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Mirror Life - Tue Apr 17 2005


Living in the clouds

Capt. Rambukwelle (extreme left ) after disembarking an Air Lanka flight with the First Officer and cabin crew.


Enthralling hands - on experiences of a SriLankan Airlines pilot/ captain both on and off the air

By Ravi Ladduwahetty
He is a strange temperamental paradox. Despite being an affable disposition and radiant countenance, he has been living in the clouds for the past 18 years. He has to. He is a pilot.

For SriLankan Airlines Senior Pilot and Captain Nimal Rambukwelle, flying has been a childhood passion, the profession being in his chromosomes. His father Anil was Sri Lanka's first Jet Captain who flew the Air Ceylon's DC 3 and Avro and the Trident to Singapore, Bangkok and Chennai.

Nimal was trained at the Royal Air Force base at Begin Hill, Kent at 22 after primary and secondary education at both S. Thomas College and Royal College. He joined SriLankan as a second officer in 1987, promoted as First Officer in 1990 and Captain in 1996.

Ready to fly
Capt. Rambukwelle is ready to fly. He is now at the SriLankan Airlines Flight Operations Department at Katunayake, an hour prior to departure on a flight to London. He checks the weather, the route and the fuel. There is a telex update where the weather conditions right up to London 30 minutes. Then there is the CAVOK check as well. (CAVOK is the acronym for Ceiling and Visibility OK) depicting ideal weather conditions for landing at Heathrow.

There is also a NOTAMS check, another routine check, to ensure clarity of the flight path. Certain routes are embargoed in instances of VVIP movements. (For instance, if President Chandrika Kumaratunga is flying from the President's House to Parliament grounds on Independence Day, commercial aircraft are forbidden to fly that route. There could be such movements in other parts of the flight path as well).

Standing outside an A 340 Airbus which was on order for the nationaln carrier
prior to painting at Toulouse where he was there for training to fly the aircraft

Now it is time to embark. All passengers are seated. All external checks prior to boarding. Then, cockpit checks. The London flight is required to have around 75,000 kgs of fuel, while the Bangkok flight needs a mere 20,000 kgs due to closer proximity. The maximum gross weight of the Airbus A 340 is 260,000 kgs while net weight should be 178,000 kgs. The gross weight of the short distance flight are around 180,000 as the fuel weight is less. It is also imperative that the fuel has to be dump fuel to the landing height so that the aircraft would be at below maximum landing weight.

Then the engine pressure ratios are checked and it varies from the temperature and altitude of the destination. For instance, Katunayake is at 20 feet above Mean Sea Level while Zurich is at 1400 feet. The minimum oil pressure should be 13 pounds per square inch.

It is now time for Air Traffic Control clearance and taxiing. The Airbus A 330 has two Rolls Royce Engines while the A 340 Aircraft has 4 CDM engines. He reaches for the four master switches of the four engines, which droning at speeds at 22.7% of the total, depending on the altitude and the ground temperatures which are computer generated. The aircraft is taxied off the runway at the time all engines are stabilised and between 10 and 30 knotts. Power is provided for take off, climb and cruise.

The aircraft is lifted at the pre-determined speed, based on the performance manual. The pilot non - flying calls the pilot flying when the speed has reached for lift off which is at between 140 and 165 knotts. The pilot flying lifts the aircraft from the control columns and when airborne, the landing gear (wheels) are retracted.

If the captain feels that the aircraft is not safe at the time of take off ( which is Velocity 1) and if the speed of the aircraft on the runway, he would have to continue the takeoff. Otherwise, the aircraft would not have the distance remaining to stop safely and an overrun could occur.

The London route
The 11 hour flight would cruise over the southern tip of India over Madurai and Trivandrum, the Indian Ocean and Arabian seas over Muscat. Then, it is Iranian air space entering Turkey from the East. The aircraft moves towards the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, Hungarian capital of Budapest and Bucharest, Romania's capital. It is Vienna in Austria and Germany's Frankfurt, Belgium's Maastrich. Then, it is over the English Channel and north of the White cliffs of Dover towards Lambourne where there will the radar guide towards landing at London's Heathrow International Airport

Emergency landings
There have been three emergency landing in his career. Emergency landings are done and the pilot has to be agile to execute it manually as the computers will show the problem. There was an instance where one of the four engines of the A 340 was unserviceable and the aircraft had to emergency land at Abu Dhabi which was the most appropriate for maintenance. The passengers were disembarked and flown to London on another aircraft while the aircraft was ferry flown to Colombo.

The second instance had also been also on a London flight where there was a passenger suffering from cardiac arrest while flying over Zurich. There was a doctor on board the flight and Heathrow allowed an emergency landing on a priority basis.

Father Anil Rambukwella (extreme right) standing outside Beach Craft E185, a survey flight used by the Survey Department for aerial maps.

Another interesting landing that he made was at the Kaithak Airport in Hong Kong where it had to descend a hill which had the measuring equipment and the Instrument Landing System in the aircraft at a pre-published system. Capt. Rambukwella had to do a right angled ( 90 degrees) turn to the right. If the Hong Kong Airport authorities did not see it due to the low clouds and the heavy rain which is not unusual for Hong Kong, the aircraft would have crashed into the mountain! Otherwise, it was mandatory for the him to start climbing higher.

One of the most interesting flights that he has done soon after qualifying was been a flight on a single engined Cessna 150 from Kent to Toulouse in France with colleague Richard Reynolds, a British Airways Concorde pilot today. The cycle was concluded when he had to return to Toulouse for the training in the Airbus aircraft A 320 in 1992, A 340 in 1994 and A 330 in 1999.

One of his saddest days was during training in the A 340 in Toulouse. It was a test flight which was carried on an A 330 where the pilots aboard that aircraft were to subsequently to train Sri Lankan pilots and Capt Rambukwella had been asked how to reach Kandy. The test aircraft had crashed and the entire crew died.

Favourite pastime
He said that he enjoyed flying to all SriLankan Airlines destinations. Sometimes, he gets bored during the long haul flights. He revealed that what he enjoyed most at that time was filling the Daily Mirror Crossword puzzle!

VIP flights
Nimal has also been flying Sri Lankan VIPs. It has been twice with President Chandrika Kumaratunga to Male on April 11, 2000 and Chennai on April 7, 2003.

Others had been former UN Under Secretary for Disarmament, Jayantha Dhanapala, from Frankfurt. Then it was UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister from London in 2002 and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar from Kuwait to Colombo where both of them had been seated in the cockpit in the instructor's seat.