Friday, 2 August 2013

Flying into the jaws of Tigers

Waidyaratna speaks out

* War on terror revisited : Part 160

Palali airbase July 3, 1990: (L-R) Corporal Rahula Fernando (door gunner), Squadron Leader Lasanatha Waidyaratna, Flying Officer Avindra Mirando and Leading Aircraftsman, Suraweera (door gunner) immediately after their return to base after the successful completion of the mission. The Bell 412 used in the rescue mission on the morning of July is in the background. Suraweera was killed about a year later in a helicopter crash.
by Shamindra Ferdinando

The then Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratna, credited with the SLAF’s celebrated ‘Jaffna Fort helicopter rescue mission’ carried out during the first week of July 1990 says he had been involved in a far more dangerous task several years before in the Jaffna peninsula.

Waidyaratna, now a SriLankan Airlines Captain, recollected what he considered the toughest mission he ever undertook during the Eelam conflict in support of a beleaguered army detachment at Navatkuli close to Jaffna town. The operation involved two Palaly based Bell 212 helicopter gunships captained by the then Flying Lieutenant Waidyaratna and Flying Officer Ranil Gurusinghe, (Currently Director Civil Engineering, Gurusinghe holds the rank of Air Vice Marshal).

Squadron Leader Waidyaratne said: "We were tasked to airlift a small artillery piece from Palaly to the Navatkuli army detachment amidst a major LTTE build-up in the area. The army pushed for swift deployment of an additional piece of artillery, along with a consignment of ammunition fearing an LTTE attempt to overrun the base. The army command was seriously concerned about the rapidly deteriorating situation at Navatkuli."

Landing at Navatkuli under fire

Under mortar fire, Waidyaratna and Gurusinghe had flown five missions each to Navatkuli. Waidyaratna recalled the then Captain Jayantha Kotelawela, who was at Navatkuli at that time warning them of the launch of locally made mortars called Baba and Pasilan. Waidyaratna said: "The launch of locally made mortars caused a sound. As we couldn’t clearly and quickly identify that particular sound, Jayantha had to warn us of incoming mortars. When Jayantha shouted, warning us of the launch of mortars, we took our machine off the ground and then again touched down to continue offloading arms and ammunition. It was nothing but a nightmare. A second on the ground at Navatkuli felt like a day outside the war zone."

Waidyaratna said that never had he experienced a similar threat to his life though he participated in scores of deadly missions during his career. Waidyaratna served the SLAF during Eelam War I and the first half of Eelam War II before retiring.

AVM Gurusinghe remembered the daredevil Navatkuli mission conducted under LTTE fire. Nothing could have been as difficult as flying into a particular place knowing well of intimidating enemy presence, AVM Gurusinghe said, adding that it was worse when the SLAF had to sustain the mission over several years. "During the Navatkuli mission several personnel on ground received injuries though the two helicopters escaped mortar fire."

Bell 212 carrying Wimalaratne, Gota hit

Waidyaratna said that the SLAF had to deploy all its assets round the clock in the Jaffna peninsula, the main theatre of operations in the run-up to Operation Liberation in late May 1987. In fact, the SLAF had perhaps two Bell 212 helicopter gunships plus six or seven choppers deployed for the first phase of Operation Liberation aimed at liberating the Vadamaratchchy division in the Jaffna peninsula. The Jaffna peninsula comprises Vadamaratchchy, Thennamaratchchy and Waligamam. Jaffna town is situated in Waligamam.

Waidyaratna recollected small arms fire puncturing his Bell 212 carrying the then Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne (killed in a mine blast at Araly point, Kayts Island on Aug. 8 1992), the then Major Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and two or three other officers, probably from the First Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (I GR). The Bell was on its way to Valvettiturai. Waidyaratna said that he had no option but to return to the Palaly air base after making an emergency landing at Valvettiturai.

During Vadamaratchchy operation, Waidyaratna and Romesh Mendis (now retired) operated the two gunships. The Second Lieutenant Shavendra Silva (currently Sri Lanka’s Deputy Permanent Representative in New York). Silva holds the rank of Major General and was the first Commander of the celebrated 58 Division) reminisced of his evacuation from the battlefield by Romesh Mendis (now retired), in early June 1987. A bleeding Silva, at that time leading a platoon of I GR troops, survived though he had suffered severe chest injuries.

Waidyaratna said that it would be important to examine the difference between the Bell 212 helicopter gunship and the Mi 24 acquired in 1996. "Although a range of guns as well as rockets had been available for Bell 212s, they weren’t dedicated gunships such as Mi 24s. But, under extremely difficult conditions with available assets, we performed a challenging task. Among the armaments available during my time were forward firing guns and a five zero operated by the pilot as well as rockets. And there were two gunners armed with different calibre weapons depending on the requirement."

Early days

Like pilots of his vintage, Waidyaratne, who had joined the SLAF as a cadet in September 1979 would never have thought of having to fight a ruthless enemy a few years later. Shirantha Goonetileke (killed in a missile attack on April 29, 1995 over the Jaffna peninsula), the younger brother of former Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke, was in Waidyaratna’s batch.

Waidyaratna was promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer in 1980 and Flying Officer in late 1981. He recalled Gotabhaya Rajapaksa intervening to control rampaging soldiers, following incidents at Nagaviharaya. Rajapaksa didn’t mince his words when he ordered troops to behave whatever the provocation as they had been trained to fight terrorists and not to target civilians. According to Waidyaratna, Rajapaksa had been with a Company of I GR troops stationed at the Alfred Duraiappa stadium at that time. "The living conditions were harsh and all, officers and men alike underwent the same."

Secret conference

When Eelam War II erupted during the second week of June 1990, the then Brigadier Denzil Kobbekaduwa was at Boossa. Squadron Leader Waidyaratna represented the SLAF at the Joint Operations Command (JOC) at Flower Road. As soon as Brigadier Kobbekaduwa was ordered to move to Kondavattuwan, Ampara to spearhead security forces operations against the LTTE, he sought the immediate transfer of Waidyaratna as the Air Coordinator in charge of the area. After being there for about two weeks, Waidyaratne returned to Colombo and was told by the then Director Operations, Air Commodore Oliver Ranasinghe to take up position at the JOC.

The country was in crisis due to rapidly deteriorating situation in the Jaffna peninsula, as well as the Vanni mainland. Almost all bases in the two sectors were under siege with the LTTE making a desperate bid to overrun the Dutch-built Jaffna Fort, where a group of soldiers attached to the Sixth battalion of the Sinha Regiment (6 SR) were under tremendous pressure.

While being at the JOC, Waidyaratna received a directive from SLAF headquarters to report for an emergency meeting. Waidyaratna said: "As I walked into the conference room, I realised the significance of the meeting chaired by SLAF Chief the then Air Vice Marshal Terrance Gunawardena. Present at the meeting were many senior officers including the then Squadron Leader Roger Weerasinghe (killed in a missile attack on April 28, 1995 over Palaly air base). I sat next to Roger. As I was considered an authority on the Jaffna peninsula, the SLAF chief called me to explain the situation at the Jaffna Fort with special emphasis on possible SLAF intervention there."

The SLAF had been under pressure to evacuate the wounded from Jaffna Fort for want of an overland route to the base. By then, the LTTE had taken the upper hand in the Jaffna peninsula and the Vanni mainland with the army losing overland access to all bases. Although some other bases had been in a far worse crisis, the then government felt that its failure to save those trapped in the Jaffna Fort would cause a debilitating political setback and hence pressure was brought to bear on the SLAF to act.

Waidyaratne said two helicopters could land in the Jaffna Fort, though simultaneous landings couldn’t be carried out. Pointing to a large picture of the Jaffna Fort displayed in the conference room, Waidyaratna went on to explain the circumstances under which two helicopters could sneak in and then swiftly take off. During tea break, Waidyaratna had an opportunity to speak to Roger Weerasinghe, who had been the senior most helicopter pilot stationed in Palaly at that time.

Waidyaratna accepts challenge

Waidyaratna promptly accepted the challenge when Weerasinghe inquired from him whether he was prepared to land within the ramparts of the Jaffna Fort. Waidyaratna had requested Weerasinghe to join him in the mission. When Weerasinghe declined on the basis of his failure during an earlier attempt, Waidyaratna asked for the then Flight Lieutenant Ranil Gurusingha to be his co-pilot. Waidyaratna said: "I had immense confidence in him as we had worked closely together on previous mission."

Weerasinghe was from Air Chief Marshal Roshan Goonetileke’s batch and was second in experience only to veteran flyer, Sunil Cabral, at that time the Northern Zonal Commander. Cabral was based in Anuradhapura.

Having turned down Waidyaratna’s plea for Gurusinghe in case Weerasinghe didn’t want to join him on the mission, he was asked to team up with Avindra Mirando, who had previously pursued a career as a fighter pilot. Although Waidyaratna had flown with Mirando only once, that too outside the war zone, he accepted the challenge. Mirando held the rank of Flying Officer and was promoted to Flight Lieutenant.

The SLAF got down to planning the operation with the then political authority breathing down the neck of the top brass. As both Air Commodore Oliver Ranasinghe and Group Captain Dick Sally were not in Colombo at that time, the then Wing Commander, Anselm Peiris was placed in charge of the mission. Ranasinghe was in Teheran with the then State Minister for Defence Ranjan Wijeratne looking for new armaments, while Sally was at Minneriya.

Wing Commander Cabral, in overall charge of the operation, was expected to prepare Waidyaratna for the mission.

Siai Marchetti ‘fires’ message

Having discussed the operation in detail for almost 48 hours, the SLAF decided on the exact timing of the mission. Waidyaratna said: "We knew if we succeeded it would boost our morale. But, our failure was bound to have a catastrophic impact. We didn’t have an alternative but to go ahead with it at the risk of our lives. But, the success of our mission rested on alerting those who had been trapped inside the Jaffna Fort. As we felt our communications with the Jaffna Fort base had been compromised, those planning the mission discussed ways and means of sending a message to the senior officer in command of 6 SR troops there."

The then Director Army Operations, Colonel Wijaya Wimalaratne issued a directive in writing ordering the 6 SR commander to prepare to evacuate the wounded as planned by the SLAF. But the SLAF faced the daunting task of getting Wimalaratne’s message to the Jaffna Fort camp. Finally, on the set, Jaffna Fort was told to expect a ‘bird’ dropping something. Had the LTTE listened, it would have thought the SLAF was planning another major drop of supplies. Instead, the then Flight Lieutenant Priyantha Adikaram, flying an Italian built Siai Marchetti aka SF 260, fired an empty rocket containing Wimalaratne’s message. The then Squadron Leader Vajira Perera, engineering officer devised the strategy.

Waidyaratna recalled the role played by another engineering officer, Group Captain O. D. N. L. Perera, as well as Jayalath Weerakkody and Roshan Goonetileke in operations.

Waidyaratna declined to launch the rescue mission from Anuradhapura. Instead, he felt comfortable in mounting the raid from the Palaly air base, the nerve centre of all air operations in the northern region at that time, though the Northern Zonal Commander was based in Anuradhapura. Having finalised the operation, Waidyaratne went home while Roger Weerasinghe flew to Palaly to examine the situation, particularly to gauge the first light, on the day of the operation.