Representative picture of a MiG21

The choice was quite simple.

We could take apart the Piper Cherokee-140 that we had just bought from the Dubai flying club, pack it into a container and ship it — or — we could fly it to Colombo. The cost factor of the two methods was close enough to make either method viable. Thus when Chira asked me if I would like to ferry the aircraft from Dubai, naturally the ‘fun-factor’ made all other choices redundant! I jumped at the opportunity. A ferry it was to be.

The Dubai Flying Club from whom we purchased the aircraft were most helpful during the entire transaction. The Cherokee was ready by October 1987 and registered on the Sri Lanka registry as 4R-CAA. Several pilots from the Dubai flying club volunteered to ferry the aircraft but there was no way that we would let go such an opportunity!

Dubai airport in the 1980s. Pic courtesy Thiru Kumar

The route for the ferry flight was determined by the endurance of the aircraft with an auxiliary ferry tank fitted on the rear seat. The maximum endurance of 10½ hours was limited only by our ability to be strapped in with very little movement, as the seats could not be moved back with the tank at the back.

We decided on 7 hours as a maximum sector length. The route therefore was DXB-KHI-BOM-MAA with two night stops in Karachi and Bombay [now Mumbai] and a tech stop in Madras [Now Chennai]. The date of the flight was determined only after Chira’s Air Lanka roster came out as it was not possible for him to obtain leave for the ferry. However thanks to the rostering staff at Air Lanka, he managed to get a clear week off with a little bit of juggling of the crew roster.

The PA28 with its original colour scheme of the Dubai Flying Club

The over-flying clearances were obtained through the Dubai Operations which was manned by very helpful bunch of Pakistani and Indian officers. Chira and I travelled to Dubai two days before the ferry. On 27th November 1987, we air-tested the Cherokee; mainly to evaluate the ‘transfer system’ of the auxiliary tank. Everything was perfect. We planned for an early start on 29th morning.

We had one overnight bag with minimum clothing and equipment. The aircraft was already at Max Gross with the 45 gallon auxiliary tank. Luckily me being a light weight [at the time] gave us a slight allowance for some biscuits, water, torchlights, a hand-held transceiver, two Mae vests and an Emergency Locator beacon with voice facility — kindly loaned to us by the Dubai Flying Club.

Adhil and Susantha our Air Lanka ground staff had just seen the last Air Lanka aircraft off and were on hand to help us at the Dubai airport. The weather forecast could not have been any better, with light low level winds.

However, we came across our first bureaucratic problem when trying to exit the departure lounge [clad in our worn out denims] — to our aircraft. The Arab guard refused to let us out on to the Apron since we were not attired in Pilot uniforms!

“Whheyrr you going?” he gruffed.

“We are going to our aircraft on the Apron” Chira replied.

“Whheyrr is your boarding pass?”

“We are the pilots of the aircraft” I responded.

“Huh! You are pilots? Then whheyrr your uniform?”

Finally after a series of dumb questions, the problem was brilliantly solved by Susantha who quickly wrote out two boarding passes for flight number CAA!

The security guard was very happy and we were on our way.

Flying without uniforms

I began taxiing with an iron grip on the Cherokee yoke! It was my very first time that I was piloting an International flight. Soon we were cleared for take-off and no sooner I rotated and climbed out I encountered another reality check. The climb performance of the aircraft, with the weight of the extra fuel tank was dismally poor. We took more than one hour to reach 8000 feet and was relieved to finally level off!

Overall the DXB-KHI leg, overflying Muscat and Jiwani went off without a hitch. The aircraft performed beautifully although our climb rate of 200 feet per minute left something to be desired! It worried Muscat control too. Flying over Muscat, the scenery was spectacular and much more breath-taking than when viewed from 35000 feet. The route included two long ‘over-water’ legs, but the smooth running engine and our increasing confidence of the aircraft made it quite enjoyable!

Bracing for my first international flight

Navigation was entirely by Jeppesen High/Low charts as ‘topo’ charts for the area were unavailable. Chira had practiced sitting in one place during his regular Bangkok-Tokyo flights — which paid off. He was thrilled that the Cherokee seats were actually more comfortable than the L-1011 cockpit seats, and the 7½ hours passed without any discomfort for us except the fact that our intake of fluids was grossly miscalculated!

Finally we used empty ‘Masafi’ plastic water bottles for something they were not designed for. The task itself involved some acrobatic manoeuvring and wild gyrations as our knees got in the way of the control wheels. I had more problems than Chira. But ultimately we were completely free of the burden; which was accomplished quite hygienically I must add.

Pic 1: The multi purpose Masafi bottle. Pic 2: Route from Dubai to overhead Muscat
Window peeks over Oman captured by a tiny kodak box camera

We neared Karachi just as the sun was setting. The airfield was unfamiliar for both of us. Chira too had never operated to Karachi before. But we had all the necessary charts to make a safe landing in hazy Karachi.

Muscat Karachi route
Sunset when approaching Karachi

On arrival in KHI we were met by Shaheen airport services, the handling agents for Air Lanka. The immigration and customs formalities were completed in double quick time. We carefully dumped the half full Masafi urine bottles and left the airport. A very friendly chatterbox taxi driver took us to Hotel Midway — our old UL crew hotel.

A cool beer would have been welcome, but in dry Karachi this was not to be. Lemonade was the best alternative for the time being.

Shaheen airport services Karachi

The following day’s Karachi-Bombay sector was calculated. It was going to be a six hour flight. We made a leisurely start from the hotel at 0800 hours. The handling agents who helped us with the paper work were well worth the US$200 fee.

The aircraft climbed well this time, with only 20 gallons in the auxiliary tank. We were nicely settled enroute and navigating by VORs. Our Air Lanka B737 pilots who were BOM-KHI crackerjacks had advised us to make early two way contact with Bombay. Thus Chira was trying to contact another aircraft for a relay as we did not have HF. Just then we heard a slight popping noise from the Instrument panel area, but a quick glance at the instruments did not indicate that anything was amiss. A few seconds later the alternator failure light came on and we realised that the noise we heard must have been the alternator belt snapping.

I reached over behind the Aux tank to get at the VHF receiver and “WHOOSH” an aircraft passed directly underneath us, less than 200 feet below, from left to right! Oh shit… a near miss! — I thought.

Representative image of the MiG21

Looking out we saw the aircraft at our 10 o’clock pulling up and turning away. In a few seconds the aircraft, an Indian Air Force MiG 21 sailed past on our port side with speed brakes out and at a very high angle of attack. The pilot was obviously trying to read our registration which was “taped” on the sides of the fuselage. There were no markings on the wings.

We were half expecting him to put his gear down, indicating to us to follow him and land. I was gripping the aircraft to remain steady while Chira called up 121.5. To our relief a Saudi Arabian B747 flight responded. We relayed our position to Bombay with a request to call off the MiG21.

Saudi Arabian airlines B747

In the meantime the MiG jockey was having fun making passes at us, flying across our flight path just below and above us. Cheeky fella! He then abruptly did a high speed run, shot past us and kept going. Phew! It was a relief to see him disappear into the distance. The rest of the flight was an anti-climax and we landed at Bombay at 1730 hours.

We encountered our second episode of bureaucratic red tape in Bombay. The immigration officers at Bombay were the most obnoxious species we have ever come across.

The Immigration Officer Said to me, “you have to fill up a thut-teen paaint farm

“Ok” I said. “May we have the thirteen point form please?”

“Arre, we dawnt hav it. You have to prod-duce one you-arself” he retorted, meaning that they actually expected US to produce THEIR Indian immigration form!

Needless to say we were shuttling back and forth between various offices trying to locate a ‘thirteen point form’. In desperation Chira called Mr Ali our Air Lanka station manager in Bombay, but unfortunately he was ill and unable to come to the airport. He connected us to an Indian Airlines official who was not in the least helpful. Ultimately we exited the Bombay airport at 0100 hours — exactly 7 ½ hours after landing! Things were so bad that we contemplated sleeping in the aircraft the night.

The next morning, a private company ‘Airworks India’ at Santa Cruz airport agreed to replace the alternator belt and Mr Ravi Menon the owner of Airworks requested us to taxi our aircraft across to their hangar. Easier said than done! The red tape moved in reverse this time. Ultimately it took us from 0900 hours until 1630 hours to get a temporary pass to get to our aircraft on the ramp! It was an utterly frustrating day with both of us losing our cool — time and again.

Airworks India Pic [L] courtesy Jimmy Wadia
Waiting for Airworks to complete work

Airworks was a refreshing change. A highly professional outfit, they tried their best to find a replacement belt. We were unsuccessful. Thus we decided to charge the battery and fly to Colombo on battery power only. Airworks serviced the aircraft and had it ready early next morning — free of charge.

We were given the usual farewell ‘guard –of-honour’ by the Bombay residents who were squatting on either side of the airport perimeter, with tin cans by their sides, performing their morning defecation rituals. I opened the window and waved to them. They waved back, smoke rising from their asses through the early morning mist. As we turned to line up on the runway, I caught a glimpse of the dogs sniffing around the freshly dumped faecal matter.

Representative image of the ritual along the airport perimeter
Saying goodbye to Bombay

These appalling experiences in Bombay convinced us that another landing in Indian soil is out of the question. There was no way in hell that we were going to land in Madras. Topping up the auxiliary tank would enable us to make it direct to Colombo — nonstop. Our route plan was via Madras as we did not have sufficient terrain clearance to fly the direct route abeam the Western Ghats.

Our planned ETD was 0900 local, but ultimately we departed only at 1130 hours. This worried us a little as we would have to fly approximately three hours in darkness, relying only on battery power. We did have an adequate supply of spare batteries for the torchlights and the VHF transceiver.

Bombay to Madras

Our route selection was justified. The aircraft took 1 hour and 15 mts to reach 7000 feet! Chira who had tremendous experience in step climbing [which he practiced regularly on Air Lanka’s 4R-ULC above 30000 feet], instructed me on how to gain altitude, advancing 300 feet at a time. He taught me how to trade speed for height and accelerate during each level off.

The flight across India to Madras was uneventful except for a period of uncertainty of position when we lost contact with any usable radio aids. Map reading with the Jeppesen charts was impossible. We continued on dead-reckoning navigation. When we finally got the fix, our position was bang on track — or near enough. I was elated that my flight planning was spot on and our ETAs were never more than 3 minutes out.

Over Madras with daylight fading, we were a little apprehensive. A bad case of get-there-itis and our technic of using the aircraft radios only for transmissions and fixes convinced us that we had sufficient power in the aircraft battery to get us home.

The last three hours were quite hectic. Chira was holding the torch while I was flying using the faint moonlight to pick holes in the clouds. We were able to avoid major build-ups of clouds, but were in weather from 50 miles south of Madras all the way up to Jaffna.

The last leg from Madras to Colombo

Establishing contact with Colombo Airways was the most exhilarating moment for us. We felt that we were home at last although we had a further 1 ½ hours of flying to do. We calculated and surmised that we had nearly two hours of fuel left. The Aux and starboard fuel tanks were now empty. We were prepared to divert to any local fields in case of insufficient fuel.

Descending to 5000 feet to remain clear of clouds, we spotted Negombo and the Katunayake airport from 30 miles out. Chira was so thrilled that he switched on ALL the lights and strobes once we got the clearance to land. We touched down at 2100 hours after completing 9 hours and 30 mts in the aircraft and less than 3 gallons of fuel in the port tank.

Immigration and customs clearances were completed in double quick time and we were in Colombo city by 2230 hours.

Truly, we had returned to paradise.

Chira and Ravi Menon of Airworks India meeting in Singapore after 30 years

This story was first featured in the newsletter of the Airline Pilots Guild of Sri Lanka in August 1988