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Air Ceylon

The first flag carrier airline, Air Ceylon (IATA code: AE) was formed in 1947. The state-owned airline began operating domestic flights using Douglas C-47 Dakota aircraft. International services began two years later in 1949 with Douglas DC-4 planes. It was a four-engine propeller-driven aircraft developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company in the USA.

Air Ceylon operated international services in cooperation with multiple foreign airlines, including Australian National Airways (ANA; 1949-1953), KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (1956-1962), Britain’s overseas flag-carrier BOAC (1962-1972) and UTA French Airlines (1971-1976).

The Second World War ground to an awful end with the use of the atomic bomb in August 1945. Except for a brief scare in April 1942 when the Imperial Japanese Navy attacked the island, Ceylon had largely escaped unscathed from the terrible conflict.

At the helm was the dynamic Mr. (later Sir) John Kotelawala, then Minister for Transport and Works. Keenly air-minded, Mr. Kotelawala did much to foster private flying through the Aero Club of Ceylon in the 1930s, even finding time to qualify for a Student Pilot’s Licence. When war clouds loomed, he took an active role in recruiting young Ceylonese men as pilots with the Royal Air Force.

Britain, depleted by the war effort and having abruptly withdrawn from India shortly thereafter, were preparing to leave Ceylon as well. The Government of Ceylon, looking to build a new nation, decided to set up its own airline as part of this effort.

In 1947, with Independence a foregone conclusion, Kotelawala sought to raise the profile of the soon-to-be-independent nation by endowing it with its very own commercial air service. First, he appointed L. S. B. (Leslie) Perera to head the newly-created Department of Civil Aviation, and M. Chandrasoma, an experienced civil servant, as Perera’s Secretary.

Next, three war-surplus Douglas DC–3 Dakota aeroplanes were purchased. The DC-3s were all named after queens – Sita DeviViharamaha Devi and Sunethra Devi – a tradition which continued for some years.

The three aircraft, under the aegis of the Civil Aviation Department, were extensively used for pilot training and route proving duties. Joy flights promoted the notion of aviation as a viable means of local transport. The Dakotas also demonstrated their worth by operating emergency relief flights during the floods of August 1947.

In June 1947, at the suggestion of John Kotelawala, Viharamaha Devi flew to London to collect a valuable cargo of electoral registers for the coming elections. The historic, nine-day flight supplied further proof of what Ceylonese aviators, and the trusty DC–3, could accomplish.

On Wednesday 10 December, 1947, all this preparatory flying climaxed with the inaugural scheduled flight of the new airline, Air Ceylon. With Capt. Peter Fernando at the controls and a complement of 16 passengers, Sita Devi rose gracefully from Ratmalana runway soon after 8 a.m. and headed for Kankesanturai (Jaffna). After a brief stop there, the Dakota proceeded to Madras, returning to Colombo by the same route later that day.

Assisting Capt. Fernando on the flight deck were Capt. C.H.S. Amarasekera, First Officer Emile Jayawardena and Radio Officer John Vethavanam. The honour of becoming Air Ceylon’s first air hostess fell to Miss. Mavis Wijeratne. But this occurred through a twist of fate, as Miss. Wijeratne was employed by Air Ceylon solely as a receptionist at the time.

The air hostess designated to crew the inaugural flight took ill suddenly so Miss. Wijeratne was quickly substituted. After that single, inaugural flight, for which she earned a place in Sri Lankan aviation history, Mavis Wijeratne returned to her receptionist job, never to work as an air hostess again.

So began a proud tradition of commercial aviation in Ceylon which saw Air Ceylon achieve the distinction of one of the world’s safest airlines, never recording a single passenger fatality throughout its 32-year history.

Before long another DC-3, Sri Lanka Devi, was added to the fleet. Scheduled services aside, the fledgling airline also operated a variety of charter flights to far-flung parts of the globe. In 1948 history was created again when the first aircraft with an all Ceylonese crew to land in Australia arrived in Sydney with a party of Ceylon Navy personnel.

The same year Capt. Rex de Silva commanded a special flight to Burma (now Myanmar) taking the sacred Sanchi Buddha relics for exposition in Rangoon, Mandalay and Akyab.

Soon, the regular route network extended to China Bay (Trincomalee), Trichinopoly, Bombay and Karachi. Flights to the latter three cities and Madras were, technically, international services, although described as regional routes.

But Air Ceylon achieved genuine international, long-haul status when it entered into a partnership with Australian National Airways (ANA) in 1949. With technical and managerial support from ANA, Air Ceylon began operating a pair of Douglas DC-4 Skymasters from Colombo to London via Bombay, Karachi, Tel Aviv and Rome. Later the service was extended to Sydney, calling at Singapore and Jakarta.

The DC–4 Skymasters, big brothers of the DC–3, were re-registered CY-ACA and CY-ACB respectively and christened Laxapana and Ratmalana, taking their names from Ceylon’s first hydro-electric scheme and the birthplace of Ceylon aviation respectively.

After the association with ANA ceased in 1953, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines took over the Australian airline’s share in Air Ceylon. In 1956, with a Lockheed Constellation leased from KLM, Air Ceylon resumed international flights on what became known as the “Sapphire Service”, with Amsterdam a new destination.

The Constellation was dubbed Mahadevi, reviving the tradition of regal names. KLM updated the aircraft in 1958 with a larger version, the Super Constellation, which was named Soma Devi.

In November 1960, Soma Devi in turn gave way to a more modern Electra propjet, also supplied by KLM. The Constellation, Super Constellation and Electra all came from the Lockheed stable in Burbank, California, the same manufacturer that later produced the TriStar jetliners which formed the backbone of Air Lanka operations for many years.

In 1962 Air Ceylon parted company with the Dutch Airline and turned to the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) for support on its overseas operations.

Using BOAC Comet 4 jetliners, Air Ceylon commenced international services to London via Karachi, Cairo and Rome, and to Singapore via Kuala Lumpur. Later, BOAC replaced the Comet 4s with Vickers VC-10s on Air Ceylon’s international run.

In 1964, Air Ceylon took delivery of its first, very own turboprop, a Hawker Siddeley (Avro) HS 748. There was much excitement and fanfare at Ratmalana airport when the brand-new Avro arrived with Captains P.B. Mawalagedera and George Ferdinand in charge. It was followed in 1967 by another turboprop, an Aérospatiale Nord 262 from France. Unfortunately, the Nord proved unsuitable for local conditions, and was disposed of two years later.

Air Ceylon made an even bolder leap into the aeronautical big time in 1969, purchasing a Hawker Siddeley Trident jetliner. The Trident served an expanded regional network which ultimately stretched to Sharjah in the Persian Gulf.

Regional and domestic network

Air Ceylon also operated a regional network, initially using the DC-3s, and later Hawker Siddeley (Avro) HS 748 in 1964. This proved to be a capable and rugged workhorse, particularly for domestic flights. The operation was reasonably successful and expansion was in order. The government then purchased Nord 262, which proved unsuitable for tropical conditions and barely lasted two years in service, to be replaced later by a second Avro 748: a good example of poor decision-making leading to a significant financial penalty. 

My first airplane ride was also from Ratmalana to Palali with a group of my mothers school teaching staff who used their annual travel grant to purchase air tickets. I remember one ticket in 1965 was Rs 110. Still remember the air freshener smell inside the plane and the taste of the juice served in that 55 minute flight.

Sisira Jayasinghe

One of AE’s milestones was the inauguration of scheduled services to the Maldives Islands in 1967. This was to service the growing tourist demand to these idyllic islands and was initially an ad-hoc service using the venerable DC-3s. That destination has since grown into a tourism juggernaut and is today serviced by multiple wide-body flights a day from all over the world. 

The demise

In 1972 Ceylon became the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. That year also marked the termination of the Air Ceylon/BOAC liaison. Late in 1971 the Sri Lankan carrier had already joined forces with French airline UTA.

Becoming Air Ceylon’s fourth international partner in 25 years, UTA provided a Douglas DC-8 jet for the long-haul services. Originally operated by UTA pilots with Sri Lankan cabin attendants, the DC-8 was subsequently bought outright by Air Ceylon and flown with a 100 percent Air Ceylon crew.

This purchase was applauded as a breakthrough in Air Ceylon’s struggle to shed the shackles of foreign influence. Air Ceylon had, at last, come of age. As the last of the airline’s faithful DC-3s were phased out, a second Avro 748 was bought.

Sadly, around this time, the first signs began emerging that all was not well with the national carrier. Whispers of mismanagement, corruption and financial instability were rife. Authorities in Europe impounded a DC-8 for non-payment of fuel bills, and staff morale plummeted when international services were suspended towards the end of 1977. A reduced domestic and regional operation soldiered on valiantly with the Trident and two Avros.

Then, one morning in September 1978, Air Ceylon suffered a cruel blow. One of the Avros, Avro 748 4R-ACJ, just back from a trip to Jaffna, was parked at Ratmalana when a bomb ripped the aircraft apart, reducing it to a charred, twisted hulk. Miraculously no lives were lost.

By 1979 Air Ceylon was struggling to survive. The DC-8-43 had been leased from Templewood Aviation, which had earlier provided a Boeing 720. When the partnership with UTA was terminated, Air Ceylon purchased the DC-8-53 used by the French carrier. Several leased aircraft, including a Convair 880, a Boeing 720 and two VC-10s, were used at different times to bolster lift, but Air Ceylon proved unable to capture a fair share of the rapidly growing tourism market in Sri Lanka and the Maldives.

Changes in government led to much speculation about corruption, financial mismanagement and a litany of other accusations, which led to a Presidential Commission of Inquiry being tasked to investigate Air Ceylon.

One of the last Air Ceylon DC 8 aircraft flights from the UK on a stopover for refueling at Karachchi airport in September 1977 

A separate airline named Air Lanka was in the process of being set up by the new government. Air Ceylon with its proud fatality-free flying record of 32 years, quietly went out of existence in 1979.

On a positive note, it would be fair to say that the heritage established by the men, women and machines of Air Ceylon, over a period lasting more than three decades, laid the foundation for the new carrier, Air Lanka, which took Sri Lankan commercial aviation to newer, more exciting and technologically-advanced heights. But that’s another story.

Credit – Daily FT, Sunday Times, Wikipedia, ALKVA, Besley Jinendradasa, Nishanthi Kapurubandara, Sisira Jayasinghe, Darren C Krause, David Muller, Eshan Ferdinando, Vijitha Herath, Aviation Centenary Sri Lanka

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Clarence Wijewardena

Wattappola Bana Maduwa