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Sunday, 28 August 2011





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Pacific Airlift Rally 2011:

The sky is the limit

A major part of the northern Sri Lanka was devastated by a high magnitude cyclone. Thousands of people living North of Puttalam were displaced and living in camps. Hundreds of children were falling sick and medicine was short in supply.

Five C 130 aircrafts from countries of the Pacific rim, including Sri Lanka were carrying loads of food, water and medicine to required locations in the affected areas. The entire road network and railway tracks were either flooded or destroyed blocking entire land transportation and only option left with humanitarian mission operators was the air transport.

Air Force personnel from more than 15 countries gathered together in Colombo to assist Sri Lanka in its humanitarian mission to save people and the country from a deadly cyclone that struck the areas beyond the North Central Province of Sri Lanka. Foreign aid were flowing in to the country and airports at Trivendrum in India, Katunayake and Ratmalana in Sri Lanka were receiving them from where these Air Forces had to transport the cargo to desired locations. The situation sounds horrific, yet fortunately, it was not true!

But this was no joke. It is the situation given to the 16 Air Forces that were taking part in the Pacific Airlift Rally 2011 held last week in Colombo. This is an excercise held biennially organised by the U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) since 1997 for states in the Indo-Pacific rim to enhance military airlift interoperability and cooperation between these nations when jointly facing a gigantic disaster.

At the Command Post exercise

The Pacific Airlift Rally 2011, a.k.a. PAR 2011, co-hosted by the U.S. and the Sri Lanka Air Forces, took place at Ratmalana Airport and Mt. Lavinia. The Field Training Exercises (FTX) was held in Ratmalana and the Command Post Exercises (CPX), where the plans and strategies were drawn, was held at the Mount Lavinia Hotel.

PAR 11 will be a golden opportunity to us as well as to the country to boost competency of the operators and to build mutual understanding between regional countries, said SLAF Commander Air Marshall Harsha Abeywickrama at the press conference held prior to the event.

As Air Commodore Sumangala Dias of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF), who co-ordinated the overall event explained, this excercise is aiming at sharpening and expanding the combined air capabilities among the Indo-Pacific nations to effectively deal with the natural disasters in the region.

The SLAF officer who co-ordinated the CPX at the Mount Lavinia, Group Captain Nishantha Thilakasinghe said that the countries were divided in to six groups and each group consisted of officers from different countries.

Sq. Ld. Porteus


Lt. Col. Tim Rapp


According to the situation drafted, the groups had to draw a plan and set time frames to meet the requirements in the disaster situation, be it a humanitarian aid drop or a rescue mission. ‘The challenge gets worse when emergency situations, that would obstruct their plan, were created suddenly in the middle of the program,’ Group Captain Thilakasinghe added. The PAR helps participants grow familiar, should they have to work with one another during humanitarian missions. ‘At the end of the day these plans are assessed with critical remarks to the failed steps and the teams are not to repeat the mistakes,’ he said explaining the stiff protocols that ran in the exercise.

Things were not as the usual at the Ratmalana Air port when FTX was in action. Six gigantic C130s covered the Ratmalana runway while smart and strong men and women from different spheres of the world were working together in teams executing their missions to the best of their abilities.

Gracefully the giants one after the other rose to the sky for their given missions from the CPX. Three C 130s were from the US Air Force 374th Air Lift Wing under the Pacific Air Forces. The No. 20 Squadron of the Royal Malaysian Air Force had dispatched one C 130 aircraft. The cynosure of all eyes was the C 130 J from the Royal Australian Air Force. SLAF C 130 held its position proud with loads of experience collected during the humanitarian mission against terrorism.

C 130 J is the most advanced and highly capable among these giants. The FTX participation included C 130s from United States Air Force’s 374th Airlift Wing based at Yokota Airlift Wing, Japan, No. 20 Squadron of the Royal Malaysian Air Force, the 37 Squadron of the Royal Australian Air Force and the No. 2 Squadron of the Sri Lanka Air Force.

“No one in the U.S. Air Force has had the opportunity to come train in Sri Lanka in 20 years,” said Lieutenant Colonel Tim Rapp, the commander of the 36th Airlift Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan. Delighted over the experience Lt. Col. Rapp explained that apart from the technical differences and its adjustments these men and women do get the chance to understand the different accents. Squadron Leader Gareth Porteus, the commander of the Australian Squadron was quite happy with the performance of his crew and had the best C 130 of the lot. To Sq.Ldr. Porteus and his team the experience was great and valuable as in 2011 Australia had to face more floods and cyclones than previous years.

The Australian team had and advantage which we in Sri Lanka can be proud of too. The Sri Lankan born Flying Officer Rashmin Gunaratne who worked as the Liaison officer for the exercise was the asset. ‘Luckily communication was not a challenge for me as I could converse both in Sinhala and English. Apart from my responsibilities as an Aeronautical Engineer I managed to liaise with the other teams quite easily,’ Flying Officer Gunaratne said being happy about his advantage. This young man who ended up in the Australian Air Force after he graduated as an Aeronautical Engineer brings great pride and joy to this island nation. ‘After the exercises I go to see my grandmother every day,’ Gunaratne said joyful of his rare and ironic opportunity in his career.

Navigating through Sri Lanka has fascinated Captain Angela Stephens of the US Air Force.

‘It is very different experience here. Once you fly from Ratmalana within few minutes we reach hill areas and then comes plains and in the same flight we find the ocean too.

Very rarely such chances are available,’ Angela said. Captain Angela has participated in humanitarian operations in Haiti and for her this exercise is a highlight in her career.

Twenty year old Fiona Cho who is an Airman First Class works as an Engine Mechanic in the US Air Force team. ‘Working with people from other countries in a different environment has lifted me in my career and I just want to get the best experience out of this,’ Fiona said.

To Captain Uriah Orland, Public Affairs Director of the Alaskan Command of the US Air Force said that these sort of exercises would make the Air Forces strong to be ready to face any disastrous situation. Affected bit with the warm weather of Sri Lanka Capt.

Orland finds this a unique situation along with a significant change in the climate. For him visiting Sri Lanka had been a childhood dream and was happy to be in this island nation and its people.

One of the most creative, low cost and effective methods that could be adopted in to such humanitarian missions was the rotating ‘heli box’. Warrant Officer Paul Linehan who is the Senior Load Master of the Australian Air Force explaining this unique box said this method has been used since Vietnam war.

The angled lids of the box act as wings making rotate like a spin in the air and can be used to drop food and water to required locations.

Last but not the least the Sri Lankan contingent grabbed the attention of the entire FTX crew with their acrobatic performances with the C 130 giants.

Wing Commander Sarika Aranayake participating in the exercise for the first time said he was able to gain a great deal of experience. ‘During the 2004 tsunami disaster I was assigned at Katunayake to co-ordinate with the foreign assistance we received. The problems I encountered then helped me a great deal to understand this exercise. This experience will be greatly valuable for a country like ours,’ he said. According to Wing Commander Aranayake this is not just about the technical details of aircraft but also about pooling the technologies of the most efficient methods that can be adopted at a low cost which would suit to countries like Sri Lanka.

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