Air Vice Marshal Mendis relinquished command of the Sri Lanka Air Force, on 1st November 1976. During AVM Mendis' command the SLAF had grown in manpower from 1,400 to 3,100 personnel, an increase of over 150%, occasioned largely by the requirements to counter the insurgency of 1971.
Air Commodore Harry Goonetileke became the fifth Commander of the Air Force on 1st November 1976. Air Vice Marshal Goonetileke's period of command saw the beginnings of some important reclamation work, in terms of restoring disused RAF air fields; a task that was pursued with great vigour by his successor AVM Dick Perera in later years. He also began the archival process that led in later years to the formation of the SLAF Museum and contributed greatly to SLAF sports particularly Rugby Football.
Another development in 1976, under Commander Goonetileke's
was the setting up of the Air Force Commando Unit headed by Flt Lt J Eksith Peiris - Flt Lt Peiris brother had just commenced the Commando Unit within the Sri Lanka Army, with impressive results.
SLAF detachments were established at Wirawila (1st July 1978), Vavuniya (1st August 1978) and Minneriya (20th November 1978). They went on to become fully fledged independent Bases and Stations, in later
During AVM Goonetileke's Commandship, only two aircraft were purchased - two Dauphin SA 365c helicopters for VIP transport duties. This reflected the return to normalcy in the island.
Another Engineering Feat
The Sri Lanka Air Force next embarked on a project that was to earn them many accolades. Perhaps begun under the commandship of AVM Paddy Mendis, in terms of preliminary discussions, the aircraft construction project began in 1979, around the time of a restructure in the Technical Maintenance Depot (TMD).
A decision was made to decentralize the TMD and as a result the Aircraft Engineering Wing, the General Engineering Wing and the Motor Transport Repair and Overhaul Wing were formed. With effect from 1st January 1979 Squadron Leader Jim Gunaratnam took command of the Aircraft Engineering Wing.
The Pazmany PL2 project made history in the SLAF. Squadron Leader Jim Gunaratnam and his team from AEW took charge of the project. The Pazmany was an aircraft designed by Laszlo Pazmany, a very successful aircraft engineer of Argentinian birth, but residing in the USA When the SLAF decided to build the Pazmany as an experimental exercise.
They found the insurgency had done them a favour, for there seemed to be plenty of 20 and 22 gauge material around, suitable for aircraft construction purposes. The Pazmany PL2 began to take shape; the complete frame was turned out at Katunayake. The engine specified in the specs was actually the 0-135 Lycoming. However, the Continental 0-200 engine was chosen - the same unit that powered the Cessna 150.
The Pazmany PL2 was built and ceremonially test flown at a passing out parade at China Bay in the distinguished presence of H.E. The President the late Mr J.R. Jayewardene. The Pazmany project gave rise to plenty of valuable research and expertise. Fabrication processes of fibre glass cowlings, panels, ducts, interior furnishings, fabrication of aircraft control cables and proof testing them, use of wax moulds for sheet metal processing - manufacture of precision aircraft components such as under carriage cylinders, axle mounts, main spars, longerons, etc, were all accomplished at the time.
The Pazmany and indeed the Riley Heron Conversion programmes imparted invaluable expertise to the SLAF. The AEW went on, in later years, to perform some prodigious work, in the finest traditions of aviation engineering, mostly for the Air Force, but also for international civilian operators.
The Mechanical Transport Depot became the Mechanical Transport, Repairs & Overhaul Wing on 1st January 1979. Its first Commanding Officer on that day was Sqn Ldr U. Wanasinghe. The MTR & O Wing handled the overhaul of all SLAF vehicles light, heavy, armoured and specialised. It also established MT cells for all vehicles allocated to Air Field Units. They also operate a Command Reserve of SLAF vehicles for deployment with the Commander's authority.
The General Engineering Wing was also born in January 1979. This was hitherto the General Engineering section of the Technical Maintenance Depot (TMD), which provided workshop surface finishing and ground support equipment repair facilities to all bases and units of SLAF. The GEW consists of the General Workshop, the Photographic Section, the Surface and Finishing Section, the Ground Equipment Section and the Armoury. Sqn Ldr A.P. Samarakoon was the first Commanding Officer of this Wing.
The Father of Air Force Rugby
AVM Harry Goonetileke was without doubt, one of the more obvious sporting Commanders the Air Force has seen over the years. Under his guidance, sports flourished and reached great heights. He was popularly called the father of Air Force Rugby and not without good reason! The Air Force team was placed in the B Division of the premier Rugby tournament in the country. He raised standards, groomed players and brought them into the A Division.
The Air Force Rugby team had the likes of Jeff Rutnam, Mohan Balasuriya, Tikiri Marambe, Nalin Silva, Rohan Gunaratne and Jeyer Rodriguesz in their ranks. All extremely fine players, all represented Sri Lanka at rugby. Flt Lt Mohan Balasuriya brought honour to Air Force Rugby when he was chosen to captain the Sri Lanka Rugby team. Interestingly, Rohan Gunaratne's is another remarkable story. He had never played rugby before joining the Air Force yet he learnt and mastered the game, to perform with great distinction and represent his country.
Commander Goonetileke captained the Air Force cricket team successfully in the Daily News Trophy tournament, where, in those days, matches were of a days duration. He successfully guided them through the transition from the Daily News Trophy tournament, to the Donovan Andree Trophy championship where the matches were played over 2 days. He also introduced a partial sponsorship scheme for Air Force sportsmen selected for National honours overseas, using Air Force non-public funds.
Another innovation during the late 70s was the introduction by Commander Goonetileke of Formation Flags with appropriate motifs for use at ceremonial functions. A Families Welfare Association (FWA) was formed to look after the interests of Air Force families. AVM Goonetileke's wife was the first President of the FWA. The FWA really became the forerunner of the Seva Vanitha movement, which was later established at National level. Branches of the FWA were set up in each formation, with the wives of Commanding Officers presiding over them.
Commander Harry Goonetileke gave great support to the setting up of the Ex-Servicemen's Association on 24th August 1980. The first dance of this Association was held at No. 1 Hangar at Katunayake on Christmas Eve 1980. In the year 2000 on the 49th birthday of the SLAF he was proudly elected its President a moment to cherish.
In 1976 a major international air disaster occurred in Sri Lanka. A passenger jetliner operated by the Charter Company Martinair crashed into the Seven Virgins mountain range. The Jungle Rescue Team of SLAF were despatched from Diyatalawa to carry out rescue operations.