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Grounded in history

The Sri Lanka Air Force Museum in Ratmalana invites you to take wing into the distant past

By Ruwanthi Herat Gunaratne

Khaki coloured uniforms of yesteryear
Khaki coloured uniforms of yesteryear

Christmas Eve, 1952. The tinkle of cutlery and a buzz of conversation fill the air. The occasion is a grand dinner at the Officers' Mess of the Royal Ceylon Air Force Base in Katunayake. On the menu; Fried Fillet of Seer with Lime, Mushroom and Butter Sauce, Roast Turkey and Chipolatas. Swirls of cigarette smoke rise up toward the ceiling. The officers and their wives seem to sparkle.....

The wind whips my face and I stumble back to reality. The year is 2002 and I am at the Sri Lanka Air Force Museum in Ratmalana. The document in my hand is an old menu card left over from that night, fifty years ago. One of many mementos that were part of the history of this organization.

The Sri Lanka Air Force, the youngest military establishment in Sri Lanka now boasts a well-maintained museum within the boundaries of the base at Ratmalana. The menu card is one of the many exhibits.

Pucara-Fighter aircraft. Pix by J. Weerasekera
Pucara-Fighter aircraft. Pix by J. Weerasekera

Located by the side of the airport, there are no pristine white buildings adorning the museum grounds. Instead, the exhibits and all their secrets lie in four old, disused hangars, now redone to house them.

The atmosphere in and around the museum is unique. The wind hums softly, while aircraft from the nearby airport whiz past as we watch in fascination.

Preserving their aircraft is vital for the Air Force. Initially, this was done at the base in Katunayake, where aircraft that had exceeded their flying hours were carefully maintained, not as exhibits but as proud members of the organization. It was in 1985 that the idea of making these aircraft museum exhibits came up. Preservation of aircraft comes under the Directorate of Aeronautical Engineering and the then Commanding Officer of the Museum is incidentally now its Director, Air Vice Marshal Lal Perera.

"We could boast only of four discarded aircraft and a plot of marshy land - it's through sheer hard work and dedication that the museum is what it is today," he reminisces. After the initial plans were laid, it was only in 1993 that the museum was officially declared open.

KA 2 helicopter landing on McCallum Road - April 2, 1976
KA 2 helicopter landing on McCallum Road - April 2, 1976

Until very recently, few members of the public could view this great collection of vintage aircraft. It was under the present government's 100-day programme that the museum saw new light. On March 20, the Aircraft Preservation and Storage Unit of the Sri Lanka Air Force was reopened amidst great fanfare to all visitors.

"The response has been great," says Air Marshal J. Weerakkody. "The number of schoolchildren flocking to see the museum is astounding."

The main hangar holds some of the oldest aircraft in the Air Force. Though each aircraft looks new, they have all been part of this organization for many years. By the side of each is a placard giving information. A Dakota, 'a true workhorse' which performed a 'yeoman's service' to the country looms over the other aircraft. A Pazmany PL2, the first aircraft manufactured by the Air Force occupies another corner.

Another interesting exhibit is a Tiger Moth - which had been in service during the early 1950s. This now pristine aircraft which was acquired by the SLAF in 1982 in a dilapidated state was completely restored and rebuilt by the Aircraft Engineering Wing at Katunayake. The Tiger Moth takes pride in being among the few serviceable of its type in the world today.

Each aircraft has a story to tell. Next to the Dakota is a Beechcraft Super 18 which was acquired by the SLAF from the Survey Department. It was last flown at the museum opening in 1993.

The most valuable of the exhibits is a Boulton Paul Balliol manufactured in the United Kingdom. The Royal Ceylon Air Force, as it was then called had purchased a total of nine aircraft in 1954. Incidentally, the only two surviving Balliols in the world are both part of the SLAF collection. One is exhibited in the museum and the other at the Diyatalawa Air Force Base.

Right outside the main hangar lies a Pucara fighter aircraft, the latest addition to the museum.

A marked path leads visitors to the next attraction. A lush garden which is the 'Open Air Display Area'. The aircraft exhibited here are open for viewing. The guide whom the museum provides at no extra fee acts the part of an old field marshal - baton in hand, decidedly firm but gentle. The museum has 85 personnel and each visiting group can ask for a guide.

Another Dakota, a Hunting Percival Jet Provost and a De-Havilland 104 decorate the path leading to the first hangar. Groups of schoolchildren who visit the museum gaze eagerly into the cockpits of these aircraft that once adorned our skies, attempting to catch a glimpse of the past.

The first hangar houses smaller aircraft, among them the Siai Marchetti, the famous De Havilland Chipmunk and the MiG 15. A passage on the side is lined with photographs of various historical events. Air Force Commanders past and present gaze back at visitors, as do the first pilots, first aircraft and the first helicopters. Here too is a photo of Arthur C. Clarke and the Apollo 12 astronauts at the SLAF Base in Katunayake in 1970.

Another interesting photograph is that of a KA 26 helicopter landing on McCallum Road in 1976. There's also one of a flawless formation of Chipmunks flying in tribute to Adam's Peak. AVM Paddy Mendis, the second Ceylonese Commander of the SLAF and also the youngest commander to take office says that the Chipmunks were brought to Sri Lanka in early 1951 and were the founders of the fleet. "These were the aircraft I trained in - it's a fantastic feat to restore them this way."

Outside once again and a look at a few other aircraft and the Decca Airfield Radar Antenna, a bulky mass of red iron, waving in the wind. One cannot help wondering how many aircraft it would have led to safety during its lifetime.

The No: 2 Hangar, the third of the four main buildings houses vintage helicopters and exhibition stalls of the various other directorates of the SLAF. The booth of the Directorate of Electronic and Telecommunications Engineering boasts an array of equipment with the first telephone exchange used at the base in China Bay taking centrestage. Adjoining this is a Flight Simulation Area where visitors can experience the joys of actually handling a aircraft on their own. Starting this week there will also be live projections at each of the hangars on Aviation History and other such subjects.

The Air Force does not simply comprise aircraft and more aircraft. The organization is a culmination of various fields. The next booth was that of the Directorate of Health Services. The first X'ray machine, a few of the snakes that have been found at bases through the years and needless to say caused havoc are also to be seen.

The helicopters that are the main focus of this hangar seem bulky and out of place compared to their sleek cousins placed outside. The Dragonfly, the first helicopter to enter the Royal Ceylon Air Force, the 'Belle of the Ball' in its time is also on display.
Another interesting exhibit here is a helicopter completely stripped down. Our guide patiently worked the engine showing us exactly how a helicopter flies.

The final hangar contains the least expected, a collection of ground force vehicles used in the Air Force. Occupying its own corner is an ancient Mercedes Benz, the official vehicle of the first Commander of the Air Force. It still looks as good as new.

The evolution of uniforms in the Sri Lanka Air Force is presented too. Unbelievable as it may seem, the uniforms of the first officers of the Air Force were khaki in colour. According to AVM Lal Perera, the tropical uniform of the Royal Air Force was khaki and we immediately adopted it after independence. But as time passed and the Royal Ceylon Air Force became the Sri Lanka Air Force, the blue that is now synonymous with the SLAF took its place.

My visit almost over, I walk into what was previously a marsh. This area has been converted into two sections, a play area for children and a patch of green grass to lie on and recollect those glory days.

During the past 51 years of its existence, the Air Force has gone from being the smallest military outfit in the country to a fighting force. The neatly documented and lovingly preserved exhibits at the museum tell many a story of its transition.

Another flight takes off. Standing on the boundary between the museum and the airport I glimpse the past, the present and the future simultaneously. It is breathtaking.

The Sri Lanka Air Force Museum is situated at the Ratmalana Air Force Base adjoining the Ratmalana Airport.

It is open to the public every day except on Sundays, Wednesdays and Public Holidays.It permits 20 school groups daily. For group visits fax the Commanding Officer Squadron Leader A. Wijesiri on 632790.