In Memoriam: Gamini Gunatileka flies West to Another Life in the Skies

Capt Gihan Fernando, in Island, 30 December 2018 … where the title reads “Gamini Flies West”

A few days ago Capt. Gamini Gunatileka, flew west. He had a few initials ahead of his surname, but preferred to be known as Gamini. Gamini, fondly known as ‘GG’ or Capt. ‘GG’ in the flying circles, studied at Isipathana College, Colombo 5. Even from his young days he had been ‘plane crazy’. He joined the Flying Training School Ratmalana soon after leaving school. That was where I met him. Like for most of us, it was a long and arduous struggle for ‘GG’ to achieve his ambition of being an Airline Pilot in Air Ceylon. Learning to fly aeroplanes was relatively very expensive even in those days.

He was trained under the watchful eye of late Ravi Jayewardene among other instructors. In those days, the Flying Training School Ratmalana, the only civil flying school in town had only one serviceable HAL Pushpak aircraft most of the time or two aircraft, if the DH Tiger moth was also available. So training was protracted.

After earning the private pilots’ licence, from the Civil Aviation Department, the trainees were allowed to fly with each other, but only one pilot could log the time as ‘pilot in command’. There were many a time we flew together. In fact, when the time came for me to carry out a triangular cross country flight involving two stops at airports outside Ratmalana, as a requirement for my Commercial Pilots’ Licence (CPL), he flew as my ‘buddy’ in the HAL Pushpak to China Bay, KKS and Colombo. It was the first time such a long direct flight from KKS, direct to Ratmalana was attempted in the Indian made Pushpak without refuelling. We made use of the strong tail winds on the return flight. I remember the plan ‘B’ was to divert to Anuradhapura, if our calculations abeam Puttalam showed that we were short of fuel to fly to Ratmalana.

‘GG’ was soft spoken and always a people person. One could say that he was in the crowd, but was never of the crowd (unlike us pilot union types!) His friends were many, from all walks of life. A gentleman to the finger tips and rarely controversial. Won the hearts of all. He was a regular visitor at our home in the early days. When my eldest son was born, he gave him a very thoughtful gift of a Savings Book. Essentially he was a family man.

Although vacancies were available, there was a delay in recruitment to Air Ceylon. So after obtaining his Commercial Pilots’ Licence ‘GG’ joined Air Traffic Control and then Air Ceylon as an Assistant Flight Operations Officer. In 1979 when a large number of pilots were seconded to AirLanka, a vacancy occurred and he was able to secure a slot as First Officer (F/O) in Air Ceylon on the HS 748 twin turbo-prop aircraft. With the inevitable closure of Air Ceylon, after a short wait, he took a quantum leap as an F/O in the AirLanka Boeing 707 intercontinental jet. From there to the Second Officers seat in the Lockheed L 1011 Tristar.

In the mid-eighties he was trained in Dublin, Ireland to fly the Boeing 737 as F/O and on to the L 1011 as F/O. His first command was in the late eighties as a Captain on the B 737. From there on to the L 10 11 Tristar, Airbus A320, A340 and the A330.

When I moved to Singapore, we lost touch a bit. Yes, ‘GG’ worked as an Airline Captain. When you had to go to London, Paris, Rome or Frankfurt to visit your folks, it was ‘GG’ who took you there. When your brother was sick and had to be air-lifted to Singapore for that urgent operation ‘GG’ took him there. When your family went on holiday to Bangkok, you flew with him.

When your close relative suddenly died in Middle East, It was ‘GG’ who brought the mortal remains back to Colombo. When your kids went to university, it was ‘GG’ who flew them safely there. When Sri Lankan refugees had to be transported from Amman, Jordan to Colombo, during the Gulf War I, ‘GG’ was there.

Through it all ‘GG’ maintained a ‘low profile’ enjoying his chosen profession. He retired from flying about four years ago and lived quietly at Battaramulla. Saman, his wife and he did a lot of globetrotting afterwards. He had many friends around the world and his two daughters lived in Australia.

Then suddenly he was diagnosed with the big ‘C’ and was taken in for surgery and then ‘flew west’ within a month. (When fellow fliers pass away, we aviators say they have “gone west” on their last flight.)

“To fly west my friend, is a flight we must all take for a final check”

I hope there’s a place, way up in the sky,

Where pilots can go, when they have to die-

A place where a guy can go and buy a cold beer

For a friend and comrade, whose memory is dear;

A place where no doctor or lawyer can tread,

Nor management type would ere be caught dead;

Just a quaint little place, kinda dark and full of smoke,

Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke;

The kind of place where a lady could go

And feel safe and protected, by the men she would know.

There must be a place where old pilots go,

When their paining is finished, and their airspeed gets low,

Where the whiskey is old, and the women are young,

And the songs about flying and dying are sung,

Where you’d see all the fellows who’d flown west before.

And they’d call out your name, as you came through the door;

Who would buy you a drink if your thirst should be bad,

And relate to the others, “He was quite a good lad!”

And then through the mist, you’d spot an old guy

You had not seen for years, though he taught you how to fly.

He’d nod his old head, and grin ear to ear,

And say, “Welcome, my son, I’m pleased that you’re here.

“For this is the place where true flyers come,

“When the journey is over, and the war has been won

“They’ve come here to at last to be safe and alone

From the government clerk and the management clone,

“Politicians and lawyers, the Feds and the noise

Where the hours are happy, and these good ol’boys

“Can relax with a cool one, and a well-deserved rest;

“This is Heaven, my son — you’ve passed your last test!”

…………………..Author Capt. Michael J. Larkin

May Capt. ‘GG’ find the supreme bliss of Nibbana!  ………………..Capt. Gihan A Fernando

A NOTE from The Editor, Thuppahi

Captains Gamini Gunatilleka and Gihan Fernando are both total strangers; but I have been moved by this Felicitation in Adieu … and think the small circle of Thuppahi readers should be embraced by this tale and its uplifting moments. So, let us raise our glasses to these men of the skies around Lanka!

1 Comment

Filed under landscape wondrous, life stories, self-reflexivity, sri lankan society, travelogue, unusual people

One response to “In Memoriam: Gamini Gunatileka flies West to Another Life in the Skies

  1. Charles .Perera

    I met a Pilot- a Commander of the Air Force a Gunatillake if I remeber correct, in a Meditation Centre in Nilamba. I wonder whether it was this Gamini. He was a simple man he had some connection through marriage to S.D.Bandaranayake. If it was him I am happy I had known him; If not I apreciate this wonderful write up which is so moving coming from the heart of a friend. May he understand by experience the four Noble truths to attain the sublime state of Nibbana.Thank you Gihan Fernando.

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