Zestful rotary rangers in the blue skies

September 24, 2021

No.07 Helicopter Squadron

Zestful rotary rangers in the blue skies

By Dishan Joseph

A Bell 212 on a mission

The Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) has served the nation with dedication for seven decades. Today we discover one of the pioneer flying formations, the No.07 Helicopter Squadron. The No.07 Helicopter Squadron, known as the ‘Cradle of Helicopter Pilots’, located at SLAF Base Hingurakgoda has an epic history from 1994, rendering 27 years of service to the nation.

Globally the introduction of helicopters or rotary wing aircraft has changed the dimension of air operations. Airborne commando forces now had a safe and quick insertion platform from the sky to enter and destroy enemy positions. The Bell 212 is a twin blade, twin engine utility helicopter.

 

During the war the SLAF deployed its Bell 212 helicopters into action. The trustworthy Bell 212 has a service ceiling of 20,000 feet and a speed of 240 Kmph. In 1984, the SLAF purchased two Bell Jet Rangers and two Bell 212s from USA. Initially the No.04 Wing was the only helicopter squadron of the SLAF with Bell 212, Bell 412 and Bell Jet Rangers. By 1985 nine more Bell 212s were inducted into the fleet. As the enemy threat increased a number of Bell 212s were modified as gunships. In the early stages the 401 Squadron was established at Hingurakgoda on September 23, 1994. In March 1996, it was renamed as No.07 Helicopter Squadron.

Throughout the Humanitarian Operation the Bell 212s of No.07 Squadron operated from SLAF Base, Hingurakgoda, Vavuniya and SLAF Station Kankesanthurai in Jaffna, flying a total of 4,250 hours, having safely transported 16,794 Kgs of cargo and evacuated 16,337 casualties.

A few helicopters also operated from Navy and Army outposts in Mannar and Karainagar. The Squadron’s pilots also did pick up missions of Army LRRP teams behind enemy lines. When fighter jets used to attack enemy positions with a heavy concentration of LTTE cadres, the Bell 212 helicopters were hovering around at a safe distance, with RSF (the Air Force Regiment Special Forces) troops ready to intervene if the jet pilots had to be rescued. On many occasions, the helicopters came under fire, but the pilots flew the choppers safely to base. In some instances, the Bell 212s were found with ruptured fuel tanks and bullet holes.

When the peace talks were not successful in 1985 the Army camps in Jaffna came under attack by mortar fire. Given this backdrop the Army camps had to be supplied from the air by the SLAF. Once again, the pilots rose to the challenge and delivered all required food supplies and ammunition via the formidable Bell 212. The helicopters were configured with machine guns and rocket pods. Subsequently, the LTTE began firing Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG) during 1986. This presented a danger and the safe altitude of the helicopters was kept at 1,500 feet.

As the conflict grew violent, the enemy began firing heavy caliber guns and the SLAF had to increase its safe altitude to 5,000 feet. After a while Air Force pilots were faced with the enemy missile threat. In order to minimize the missile lock-on time, the SLAF pilots began a new counter measure by flying at tree-top level. Thankfully ECM warning systems were later fixed on the helicopters which had audio visual missile warning and flare dispensing capability.

Operation Eagle

Since 1985, the Bell 212 helicopters actively engaged in all combat operations of the Sri Lanka Air Force. During Operation Liberation (May 1987) to liberate the Jaffna Peninsula, the Bell helicopters played a vital role. Eight of the helicopters were configured as troop carriers. Two of the helicopters were used for casualty evacuation. In this period of fighting, Sri Lanka’s first air assault mission took place, when Bell 212s and Bell 412s rapidly inserted troops in Karaveddi.

This tactic was used to stop the LTTE escaping via Velvettiturai. Having abruptly ended a 14-month ceasefire the enemy surrounded the Jaffna Fort and laid siege. Almost 200 men including troops of the 6th Battalion Sinha Regiment and 112 Police personnel attached to Jaffna Police Station were besieged. Eight soldiers were injured and needed medical attention. This presented a challenge to the SLAF to rescue them.

Intelligence information revealed that communication with the Jaffna Fort had been compromised. The SLAF had prudently devised a scheme to alert Captain Anura Perera (OIC of 6SLSR troops) of the impending aerial rescue. The SLAF resorted to a brilliant tactic never used before. Prior to the date of rescue, a Sia Marchetti jet flew over the Jaffna Fort, piloted by Flight Lieutenant Priyantha Adikaram. This brave pilot dropped a specially designed container into the fort, which contained a map and details of the rescue. The container was designed by Squadron Leader Wajira Perera. This alerted the besieged men and they got ready.

On July 3, 1990, at precisely 4.00am the Sri Lanka Air Force launched its daring and surprise air rescue mission under the direction of Wing Commander Sunil Cabral. The attack force consisted of two formations of Sia Marchetti SF 260 jets code-named Red Formation under the command of Squadron Leader Shirantha Goonetileke and two formations of Bell 212 helicopters under the command of Squadron Leader Roger Weerasinghe. The Bell 212s were heavily armed with .50 machine guns, forward firing rockets and medium range machine guns. In addition, Y-12 and Y-8 aircraft were on standby at Mannar, as additional bombers.

The jets and helicopters took off from different bases. Wing Commander Sunil Cabral (mission commander) flew in a Bell 212 at 4,000 feet supervising the aerial rescue (the pilot was Sagara Kotakadeniya). The airborne SLAF attack force closed in on the target zone by 5.20am racing against the first rays of sunlight. Breaking away from its flying formation with no air cover, the designated rescue helicopter, a Bell 412 gallantly piloted by Squadron Leader Lasantha Waidyaratne and co-pilot Flight Lieutenant Avindra Mirando landed close to the ramparts’ main entrance. The other gunships began to engage the enemy as a distraction. The rescue phase began. Captain Jayantha Fernando (replacement Commanding Officer) and five soldiers had volunteered to join the fort. They got off the chopper and entered the Jaffna Fort. The eight injured soldiers (including Captain Anura Perera) were positioned inside the helicopter. Urgently needed medical supplies and heavy weapons were quickly handed over to the Army. The helicopter took off having fearlessly completed its dangerous task within a one-minute window. Within seconds of its departure, the jets of the Red Formation pounded the LTTE positions with a devastating bombing run. The SLAF flew the eight wounded soldiers to Palaly where they received medical treatment. They were later transferred to Ratmalana. The courage and commitment of all SLAF personnel involved in Operation Eagle is a manifestation of their teamwork and training. This single rescue mission gave the besieged troops a morale boost.

It also set the benchmark for future combat rescue missions. In September 1990, the Bell 212s were used to insert Special Forces troops into the Mullaitivu Army Camp. Operation Sea Breeze was also a success. In November 1990 the courageous pilots of No.07 Squadron picked up 100 officers and soldiers from the Mankulam Camp, in the dense jungle area. Those rescued include General Kamal Gunaratne (incumbent Defence Secretary). In comparison to the heavy MI-24 helicopters, the pilots and gunners of Bell 212 helicopters faced a greater risk, as the helicopter had less armour plating. Interestingly prior to the induction of F-7GS interceptor jets, the Bell 212s were placed at Palavi in the air defence role. Later this air defence concept was adapted at SLAF Bases in Katunayake, Vavuniya, Palaly and Hingurakgoda. The crews were on 15-minute standby.

Today the No.07 Squadron remains ready 365 days of the year as a first responder. The role and task of the squadron includes – Combat SAR (Search and Rescue), CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation), air transportation of troops/cargo, Fire Fighting with the aid of bambi – bucket, CAP (Combat Air Petrol), CAS (Close Air support), MEDIVAC (Medical Evacuations), Under slung operations, Basic and Advance helicopter training, HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief), VIP transport, Air Gunner training and NVG (Night Vision Goggles) training.

The Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter is used for training pilots. Group Captain Sameera Gunawardana, Commanding Officer said, ‘We are always ready to respond to natural disasters. We can engage in sea and jungle rescue. This is the cradle of all helicopter pilots. We train officer cadets in basic conversion and advance training for helicopters.”

The No.07 Squadron was awarded the President’s Colours in 2018 for its service to the nation. Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana hopes to increase the number of Bell 206 Jet Rangers and train more pilots, with the aim of producing more SLAF pilots for future UN missions.

Courtesy - dailynews.lk