No. 3 Maritime Squadron: On standby above Lankan skies | Daily News

No. 3 Maritime Squadron: On standby above Lankan skies

Beechcraft
Beechcraft

Most Sri Lankans are familiar with the fighter aircraft of the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF). Every aircraft in the SLAF fleet performs a unique and important role. Today we discover the role and task of 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. China Bay is one of the oldest airfields set up by the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. It is a tropical paradise in every sense.

Y-12 aircraft

Air observation has been happening since World War I and is still a vital part of air strategy. The No.3 Squadron was initially formed in 1965 at the Royal Ceylon Air Force Station, China Bay during the tenure of Air Force Commander Air Vice Marshal E.R. Amarasekera and then Station Commander Group Captain P.H. Mendis (subsequently became Air Force Commander). At that stage, there were six Jet Provost aircraft and one De Havilland Dove aircraft. In 1971, the unit was reformed and renamed as No.3 Maritime Squadron and engaged in aerial reconnaissance, weather updating and medical evacuation among other duties.

The present Commanding Officer of the No.3 Maritime Squadron is Wing Commander Chandana Ratnayake RSP. He explained, “Our squadron was formed in 1971. The first Commanding Officer was Squadron Leader Noor Rahim. There were five De Havilland Dove aircraft and one Jet Provost attached to this squadron. The present logo is the red-wattled lapwing bird denoting the early warning task of these aircraft.” During the 1971 JVP armed insurgency, the pilots had to monitor suspicious boats that could smuggle arms, in addition to routine duties. Later the Cessna 337 Skymaster was added to the fleet. In 1988, the planes were deployed to monitor LTTE movements. The squadron then took on the role of air intelligence gathering.

In 1993, the squadron became non-operational but reconnaissance and surveillance continued. During this time, the Beechcraft and Y-12 planes were assigned to the No.8 Light Transport Squadron operating from Ratmalana. Here the Beechcraft continued their aerial reconnaissance role. This was duly augmented when the SLAF introduced UAV Squadron (unmanned aerial vehicles). The modern era of air observation was born.

Subsequently, Director Air Operations Air Vice Marshal Sudarshana Pathirana (present Air Force Commander Air Marshal) initiated the process to re-establish the maritime squadron because Sri Lanka drew attention within the Indian Ocean Region. Sri Lanka has a larger ocean area than its landmass, with bountiful resources. These sea areas can be used for illegal activity. The need for maritime and land reconnaissance was realized once again. Meanwhile, future continental shelf claims demand that aerial operations stay on

The No.3 Maritime Squadron was re-established on January 11, 2019, when its new facilities were opened by the then Air Force Commander Air Marshal Kapila Jayampathy at the SLAF Academy, China Bay. 
(Picture by Sri Lanka Air Force Website)

par to achieve maritime security objectives.

The present Air Force Commander had flown in this squadron as a young pilot for a few years and knows its important role. He was highly commended when he did a medical evacuation flying a pregnant mother with medical complications aboard the Cessna aircraft, when he encountered single engine failure.

The Wing Commander explained, “At present, we operate the B-200 Beechcraft and Y-12 aircraft. We undertake missions day and night. On our routine flights, the flying crew composition includes observers, photographers and members from the intelligence unit. 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.”

Wing Commander Ratnayake added, “When we fly during the daytime we have reference points and obviously we can see far with our eyes. At nighttime, we fly across the vast ocean. We navigate in darkness without visual clues. We do have night vision capability. We often detect illegal fishing trawlers and other suspicious boats engaged in illegal activities. Early detection is important. In either case, we update the Sri Lanka Navy on our secure line who will intercept the suspect vessels. We also monitor the IMBL (International Maritime Boundary Line).”

No.3 Maritime Squadron Commanding Officer Wing Commander Chandana Ratnayake 

In terms of communication, both the B-200 Beechcraft and Harbin Y-12 have air-to-ground radio sets to communicate to any Air Force Base or airport in the country and the highly-secure and technologically-advanced Air Operations Room at the Air Force Headquarters. In addition, the aircraft can communicate with the Sri Lankan Naval Fleet. All pilots are on standby to be airborne within few minutes of an alert from the Air Force Headquarters. In addition to routine reconnaissance flights, the pilots train with the Navy and other regional foreign navies and air forces during various joint exercises.

In the recent past, these pilots performed a significant service in the search and rescue of the oil tanker New Diamond, which was ablaze at sea during September 2020. The team from the No.3 Maritime Squadron piloted their Y-12 and B-200 as this tragedy unfolding in the high seas. The burning oil tanker presented a great danger of causing a massive oil spill and destroying marine life. The Y-12 and B-200 cautiously engaged in flying over the raging inferno giving real time updates to rescue vessels of the Sri Lanka Navy and Indian Coast Guard. The pilots pinpointed the burning sections of the super tanker to fire fighting tugs and SLAF helicopters involved in firefighting operations. Further flights were made to assess the oil spill which was thankfully contained by all military first responders. The team also updated the NARA and other maritime agencies.

A few days ago, a foreign ship carrying cement ran aground at the Little Basses Reef area. Once again when the Director Air Operations made the call from Colombo it was these Air Force pilots who ascended into the sky to observe the MV Eurosan and report. On their routine flights, the pilots also look out for merchant vessels that might pollute the environment. At present, plans are being made to update the fleet with technologically new aircraft with enhanced sensors. The B-200 and Y-12 are kept in good condition by a dedicated maintenance team who work behind the scene. Due to the consistent flights of this valuable squadron, the resources of Sri Lanka are protected from the sky for her people. Any threats are duly identified and informed for necessary action. The pilots of No.3 Maritime Squadron remain primed and ready above our blue skies.

No.3 Squadron pilots performed a significant service in the search and rescue of the oil tanker 
New Diamond, which was ablaze at sea during September 2020.
Captain Pilot Fg Off SK Pathirana (L) and Co-Pilot Plt Off Mahamalage (R), after a successful Single Engine Emergency Landing at SLAF Base Anuradhapura   
Left to Right: Sgt Pilot Tuan Dole, Sgt Pilot Tony Wahab, Sgt Pilot Ranjith Wijetunga, Sqn Ldr Noor Rahim (CO), Fg Off Nihal Thudugalla, Sgt Pilot Dick Sallay and Sgt Pilot Shan Vadivel