In 1978, I was commissioned in the Sri Lanka Air Force as a volunteer officer. After a month of rigorous training at the Diyatalawa combat training unit, I was assigned to the Regiment of the Air Force Base at Katunayake, Sri Lanka’s largest air base. The Regiment is the ground combat unit of the Air Force. In addition to flying squadrons, the base also had administrative, engineering, logistical, supply, and other units, along with a hospital.
The base is on a large coconut plantation, and sits next to Sri Lanka’s international airport, which was built long after the base was established. The two runways – of the air force and the international airport’s – ran parallel. The sound of jetliners landing and taking off was noisy and was a nuisance at night. I was given a room at the officers’ mess and meals were served at the dining room, which also had a bar.
I reported to the Regiment Unit every morning and hung around with little to do. Most afternoons, I took a nap after lunch. Because home, where my wife and son lived, was only about an hour by train, I only stayed at the base overnight when I was the duty officer. (More about that later.) After a tough, month long training, and being fighting fit, the routine was an anti-climax. Perhaps I expected too much; the fact is, peacetime armed forces have little to do on a day-to-day basis.
Katunayake had been a Royal Air Force base till 1957. Well laid out, solidly built, it still retained signs of the impeccable British touch even twenty years later. During RAF days, even the non-commissioned officers’ family quarters had carpeted floors, I heard, and during my time the quarters of senior officers were well equipped and comfortable. But, the tropical weather and poor maintenance had caused a visible deterioration.
About once a week, I was the base duty officer for a 24-hour period. The duty officer was in charge of the guards on duty, and could conduct inspections at any time of day or night. The following morning, I would submit a written report to the CO of the Regiment about the previous day’s happenings. Often, there was little to report. My last tour was around 11pm, and I liked to do it with a foot patrol consisting of enlisted men – they were called aircraftman (AC) and leading aircraftman (LAC) in the air force – along with a corporal and a sergeant. The walk, in the cool of the night, was enjoyable because I got to chat informally with the men. Most of them were village lads, away from home for the first time, and I was curious about how and where they had grown up. Late at night, the base had a quiet feel of a coconut plantation, which in reality it was.
All that routine came to a shattering end on November 15, 1978. That night, in the midst of a massive thunderstorm, I had taken a Land Rover to do the rounds. As I was returning to the officers’ mess, around 11.45pm, I watched a huge aircraft nearly aborting its landing on the airport runway. Then, as I sat down for a cup of tea, I was told about the crash of a passenger airliner not far from the base, and I quickly caught a ride to the crash site and saw a sight that will stay in memory all my life.
The aircraft had crashed into a coconut grove and the fuselage was on fire, with charred bodies still strapped to the seats and beyond help. The tail section had split from the fuselage and was standing at a 450 angle. Fire engines were parked on a side, unable to do more. The glow from the fire lit up the charred coconut trees and the faces of the airmen and other rescue personnel. Everyone was silent, shocked and helpless at the scene before them.
On seeing me, a sergeant came running saying “Sir koheda hitiye, api call karanawa, call karanawa” (Sir, where were you, we have been calling and calling). I didn’t know what he meant.
My friend Eksith Peiris, the 6’6” leader of the air force’s commando unit, had been among the first to arrive, and told me that he had rescued a number of passengers from the tail section. According to Google, the DC 8 aircraft, chartered from Icelandic Airlines, had been taking returning Haj pilgrims from Saudi Arabia to Indonesia. Of the 262 passengers and crew, 183 died and 79 survived, some with severe injuries.
No civilians were killed, but I knew the locality and realized that a worse disaster could have occurred. Not far from the crash site is the village of Kimbulapitiya, where the making of firecrackers was a cottage industry. Every home had a stock of explosive gunpowder.
I later learned why I had been repeatedly called after the crash. The Regiment had a jungle rescue unit, set-up after a previous air crash at Maskeliya, with equipment such as axes, ropes, ladders, and the key to the supplies depot was with the duty officer. But, I had not been given a key, did not even know about the jungle rescue unit. Because they couldn’t contact me – I was in the Land Rover in the midst of a thunderstorm, and this was long before cell phones – they had broken in and taken the equipment.