Tuesday, 23 July 2013

No 4 Helicopter Squadron to the fore

* War on terror revisited : Part 157


by Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Squadron Leader Roshan Goonetileke had been at the controls of a US built Bell 212 tasked with airlifting a contingent of army commandos to a point beyond Point Pedro in late May 1987. With him in the chopper was Oliver M. Ranasinghe (Commander of the SLAF from Feb. 17, 1994 to March 5, 1998). Those who had been flown in by Goonetileke were part of a heli-borne commando group deployed to thwart a possible attempt by LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran to escape, in case the army succeeded in liberating Valvettiturai and Point Pedro. Each Bell 212 had carried about ten commandos. The unprecedented deployment was within the area dominated by the LTTE, though the SLAF was able to carry out the operation stealthily.

Outgoing Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Air Chief Marshal Goonetileke, recollected the deployment of about 90 commandos at a location close to Point Pedro, one of the major LTTE centers during eelam war I. That particular deployment of commandos was meant to trap Prabhakaran within the liberated area during the first phase of what could be called the first combined security forces offensive conducted at brigade level.

Having undergone training at the Ground Combat and Recruit Training Centre, Diyatalawa, Goonetilek passed out as a Pilot Officer in August 1979. The eldest son of Harry G, one-time Commander of the SLAF, had been among 20 young men in the fourth intake. However, they hadn’t been able to complete flying training due to a severe shortage of avgas (aviation fuel), hence the group received flying wings in February the following year, with Goonetileke being named the best flyer of that particular course.

When Eelam War I erupted in July 1983 with the devastating attack on the First battalion of the Sri Lanka Light Infantry (I SLLI) in Jaffna, Goonetileke, having being promoted to the rank of Flying Officer had been based at the Katunayake air base, the home of No 4 Helicopter Squadron. Although the LTTE and several other terrorist groups had been active, particularly in the Jaffna peninsula as well as in some parts in the Vanni mainland, the armed forces weren’t ready for large scale counter-insurgency operations. Goonetileke acknowledged that the No 4 Squadron comprised just a few machines, including Jet Rangers, Dauphin as well as Westland Sikorsky Dragonfly. There had been one Bell 47- G also called Bubble, acquired immediately after the launch of the first JVP-led insurrection during the first week of April 1971.

According to Goonetileke, the SLAF had deployed a Bell 47-G I in Palaly in support of combined security forces operations to thwart illicit immigration before the July 1983 riots. With the outbreak of violence, the SLAF positioned a five seater-Jet Ranger at Palaly in 1983. Goonetileke recalled flying Tissa Weeratunga (subsequently Commander of the army from Oct. 14, 1981 to Feb. 11, 1985) from Palaly to various army detachments in the Jaffna peninsula.

Goonetileke recalled with gratitude those members of the KMS who provided invaluable training and expertise and the subsequent role played by Prasanna Ratnayake in enhancing the fighting capacity of the No 4 Squadron. Ratnayake had been one of the officers who worked closely with KMS at a critical stage of the conflict. The then President JRJ’s administration had no alternative but to secure the services of KMS, which employed ex-foreign military personnel to enhance the capabilities of the Sri Lankan armed forces.

Boost for No 4 squadron

The then Flight Lieutenant Goonetileke accompanied Squadron Leader Tennyson Gunawardena to Singapore to take delivery of two Jet Ranger helicopter gunships and two Bell 212s in 1984. They had undergone training in flying Bell 212s in Singapore before the SLAF took delivery of the four machines. Although the Bell 212s had been initially deployed for VIP transport, with the gradual escalation of the conflict, they too were assigned for northern operations.

In 1985, the SLAF acquired eight more Bell 212s. ACM Goonetileke said: "Of them, the SLAF acquired five initially. The remaining three joined the service subsequently. Soon after the acquisition of the first five, they were deployed to airlift a contingent of troops for an operation north-west of the Ampara-Batticaloa jungles. It was a new experience for us and the beginning of many such operations. The then Squadron Leader Ana Jayasinghe was in charge of the airlift." The late Jayasinghe was the Commanding Officer of the No 4 helicopter squadron at that time. However, the No 4 squadron had a relatively small role to play, as the army could still move within the Jaffna peninsula as well as other parts of the Vanni mainland and in the Eastern Province.

Irrevocable loss

Unfortunately, the situation gradually continued to deteriorate with the army losing ground in the Jaffna peninsula. The situation took a turn for the worse in the wake of first direct negotiations between President JRJ’s government and Tamil terrorist groups in July and August 1985 in the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu. The government declared a three-month long truce on June 18, 1985 to facilitate the Thimpu talks. When fighting resumed after the abortive Thimpu initiative, all bases in the peninsula had been under siege. President JRJ’s government had to launch Operation Liberation in May 1987 to overcome the LTTE threat. ACM Goonetileke said: "With the gradual expansion of mine warfare in the Jaffna peninsula, the army couldn’t keep the overland routes among bases situated in the Jaffna peninsula open. Overnight, all bases in the Jaffna peninsula as well as detachments at Elephant Pass were under siege. Casualties couldn’t be moved overland. All Jaffna bases had to depend on No 4 squadron for their supplies, casualty evacuation and even to go on leave."

ACM Goonetileke recollected helicopter crews risking their lives to supply bases in Jaffna. No 4 squadron flew continuously from the main SLAF bases in the north in spite of growing LTTE threats. Although the then Commanding Officer of the First battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (IGR), Lieutenant Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne made a determined bid to restore the overland road between Palaly SLAL/army bases and Kankesanthurai harbour, it couldn’t be achieved due to heavy LTTE resistance. The then second-in-command of the IGR, Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa too, echoed Goonetileke. Goonetileke asserted that lack of required manpower had been a major problem. Manpower remained a contentious issue until President Mahinda Rajapaksa authorised a massive recruitment drive at the onset of Eelam War IV, in August 2006. For want of the required number of infantry battalions, the army hadn’t been able to sustain its presence in the Jaffna peninsula in the ‘80s, without having continuous SLAF support. Bell 212s operating from Palaly ensured personnel based at isolated bases received their supplies. Goonetileke recalled flying in to Valvettiturai amidst LTTE fire. Such firing had been a regular feature during that time.

Commenting on LTTE fire power, ACM Goonetileke said that at the onset of the conflict, terrorists had been reluctant to engage helicopters. Initially they fired small arms at helicopters. ACM Goonetileke said: "Later, pilots faced 5 zero fire and then rocket propelled grenades. The introduction of long range weapons compelled pilots to fly over 2,500 feet. But then the appearance of heat seeking missiles at the beginning of eelam war III in April 1995 changed the situation completely."

ACM Goonetileke is of the opinion that the LTTE may have acquired the missiles in the late ‘80s, though the supplier didn’t provide them with the required guidance system. The soft-spoken former SLAF Commander, who had been at the helm during eelam war IV regardless of the immense threat No 4 Helicopter Squadron, performed an unenviable task in support of the overall war effort. During Operation Liberation, the Helicopter Squadron had played a vital role in casualty evacuation under extremely difficult conditions. Seriously wounded Second Lt. Shavendra Silva (Formerly General Officer Commanding of the celebrated 58 Division and Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York) of the IGR, was one of those officers evacuated from the battlefield before India intervened on behalf of the LTTE. Timely evacuation saved I GR platoon commander’s life. The chopper was piloted by Romesh Mendis.

IPKF arrives in Palaly

Goonetileke had been based at Palaly when huge transport planes carrying Indian troops began touching down at Palaly in accordance with the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 29, 1987. He had been at China bay, Trincomalee when a ship carrying the last contingent of Indian troops left the Trincomalee port. ACM Gooetileke said: "After having lost over 1,500 peacekeepers and almost double that amount wounded, the Indian army was glad to get out of Sri Lanka. What we didn’t realize in the run-up to the Indian withdrawal was that the LTTE was going to resume large scale operations again. The fighting was about to be started with unprecedented ferocity. Fourteen months of direct talks between the then President Ranasinghe Premadasa and the LTTE had been nothing but a farce and the security forces were about to face a catastrophic situation."

At the time eelam war II erupted on the night of June 10, 1990, Goonetileke had been based at China Bay as the Commanding Officer of the Maritime Squadron after having taken over the responsibility in March 1990. The Maritime Squadron came into being during 1988 with the deployment of Cessna 337 Skymaster fixed wing aircraft from No 1 Flight Training Wing and one helicopter of the No 4 squadron.

Under the leadership of the then Northern Zonal Commander, Wing

Commander Sunil Cabral, helicopters faced a challenging situation at the commencement of eelam war II. As all army detachments situated along the Kandy-Jaffna road beyond Vavuniya had been under siege helicopters had to constantly provide gunfire support, evacuate the wounded, induct fresh troops, and carry out reconnaissance missions. Most importantly, helicopters had to drop urgently needed supplies, including ammunition. Italian built Siai Marchettis launched from SLAF bases in the region played a significant role in saving isolated army bases. Had the light ground attack aircraft and helicopters failed, the losses suffered by the army would have been much higher. Siai Marchettis and helicopter gunships also spearheaded counter attacks to save the army base at Silavathurai on the north-western coast as well as Mullaituvu, until sea borne troops fought their way onto the besieged bases. In fact, the LTTE could have probably wiped out those who had vacated the Mankulam base in November 1990 if not for timely intervention by the SLAF. In spite of the grave risk to their lives, pilots landed in the jungles to pick up almost 100 officers and men. Those saved included Lalith Daulagala (presently Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner in Malaysia. Daulagala, who had been the Commanding Officer at Mankulam at that time, holds the rank of Major General) and Kamal Gunaratne (Currently, Sri Lanka’s Deputy Ambassador in Brazil).

Courageous men

ACM Goonetileke said that he was proud to have had an opportunity to serve with the helicopter squadron/wing during the conflict. The unit made heavy sacrifices in the battle against terrorism with some of those who had flown choppers making the supreme sacrifices and many suffering injuries. The outgoing CDS said that among those who had served with the squadron/wing were Oliver Ranasinghe, Sudarshana Manamperi, Ana Jayasinghe, Mohan Gunaratne, Tennyson Gunawardena, Sunil Cabral, Sujith Jayasekera, Rajan Gunaratne, Roger Weerasinghe (killed in missile attack), Prasanna Ratnayake, Lasantha Waidyaratne, Premachandra, Royce Gunaratne, Priyantha Gunasinghe, Gagan Bulathsinhala, Jagath Rodrigo (killed in missile attack), Sagara Kotakadeniya, Ravi Jayasinghe, Dhammika Wijesuriya, Priyantha Weeraman (killed in enemy fire), Thilina Kaluarrachchi (killed in missile attack), Tyronne Silvapulle (killed in missile attack), Kapila Ratnasekera, Namal Fernando, Ravi Jayasinghe, Faizal Casseer (killed in blast),Thuyakontha, Ajith Dabare (killed in an accidental crash of a Jet Ranger into the Jaffna lagoon), Lasantha Kodituwakku (killed in missile attack), Sumangala Dias, Rajiv Kularatne (killed in accident), Aruna Peiris (accident), Anuradha Malalasekera (killed), Danesh Gunasekera ( killed in missile attack), Pakeer (killed by enemy fire), MJM Aaqthik (killed in missile attack), Chintaka Soysa (killed), Chandika Wijesekera (killed in missile attack), Amila Mohotti (crashed off Anuradhapura. Believed to have been hit by ground fire), Dushan Edirisinghe (crashed ), Dodammaluwa (accident), Rehan Fernando (accident), Upul Tennakoon (crashed), Buddhika De Silva (crashed off Anuradhapura. Believed to have been killed by ground fire), Seevali Munasinghe (killed in missile attack), Ranil Gurusinghe and Upul Samarakoon. ACM Goonetileke said that he may have failed to mention some of those brave and courageous men by name hence his apology (The list of names is not according to the seniority list).

Kapila Jayampathy was lucky to survive, in spite of receiving severe head injuries due to gun fire during a mission in the Eastern Province, whereas Sumangala Dias was wounded over Silavaturai.

ACM Goonetileke said that some incidents claimed the lives of two pilots. Until the acquisition of Chinese supersonic jets in the aftermath of eelam war II, Siai Marchettis and No 4 Helicopter Squadron/Wing had remained the main SLAF assets. Although Siai Marchettis which had been in service since 1985 were replaced by Argentine built Pucaras, the helicopter force remained a key asset.