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Paulis Appuhamy – The Sarong Pilot

Barefoot Pilot with a hair knot

One morning in August 1952, a shy, nervous man arrived at the Ceylon Air Academy at Ratmalana Airport for his first flying lesson. Aged in his mid-forties, he was considerably older than most other would-be flyers. But that was not the only thing unusual about this man. Speaking Sinhala only, he was attired in the traditional garb of the unsophisticated village mudalali: shirt, coat and sarong, with hair tied at the back of his head in a konde (knot).

Almost without exception, the world of private flying was then populated by more ‘refined’ folk from wealthy aristocratic families, educated at so-called ‘good’ schools. So, not surprisingly, this aspiring aviator and his ‘country bumpkin’ demeanour attracted disbelieving stares and derisory comments from sundry onlookers. Who, some sniggered, did this sarong-clad gamarala with a konde think he was by climbing into the cockpit of a trainer aircraft, the hallowed preserve of only the rich and well-bred?

But even if Attanagalley Wickramarachchi Millawalage Don John Paulis Appuhamy understood such comments, he pretended not to hear. He was, after all, made of sterner stuff. One day not long before that August morning, Paulis Appuhamy (also nicknamed ‘Ukku Mahathmaya’) went to Ratmalana Airport with his eldest son Vijitha Kumara, who wanted to watch the aeroplanes taking off and landing. Soon, Paulis became fascinated by the thought of flying those machines, and diffidently approached one of the flying school instructors. Speaking in Sinhala he said, “Sir, I would love to fly a ‘plane. Can you teach me?”

The instructor turned to him in surprise and replied, “But how can you fly with your hair in a konde?” In those days, instructors and student pilots wore close-fitting leather helmets with built-in headphones for communicating with each other in open-cockpit aircraft like the de Havilland D.H.82 Tiger Moth. Obviously, such headgear would be difficult, if not impossible, to fit over someone’s head with a tonsorial protruberance at the rear. However, Paulis was not dissuaded. Proudly caressing his konde he insisted, “I have no problem with my konde, sir, so I would still love to fly.”

But the instructor had further concerns. Apart from the added discomfort-not to mention safety hazards-that someone might encounter in a cockpit whilst wearing a loose, flowing sarong (instead of ‘streamlined’ flying overalls), it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a trainee who spoke no English to absorb instruction both in the air and in the classroom; not to mention reading the theory material that all pupil pilots had to study.

After taking the man on a brief joyflight, it soon became apparent to the instructor that this man of simple, ‘rural’ appearance was an enthusiastic individual who was determined to learn how to fly an aeroplane. Moreover, he seemed to have an intimate knowledge of technical matters. So, he was introduced to the flying school’s Chief Flying Instructor, Captain C.H.S. Amarasekera, and another instructor, Susantha (‘Sus’) Jayasekera. Unlike the other scoffers and ‘doubting Thomases’ at Ratmalana, Amarasekera and Jayasekera saw the potential in this callow villager and to their credit-decided to take a chance on teaching him to fly.

What they did not realize at the time was that Paulis Appuhamy, despite his ‘native’ bearing and inability to speak English, had a proud family heritage and was a talented and respected person in his own right. Born on December 21, 1905, in the Attanagalla area, as a young boy Paulis discovered an aptitude for all things mechanical. Despite his village upbringing, he was fortunate to attend Ananda College, Colombo, thanks to the support of a family friend, Mr. D.C. Senanayake.

Later, Paulis inherited his father’s bus transport business. At its prime, the modestly successful private company boasted a fleet of 36 buses operating to such destinations as Colombo, Kandy, Kurunegala and Hanwella.

Sometime around 1940, the prosperous ‘bus mudalali’ married a 17-year-old girl, many years his junior. Today, Paulis Appuhamy’s widow-who is alternatively known by her maiden name of Annette de Saram or Mrs. Wickramarachchi-remains in residence at the family’s Attanagalla walauwa ‘Siri Medura’, not far from the Colombo-Kandy Road. A formidable, intelligent lady with sharp memory recall, this matriarchal figure has her finger firmly on the pulse of all matters concerning the family’s estate and fibre-milling business.

Annette de Saram blushingly recalls the early days of her marriage: “Though we were well-developed physically I was only a child. Because of that, even after marriage, my father wanted me to stay with my parents for another two years.” In time, her union with Paulis Appuhamy was blessed with two sons and two daughters.

As his public transport business prospered, Paulis continued applying his mechanical talents to the operation of his buses, the family’s motor cars, as well as to the fibre-milling machinery. He also acquired a keen interest in, and talent for, photography, while building up an impressive collection of rare and expensive cameras.

With his mastery of mechanical matters, it was hardly surprising that when the time came for Paulis to learn flying, he took to it with ease. ‘Sus’ Jayasekera was impressed by the fact that this non-English speaking pilot wearing a sarong (attire hitherto unheard of in an aircraft cockpit!) with his hair in a konde proved to be a keen and competent pupil. For his part, Paulis Appuhamy is reported to have said:

ගුවන්යාන පැදවීමේදී මට කොණ්ඩය බාධාවක් උනේ නැහැ

While flying a ‘plane, my konde was not a hindrance.

Returning to ‘Siri Medura’ after his first flying lesson, he told his wife, “Menike, I’m not afraid to fly. I will somehow get my licence.” And indeed he did. After the usual course of instruction, during which he sometimes flew with bare feet on the rudder bar (pedals)-another unconventional practice, A.W.M.D.J. Paulis Appuhamy was issued with Private Pilot Licence No. 139, on October 5, 1953. Faithful to Sinhalese custom, he presented his instructor with a bulath atha (betel leaf sheaf) as a mark of gratitude and respect on that momentous occasion.

After gaining more experience, Paulis progressed from the Tiger Moth biplane to the Academy’s newly-acquired and more advanced de Havilland DHC-1 Chipmunk monoplane. Now qualified to carry passengers, he would often take his son Vijitha Kumara on joyflights. One day, he lost his way but had the good sense to make a precautionary landing at the Puttalam (Palavi) airstrip. Just as the people at Ratmalana Airport were preparing to send a search aircraft, Paulis and his son returned in the Chipmunk, much to the relief of everybody, not least his wife Annette.

But Mrs. Wickramarachchi continued to worry about her husband’s new love affair with airplanes. Her concern was not eased when she witnessed the fiery, fatal crash of a Tiger Moth one day when she had accompanied Paulis to Ratmalana for his lesson. Yet, she remained supportive of his aviating activities, and in 1953, at a special function for Academy pilots who had made their first solo flights, Annette de Saram was chosen to greet the chief guest, Sir John Kotelawala (then Minister of Transport & Works; later Prime Minister of Ceylon), with a bulath atha.

Although Paulis Appuhamy enjoyed his freedom as a private pilot, he did not neglect the running of his bus company. But later, he gradually scaled down his aeronautical pursuits and, around 1954/55, eventually stopped flying altogether.

On January 1, 1958, all private bus companies in Ceylon were nationalised by the Bandaranaike government, to form the Ceylon Transport Board (C.T.B.). Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, whose ancestral estate in Horagolla is also in the vicinity of Attanagalla, had been friendly with Paulis Appuhamy since their younger days. But the sudden loss of his family bus transport business-for which he received no compensation-was a bitter pill for Paulis to swallow, and his relationship with the Prime Minister was soured as a result.

Around 1963 Paulis Appuhamy suffered a stroke, and continued to battle its debilitating effects for another ten years. He passed away on February 23, 1973. Today, even in death Paulis is revered with affection and pride by his widow and their children-not least for creating Sri Lankan aviation history by successfully rising above prejudice and discouragement to become the nation’s first (and probably to this day the only) non-English speaking, sarong-clad, konde-wearing private pilot.

Credit – Sunday Times, Aviation Centenary Sri Lanka, Think Worth

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