The LTTE’s Remarkable Capacities: Its Air Tigers

Compiled by Kumar Kirinde, Retd Officer of  the SLAF, whose chosen title was as follows: “The Air Tigers: The Air Wing of A Terrorist Organisation”  …… with information and images  sourced from and Google Images)











Pirapaharan (ext. left) with Anton Balasingham on his left and KP Pathmanathan in front and Shankar on the extreme right in the Vanni jungles circa 2001(?) … Shankar was in effect the Air Tiger chief

The Air Tigers or Sky Tigers was the air-wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which used it against the Government of Sri Lanka. They also called themselves the Tamileelam Air Force (TAF). Though the existence of the Sky Tigers had been the subject of speculation for many years, the existence of the wing was only revealed after an attack in March 2007, during Eelam War IV. The LTTE credited the formation of the Sky Tigers air-wing to Colonel Shankar, alias Vythialingam Sornalingam, a diploma graduate of Hartley College in Point Pedro. He had an Engineering Diploma in Aeronautics from Hindustan Engineering College in Tamil Nadu, India. On May 18, 2009, existence of the Air Tigers came to an end when the Sri Lankan security forces defeated the LTTE and regained control.

Reporting existence of LTTE air wing
On November 27–28, 1998, Tamilnet reported the LTTE-operated Voice of Tiger radio station claimed, “Aircraft of the Sky Tiger wing of the Liberation Tigers [had] sprinkled flowers over the cemeteries of the slain LTTE cadres in Mulliyawalai,” during the annual Heroes Day celebrations. Earlier in the month, the web-based news agency reported (November 19, 1998) an unidentified aircraft allegedly belonging to the LTTE was spotted in the Thondamanaaru region in Jaffna by Sri Lankan Navy officials. The report also said the Tigers had built an airstrip in the Mullaitivu army base after it was overrun by the LTTE in 1996.
On November 27, 1998 Tamilnet reported Deputy Minister for Defence had scoffed at speculation that the LTTE has acquired aircraft, claiming the reports were part of an LTTE strategy of psychological warfare. Three days later, the news service reported unconfirmed reports of a Tiger helicopter being sighted in the Batticaloa‐Amparai region. The report also said The Sunday
Times military analyst had reported military intelligence UAVs had taken images of the LTTE helicopters and Mullaitivu airstrip. The Sunday Times Situation Report said (November 1, 1998)[ “Senior SLAF officials suspect the helicopter on the ground to be similar to R44 Astro — a small, light, four-seat, piston-engined civilian helicopter produced by the Robinson Helicopter Company since 1992. Sri Lankan newspapers corroborated the discovery of an R44 Astro and also suggested that Australian LTTE contacts had facilitated the purchase of two Australian-made AirBorne microlight aircraft.
A R44 Astro and AirBorne microlight aircraft (representative pictures)
The Singapore based Asian Tribune e-newspaper claimed (July 28, 2006) the LTTE had acquired two Czech-built Zlin Z‐143’s, according to eyewitnesses in Eliranpuram, Pudukudiyiruppu and Meerukandi, who also claim to have frequently seen the Cessna Skymasters flying overhead for several months. The report also said it was believed the acquisition had been made between April and July 2006.



A Zlin Z 43 (representative picture)

The LTTE had modified 2 of their 5 Zlín Z 43 to carry 4 x 60 kg (132 lb) un-guided bombs. The explosives payload consisted of 55 kg of C-4 with ball bearings. The bomb rack and arming mechanism were believed to have been locally produced.

They also diverted the exhaust pipe of their planes to the front side of the plane, in such a manner that the IR-guided air-to-air missiles of SLAF jet attack aircraft could not detect the heat signature from their aircraft engines. When commenting about this technic, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister told the media that This was the first time the world had encountered such a terrorist tactic. Tamil Tigers also explored the possibility of using commercially available recreational radio-controlled aircraft for certain operational missions like aerial surveillance and aerial flying bombs.


Reporting existence of LTTE airstrips

Similarly, news of LTTE airstrips in the north made periodic appearances in the southern Sri Lanka media, including a May 28, 2005 admission by the Norwegian‐led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission of having sighted an airstrip in the Iranamadu area, in northern Sri Lanka. The new airstrip was reportedly located near the ruins of another Tiger airstrip that was abandoned due to air force bombing in the late 1990s. On March 16, 2007, a Daily Mirror defence analyst reported military intelligence had revealed the LTTE had constructed yet another airstrip in the South East of Pudukiduiruppu area in the East. “The Pudukiduiruppu airstrip is 1,250 metres long and therefore even a Hercules C-130 aircraft could land with a full load of cargo”, the report said. The Sri Lankan Government alleged that the aircraft have been shipped with foreign aid. That year, the Sky Tigers smuggled two to five unassembled Czech Zlín Z 43 light aircraft onto their bases.

Note: Between September 2008 to January 2009, Sri Lanka Army troops captured six LTTE airstrips.

Air Tiger capabilities

According to manufacturer (Czech) Morovan Aeroplanes, the Sky Tigers were able to make the Zlin easy to fly at night or in low visibility conditions because of the night and IFR (instrument flight rules) training and flying, and great flight characteristics and additional instruments’. Also, the aircraft had a small profile that made it easy to fly at a low level of around 300 feet(91m) to avoid radar detection. By swooping in on their targets at speeds of around 100km/h, the Sky Tigers have ensured that their radar return could not be distinguished from that of a lorry, making them almost impossible to pick out.

Since the military has put up anti-aircraft RADAR and stepped up combat air patrols, the rebels have usually kept their flights short and the bonus is that the Sri Lankan authorities admitted after the first raid that they don’t have the night-flying capability. The Air Tigers took advantage of this to fly over the base unintercepted and bomb it. These bombings showed the skills acquired by the TAF pilots in night operations.

When addressing the SLAF in 2020, Sri Lankan Prime Minister told the media about the Sky Tigers that, … Using small, slow, low-flying modified aircraft for nighttime air attacks was another innovation of the LTTE to the global terrorism.

Aircraft manufacturing factory

On 19 Feb 2009, Sri Lankan security forces found two partially burnt LTTE aircraft at Puthukkudiyirippu in Mullaittivu, which the military believed were under construction. According to ground sources, one craft found was as a light fixed-wing craft while the other was an unmanned aircraft (UAV). This aircraft construction site was well fortified. LTTE is the only organization that has assiduously tried to build up its own air capability. The aircraft repair yard, however elementary, indicated that the LTTE worked to a plan to build, maintain and operate its own inventory.


Attacks by Air Tigers


The first LTTE air attack happened in March 2007. Two LTTE Zlin Z 143 aircraft penetrated the outer defences of the Katunayake Air force base north of Colombo on Monday, March 26, 2007, killing three air force officials and wounding 16–17 others. The defence ministry said no fighter aircraft were damaged, but two bombs hit the airforce’s aeronautical engineering department. According to Al Jazeera, two parked helicopters which were bought from Pakistan were also damaged. The head of the counter terrorism division of RAW said that “there was also some damage to the Israeli aircraft of the Sri Lankan Air Force.” The LTTE has also claimed in their newspaper, the ‘Eelanatham’, that they have destroyed 3 ‘jet hangers’ in the airport. It was believed the attack was targeted at the IAI Kfirs and newly acquired MiG jets which had been bombing targets in LTTE-controlled territory. The base is located near Bandaranaike International Airport, which had been attacked by the Tigers in July 2001. The LTTE is also the only Rebel group to field aircraft.

Sri Lankan Air Force’s 10 Fighter Ground Attack Squadron operated ten Kfir Multirole Fighters (2 TC2/ 6 C2 / 2 C7). In addition, 5 Jet squadron employed four Mig27M Fighter‐Bombers, with three more grounded pending maintenance; and four F‐7 Skybolts. Both the 5 Jet squadron and 10 Fighter Ground Attack Squadron are based at the Katunayake airbase and were believed to have been the target of the LTTE’s symbolic attack.


On April 23, 2007, at night 1.20 am the Air Tigers conducted an air raid on a nearby Sri Lankan military’s main base complex in the Jaffna peninsula. Tamil Tiger spokesman claimed that their bombers had hit an Engineering Unit of the complex and military storage. Meanwhile, sources said continuous explosions were heard from inside the High-Security Zone for five hours after the air raid. Military sources in Colombo confirmed that at least 6 of their personnel were killed. TamilNet claimed more than 30 troopers have got wounded during the attack inside the HSZ.

Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) spokesman media in Colombo said that their runway in Palali was intact. Military spokesman said. “Six soldiers died, not only due to this, there was some artillery firing also,”

The power supply was shut down for more than 3 hours in Jaffna after the air raid, civilian sources said.


On April 26, 2007, Sri Lanka’s air defenses in Colombo fired into the sky following reports that unidentified aircraft had been spotted on radar. No attack was reported.

However, a few days later on the early morning of April 29, while the nation was watching the Cricket World Cup Final, a Tiger aircraft bombed two fuel storage facilities outside Colombo. Chaos followed and electricity in the capital was shut off for nearly an hour. The LTTE claimed that the aerial bombing of the “strategic assets” was successful. According to Tamil Net, Gas and Oil storage tanks in Keravelapitiya in Wattela, 10 km north of Colombo were hit, and three oil tanks are on fire, Wattela residents said. The Sri Lankan Defence Ministry said that the two bombs dropped on Kolonnnawa did not explode, the two dropped on Muthurajawela had caused “minor damage” to the guard room of the private Shell Gas company and the water supply system in the complex. A defence expert said that at least five persons, including three soldiers, were injured in the incident and hospitalized. The ground fire had contributed its bit to this, he said.

The security forces were unable to bring down the aircraft prompting much criticism from the public and opposition political parties.

Although the government played down the attack, Shell’s Sri Lankan country director, told the AFP “There was big damage to our fire-fighting facility and we estimate it will cost us in excess of 75m rupees ($700,000) to put things back”.


On October 22, 2007, Sky Tigers launched a pre-dawn combined arms assault on a SLAF airbase at Anuradhapura, about 212 kilometers (132 mi) north of the capital, Colombo.

The assault started at around 3:20 am, with LTTE ground forces attacking the airbase and overrunning key positions, including an anti-aircraft position, before the Sky Tiger’s improvised bombers dropped bombs on government positions. Military sources said a total of 14 Sri Lankan Air Force personnel and 20 Tigers were killed. Also said the attack damaged two MI 24 helicopter gunships.

Manalaru (Weli Oya)

On April 27, 2008, at approximately 1:45 am, at least two Sky Tiger aircraft dropped three bombs on military installations near the army forward defence lines in Manalaru. No damage was caused. But LTTE did not release any details of its aerial attack

Government Defense Authorities claimed that they had sent Air Force interceptors to engage the Tiger aircraft but had been unable to do so as it had already flown back before they reached the area.


The Sri Lanka Navy had confirmed that at least one LTTE plane dropped bombs on the naval base at Trincomalee on August 26, 2008. According to the LTTE, at least four SLN sailors were killed and more than 35 wounded in the airstrike, which inflicted heavy damage on the SLN base. The aircraft had safely returned to their base after carrying out their mission.


On September 9, 2008, during heavy fighting in the north, a Sky Tigers aircraft dropped bombs at a military base in Vavuniya, in northern Sri Lanka. Simultaneously, an LTTE attack on the military base was launched, intended to destroy the India-provided INDRA-II radar that the Sri Lankan government was using to detect the LTTE planes. Eleven soldiers and a policeman were killed along with ten Black Tigers; two Indian technicians were wounded. SLA sources in Vavuniya said 26 military personnel were also wounded in the attack.

After the raid, the military claimed a Sri Lankan air force plane shot down the LTTE craft, but the LTTE denied it and stated that “aircrafts safely returned to their bases after completing their mission”; no proof from either side had been given.

LTTE leader, on October 31, conferred Awards of Valour for the Tiger commandos who excelled in their performance in the operation against the Vanni Headquarters, as well as on the Tiger pilots and operators who took part in consecutive and successful attacks against targets in the south and the bases of the Sri Lankan military. The Sky Tiger pilots who had participated in three consecutive successful air attacks received the Warriors Award of Tamil Eelam and the Sky Tiger pilots who had participated in five consecutive successful air attacks received the Blue tiger Award of Tamil Eelam, while Kiddu artillery formation received special awards for their performance in this specific attack.

After the raid, the military claimed a Sri Lankan air force plane shot down the LTTE craft, but the LTTE denied it and stated that “aircrafts safely returned to their bases after completing their mission”; no proof from either side had been given.

LTTE leader, on October 31, conferred Awards of Valour for the Tiger commandos who excelled in their performance in the operation against the Vanni Headquarters, as well as on the Tiger pilots and operators who took part in consecutive and successful attacks against targets in the south and the bases.

The Sky Tiger pilots who had particiapted in three atacks received the Warriors Award of Tamil Eelam and those pilots who had particpated in five consecutive  succesful air attacks received the Blue Tiger Award of Tamil eelam, while the Kiddu artillery formation received specila awards for their performance in this specific attack.



Mannar and Colombo (2nd instance)

Tiger aircraft had struck again on October 28. One air raid happened at the Thallaadi army camp in Mannar, and another occurred against the Kelanitissa near the capital, Colombo. The Sri Lankan government said there had been no major damage at either location, but that two of the turbines hit at the power plant took six months to be renovated. An MI-24 attack helicopter gunship of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), deployed in Vanni offensive, and a Bell helicopter used to transport the wounded soldiers from the battlefield, had sustained damage, in the bombing raid on the Sri Lankan garrison at Thallaadi in Mannar, according to a reliable military source.

Colombo (3rd instance)

On February 20, 2009, the LTTE launched a kamikaze-style attack aimed at the Sri Lankan Air Force Headquarters in Colombo and the SLAF hangars at Katunayake adjoining the International Airport in Katunayake. Both of the planes were shot down with one of the planes crashing into the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) opposite the Sri Lankan Air Force Headquarters, starting a fire which resulted in the building sustaining minor damage. The Trans Asia Hotel, which is adjacent, was also damaged though slightly. The Air Force claimed that a plane crashed into the IRD building when the pilot lost control due to anti-aircraft fire. The second aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire close to Bandaranaike International Airport; much of the plane was found intact with the body of the pilot and explosives inside. Two persons (two pilots) were killed and 58 were injured including two airmen of the SLAF.

LTTE aircraft shot down at Katunayake







In their military offensive in the north of the country, the Sri Lanka Armed Forces  reported the capture of seven airfields used by the Tigers. Of these, three have been used as emergency landing strips, while two had been a frequently-used airfield with two hangars. On February 20, 2009, the LTTE lost both of the Zlín Z 43 aircraft and two Sky Tiger pilots during their attack on Colombo and subsequently  military analysts said there were no aircraft left in the Sky Tiger fleet, although the LTTE claimed that there were three aircraft remaining. Several missions were carried out by the Sri Lanka Army and none of the three aircraft which the tigers claimed to have kept were found. On May 18, 2009, existence of the air tigers came to an end  when the Sri Lankan security forces defeated the LTTE and regained control.


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One response to “The LTTE’s Remarkable Capacities: Its Air Tigers

  1. Chandra Maliyadde

    LTTE did all these without state power and in the midst of opposition of a strong Government. They would have made miracles given the opportunity

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