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Guardians of Our Skies

August 05, 2022

By Dishan Joseph

Many aviation fans in Sri Lanka can recognize a giant C-130 Hercules plane, a Y-12 aircraft, an MA-60 cruising in the sky or hear the thundering roar of the MI-17 helicopter. Today let us remember the role and task of all these aircraft for their commendable role in helping fellow Sri Lankans during difficult times and natural disasters. The SLAF has also extended its support by flying for many UN Missions overseas. Let us take a look at these flying squadrons in brief, and their humane contribution to enhance life.

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. The transport squadron of any Air Force is the vital backbone that silently works behind the scenes. Moving of logistics is extremely vital in any military offensive. The Y-12 transport aircraft has been the workhorse of this squadron.

The No 8 Squadron was established on April 2, 1996. 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). This squadron has a long history and played a key role in the Humanitarian Operations. Their primary task is the transportation of cargo and troops. They have successfully engaged in reconnaissance, CASEVAC (casualty evacuation), MEDIVAC (role of an air ambulance), search and rescue. The planes also engage in commercial transport of civilians through our Helitours flights, connecting Sri Lankans with their families and friends.

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.

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 No. 2 Squadron located at the SLAF Base in Katunayake is the home of the formidable aircraft that give the Air Force its heavy lift capability. This squadron is the pioneer flying formation of the SLAF and is embellished with courage and professional excellence. During the time of the Royal Ceylon Air Force the No. 2 Squadron was formed on September 2, 1957 at SLAF Base Katunayake. The transport aircraft at that time were the Oxford Airspeed, Prestwick Pioneer and De Havilland Dove.

In the 1950s and 1960s the Herons and De Havilland were used in flood relief missions to airdrop essential items. During the 1971 insurgency, SLAF aircraft had been used to transport food to several areas in the country. In 1992 the No. 2 Transport Wing was separated as the 201 Heavy Transport Squadron and 202 Light Transport Squadron. In 1995, the 201 Squadron was redesignated as the No. 2 Heavy Transport Squadron. The flying horse Pegasus is the symbol of the squadron. The trusted workhorse of the No. 2 Squadron is the Antonov AN-32B aircraft. This is a twin-engine turboprop military aircraft manufactured in Ukraine. The AN-32B is a version created from the AN-26 type aircraft.

The Lockheed C-130 Hercules is a four-engine, turboprop military transport aircraft. In spite of its large payload, this aircraft has the ability to take-off and land on unpaved runways. Presently this flying giant is the tactical military transporter used by more than 60 countries across the world. The SLAF high command decided to purchase two C-130 aircraft from the Royal Air Force. One of these aircraft arrived in March 2000 and the other in September 2000. The arrival of this aircraft enhanced the heavy lift capacity of the SLAF, assisting in transport of food and medicines for civilians among other flying duties.

It was in 2014 that the SLAF was invited by the UN Headquarters based in New York to engage its officers and airmen in UN stabilization missions. The No-6 Squadron extended its wings internationally by deploying an Aviation Unit to the Central African Republic in 2014. The mission to the Central African Republic is known as MINUSCA (Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission to Central Africa). Three MI-17 helicopters of the SLAF were duly deployed. The first SLAF contingent included 122 personnel including pilots, engineers and support staff. They flew as the No-62 Flight, an extension of the No-6 Helicopter Squadron. The Air Force UN deployment commenced on September 15, 2014. SLAF has remitted more than 100 million USD to the national treasury to date from its troop deployments in UN duties.

When the SLAF augmented its fleet with heavy lift capacity helicopters, one of the new rotary-wing aircraft that was introduced was the formidable MI-17. This helicopter initiated the formation of the No-6 Squadron on March 15, 1993, at the SLAF Base in Katunayake. In those formative years, there were three helicopters, with 14 officers and 52 energetic airmen. During the SAARC Summit in Colombo, two of the MI-17 helicopters were assigned to carry VVIP dignitaries, and this was a noteworthy achievement in the squadron’s history. By 2006, the pilots were engaging in many medical and casualty evacuations, in support of Humanitarian Operations.

The Sri Lanka Air Force gained the respect of the global Buddhist community in 2014 when this squadron airlifted 26 tons of construction material to Adam’s Peak for the building of the Udamaluwa. In 2017, during the torrential rains that unleashed floods and landslides, the powerful MI-17 helicopters soared into action delivering emergency rations and medicines to thousands of stranded citizens. A unique feature in this flood relief operation was the MI-17 helicopters’ ability to lift and position boats, using the “under slung” manoeuvering technique, which subsequently enabled other military first responders to save civilians from the deadly deluge. SLAF pilots displayed their prowess when the MI-17 was used to carry a stone statue of the Buddha weighing 3,500 Kg. The statue was safely deposited at the Mulkirigala Raja Maha Viharaya. When the MV New Diamond tanker was ablaze at sea, the MI-17s engaged in dousing the raging fire by successfully releasing 177 bambi buckets of water and a further 1,000 Kg of dry chemical powder. This squadron was bestowed with the President’s Colour in March 2021.

In December 2020, terrorists had burned and attacked a village in Boromata in the Central African Republic. Ground troops had taken three days to respond, hindered by the difficult terrain to the village. The SLAF pilots got actively involved by inserting Zambian Special Forces (SF) to maintain security and protect the innocent villagers.

One of the new and ongoing projects of the SLAF was to use their air assets to increase the nation’s forest cover. This process is done through ‘seed bombing’- when pilots soar to sow. SLAF flies the MI-17 helicopters for this task. The helicopter flies at a low level between 200–300 feet, and the crew carefully drops the seeds. Once the planting by air is over field teams will visit the area every month to monitor the progress. It is expected that by 2030 Sri Lanka will increase its forest cover to 32 percent. The first seed bombing project was conducted in December 2018 at Ranowewa (on the Nochchiyagama Road) targeting five acres of land. In October 2019, the team dropped 60,000 seeds in an area of 60 acres followed by another mission in December 2020 covering 25 acres. During 2019, SLAF crews did extensive seed bombing projects in Udawalawe, Moneragala, Batticaloa and Silawathura areas recreating 12.5 acres of forest cover in each sector. The Command Agri Unit dropped 70,000 seeds to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Sri Lanka Air Force.

The No.3 Maritime Squadron based at the SLAF Academy, China Bay, Trincomalee. The pilots attached to this squadron fly the B200 Beechcraft and Harbin Y-12 aircraft. The primary role of these pilots and crews involves aerial observations such as surveillance, reconnaissance and situation assessment round the clock. In addition, they take an important role in search operations alongside the Sri Lanka Navy.

They operate the B-200 Beechcraft and Y-12 aircraft. They fly missions day and night. There is an officer who is designated as a HADR Officer, who coordinates any search missions. The Maritime Squadron comes under the purview of the Director Air Operations and works closely with the Directorate of Air Intelligence. Its pilots are on standby 24/7.

Today the No.07 Squadron remains ready 365 days of the year as a first responder. They fly the BEL 212 and BEL 206 helicopters. The role and task of the squadron includes among other duties - CASEVAC (Casualty Evacuation), air transportation of troops/cargo, Fire Fighting with the aid of bambi - bucket, MEDIVAC (Medical Evacuations), Under slung operations and HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief). The SLAF pilots and support crews remain primed and ready to extend their wings of care. In addition to airborne missions SLAF has engaged in many CSR projects, like building and repairing schools and temples, cleaning and repairing hospitals, assisting health officials during the peak of Covid-19 pandemic, operating free medical clinics for civilians etc. SLAF remains committed to serving Sri Lanka.

Courtesy - www.dailynews.lk