China Air Force, a bosom friend - Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana | Sunday Observer

China Air Force, a bosom friend - Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana

1 August, 2021

Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana extended his warm congratulations prior to the 94th Anniversary of the Founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) during an interview in Sri Lanka at Air Force Headquarters, Colombo on July 08, 2021.

Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana said the friendship between Sri Lanka and China has withstood the test of time and grown even stronger. He wishes to further strengthen the pragmatic cooperation between the two Air forces.

Following are the excerpts of the interview:

Q: In 1990, China sent flying instructors to Sri Lanka, and you were among the first batch of pilots trained by Chinese instructors. I believe that there must have been cultural or language barrier at the very first beginning. How was the trust-forming process? How was the experience?

A: First of all, I must express my gratitude to the Chinese Government and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army for helping us in 1990, to establish our air force fighter aircraft union.

At that time, we were facing threats from the terrorist organisation of Sri Lanka. We sought help from our friends to strengthen our fighter aircraft and Air Force.

China was the country, as a friend, who came to help us at that time. We got the first batch of Chinese flight instructors. Initially we received two FT-5 aircraft, and followed by one FT-7 and then four F-7 Chinese aircraft.

As you said, we were all very young at the time. It was a new experience for all of us to be trained by Chinese instructors and to work with Chinese technicians and engineers.

I was fortunately appointed to be in charge of taking good care of the big Chinese crew team. That’s why I had more interaction with them and I tried my best to make them feel comfortable.

They came to Sri Lanka for the first time. Because of the terrorist threats, we could not keep our instructors and engineers in any hotel outside the air base. We had no option but to arrange the accommodation inside the base.

Military camps don’t have luxury facilities as you know, but they were humble enough to accept whatever we offered to them. They also respected the Sri Lankan people as well as our culture.

Those were good old days in the Katunayake Air Force Camp. Initially we had only five pilots and about 50 airmen put under the Chinese team to be trained, and I was among the pilots. You are right that we had a huge language barrier.

We could not speak Chinese, and they could not speak English. Fighter aircraft pilots need to operate independently, and the risks are higher, especially when flying with supersonic fighters. We had to communicate through the control tower, which required a high degree of trust and teamwork.

But I must say, those instructors were extremely capable and professional. They took the challenge of training Sri Lanka pilots to fly supersonic aircraft. It was not an easy task since we were very young and not used to that type of aircraft. But they made it. They were professional and knowledgeable and taught us in a very kind way, like a family.

At the same time, they taught us good discipline. I should say they are extremely strict which is also an important part, I gained from those instructors to build my future.

Although they could not travel outside owing to restrictions, they managed to sacrifice everything for the friendship between Sri Lanka and China. I have respect for them.

Q: You invited the Chinese flight instructors to visit Sri Lanka again after many years. It was a very kind gesture and I see deep friendship there. Why did you do this?

Reunion after long time, what was the feeling?

A: We’ve build up this bond at the beginning with the instructors and Chinese-English interpreters, who were actually like senior engineers.

We had a very good friendship bond from that era, and it continued even after they left in 1995. For five years they have been staying here. After they left, we kept in touch.

When I became the Director Operations in 2000, I thought it was high time to invite my instructors to come and travel around.

Although they had been here for a long period but never got a chance to see the island two instructors and an interpreter accepted my invitation.

They came to Sri Lanka with their family members and stayed with me for about a week. I travelled with them. Reunion after years I was really happy. Although being far away, we are in contact all the way, and our families are also connected.

Q: What do you think of the achievements of the interaction between the two militaries? In which fields do you think the two air forces can further strengthen cooperation?

A: In fact I invited the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force delegation to come ahead of Sri Lanka’s Air Force 70th anniversary this year. But unfortunately they could not make it owing to the prevailing Covid situation. I’m still looking forward to welcoming the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force Chief or a high level delegation to Sri Lanka, to strengthen our relationship further.

I’m looking forward to have a direct dialogue with the PLA Air Force to enhance our high level connection. Operational interaction between the pilots is significant. I want my junior pilots to interact with their Chinese counterparts.

After years when they become senior, they will also be good friends in the future. You can see that from me. I built up connection with the Chinese instructors when I was very young. I still carry forward the friendship. My son chose to study in China. He is temporarily in Sri Lanka owing to the Covid pandemic, otherwise he would be in China. He speaks Chinese very fluently.

Q: Recently, Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, solemnly declared the completion of the goal of building China into a moderately prosperous society in all respects. 2021 is the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party as well as the 94th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. What is your impression of the China’s economic development and the Chinese People’s Liberation Army?

A: I take this opportunity, from the bottom of my heart, to extend my sincere congratulations on the century achievements of the Chinese people and China’s economic rise. China has always been a valuable partner for Sri Lanka. The friendship between Sri Lanka and China has withstood the test of time and grown even stronger.

I express my sincere congratulations to the Chinese People’s Liberation Army on its 94th birthday. In the past few years, the two militaries have witnessed the deepening communication and cooperation. We wish to further strengthen the pragmatic cooperation between the two Air forces.