Thursday, 8 August 2013

Flying into the jaws of Tigers (part II)

War on terror revisited : Part 161


Anuradhapura air base July 3, 1990: (L-R) Wing Commander Sunil Cabral (retired in 1992 with the same rank), Group Captain Anselm Peiris (passed away a few years ago), Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratna (retired in 1992 with the same rank), Flying Officer Avindra Mirando (retired in 2005 with the rank of Wing Commander, Squadron Leader Shirantha Goonetileke (killed in LTTE missile attack on April 29, 1995 over Jaffna peninsula) and Wing Commander Roger Weerasinghe (killed in LTTE missile attack on April 28, 1995 over Palaly). The picture was taken soon after the conclusion of the Operation Eagle.

 by Shamindra Ferdinando

Having undertaken an unparalleled heli-borne rescue mission to evacuate some of the seriously wounded troops trapped in the Dutch-built Jaffna Fort, the then Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratna felt uneasy about landing inside the besieged camp.

Waidyaratna, an experienced member of the No 4 Helicopter Squadron, believed such a mission could quickly turn into a disaster if soldiers under siege fought with each other to escape in the chopper. He, on his own, decided against landing inside the fort. Instead, he opted to land just outside the Jaffna Fort to enable the army to bring out the seriously wounded to the chopper.

Although Waidyaratna had earlier assured a gathering of senior Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) officers at a secret meeting at headquarters during the last week of June 1990 that two helicopters could land within the fort, though not simultaneously, he subsequently changed his plan.

The SLAF top brass reluctantly accepted Waidyaratna’s explanation that the entire operation could go awry if those under siege flooded the chopper. Waidyaratna asserted that such a scenario could have caused chaos, possibly leading to the SLAF crew, along with the chopper, being trapped within the Jaffna Fort.

6 SR under siege

In an exclusive interview with the writer, his first since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009, Waidyaratna said: "I simply didn’t want to see over hundred battle weary men fighting with each other to get into my helicopter. Anything would have been possible due to the rapidly deteriorating situation in the Jaffna peninsula, as well as the Vanni mainland. Those under siege would have done simply anything to survive and nothing could have been better than a chopper ride out of the Jaffna Fort."

Inside the Jaffna Fort there were about 50 soldiers attached to the Sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6SR) deployed in the Jaffna peninsula as well as some of the isolated detachments along the Kandy-Jaffna north of Vavuniya and Elephant Pass. There was a contingent of police officers numbering about 112.

Amidst final preparations involving a select group of officers, Waidyaratna, didn’t mince his words when he told the then Group Captain Anslem Peiris, the senior SLAF headquarters based officer involved in the mission, that he would land outside the Jaffna Fort. A visibly stunned Peiris accepted Waidyaratna’s proposal on the basis that the latter could land at a place safe from enemy fire.

Much to the surprise of Waidyaratna, Peiris said he wanted to evacuate either seven or nine wounded as he felt number 8 was not lucky. Waidyaratna said: "Group Captain Peiris was adamant that I shouldn’t take off from the Jaffna Fort with eight wounded men under any circumstances. He was superstitious and feared the mission could end up in a catastrophe if the number of men destined to be rescued happened to be eight."

A’pura nerve centre of Op Eagle

A tired Wing Commander Cabral got her wife, Melanie to write down Operation Eagle countdown in July 1990

Having finalised preparations, the SLAF dropped a container carrying a directive from Director of Army Operations, the then Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne, asking the Jaffna Fort Commanding Officer Captain Anura Perera to prepare seven seriously wounded men to be evacuated by air on the morning of July 3. The then Flight Lieutenant Priyantha Adikaram dropped the container from an Italian built Siai Marchetti, setting the stage for the mission. The container designed by the then squadron Leader Wajira Perera was built by the Mechanical Transport Wing, Katunayake (Perera retired with the rank of Group Captain). In previous article it was inadvertently mentioned that Colonel Wimalaratne’s message giving specific instructions was put inside an empty rocket which was fired into the Jaffna Fort by Flight Lt. Adikaram.

Waidyaratna said that the operation was codenamed Eagle as it was the insignia of the service. Operation Eagle had been an exclusively SLAF effort, a proud Waidyaratna said, recalling a subsequent directive given to the Commanding Officer in Jaffna to remove some telephone wires which may have interfered with the helicopter deployed for the rescue mission. The Commanding Officer had promptly inquired whether the SLAF wanted troops to cut down a large tree at the same place as it too, could be an obstruction. Waidyaratna said: "Cutting down the tree could have alerted the LTTE. It wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. We didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardise the operation."

A tired Waidyaratna had slept on his way from Colombo to the Katunayake air base, where he was to take command of a Bell 412 which was to be used in the rescue mission. Waidyaratna really felt the need to fly a helicopter as he had missed flying for almost three weeks due to being based at the Joint Operations Command (JOC) in Colombo. Waidyaratna was particularly keen to practise landing a Bell 412 under the guidance of the then Northern Zonal Commander, Wing Commander Sunil Cabral, who also functioned as the Anuradhapura base commander. Cabral was a celebrated flier who had earned the respect of officers and men. The then Squadron Leader Shirantha Goonetileke functioned as Cabral’s deputy, though there was no such position at the time. Goonetileke, younger brother of Roshan Goonetileke (recently retired from the post of Chief of Defence Staff), was the Commanding Officer of the No 1 Flying Training School, Anuradhapura.

Waidyaratna recalled with gratitude rehearsing landing a 412 on the bund of the Nachakuda tank in the Anuradhapura district under Cabral’s guidance, soon after the conclusion of the final briefing at the conference room at the Anuradhapura air base. Waidyaratna had the unenviable task of selecting the two door gunners. Waidyaratna said: "I was asked to pick two men out of ten gunners. I quickly realized that most of them hadn’t flown with me. As I knew Corporal Rahula Fernando, I picked him first. Then, I selected Leading Aircraftsman Suraweera, purely because he had escaped death on two previous occasions."

Mirando in Op Eagle team

Waidyaratna’s co-pilot was Flying Officer Avindra Mirando, one of the few to pass out from the prestigious Pakistan Air Force Academy. Mirando had been based at Batticaloa when he was assigned for the Jaffna Fort operation. He had been involved in the first abortive rescue mission mounted on the evening of June 28, 1990.

Mirando, who retired in Dec. 2005 with the rank of Wing Commander, recalled being the co-pilot of the then Wing Commander Roger Weerasinghe when the SLAF made the June 28 attempt. WC Mirando said: "As we approached the Jaffna Fort, the LTTE fired at our helicopter. The mission commander, the then WC Cabral called off the foray when our chopper was perhaps one kilometre away from the Jaffna Fort. Enemy fire was intense. We couldn’t have proceeded with that particular mission."

Cabral asserted that the June 28 mission could have resulted in a catastrophe. As soon as the chopper tasked with the rescue mission reported coming under fire, Cabral, who had been on a chopper some 3,000 feet above land called off the mission, hence averting a major disaster. Cabral felt that the first mission wouldn’t succeed due to hasty planning. WC Weerasinghe opted out of the second mission, paving the way for Waidyaratna to achieve celebrity status by leading the mission.

Immediately after the abortive mission, preparations got underway with Cabral remaining in control as the Operations Commander. He meticulously planned the operation. In spite of some expressing concerns, Cabral decided to conduct the operation just before daybreak to ensure that the SLAF could intervene in case the mission went awry. Cabral said: "At that time, we didn’t have a night fighting capability. It would have been unwise to undertake such a high risk operation without contingency plans. I opted to launch the operation just before day break, believing we could move in support of Waidyaratna’s team if it was trapped."

Cabral went to the extent of warning that the SLAF could face a situation similar to that experienced by the USAF during an abortive mission to rescue those trapped in the US embassy in Teheran. A meticulous planner, Cabral, in the run-up to the operation, flew into the Jaffna theatre of operations to examine the conditions, though he was very familiar with the area. Before taking off from the Anuradhapura air base in a Bell 212 with Sagara Kotakadeniya as his co-pilot, Cabral informed Squadron Leader Goonetileke of his plan.

Cabral prepared the plan taking into consideration that Mandaitivu Island situated close to the Jaffna peninsula, too, was occupied by the LTTE.

Final briefing

On the afternoon of July 2, 1990, all officers assigned for Operation Eagle gathered at the Anuradhapura air base for the final briefing. Several senior officers, including Group Captain Anselm Peiris and WC Cabral gathered at Squadron Leader Goonetileke’s office before the briefing got underway in the adjoining room with the participation of key personnel involved in the operation. In spite of a shameful attempt to downgrade Cabral at the eleventh hour, a zealous northern commander went ahead with his final briefing as the officer in charge of the mission, with Squadron Leader Goonetileke as well as WC Roger Weerasinghe making presentations. While Cabral briefed the gathering as regards the overall mission, Goonetileke and Weerasinghe discussed missions undertaken by Siai Marchettis and helicopters, respectively. Many an eyebrow was raised when Group Captain Anselm Peiris declared that he would be the Operations Commander, whereas Cabral functions as the mission commander. Cabral, who had been overall in charge of planning, command and tactical control of the mission wanted to call the Zero Hour (exact moment to begin the countdown) ‘Dominique’ as it was one of his favourite songs by Jeanine Deckers, one-time member of Dominican Order in Belgium. Cabral said that he loved that song and felt Dominique would be the ideal codeword. However, Group Captain Peiris disagreed. At his behest, the Eagle team accepted Maradona as the codename before Cabral joined Waidyaratna and Mirando for final rehearsals.

A daring mission

The operation involved as many as 17 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters. They were to be launched from different bases and converge over the northern waters at a given time. Cabral’s Bell 212 with Sagara Kotakadeniya at the controls, was positioned about 4,000 feet over the Jaffna lagoon. Cabral was the first to take off from Anuradhapura, followed by other helicopters assigned for the mission. At the onset there was confusion as regards the positioning of Group Captain Peiris, who was ultimately given the option to get into a chopper other than the machines carrying Cabral and Roger Weerasinghe. Cabral asserted that he couldn’t accommodate Group Captain Peiris as he as Operations Commander/Mission Commander was to lead the rescue bid in case Waidyaratna’s mission went awry. Had Cabral intervened, Weerasinghe was to take over the mission, hence he couldn’t accommodate Group Captain Peiris. An irate Peiris had to board another helicopter which was to be positioned over the targeted area.

Three Chinese-built Y 12s and one Y-8 were positioned over Mannar for a major bombing mission in case Waidyaratna’s mission went awry. Jayalath Weerakkody (currently Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner to Pakistan. Weerakkody holds the rank of Air Chief Marshal), Harsha Abeywickrema (present SLAF chief. Abeywickrema holds the rank of Air Marshal) and Prasanna Ratnayake (retired) commanded the three Y 12s, whereas Faizal Cazeer was in command of the Y 8, at that the largest aircraft operated by the SLAF (Cazeer was killed in controversial circumstances over Elephant Pass during a bombing mission when the Y 8 aircraft exploded).

However, Roger Weerasinghe and Thilina Kaluarachchci (both killed in LTTE attacks), had the challenging task of providing the required gunfire support to facilitate Waidyaratna’s foray into enemy territory. They were positioned over Kayts Island. But they hadn’t been worried as the two pairs of Siai Marchettis under Squadron Leader Goonetileke’s command were to lead the attack. The Siai Marchettis were tasked to neutralise LTTE positions on either side of the Jaffna Fort, before the helicopters swung into action.

Once the aircraft and helicopters moved into pre-arranged positions, Cabral initiated the countdown. But to Cabral’s dismay, Shirantha Goonetileke said that he couldn’t see targets on the ground Waidyaratna, too, echoed Goonetileke. Cabral was in a quandary. As time was running out and an immediate decision was needed, he initiated a fresh countdown and much to his disappointment, Squadron Leader Goonetileke again reported the inability of Siai Marchettis to go into action without seeing targets on the ground. Cabral faced the prospect of having to call off the mission. But, to Cabral’s relief, Waidyaratna was able to see the Jaffna Fort as he was flying low. Cabral said: "I decided to go ahead with the mission in spite of not having two pairs of Siai Marchettis to provide the much needed support. Instead, the two helicopters tasked to escort Waidyaratna’s chopper, which was codenamed Lasantha, engaged enemy positions as the rescue helicopter approached the landing site.

Waidyaratna flew without lights, whereas all other fixed wing aircraft and helicopters switched on their navigation lights. It was Cabral’s strategy. During the pre-mission briefing, Cabral pointed out that an operation couldn’t be conducted in total radio silence. Cabral asserted that the number of those authorized to use communication sets had to be limited to the minimum though they couldn’t do away with communications altogether.

Waidyaratna said: "On the night before the operation, I briefed the then Jaffna Security Forces Commander, Brigadier Jaliya Nanmuni of the planned incursion in the early hours of the following day. I inquired from the Brigadier whether he wanted to send some reinforcements into the Jaffna Fort. As only my chopper was expected to land outside the Jaffna Fort, the SLAF couldn’t have accommodated many. I requested the Brigadier to have a team ready by 4.30 am on July 3, 1990. I was using the Bell 412 helicopter as the one originally selected for the mission experienced a technical defect. Avindra Mirando covered the chopper with ceramic armour. The following day, Captain Jayantha Fernando of the 6 SR and three soldiers joined us. Captain Fernando was to take over command at the besieged base."

Waidyaratna recollected directing those on his chopper not to open fire under any circumstances, though the gunners were given the option to retaliate if the chopper came under attack as it took off from Jaffna Fort carrying the wounded.

Waidyaratna said that he took remedial measures after moving off target and approached the landing site as Roger Weerasinghe and Thilina Kaluarachchi engaged LTTE positions. Waidyaratna said: "I flew very low over the Jaffna lagoon and landed just outside the Jaffna Fort. I saw men carrying weapons in uniform. Within seconds we realized they were our men. They were there to secure the landing site. One second there on the ground felt like one day. The army on the ground moved unbelievably fast. No sooner Captain Jayantha Fernando and his men got off the helicopter, the army rushed the seriously wounded men and placed them inside the chopper. They completed the task within just 45 seconds! The Bell 412 quickly climbed and was soon out of range of LTTE gunners. Having informed WC Cabral of the successful completion of the mission, I handed over the controls to Avindra Mirando. We reached Palaly within ten minutes. I was so happy I wanted to run around runway. Instead, I ran around the chopper."

Waidyaratna’s wife was six months pregnant when he undertook to fly into the jaws of Tigers.

Waidyaratna recalled Goonetileke explaining the inability of the Siai Marchettis to engage the given targets due to a thick cloud layer. Group Captain Peiris bitterly complained that he hadn’t been able to follow what was going on due to a communication failure. Would anyone else have gone ahead with the daredevil mission without the backing of Siai Marchettis? In spite of losing his main strength, Cabral had the guts to give the green light for the mission and face the consequences if it went awry. Waidyaratna and Mirando had the courage to go through with the mission at the risk of their lives, while Captain Jayantha Fernando’s readiness to join troops under siege was indicative of a soldier’s grit.