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
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,”
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
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,”
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,”
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
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.