and be at the duty points by 6.55am. I used to travel on the Moratuwa bus instead of my usual 100 Panadura school bus which usually arrived at college by 7.05am, where I met Thibba from opposite Airport Ratmalana, where he was residing.

The friendship blossomed with our shared interests in Cadetting, Cricket, Table tennis, and Swimming. After leaving college, Thibba joined the Airforce as an Officer Cadet and I had the good fortune to be selected as an Officer Cadet at the Kothelawela Defence Academy (KDA). Thibba, TTK Seneviratne and Ruwan Punchihetti were stationed with us in our final year at the Cadet Wing of KDA in 1985, while doing their flying training attached to Ratmalana Airport.

On our last day at KDA in November 1985, Thibba exchanged his photograph with me as this was a custom at KDA. The battle against terrorism had escalated and we were all well aware we were facing uncertain times. Each of us embarked on our journeys chartering our destinies.

I well remember my last meeting with Thibba. It was on September 11, 1995 at Maj Jagath Rambukpotha’s (retired as Major General) wedding at Grand Orient Hotel.

Seventh child

Thejananda Jayanthalal Chandrasiri Bandara Thibbotumunuwe was born on November 8, 1961 to Ukkubanda Thibbotumunuwe and Somawathi Manike Thiibbotumunuwe. He was the seventh child of their family of nine children. Growing up in a large family may have had a positive influence on him, as while at school and later on as an Officer in the Sri Lanka Air Force, he had proved himself to be an absolute “Team Man”. Like his father and older brother, he too had his education at Ananda Vidyalaya. While in school, he was affectionately known as Thibba and even after leaving college this name stuck to him so much so that even after joining the Air Force, he would be referred to as Squadron Leader Thibba or even as “Thibba Sir” to some of his juniors.

Even while at school, Thibba’s only ambition was to become a Flyer in the Air Force. His elder brother was an officer attached to Regiment of Artillery (Maj Gen HB Thibbotumunuwe) and this too may have inspired Thibba (Jr) to aspire to join the Air Force. Thibba was a keen sportsman. He was a great swimmer and a member of the Under 17 Cricket Team. Senior Cadet in 1981, he was also a keen Table Tennis player.

He received Basic Military Training at Diyatalawa. His patience, comradeship and dedication to supporting others under extreme conditions were par excellence. After the basic course, he went to ChinaBay, Trincomalee for branch specialisation training. Thibba was selected to be a pilot with TTK Seneviratne.

After being commissioned as a Flyer, Thibba was fully engaged in the flight operations of the Transport Squadron. He was well conversant as a Captain of Y-8, Y-12, AN 3 and AVRO aircraft used for air transportation of Troops and Logistics of the Three Services.

In mid-1990s, the LTTE suddenly started attacking military camps in the East. The SLAF had only Italian made SIAI-Marchetti SF 260TP as ground-attack aircraft powered by a single Allison 250 Turboprop engine which could carry only 2 X 100Kg bombs as external loads. The fleet was fully deployed for air to ground attacks. These aircraft were stationed at Hingurakkoda, even though it was not a Base Camp then. The SLAF was short of qualified pilots for SIAI-Marchetti aircraft.

A few pilots, including Thibba, Harsha Abeywickrama (a former Commander of the SLAF in 2012-14 and retired as Air Chief Marshel) RP Parkiyanathan (Wing Commander died on September 13, 1995 Aircraft crash), Bandu Kumbalathara (retired as Wing Commander in 1999) who were flying transport flights volunteered to fly SIAI- Marchetti Aircraft. Once Thibba had been on a mission to destroy LTTE targets. On his return, soon after he touched the runway, the engine had stalled. The Engineering Officer in charge of the fleet, Flight Lieutenant Ruwan Upul Perera (retired in 2005 as Wing Commander) had got the ground crew to tow the aircraft to the Parking Apron. Subsequent checks revealed that the engine stopped due to fuel starvation as Thibba had used maximum fuel available to accomplish the mission to the best of his ability.


Another incident was when Thibba was flying from Palali to Ratmalana with 120 soldiers on board coming on leave. When he was about to land, he observed on the control panel that the wheels were not coming out for landing. Now his only option was to attempt a crash-landing without the wheels. To minimise the risk of a fire and even a possible explosion, Thibba decided to empty the fuel tank by flying a few rounds above the sea and do a belly landing at Ratmalana. While he was flying around the Airport, a higher rank army officer who was on board had asked, “Aren’t we landing?” Thibba answered quietly and calmly that there was a problem with the landing gear and that he was trying to empty the fuel tank so that the risk of fire will be minimised while landing.

After listening to this, everyone was most anxious and worried. By now the airport control tower was informed and all firefighters and other emergency procedures were ready on either side of the runway. When he approached the runway to crash-land, Air Traffic Control had informed that the wheels had come out to do a normal safe landing. It turned out that it was only a faulty indicator on the control panel. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when they heard that they can safely land.

When Palali was under siege in the early 1990s and an Aircraft could not land, Thibba innovated new landing techniques, which surprised the SLAF top-brass, and continued to deliver rations and military hardware to troops stationed in the North. Once, at an airshow in China, Thibba piloted a Y-12 Chinese-made aircraft, and the maneuvering techniques he displayed astonished all the spectators, including the aircraft manufacturers. Thibba, with over 5,000 flying hours, was not only one of the most experienced pilots, he was one of the most innovative pilots and was able to “make even the impossible possible.”


Thibba met Asintha Jayawardane, former Vishaka Vidyalaya Western Band Leader, through his batch-mate and pilot buddy TTK Seneviratne (who died in an SIAI-Marchetti crash at Beruwala on March 26, 1986 with pilot, Officer Cadet Ruwan Punchihette). Asintha is TTK’s cousin. After a few years of association, they got married on March 8, 1990. Asintha and Thibba had decided to stay at Ratmalana Married Officer’s quarters. They were blessed with two sons, Menuka and Diluka.

Thibba was a trusted and sincere friend. He was always with a smile, blessed with a sense of humour and was kindhearted and sympathetic towards everyone. There was a period where Thibba was flying AVRO aircraft without any rest. Nobody knows how many casualties he flew. He had spoken to most of them personally, and reassured them, wishing them a speedy recovery.

‘No’ and ‘can’t’ were nonexistent in his vocabulary. If anyone wanted anything of him, he would do his utmost to oblige. He was a pilot par excellence. Adverse and risky encounters he took on his stride. It was almost second nature to him. On two occasions, he had landed SLAFs “trusted Old War Horse” Avro’s with jammed nose wheels, for example. His dedication and commitment to duty were way beyond expectation. He had been commended personally by the Commander of the Air Force on several occasions.

Operation Rivirasa

Operation Rivirasa was a combined military operation launched by the Security Forces in Jaffna in October 1995. The primary objective of the operation was the capture of Jaffna from the LTTE. It is believed that Operation Riviresa was the largest and most successful military operation at that point in time. SLAF flights were fully engaged with heavy flying commitments. The SLAF had lost three Transport and Ground Attack Aircraft during 1995 terrorist missile fire and none of them survived. The ever-present possibility of a surface-to-air missile was a relatively new phenomenon in the war and even though the pilots were well aware of the imminent danger, there were many brave pilots, such as Thibba who volunteered to fly to Palali to facilitate troop movements and keep the air supply line open.

On November 18, 1995, there was an important flight to be made, with a consignment of urgently needed military cargo for advancing troops of Operation Rivirasa as they were just two kilometres from the City of Jaffna. Around 6.00 am on that fateful day, Thibba on his Maruti Jeep went to pick Sqd Ldr Lalith Nanayakkara, and then to pick up Sqd Ldr Bandu Kumbalathara.

The flight was a Y-8 that could carry 120 onboard or 20,000kgs of cargo. Onboard with Thibba as Captain were Copilot Sqd Ldr Bandu Kumalatara, Squadron Leader Lalith Nanayakkara as Engineering Officer with Flight Lieutenant Prasanna Balasuriya as communicator, Flying Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardena, the navigator and Corporal Jayasinghe as loadmaster.

They took off from Ratmalana by 6.50 am. When they hit 13,000 feet and approached Mannar Island, they were all alert and serious about the territory and maintained a safe distance from the coastline to avoid possible ground attacks by the terrorists. Using a pre-arranged coded message, Thibba informed the Palali control tower of their estimated time of arrival and started descending. Thibba reduced the engine power and set the Y - 8 in the descending altitude. The most prudent and safes air-path to Pallali was over the sea as the runway was only one kilometre from the coastal belt.

Enemy attack

Flying Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardane was searching for any unidentified boat movements as the sea was calm. The flight now descended to 500 feet and speed was almost 300 kmph. They were 7-8 Kms from the airfield, but over the sea as they did a low-level approach to avoid possible enemy missile attacks from the uncleared Thondamannar area. Navy Dvoras were visible patrolling the area as well as an armoured helicopter already placed on their approach path to protect the Y-8.

They descended to 300 feet now, and the runway and Palali communication tower were visible. Just then the navigator Fly Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardane shouted “two high-speed boats are approaching on our left.” At the same time, Palali Control Tower also informed the same but before they could complete the message, they heard the loud explosion on the left-wing.

Simultaneously, the Aircraft went into an uncontrollable nosedive. Thibba and his co-pilot Kumbalathara tried their best to control the plane, but within a few seconds of the explosion, the Shaanxi Y- 8, one of the most popular Aircraft of the security forces crashed into the sea almost 3 kms from the coastline with six persons onboard and a payload of 35,490Kgs.

Before the huge aircraft submerged Thibba, Co-pilot, and Flight Engineer crept through a window and got out of the Aircraft. They removed their boots and were floating expecting the hovering Helicopters which were giving air cover or Naval boats which were giving sea cover to come and rescue.

Thibba and his Copilot were great swimmers having participated in the Mt Lavinia two miles swimming event as schoolboys, but unfortunately, the Flight Engineer was not good at swimming. By this time, they were caught in the crossfire between Navy and LTTE. Flight Engineer Sqd Ldr Lalith Nanayakkara was a well-built officer.

Thibba tried his best to hold him and swim and Kumbalatara drifted away with the waves. The rest of the crew were trapped in the aircraft not being able to come out and they went down with the Aircraft. The BELL 212 helicopter which was hovering above was unable to reach them as the fire from LTTE was so intense. The Helicopter crew spotted the copilot who was drifting towards the other side and they threw an inflated tube connected to a lifeline and rescued him into the chopper.

Supreme sacrifice

Later Thibba and Lalith Nanayakkara were spotted floating close to each other and their heads were beneath the water. They both were unconscious and the helicopter crew could not take them on board and the pilot directed Naval crafts to that location and flew off to Palali. Naval craft managed to reach Thibba and Nanayakkara and took them to Palali Military hospital, but sadly by that time both were pronounced dead.

Wing Commander TJCB Thibbatumunawe RWP had made the supreme sacrifice not just protecting his Motherland but also doing his utmost to save his friend and colleague. Later that afternoon, a Sri Lanka Air Force Antonon AN 32 carried the bodies of Thibba and Nana to Ratmalana. The next day the body of Bala was found trapped inside the ill-fated aircraft by divers but the bodies of Fly Officer Sanjeewa Gunawardane and Sgt Jayasinghe were not found.

Thibba’s body was taken to their residence at Wewalduwa Road, Kelaniya and the funeral was held on the 20th evening with full Military Honours at Borella Kanatte.

At the time of Thibba’s demise, his wife Asintha was six months pregnant with their third son. The eldest Menuka was just five years and Dliuka was 3 1/2 years. Asintha being a courageous woman singlehandedly brought up the three children with sheer dedication and commitment.