By Dan Narayanan
“He was like many other kids of that age. Every time an airplane flew overhead, he would look up and watch until it disappeared from sight. But he was also different…His interest in airplanes went beyond just gazing at the sky.”
Chira is a direct descendent of the famed Veera Puran Appu of Ceylon. His maternal grandfather owned one of the largest coffee plantations in the mid-1800s and was one of the first Ceylonese to start his own bank. His father was the first Ceylonese Optician in the country. But none of these credentials mattered to the little star gazer who was already aligning his own stars!
Chira read his first ‘aeroplane story book’ on a hospital bed after a minor operation for appendicitis. He soon became familiar with wartime stories and wartime flying legends such a ‘Cats Eye’ Cunningham, Douglas Bader (whom he had the privilege of meeting later in life) and Leonard Cheshire (of Dam Buster Squadron fame).
All these interests in aviation started him off at an early age to form a Model Flying Club at his school, S. Thomas’ College Mt Lavinia. Chira was fully supported by his father, who got him stacks of Balsa wood and model plane kits. One day little Chira designed and built his own version of a flying model with a small engine that was flown on two control lines. Every Sunday he would tie his models to his bicycle and cycle to the Colombo Race Course to fly them.
Chira never had or expressed any opinion other than on aviation related subjects. His mother often complained that he was not studying for his school exams. But young Chira was in no mood to argue. He was too busy in their back yard, clad in his sarong, building his aircraft models.
When Chira was 14 years old, he lost his father. That day his world collapsed. His childhood dream of becoming an aviator was now far out of reach as his widowed mother could not afford the Rs: 25/- per hour for his flying lessons at the Air Academy in Ratmalana. But, Chira continued building his flying models as and when he could save enough money to buy local ‘Albesia’ wood.
At the age of 18 Chira entered the Colombo University. One day on his way home from lectures he met his friend “Timmy”who informed him that the Royal Ceylon Air Force [RCyAF] had advertised for engineering cadets on a 5 year scholarship. A quick trip to the Punchi Borella Post Office and his application was on its way to the RCyAF.
After a tough selection process Chira was selected as an Officer Cadet of the RCyAF. He completed his basic training at RCyAF Diyatalawa prior to proceeding for his advanced training at the Royal Air Force College in Cranwell UK.
Soon he began his classroom work. He was surrounded by aircraft. He was appointed to work on them. Yet he could not fly them! One day a colleague eventually led Chira to his very first flying experience on a glider. Ironically Chira had never flown in an aircraft even as a passenger prior to this gliding experience. His trip to the UK was also by ship!
In September 1968, during an ‘Escape and Evasion’ training in Germany Chira fell into a ditch and twisted his knee, but continued the exercise after some First Aid treatment. Back in Cranwell, his injury became worse and he had to undergo a knee operation. He was then transferred to Hadley Court — an Officer Injury Rehabilitation Center. During his convalescing period, his Squadron Commander visited him to tell him that since he had missed quite a bit of his academic training, he would have to “change to flying”!!
A few months later, Chira passed the flying Aptitude Tests at the historic war time airfield — RAF Biggin Hill and joined the 94th Entry of Cranwell College as a pilot. He commenced flying on the Jet Provost Mk4 where Aerobatics, Formation Flying and Tail Chases formed part of the curriculum. Barely two weeks into his flying training Chira made history as the first Ceylonese [Sri Lankan] to make his first solo flight in a Jet aircraft. On 2nd August 1968 he graduated with RAF Wings.
On returning to Ceylon, Chira was posted to the No 4 Helicopter Flight where he trained on the Westland S51 Dragonfly, with the 520 HP Alvis Leonides radial engine. He then moved on to the Bell 206 Jet Ranger.
In 1970, Chira was appointed a Qualified Flight Instructor at the RCyAF No 1 Flight Training School in China Bay, where he trained cadets on the Chipmunk T10 and the De Havilland Dove. In 1971 April, during the JVP Insurgency Chira went back to flying helicopters mainly flying the OH-13H armed helicopters.
In 1976, Chira became the youngest Commanding Officer at the time when he took over the No 6 (MiG) Squadron. In between aerobatic demonstrations by the MiG formation flying team, Chira self-studied and passed the UK Airline Transport Pilots License (ATPL) exam. He was then seconded to “Air Maldives” to fly the Convair 440 aircraft. In 1978 Chira was appointed Deputy Commandant of the SLAF Academy at China Bay. He left the SLAF in June 1981.
In July 1981, Chira joined the Civil Aviation Industry. He flew the Lake Buccaneer LA200 and revived float plane operations in the island which was dormant since the last Catalina flight out of Koggala in the 1950s! He then started “Air Taxis” the first ever private flying training organization in Sri Lanka together with Sqd Ldr [Rtd] Osmund Paul which became the ultimate blueprint for future Aviation training schools in the island.
In June 1982, Chira joined Air Lanka on the Lockheed L1011 Tri Star. A few years later he was appointed as an Instructor in the National Carrier.
1987 Chira and his aviatrix wife ferried their own Piper Cherokee PA28 from Dubai to Colombo. They made history as the first flying duo in Ceylon after they completed this international flight. They went on to successfully train pilots at the “Colombo Flying Club” of who many are now senior captains of leading airlines and General Aviation.
In 1991 during his tenure as the Manager Flight Operations at Air Lanka, Chira introduced the fly-by-wire Airbus A320 and the A340 to the airline. In 1994 Chira became the first Airbus A340 Captain in South Asia and the Far East region.
In Aug 1995 all General aviation was banned in Sri Lanka.
Chira then joined Gulf Air in 1997 and Singapore Airlines in 1998 continuing as commander and Instructor on the Airbus A340 and the Boeing B777.
Chira also went on to become a Simulator Instructor at Boeing Alteon for a short period after which he was head hunted by ST Aerospace Academy (STAA), to become its Head of Training. It is in this capacity that he spearheaded the development of the Multi-Crew Pilots License (MPL) for Singapore.
Capt Chira Fernando, the quintessential aviation legend of Lanka has successfully aligned his stars to experience aviation as a Military Pilot, Fighter pilot, Aerobatic pilot, Helicopter pilot, Airline pilot, General Civil aviation pilot, Airline Operations manager, Flight Instructor, Aviation Examiner, Aero modeller, Glider pilot and most recently as a Para motor flyer. Fearless, Insatiable, and unrelenting when it comes to flying, Chira holds the record in Sri Lanka for flying the most number of flying machines — 51 different types at the last count in January 2016.