SLAF Stories: Tragedy over Tampalakamam

It was the 12th April, 1971, and the Air Force was in the thick of the ‘Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna’ [JVP] insurgency. F/Off Chira Fernando and F/Lt Manoharan were detailed to drop smoke markers on a target in Polonnaruwa from a Jet Ranger helicopter. Two Jet Provost (JP) aircraft based at Katunayake were also tasked with dropping bombs on the same target.

The 1971 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurrection was the first unsuccessful armed revolt conducted by the JVP against the Government of Ceylon under Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Reference:

The Jet ranger was to eventually proceed to China Bay for refueling, prior to returning to Colombo. Following is the First Person narration by F/Off Chira Fernando of the unfortunate accident that he witnessed during that flight.

Bell Jet Ranger [L] Jet Provost [C & R] Photos: SLAF Museum Ratmalana

“It was early evening. The two JPs overtook our helicopter abeam Kantalai tank. One JP, flown by F/Sgt Tudugalle was ahead and the second, flown by Sgt Pilot Ranjit Wijetunga was about one mile behind him.

Air Commodore N. Tudugalle [Flt Sgt at the time]

I was commanding the Jet Ranger. Suddenly it became obvious to me that Ranjit was flying slower than normal and we were overtaking him. Within minutes after we overtook him, Ranjith called up to say that he was losing power. I asked him what speed he was maintaining. There was a silence. “Check speed” I prompted him again. “105 knots” came the reply.

Kantalai tank [Pic: courtesy Google images]

120 knots is the best gliding speed on the JP and thus 105 kts was way less than the best gliding speed. Both the helicopter and the JP were now over the Western edge of Tampalagamam Bay and at an altitude of about 500 feet. I immediately realized that Ranjith lacked sufficient altitude; and there was no way that the JP could have glided to the China Bay runway.

All I could do was call on the radio and shout “Ranjith Eject, eject!” “Ranjith do you read me? Eject!”

Unfortunately he did not. As we watched in horror, the aircraft nose pitched up and entered into a spin to the left. One and a half turns later the aircraft struck the ground at a relatively flat attitude but in a spin.

Tampalakamam Bay and China Bay airfield [Courtesy Google images]

I landed the helicopter about 30 seconds after the JP hit the ground and within about 50 meters of the crash site. We could see fuel pouring out of the wing root area. Fortunately there was no post-crash fire and F/Lt Manoharan was able to reach the crashed aircraft. He then ran back shouting “Chira, I don’t know how to make the ejection seat safe”. I had no choice but to tighten the friction on the cyclic control and jump out to assist Manoharan; leaving the helicopter unmanned and the rotors turning!

Fuel was still pouring out of the broken JP wing. The aircraft nose had sheared off to the right and Ranjit was hanging on the ejection seat straps, seemingly unconscious. His helmet was missing and so was the whole front and sides of the cockpit, where the seat safety pins are stowed. Mano supported Ranjith’s body while I unstrapped him. He fell into our arms. We carried him to the helicopter within a few minutes of the crash and were immediately on our way to China Bay; a mere 1NM from the crash site.

Picture of the actual lower handle of the Martin Baker ejection seat of the ill-fated JP; the one that a pilot reaches for when short for time [Pic courtesy: Chira Fernando personal collection]

I called for an ambulance and as we approached to land on the apron, I saw the ambulance speeding — away from us! I landed and shut down. We desperately shouted at the airmen using all the profanity we could muster only to find out that the ambulance had gone to pick up the doctor! We anxiously assumed that Ranjith would survive, but the doctor confirmed that he had suffered fatal injuries. Ranjith’s helmet had been flung forward off his head and his head had whiplashed back, fracturing his skull and causing his death.

It was a very somber and quiet flight as we flew his body back to AFHQ that night.

Ranjith Wijetunga Second from Right. [Pic courtesy: SLAF]