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DateLine Sunday, 18 May 2008





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Government Gazette

The saga of an air crash survivor

Sri Lankan pride - Wing Commander Udeni Rajapakse
Pix: Chinthaka Kumarasinghe

Wing Commander Udeni Rajapakse sipping a cup a tea sinks into deep thought pondering about the SLAF flag. “Our duty is our life,” he says. “Duty before self,” he smiles.

An `Air Force man’ who has recorded a long period of flying hours cum the first pilot who created Air Force history by making the first ever safe ejection from a fighter aircraft during a war mission, reveals the terrifying move he experienced on March 15 in 1997...........

“I was holding the rank of Flight Lieutenant and was the Officer Commanding-Operations of No.1-Flying Training Wing at Anuradhapura, flying Pucara-1A58. On March 15, we were to have a mission in between Trinco and Batticaloa coast targeting to attack a huge LTTE gathering.

The flight was detailed, and the crew and the pilot were standing by since in the afternoon. However, it was another pilot who was nominated to fly, not me,” says Rajapakse beginning his exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer.

The pilot who was detailed to fly was a married officer. The mission was not given the order to launch, though it was 7.30 p.m. Rajapakse who felt the family commitment of the newly married officer, took over the duty.

From that time onwards he was standing by to fly. By that day (March 15, 1997), nine aircraft belonged to the SLAF were shot down by the enemy. And heavy missions were moving throughout.

Around 10.00 p.m. Rajapakse was asked to get ready for the mission. As per his usual routine he phoned his fiancee, Inoka who was studying for her Economic degree in India at that time.

With his wife, Inoka and two children, Miyuni and Inura.
Pix: Ananda Moramudali

“I was airborne from Anuradhapura at 10.32 p.m. Due to the missile threat, we were asked to maintain the cruising altitude of 10,000 feet. As I was reaching the targeted altitude I heard a thundering explode,” he pauses.

A dazzling light flashed. The left Wing of the Pucara broke, separated and was thrown away. Rajapakse lost total aerodynamic control of the aircraft which started rotating like a spinning wheel.

The whole communication system was also dead, and he had no strength to move his limbs against the force in the airy atmosphere. All these happened with in a few seconds.

“I had to think fast as I had very little time to do everything,” he says. The training he got flashed back into his mind. He took his grip off from the control stick, and then kept both his hands on his knees.

“Unlike the way we move ourselves here, we cannot do so when in a low gravity atmosphere. So, as we were taught in our dry-drills (training), I dragged my hands against my body (from knees upwards) and reached to the ejection handle just above my head,” he recalls. The next moment was momentous.

Rajapakse was stuck and was rotating in the pitch dark. The ejection part fixed to his seat seemed waiting to take him off from the spinning air craft which would fall down within next few seconds and crush into pieces giving a terrorizing sight of a fire ball. “I pulled the handle,” he says.

The screen fell along with it shielded his face and eyes from causing injuries. As he pulled the ejection handle, he felt himself shot out like in a gun shot. He felt nothing, and was black out.

Z...z...z...z the buzzing of the air woke him again. Rajapakse was hanging in the air. The parashute which had opened along with his ejection was bringing him down comfortably. “I was coming down. But, for a moment doubted whether I was living or not,” he smiles. Rajapakse patted himself and cleared his doubts as it was not only his soul, but his physical structure was also existing.

His left glove got thrown away, but his helmet was protecting his head and face well. When he held and hung on to the strong strings of the parachute, his scarf got loosened. He didn’t try to stop it and let it fly away in the wind.

The safety buckle of his suit was broken, but he was well protected. He saw the flashing light at some far away place below his feet on the land. It was his `Pucara’, now wrecked and in fire. When asked how he felt at that moment he still becomes dumbfound.

“I only felt I’m safe, and was very conscious about what was going to happen next,” he reminisces. “Exactly at the time of ejection, I knew where I was as when flying especially in the night, we were instructed to navigate from feet to feet. We have to be hundred percent sure about the navigation,” he says.

“The moonlight was orienting me. I saw Hingurakgoda town and another town. I recognised the west of Kavudulla. “he recalls. The tiny trees which were of the size of a match stick, gradually became bigger as he was dropping close to the ground.

He had not had any prior experience of parachute jumping, but had seen his fellow Air Force servicemen’s performances. He pulled, hung on the strings of the parachute in order to reduce the impact of the fall, but had somewhat a thundering landing.

“I leapt and quickly separated myself from the parachute. I didn’t wait even to get my survival pack as both it and the parachute were in red and white which was shining in the moonlight, and would be a good clue for the enemy in the distant.

The zip of one of my boots were broken and was no avail. So I quickly removed both boots. In order to see my physical fitness I climbed up a tree. I was satisfied. In case of an attack of a wild animal I could run and protect myself,” explains Rajapakse.

His next aim was to navigate back to a village area... The three star sign in the dark sky pointed towards the North was assisting him to pilot himself on foot to a civil realm.

“There was a man made bund along one side of the Kavudulla tank. Though I didn’t see it in the dark, I felt the dampness of the ground (tank) at my feet as I was wearing socks. I walked along looking at the three stars, like the three Kings went looking for the new born saviour,” he smiles.

Simultaneously two searching helicopters of the SLAF flew across breaking the pitch dark silence. They were looking for the crashed air craft and not probably the pilot as by that time none would have even dreamt to see him alive.

As Rajapakse had guessed wild animals especially the wild boars who got alarmed over the uproar of the two helicopters, started running to and fro. He climbed up a tree and waited.

“I had all the signalling devices to indicate the helicopters where I was. But I didn’t want to use them as I was quite confident that I could find my way back. Also I thought if the pilots didn’t see my signals it would have been in vain, and also if it got sighted by the enemy who could have probably been there I would have been in trouble.

‘There was no prominent dominant presence of any one. One of the helicopters moved towards the crash site and one came right over me,” he recalls.

Once the moon light diminished, and under the dark clouds he continued to walk. He thought of resting a bit and then start the journey with the fall of the dawn. But when the clouds moved away from the moon giving him light again, he took courage to carry on. Suddenly Rajapakse saw a beam of a light.

He recognised it was coming from a parked vehicle. When he moved towards it, he saw some shadows moving across the beam. At first he didn’t know whether they were foes or friends.

“There were two vehicles. I heard them talking in Sinhala, and recognised they were from the Government military Forces. I was about 300m away. I knew I had to be careful as by that time all had thought I was dead. So, if I tried to go before them at once, I would have been shot mistaken to be a LTTEr. So, first I crawled towards them and then raised my voice,” he reminisces.

“Can you hear me?” was the first few words he uttered. “Who is that?” he got the reply. “I’m the pilot of the crashed aircraft,” he continued, and started walking with his hands up while the conversation was on.

“I asked them to turn the vehicle and flash the light towards me. They did, and then,’ he pauses, and went on “they recognised me.” Flight Lieutenant Aruna Jayathilaka (present rank -Squadron Leader) who was there, recognised his collegue Udeni Rajapakse.

Rajapakse felt the joy that accumulated over his survival by all of them. “I managed to call my parent base in Anuradhapura and talked with the Base Commander. I was taken to Hingurakgoda. I faced the incident around 11.45 pm. And now it was 4.00 am following day. I heard a messenger was already sent from Katunayake Base to my residence at Gampaha to inform my parents that `I was dead’. Before 10 minutes the messenger, my collegue Aruna was able to call my parents and inform that their son is still alive,” laughs Rajapakse concluding his victorious narration. At the code of inquiry Rajapakse was praised for his exemplary, bravery and commendable action.

Rajapakse Appuhamilage Udeni Priyadarshana Rajapakse was born on January 29 in 1969 at Ihalagama, Gampaha to R.A. Don Somathilaka Rajapakse, a businessman and Premawathie Rajapakse, Manager-Rural Bank. He was the second to an elder brother and a younger sister. Rajapakse had his education at Parakrama Maha Vidyalaya, Bandarawatte, Bandaranaike Maha Vidyalaya, Gampaha and Ananda College, Colombo.

“My father was a very strict disciplinarian, and we never dared to do a wrong deed however mischievous we were. I did a lot of sports at school; running events 800m and 1500m, Long Jump and was in the school cricket team,” he says.

The best O/L results of the school (Bandaranaike M.V.) of that year was his. Rajapakse was in the school Cadet Band and was a Prefect too. He was in the school Cadet team since he was in grade 8. “I cannot sing, but can play the flute and Thammattama well,” he beams.

He studied A/Ls in the Maths stream. Though he had enough marks to enter to campus in Physical Science, his heart and soul was with the Forces. “My parents didn’t favour the idea. At first as they wanted me to go for higher studies. So, in order to fulfil their aspiration as well and also to achieve my goal, I entered the Kothalawala Defence Academy (KDA), Ratmalana (to the Intake 6) in 1988. I always wanted to be a pilot,” he explains. Rajapakse got the BSc Defence degree from the KDA in 1992.

After having many flying hours both in transport and fighter aircrafts, and smartly completing the Air Command and Staff College in the Air University, Alabama, USA, Wing Commander Udeni Rajapakse is having a break as a faculty member of the Defence Services Command and Staff College of Sri Lanka at Sapugaskanda at present.

Inoka Kamani Alwis, his life partner with whom Rajapakse tied the knot September 16 in 1998, on after having a three-year love affair has been sharing both ups and downs of life with him.

He confesses, of all the prestige and honour, he received Miyuni and Inura, the two offsprings his wife has given him are the world’s most precious gifts he has ever received.

Wing Commander Udeni Rajapakse has been awarded three `Rana Shoora’ Medals, North and East Operational Medal, `Poorna Bhoomi’ Medal and the Medal for Unblemished Character and Conduct by the Sri Lanka Air Force.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Ceylinco Banyan Villas

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