Above and beyond the call of duty | Daily News

Above and beyond the call of duty

Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Newly appointed Air Force Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana speaks to the Daily News on his vision for the SLAF

The 18th Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana is no doubt the most experienced pilot clocking over 3,500 flying hours and having experience in flying over 10 types of aircraft. He was adjudged the Best Cadet in the 14th Officer Cadet Intake in the SLAF.  

He was one of the six SLAF pilots to convert to supersonic F7 fighter aircraft and the only pilot in Sri Lanka to have reached an altitude of 66,000 feet. This dynamic pilot has also commanded all three fighter squadrons on one occasion and was the first SLAF officer to be awarded the prestigious Masters in Operational Art and Science by the Air University, Alabama, USA.

The SLAF Commander successfully read for his second Master’s Degree (Defence Studies) in Management awarded by the General Sir John Kotelawala Defence University and became the first in the order of merit.

Air Marshal Pathirana was also awarded the prestigious Green Endorsement in his flying log book by both the Pakistani and Sri Lankan Air Forces.

A proud product of Dharmaraja College, Kandy, he joined the SLAF as an Officer Cadet in 1985. He also holds a Commercial Pilot’s Licence and is a Flying Examiner for the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka.

The newly appointed Commander of the Sri Lanka Air Force spoke with the Daily News in his maiden media interview.

Following are excerpts of the interview with AF Commander Air Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana.

Q. You are known as a man of action. So are you planning on taking the Air Force on a supersonic transformation?

A. There is a 69-year rich history behind the Air Force and 17 other Commanders and many other personnel have contributed immensely to bring the SLAF to what it is today. I must also thank the President, Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary for recognizing me and giving me this opportunity to serve this country and the SLAF.

I am planning on taking the SLAF along four aims and to make sure that the Air Force is capable of contributing and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka amidst new challenges.

The first aim is to maintain the current air power capability by servicing the old aircraft and replenishing the unserviceable aircraft with new ones and fulfilling the expectations of the people.

The second aim is to enhance our maritime reconnaissance and search and rescue capabilities. As Sri Lanka is strategically located in the Indian Ocean, it is our responsibility to maintain vigilance over our territory and the Exclusive Economic Zone. Hence, it is my aim to enhance our air capability to meet that challenge.

My third aim is to recognize the new challenges the world is facing and to fine-tune the SLAF to face those challenges, especially in the area of cyber warfare and drone technology.

As Sri Lanka is an island and more prone to natural disasters, as the SLAF, it is our responsibility to provide assistance during such calamities.

My fourth aim is to build up the air assets and operations of the SLAF to safeguard the lives and properties of the people during such natural disasters.

Q. On a personal note, tell us why and how you decided to join the Air Force.

A. After 1983, I was determined to join either of the Sri Lankan forces in order to contribute to the fight against terrorism. I had applied to the Army as well, but I had this desire to fly. However, I never thought I would be able to handle such machines and be able to become a fighter pilot, but my father encouraged me to apply for the post of general duty pilot of the SLAF. He himself prepared the application and I basically just signed it, not sure if I would be selected for this esteemed occupation. But, I was lucky enough to be selected.

Initially, we were sent to Diyatalawa for training and I topped my batch. Then we were sent to China Bay for flight training and after around six months of ground school and flying, we had to sit an examination. Three cadets were selected from this examination to be sent to Pakistan and I was one of them. I graduated from the Pakistan Air Force Academy and was adjudged the Best Allied Flight Cadet. Upon my return, I served as a reconnaissance pilot safeguarding Sri Lanka’s maritime territory.

In 1990 I was selected together with six SLAF pilots to convert to supersonic F7 fighter aircraft.

Q. Having taken part in all anti-LTTE operations, I am sure you faced many dangerous experiences. Among these which incident stands out?

A. Every mission is a near miss in the end but one incident stands out in my mind. Two aircraft were assigned to provide air support to soldiers being transported to the North. But due to the weather on that day, we were kept on standby. As the ship set course from Trincomalee and around Mullaitivu, we got a message that the LTTE was planning to launch an attack with suicide boats.

Despite the bad weather, we had to take off to support the ship carrying the soldiers. But the No. 2 aircraft had some problem and had to return to base. It was our policy not to fly solo and we always flew in pairs for support. But that day, I had no choice and had to fly solo. Because of the weather I had to fly below the cloud cover at around 12,000 feet. Suddenly I found that there was a great deal of firing and despite the danger, it was a beautiful site where the tracer rounds were penetrating the clouds below me and coming up. But somehow I found a clear patch and having spotted the target, I released the bombs and took out the target, accomplishing my mission.

Q. Is it also true that you had a near miss during a missile attack?

A. Yes, that was in 1997 when a ship carrying weapons for the LTTE came close to the coast and we were assigned to destroy it as the Navy could not reach the location since the LTTE boats were ready to attack.

So, my CEO and I set off in two Kfir aircraft and when we reached Mullaitivu we spotted the target, but also observed huge ground to air fire. We were not too concerned and were at our target.

My CEO dropped two bombs on the front of the ship and I followed with two more towards the middle of the ship and it was ablaze. But both of us had two more bombs each left and as per the safety measures we cannot land with the bombs. Hence, we decided to do a formation dive towards the target and drop the next set of bombs to destroy the ship completely.

My CEO took the lead and I followed and just as we were about to drop our bombs, I noticed a huge puff of smoke from the beach and a trail of smoke coming at us. I realised that we were about to be hit by a missile and we released the bombs and as we had trained for such situations, we just spread out in opposite directions and released out flares to provide a decoy against the missile. It was a split second miss as I saw the missile zoom past me and go up about 5,000 feet and then get destroyed. Luckily we survived that attack and managed to return to base.

Q. You are also considered to be the only pilot to have flown at an altitude of 66,000 feet. Tell us what the experience was like.

A. It was a unique experience that I got during our F7 training. We got the F7 aircraft from the Chinese government and we had Chinese instructors. As the aircraft were new they wanted us to fly to the extreme envelope of the aircraft. One is the speed and the other is the height. We had five pilots and normally you fly at around 63,000 feet. But, my flying instructor told me that if I wanted, I could push it to the ultimate height and take the aircraft to 66,000 feet. He told me not to worry and that nothing would happen, so I took up the challenge. That was a unique experience as we had to wear space-like suites and once we took off, I increased my speed to supersonic and climbed to 66,000 feet. It is a breath-taking scene as you could see the entire length and breadth of Sri Lanka from that height.

Q. You are also the most highly decorated officer in the Air Force. Tell us about these awards.

A. I would first like to respectfully remember all the war heroes who have performed a supreme sacrifice. During the war we never thought of these medals and it was only service for our country. Though I have been honoured with these medals, there is a chain of other crew members who put in a huge effort. I am grateful for being awarded eight gallantry medals. I was awarded the Vishishta Seva Vibhushanaya and the Uttama Seva Padakkama, the Weera Wickrama Vibhushanaya twice, Rana Wickrama Padakkama twice and Rana Sura Padakkama on four occasions. However, these medals belong to everyone who supported me.

Q. Perhaps you are the only pilot to have fought on ground to save your Kfir squadron during the Katunayake attack. What happened?

A. I was a Kfir Pilot and my quarters were close to the hanger. That day around 1.00 am I heard the attack and saw the airport under fire. As per the instructions I had to run to the bunker and save myself. But I could not watch and I got into my vehicle and drove towards the hanger where the Kfir aircraft were parked. But I could not get there as the terrorists were firing and I left the vehicle and went on foot amidst the fire.

I managed to creep into the squadron and saw one member injured and managed to send him to hospital. I found one T56 and picked it up and joined the counter attack. Then there was a firing at one side of the hanger and I let the regiment guys to deal with the enemy and I concentrated on getting the fire under control as all the aircraft were in danger and the fire truck too was under attack and could not reach us. Then together with some technicians we had to push the Kfirs to the rear of the hanger and save them from being destroyed. Generally these aircrafts weigh around two to three tons and we use a tractor to pull them, but that day we somehow managed to pull the Kfirs by sheer muscle power and protect them from being destroyed. This was a tremendous group achievement that increased my pride in the SLAF.