The skies over Sri Lanka last reverberated to the roar of fast jet aircraft way back in the 1980's. Then it was the MIG 17 jets that represented the fast jet capabilities of the SLAF. Once the MIG's were decommissioned in 1980, no more jets were inducted to the fleet for quite some time. In 1991 the SLAF began fast jet operations again, with the acquisition of Chinese F7 jets in the fighter/ground attack category. The F series jets were Chinese produced derivatives of the Russian MIGs from the Mikoyan Guryevich design bureau.
With the influx of the jets, No. 5 Jet Squadron was formed on 1st February 1991 and was based at Katunayake. Its first CO was Sqn Ldr H.D. Abeywickrema. The role designated for the attack aircraft, the F7BS, was mainly close air support for ground operations, and on requirement, in interceptor and recce mode. In the year 1991 the SLAF inducted ten other aircraft in addition to the F series jets, viz. 9 Siai Marchetti SF260 Warriors and 1 AVRO.
Wings of War ...1992
The Air Force inducted only one aircraft in 1992. Yet this was a singularly important happening in the context of its attack capabilities.
Powered by twin turbo prop engines the Pucara was of Argentinian manufacture and was purpose built for counter insurgency operations. The two-seater Pucara also had the advantage of being able to accomplish short landing and take off and could operate to airfields with relatively rough terrain, as well. The arrival of the Pucara enhanced the ground attack capabilities of the SLAF quite significantly.
The strike-force of an F7
1992 showed a reduction in operational flying demands on the SLAF, though it supported twenty-eight operations of the Army. The main one, Operation Balavegaya 2 conducted over June/July, cost them a Y8 aircraft with 18 personnel on board.
Infrastructural and other Developments
Apart from the role it played in the air, the SLAF found itself committed on the ground as well in 1992. The Air Force was called upon to secure a section of the Main Supply Route (MSR) to Trincomalee, and to protect villages in the Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Ampara Districts. The SLAF deployed 70 Officers and 2,000 Airmen to meet this contingency. Most of this force was mustered from the SLAF Regiment but their numbers were bolstered from other ranks, such as technical and other trades. Although envisaged as a limited assignment, the ground commitment lasted much longer than anticipated. The Basic Trade Training School and the Advanced and Specialised Ground Training Unit were amalgamated on 20th January 1992 to form the Advanced and Specialised Trade Training School under its first CO Sqn Ldr W. Balasuriya. An Information Technology Unit was set up on 24th November 1992 in Colombo. The first CITO was Wg Cdr W.W.V. Perera. The ITU was tasked with the computerisation of Aircraft Maintenance and Logistics Functions. Eventually the ITU was to handle the computerisation of SLAF itself. Incidentally, the first computer had been introduced to the Air Force way back in 1985, when Wg Cdr Oliver Ranasinghe who was heading No. 4 Helicopter Squadron, acquired a PC from the Bell Company representative who was assisting the SLAF at the time.
Old Wings New Wings
The first three Mi-17 helicopter transports joined the fleet in 1993. The Mil Mi-17 tactical transport twin engine helicopter came to the SLAF inventory with an impressive pedigree. Of an extremely rugged design, the Mi-17 had been flying from the early 80's.
Dependable and battle proven with a significantly higher payload than the Bell 212/412s, the Mi-17 was soon to become an admired favourite of the SLAF, and a real work horse along with its cousin the Mi-24 attack helicopter, which joined the fleet later. Another three IA58 Pucara aircraft were also acquired, enhancing further the Air Force's ground attack capabilities.
The arrival of the Mi-17 helicopters prompted the formation of No. 6 Helicopter Squadron on 15th March 1993, at Katunayake. However, the services of the Mi-17 were felt to be too far away from the battle zones and the squadron relocated to SLAF, Vavuniya on 29th April 1993. Going retro , in a manner of speaking, Commander, Air Marshal Terry Gunawardena was able to complete the SLAF Museum, which was formally declared open by the Hon Prime Minister, D.B. Wijetunge on 3rd March 1993. This was also the day that the SLAF officially celebrated its 42nd Anniversary.
A rather unique if daring event took place at the opening ceremony. Wg Cdr J.L.C. Salgado, then attached to the Transport Squadron at Ratmalana climbed into the cockpit of a Beech Super 80 aircraft for the first time in his life, with the then CO of the AP & SU, Wg Cdr O.D.N.L. Perera as his co-pilot, and after going through the check list, proceeded to take off! He then executed some choice low level flying in celebration of the event! In the medical field a landmark event saw the appointment of Wg Cdr Y.K. Ratnayake as Commanding Officer of the Air Force Hospital, Katunayake. She was the first lady CO of the Hospital and the first lady CO to be appointed within the SLAF!
A Change of Command and other Changes!
1994 saw a change at the top at SLAF Air Chief Marshal Gunawardena retired on 16th February and was succeeded by Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe
On the 17th of the same month. Commander Ranasinghe's period at the helm of affairs yielded some important changes and developments.
Flying Operations and Fleet Enhancements
In 1994, No. 4 Helicopter Wing was split into two Squadrons namely 401 and 402. No. 401 Squadron took charge of operational flying requirements and pilot training, and was located at SLAF, Hingurakgoda. No. 401 Squadron had the Bell 212 and Bell Jet Ranger helicopters in its fleet. No. 402 Squadron remained at Katunayake and flew Bell 412 and Bell Jet Rangers, largely catering to VIP movement.
Another change was the repositioning of No. 5 Jet Squadron to China Bay, thus bringing the F7s closer to operational areas with the attendant benefits of quicker response to demands from the conflict zones. In 1994, another Pucara and three Mi-17 helicopters joined the SLAF. The Mi-17s went into No. 6 Squadron and at a total strength of six aircraft, began to provide yeoman service in the area of tactical transport, in the North and East. The SLAF carried out flying support actions for 20 missions in the North and East in 1994.
The latter half of 1994 saw the holding of Parliamentary and Presidential Elections in Sri Lanka. The SLAF provided its services in the areas of internal security and assistance to civil authorities during these elections. Air Force ground troops were also committed in the areas of Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Ampara. In Ampara, the Army relieved the SLAF force and their presence on the ground was no longer necessary. A little known part of Air Force life is the Printing Section, staffed largely in 1994 by airmen who had been so unfortunately disabled in the war.
This little unit had been busily producing the Guwan Sandeshaya a monthly magazine of Air Force news. In September 1994 the unit was provided with an Officer I/C and thus commenced regular training for all Airmen. The printing unit was improved in the ensuing years with a guillotine in 1995 and an enlarger in 1997. A colour lab also came into being and more airmen and women were added to the cadre.
Hostilities Resumed The new Government of the People's Alliance made their agenda known with a negotiated ceasefire and commenced further negotiations and discussions in a bid to resolve the conflict. The process began in January 1995. However, after 3 months, the talking ended and fighting began. The naval vessels in Trincomalee Harbour were attacked on 19th April. Thus began a particularly intense and bloody period in the war!