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March 24, 2021

No 8 Light Transport Squadron celebrates 25 years

The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) proudly celebrated its 70th anniversary recently amidst much grandeur. In this backdrop, today we discover one of the squadrons whose pilots and crews have done a tremendous task to augment the combat operations of the SLAF.

The No 8 Light Transport Squadron is headquartered within the SLAF Base, Ratmalana. They continue to fly three aircraft, namely the Y-12, Beechcraft B-200 and the MA-60 plane which give them a broad spectrum of flying capability and airlift capacity. People often remember fighter jets and supersonic precision air strikes, but the transport squadron of any air force is the vital backbone that silently works behind the scenes, sustaining operations in the theatre of combat or in peacetime. Moving of logistics is extremely vital in any military offensive. The Y-12 transport aircraft has been the workhorse of this squadron and still commands the respect of all pilots. I was privileged to meet the pilots of the Light Transport Squadron headed by Group Captain Poojana Gunathileka. The Officer Commanding Operations is Wing Commander M. Dias.

The No 8 Squadron was established on April 2, 1996, during the peak of the conflict. During that period, its pilots flew the Beechcraft and Y-12 on many missions. Both these planes had been in active service since 1987 when they were initially assigned to the No 2 Squadron (Heavy Transport Wing that included the Avro, AN-32 and Y-8). The dynamic Group Captain Gunathileka said, “This squadron has a long and brilliant history and played a key role in the Humanitarian Operations. Our primary task is the transportation of cargo and troops. But we have successfully engaged in reconnaissance and surveillance, CASEVAC (casualty evacuation), MEDIVAC (role of an air ambulance), safe transport of VVIP/VIP and search and rescue. We also engage in commercial transport of civilians through our Helitours flights.”

The aircraft of this squadron have registered the highest number of flying hours in the SLAF, and these dedicated pilots have collectively flown 105, 522 hours with a very good safety record. The present Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana can also trace his flying roots on the sturdy Y-12 aircraft.

Interestingly, the Y-12 inducted into the SLAF in 1986 is the only aircraft in the SLAF fleet which can take off and land from any airport in Sri Lanka, which gave its pilots an edge as they could fly in any weather or terrain. Manufactured in China the Y-12 can be airborne within a few minutes. Though originally inducted with a transport role this versatile aircraft multi tasked with offensive combat capability in support of army operations when it carried explosives to be dropped on LTTE targets. During the early stages when the SLAF did not have sufficient strike capability these courageous pilots took on an additional role. Senior pilots remember a time when LMG (light machine guns) were fitted on the planes and enemy targets were engaged. The Y-12 has a service ceiling of 23,000 feet and a speed of 328 Km per hour. The aircraft played a significant role by dropping food for soldiers trapped inside the Jaffna Fort in 1990. The Y-12 pilots have flown 50,000 hours on various missions during the offensive against the LTTE. During the 2004 Tsunami, the Y-12 was used extensively to airlift food and medical supplies across the coastal areas thereby saving thousands of lives, giving hope to the entire nation.

The Beechcraft is another vital stakeholder of this multi-role squadron. The Sri Lanka Air Force has flown two models. The first B-200 T was inducted in 1983. The B-200 Super King Air model still remains in active service since 2009. The Beechcraft crews specialize in aerial observations. It is a compact but technically enhanced flying platform that can act as a command centre in the blue skies, fitted with advanced electronic warfare capabilities and communications platforms. During all major offensive operations by the Sri Lanka Air Force and the Army, the reliable B-200 was airborne in advance capturing crucial images and locating the positions of enemy concentrations. This imagery was rapidly passed to air operations commanders and army ground commanders. Fighter pilots who flew the MIGs, F-7s and Kfirs also depended on these important air assessment images prior to delivering their deadly precision strikes that decimated enemy targets. When the enemy set up large earth bunds and there was no visibility of what was behind, the B-200 pilots took great risks to fly above, in spite of missile threats and record vital imagery.

The Beechcraft served as an airborne command centre, even engaging in battle damage assessments. Of its many such detections, one event is recorded in February 2009. A flotilla of LTTE boats had been concealed, lying in ambush to attack the naval Jetliner ship which transported troops and policemen. Flying over the seas near Mullaitivu the alert B-200 crews had spotted the flotilla and immediately updated fighter jets, who took to the sky and engaged the targets thereby saving thousands of service personnel who were not aware of the impending danger. The B-200 aircraft always monitored the voyage of the Jetliner, taking thousands of soldiers safely from the battlefield to their homes, connecting them to their families.

The versatile Beechcraft even adapted to an air defence role in 2008. It was flown to track down the LTTE aircraft that flew towards Colombo at night. The reliable B-200 has flown 1,822 missions in support of the Humanitarian Operations flying out of Ratmalana, Anuradhapura, China Bay and Hingurakgoda. Two of these brave pilots made the supreme sacrifice when they were engaged in a low-level maritime surveillance flight in 1997.

In the peacetime application of airpower, this aircraft has also engaged in disaster relief operations. During floods when communities were stranded and cut off the B-200 crews located them and informed their position, directing emergency first responders, including the Navy. The pilots take on additional duties by passing on information of illegal activity observed by air, to the police. In 2019, in recognition of their service to the nation, No 8 Squadron was bestowed with the President’s Colours at a dignified ceremony.

The MA- 60 is another large aircraft flown by this squadron, carrying VIPs and civilian passengers. Made in China it has a service ceiling of 25,000 feet. The pilots of all three aircraft are supported round the clock by engineering officers and technicians who engage in maintenance that keeps these planes in top condition. Implementing the advanced fixed-wing flying training of officer cadets is also done by this squadron. Presently the first two female pilots of the SLAF are engaged in operational duties at this squadron, and another four aspiring female cadets are in training. I was able to see all three aircraft accompanied by Wing Commander Dihan Fernando. The No 8 Squadron proudly celebrates 25 years of service to Sri Lanka, having fulfilled its role in achieving national security objectives.

Courtesy : www.dailynews.lk