Boom! 3rd May 1986: Air Lanka’s Tristar 36 blown up on Runway by LTTE

Menaka Ashi Fernando, whose chosen title is “The Deadly Flyaway Kit: Explosion in AirLanka Tristar, Part 1 –The Explosion and Its Immediate Effects”

Basil Marcelline.… (see Note at end}

Every 3rd of May, for the past 34 years, like a bunch of anxious surfers, we catch the rising wave of grief, glide on the intensifying emotions for a while and fall back to our senses as the wave of reality breaks. Although words can never remove the ache, I have worded this in memory of our dear friend Johann Chunchee who was killed that fateful day, and in honour of all my colleagues and other Air Lanka staff who survived the carnage” 

On Saturday 3rd May 1986, the Air Lanka Lockheed L1011 Tristar 4R-ULD named ‘City of Colombo’ arrived from London Gatwick via Zurich and Dubai to Sri Lanka. The aircraft which arrived as flight UL512  was  on  the  tarmac  at  Bandaranaike  International  Airport  (CMB/VCBI)  Katunayake, preparing for the next sector as UL101 to Velana International Airport Malé, ((MLE/VRMM) in the Maldives Islands.

UL512 arrived late from DXB (1+ hours) giving the outbound crew minimum turnaround time. Chief Purser of UL101 Dushy Abeyesekera had a quick chat with the inbound Chief Rommel Paul about the cabin defects and the need for Paul and his crew to de-plane quickly so that they could board. Cleaning and catering were rushed as a result, as were cabin crew pre-departure duties.

On board the aircraft were many French, German, British and Japanese tourists transiting en-route to the Maldives. Some were couples on their honeymoon, some looking forward to their diving expeditions and others simply looking forward to the sun, sand and sea.

Boarding of the flight was further delayed due to the aircraft being damaged during cargo and baggage loading. While this damage was being rectified, the cleaning staff were hastening their mundane tasks.

4R-ULD L1011–100 was known as ‘City of Galle’ prior to June 1985, and later re-named as‘City of Colombo’

It was 09:10 hours in the morning, 20 minutes before scheduled departure of flight UL101. Capt. Vasawa  Sudhila  Vasawath  Vajirapani,  First  Officer  Adrian  Cramer  and  Second  Officer  Suhail Hashim  were  completing  their  pre-departure  checks.  Seated  behind  in  the  jump  seat  was supernumerary pilot Deepal Goonetillake. In   the   cabin   were,   Dushy   Abeyesekera   Chief   Purser,   Leading   Flight   Attendants   Amila Goonewardene,  Jeanne  Slojini  Thurairatnam,  and  Neomal  Jindasa.  The  rest  of  the  crew  were Dyresh  Fernando,  Johann  Chunchee,  Michelle  Balthazaar,  Pearly  De  Silva,  Lalinthi  Wijesinghe, Helen Fernando, John Rukmal Perera and Mohan Kannangara.

Passengers were still boarding the aircraft and French navy officer Redato, a passenger who just boarded the aircraft, was getting ready to take his seat, when a massive explosion rocked the aircraft. Simon Ellis, a British passenger on board, felt as if everything was lurching forward. “The ceiling came  down  and our chairs  were  blown  backwards. When I managed to climb  over the chairs, I looked out and there was nothing” Ellis recalled.

The explosion was a time bomb!

 One of the darkest days in Sri Lanka’s Aviation history

 The Air Lanka jet at the site of the explosion. The tail section, on which an engine is mounted, was separated from the fuselage in the blast.

The powerful blast had ripped the aircraft in two, sending plumes of black smoke skyward. Most of the rear cabin was no longer there. Debris was falling from the plane and smoke was gushing out of the air vents. The impact had also shattered glass panels in the main terminal building. Parts of an aircraft door was found on the control tower.

Inside 4R-ULD, suddenly everything seemed quiet. For a brief moment things moved in slow motion. Nobody was screaming or crying.

Then all hell broke loose!

Panic stricken passengers began to rush through the thick smoke to their closest exits. On one aisle a Flight Attendant was seen repeatedly asking passengers to remain calm and exit the aircraft, while on the other aisle passengers were tripping over each other and falling down the aircraft ‘boarding steps’.

Everybody just wanted to get the hell out of there!

There were bodies lying on the tarmac amid cargo. There was meat and vegetables strewn over the area and one could not differentiate between body parts or food.

The response from the Fire Department was incredible. They promptly surrounded the aircraft and used foam and water to bring the fire down. The aircraft was being refuelled at the time of the explosion, thus the danger of a secondary explosion was quite high. One of the refuellers ran back to shut off the fuel valve to prevent further fuel leakage — an incredible presence of mind and courage!

The airport closed, and all arriving flights were diverted to regional airports.

  Capt Rohan Wijesinghe (extreme left) was walking to the B747 to operate a flight when the explosion occurred. He watched the tail section of 4R-ULD drop off. Here he poses with Capt Elmo Jayawardene (center) and Capt Sudhila Vajirapani (Captain of ill-fated UL101) moments before the explosion.

The time bomb was planted in the aircraft’s ‘Fly-Away-Kit’ (FAK) which was uploaded to the C3 cargo hold and placed among the consignment of meat and vegetable crates — the regular exports to the neighbouring Maldives archipelago. The flight was to have carried 128 people on UL101. It was clear during the investigations that the bomb had been timed to detonate mid-flight and had the flight taken off on time, all passengers and crew would have been killed.

The Sri Lankan government concluded that the bomb was planted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). A search of the aircraft the next day uncovered a parcel containing uniforms with the insignia of the Black Tigers, the Commando wing of LTTE. Chief Purser Abeyesekera remembers seeing Black Tiger caps scattered on the tarmac straight after the explosion.

21 people were killed in the explosion, including 3 British, 2 German, 3 French, 2 Japanese, 2 Maldivians and 1 Pakistani. One Air Lanka cabin crew member Johann Chunchee also lost his life. Another 41 passengers were injured.

 The flight was to have carried 128 people to the Maldives, an island group known for its beach resorts.


A PERSONAL NOTE from Michael Roberts:

When my wife Shona and I were living in a rented annexe from Mrs Dorothy Kasman at Siebel Place Kandy in the years 1966-70, a young couple next in another annexe next door were the Chunchee family. Young Chunchee’s wife was of Burgher lineage and their young son was Johann. We did not kow them well but interacted in standard neighbourly fashion. I now recall that I heard of young Johann’s tragic death when i visited Sri Lankan in 1986 or 1987. it would have been a greivous body-blow to the Chunchee couple becuase I do not think they had other children. C’est la Vie!

SUBSEQUENT NOTE, 14 March 2022

The digital version of this article identified this phot as that of Johann Chuncheer” and Thuppahi initially carreid that name. But Avishka Mario Seneviratne has indcated that the picture is that of an old Josephian, Basil Marcelline, who is alive and well in USA at present. 


Filed under accountability, atrocities, authoritarian regimes, historical interpretation, insurrections, life stories, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power politics, prabhakaran, terrorism, the imaginary and the real, tourism, transport and communications, trauma, vengeance, war crimes, world events & processes

10 responses to “Boom! 3rd May 1986: Air Lanka’s Tristar 36 blown up on Runway by LTTE

  1. Ramesh Somasunderam

    Everyone knows that the LTTE killed more higher caste Sri Lankan Tamils even more than the Sinhalese people. That is why moderate and good caste Sri Lankan Tamils like me including my father were happy when the LTTE were defeated in 2009. But no one can justify the systematic human rights abuses of successive Sri Lankan governments since Sri Lanka gained independence on innocent Sri Lankan Tamils and now on the Muslims in Sri Lanka. So everyone knows that the LTTE were fighting a caste and race battle but what the Sinhalese majority must understand is that the oppressed Sri Lankan Tamil cannot be always kept oppressed. This is why goof nature respectful Sri Lankan Tamils from higher caste backgrounds initially supported the LTTE but when they turned against them they stooped supporting the LTTE.

    • Mukesh

      Ramesh, what are you talking about? Are you delusional or has Prabha still got you in fits of romance? Have you ever visited Sri Lanka since 2009? Please point out one incidence of human rights abuse carried out against Tamils since then WITH EVIDENCE? A tamil fisherman can without hindrance set up a business in any part of Sri Lanka without fear. Tell me, can a Sinhalese fisherman ever set up a shop in Jaffna and expect to carry on to tell the tale? Give me one such example?

      • Michael Patrick O'Leary

        goof nature stooped?!!!

      • Michael Patrick O'Leary

        Well said Mukesh!

      • Michael Patrick O'Leary

        ” successive governments even today are perpetrating human rights violations against the innocent Sri Lankan Tamils living in the North and East of Sri Lanka.” What are these?

      • Ramesh Somasunderam

        I only read the current UNHCR Report on Sri Lanka and the Oakland Institute report on Sri Lanka. Both are very current reports on Sri Lanka.

  2. Ramesh Somasunderam

    There is no point replying to people who are one eyed people like you except to say that the LTTE killed more higher caste Sri Lankan Tamils than Sinhalese or Muslims as the LTTE were fighting a caste war and an ethnic war. This is a fact but what any objective minded Sri Lankan must understand is that consistent ethnic riots, colonisation and standardisation against the Sri Lankan Tamils took place by successive Sri Lankan governments since independence was gained from the British. In fact the LTTE would have not become so powerful and supported by most Sri Lankan Tamils if not for the the government of Sri Lanka including the army and police aiding the 1983 ethnic riots against the Sri Lankan Tamils where Tamil lives were lost including their property and belongings. Therefore every community has a right to fight back under this circumstances. Nevertheless I agree that the LTTE like the governments of Sri Lanka even today perpetrated human rights violations and human right abuses. This is a fact so there is no point just highlighting only the LTTE when successive governments even today are perpetrating human rights violations against the innocent Sri Lankan Tamils living in the North and East of Sri Lanka. Otherwise why keep an army of occupation in the North of Sri Lanka since 2009 when the cvil war ended in Sri Lanka.

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