Air Ceylon’s First Flight to Jeddah in 1950

Elmo Jayawardena

This is an ancient story, most records are lost, buried or moth-eaten. Still, there is a lot remaining in the minds of men who heard how things happened and what was commercial flying like in its infant days in Ceylon.

The aeroplane popularly known as ‘Dakota’ had been the workhorse of most allied forces during the Second World War. I do not know how many DC-3s were produced during the war years but they sure were somewhere around 16,000, possibly more. The aircraft came in various models whilst the prototype remained the fundamental ‘Dakota’ flying machine. After the war ended most surplus DC-3s were converted to passenger-carrying aircraft. The new-born airlines popping up all over the world in ‘born again’ independent countries started their airline operations with secondhand military-used ‘Dakotas’.

On the 10th of December 1947, Air Ceylon took off from the Ratmalana Airport on its maiden international commercial flight to Madras via Jaffna, operated with a DC-3, placing our little island in the world map of aviation.

That was the beginning, then came the cautious expansion.

In these times the Haj pilgrims from Sri Lanka went to Mecca by travelling to Bombay and taking a flight from there. Some preferred the sea route from Colombo to Jeddah and then to Mecca by air or overland. As Air Ceylon tested its wings flying from Ratmalana to Jaffna and a few Indian airports, they began looking for new destinations. It was then that the Haj pilgrims negotiated with the National Carrier to charter a ‘Dakota’ to fly Muslim devotees from Ratmalana to Jeddah and back.

The commercial part of the matter was all-settled at the Airline head office and the task fell on the fledgling flight operations section to find a way to fly to Jeddah. The DC-3 was more than capable of the journey of course with multiple pit-stops for re-fueling and overnight stays. A fully loaded ‘Dakota’ weighing 26,200 Ibs could carry 21 passengers. Its fuel capacity was 822 gallons and its two Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp Radial engines drank 73 gallons per hour. The aeroplane had a ‘nil-wind’ range of approx. 1,500 nautical miles (nm) cruising at 6,000 ft. These were the performance data the flight crew had to work with, but there was a problem, a huge problem. None of the Air Ceylon crew had flown these desert routes. Their exposure was limited to India, and to make it worse the Flight Operations office had no charts of the air-routes that could take them from Ratmalana to Jeddah. They were ok up to Bombay, but beyond that was unknown and possible damnation.

There was no way to go from Ratmalana to Jeddah as the crow flies. The crew had to consider the range capacity of their ‘Dakota’ and make their flight plan. The answer was at the Katunayaka RAF base where they had all the necessary charts that covered the entire Middle Eastern sky. Post-war long-range operations were well-organised by the RAF and they very generously shared all the information for route planning with details of radio beacons for navigation and radio frequencies for en-route communication.

Air Ceylon was now equipped to make their flight plan. They worked out the route from Ratmalana to Bombay (840 nm) and then to Karachi (471 nm), to Salalah (RAF base in Oman by the Arabian Sea – distance 871 nm), then to Aden (583 nm) and finally to Jeddah (627 nm).

Night stops were planned in Karachi and Aden with accommodation for crew and passengers. Everything was ready to fly to the unknown destinations through unknown territory and an unknown sky.

When I flew to Jeddah from BIA in the 80s it was on state-of-the-art Tri- Stars. We sat in the cockpit and punched into computers our route and destination Jeddah. We took off and engaged the autopilot and the automation did the rest and took us on the planned route to King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah. Even with all the sophisticated equipment we carried it was difficult to spot the runway when approaching the airfield. Everything was dusty, brown and hazy; it was either radar vectors or the instrument landing system that brought us to touch down. I often wonder what it would have been to fly a DC-3 to that same airport in 1950. The route they flew and how they found the airfields and countered the 40-degree heat in un-airconditioned cockpits would have been nothing less than the zenith of professional ‘seat of the pants’ flying. Perhaps it may have been the romance of it too, the true essence of flying which modern day pilots like me would hardly know.

They took off from Ratmalana, 21 Haj pilgrims bound for Jeddah. The flight crew comprised Capt Peter Fernando the commander, Capt Emil Jayawardena the co-captain, Lionel Sirimanne the Radio Officer and G. V. Perera the Engineering Officer. Capt Peter was a veteran and the Flight Operations manager of Air Ceylon. Capt Emil was an ex-RAF ‘Spitfire’ fighter pilot who flew in the war, Mr Sirimanne and Mr Perera were experts in their allocated roles of communications and engineering. Off they flew, from Ratmalana tracking to Bombay where they stopped to refuel and give lunch for everyone. The next sector was to Karachi and as the sun went down in the Western sky, the ‘Dakota’ made its approach to land in Karachi’s Drigh Road Airport (presently known as Jinnah International). Now it was night-stop time and the entourage moved to the BOAC crew hotel called ‘Speedbird’ located right next to the airport. End of day one. So far so good, they had flown 1,311 nms staying in the sky the whole day. Even though the first day’s route was quite familiar the navigation would have been very demanding as there were only a handful of non-directional beacons (NDBs) to tune to and use as nav-aids to make course corrections. The crew depended a lot on topographical maps and cautiously calculated aircraft positions by dead reckoning. This was real hard work by any standard.

The next morning, they departed Karachi and headed to Salalah Airport in Oman located by the Arabian Sea. This was a RAF base and the ‘Dakota’ was stopping there to refuel before flying on to Aden. Nearing Salalah they noticed the ground below completely covered with a thick stratiform-type cloud that stretched like a sheet as far as the eye could see. To make the situation worse, the Salalah Airport NDB was not working and the control tower too was silent. Radio Officer Sirimanne kept trying to raise Salalah and repeatedly failed. By dead reckoning the crew knew they were somewhere near Salalah Airport but with the beacon not working and without a visual sighting they simply could not descend through the cloud cover. Salalah aerodrome had considerable amount of high ground in the vicinity and the ‘Dakota’ descending through the cloud layer without a visual sighting could possibly plough into a hill killing everyone.

The crew had no fuel to go anywhere other than Salalah and they circled above the cloud layer for a while hoping to see a break in the clouds. They kept calling Salalah and re-tuning the beacon without any success. That no doubt was a tight situation and if the truth be told a very tight situation. The pilots played their last possible trump. Their plan was totally out of the box, yet sound and safe. They flew south/east from the place they were hovering knowing they would now certainly be over the Arabian Sea. Then they slowly descended in cloud looking for the blue waters below. The plan was to get under the cloud base and fly above the water and make a 180 degree turn and fly towards land. These were experienced pilots who flew more with common sense and airmanship than fancy flight instruments. They were right. They broke cloud and saw the water and some boats too. Now they were safe from the rugged terrain. Then they turned back and saw land below the cloud and headed to Salalah approaching from the seaside.

The radio crackled and the beacon came alive and Salalah tower was calling them. The ‘Dakota’ was safe and they flew towards the NDB at the airport and made a safe landing in Salalah. Many a pilot could have panicked in a situation like this. What the ‘Dakota’ crew did by flying out to sea to find a safe way to descend was a class act, and in my humble opinion deserves to be remembered and reminded to others as a hallmark of the type of gutsy people who flew aeroplanes in the bygone days.

The RAF base had not received the departure signal from Karachi that a DC-3 was flying to Salalah. The skeleton staff at the airport had shut down the aerodrome and gone for a sea bath. While they were frolicking in the water they heard an aircraft circling above the cloud layer and knew some pilot was desperately trying to land in Salalah. The RAF staff ran ashore and got into their vehicles and raced to the airport. That is how the radio came alive and the beacon started working. This was 1950, such incidents did happen in aviation. The crew received a case of beer as a gift from the RAF boys and they took off again after refueling to Aden.

High frequency (HF) weather broadcasts were forecasting thunderstorms over Aden. The ‘Dakota’ had no radar unlike modern aeroplanes with colour screens to detect storm cells. The DC-3 pilots depended solely on their sight to carve a safe path weaving in and out of clouds to avoid weather. At night they went by the lightning flashes to stay away from thunderstorms. An old trick in flying DC-3 was to lower the landing gear if flying in bad weather. (I really can’t remember why, but we did it when flying ‘Dakotas’). The two pilots who were flying the Haj pilgrims were well-seasoned veterans who were a rare breed of aviators, so different to people like me who flew modern jets. We can only imagine their feats and marvel on how they survived in unfriendly skies in their unsophisticated flying machines which hardly had any automation.

The ‘Dakota’ arrived in Aden safely and the crew and passengers did their second night stop after a weary, event-filled day flying the unknown skies. Next morning, they flew the last leg from Aden to Jeddah, flying over the Red Sea. It sure must have been a pleasant trip of 627 nms. The ‘Dakota’ crew brought their 21 passengers safely from Ratmalana to Jeddah flying a total of 3,392 nms. The pilgrims said their good-byes and disembarked to take a local transport to go to Mecca.

The ‘DC-3 turned back and flew to Aden for another night stop. The return journey was in an empty aeroplane. That made it possible for the crew to fly direct to Karachi from Aden. The final night-stop was again at the Speedbird Hotel. The next day they flew to Ratmalana via Bombay after a pit-stop in Santa Cruz airport to re-fuel. A little more than a week later another Air Ceylon DC-3 flew from Ratmalana to Jeddah following the first flight’s flight-plan to bring back the Haj pilgrims home.

Those who know aeroplanes and the sky would cheer such aviators who blazed their way to the unknown in the magnificent ‘Dakotas’. To the non-aviators, I can only say this was flying at its optimum best, flown by men who knew what the flying game was all about.

Capt Elmo Jayawardena

Elmojay1@gmail.com

I knew the entire crew that flew the ‘Dakota’ very well. Capt. Peter drove a yellow and black Riley and lived in Uyana, Moratuwa, next to St Joseph’s Church. Capt. Emil, the ex-RAF fighter pilot I knew from the day I was born to the day he said his final good-bye to this world. He was my father. Mr. G.V. Perera was a very senior aeronautical engineer, a wonderful man who even had a flying license. And the Radio Officer, Uncle Siri, he is only 101 years old and is on ‘Facebook’. Lionel Sirimanne still mows his lawn in Kohuwela and drives his car to the Keell’s supermarket. I am deeply grateful to him for some of the details he gave me about this flight to Jeddah. As for the old warrior, the ‘Dakota’, one of them is spruced up and kept in the Air Force Museum in Ratmalana. It is a worthy sight to see as it majestically rests its soul among airmen and aeroplanes and aviation lovers who come to see this historic aeroplane.

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