In the several eulogies delivered at Ravi Jayewardene’s funeral on April 6, and the many articles published since then, no mention has been made of the sacrifices he was prepared to make to promote and set up a National Airline or a ‘flag carrier’ for Sri Lanka. I therefore take this opportunity to fill in the blanks by bringing these facts to light as a tribute to his memory because on his own he would never have mentioned them.
I came to know Ravi, as a colleague at the Civil Aviation Flying School in Ratmalana, where we were training for a career as professional Airline pilots. He was known as Ravi by all those who came in contact with him and hardly referred to as the son of one of Sri Lanka’s most illustrious political leaders.
Ravi turned out to be an excellent pilot in all areas of Commercial flying, additionally excelling in aerobatics. He made it a point to join the other trainee pilots in all the fun and mischief that the group of young airmen were involved in, even eating out with us at cheap wayside food outlets and going with us for movies and occupying the cheapest seats. Ravi always found time to listen to and help any person who came to him for assistance. He helped them all in whatever way he could and I know of none who was turned away. In lighter vein we described it as his fee-less ‘private practice’. This side of his character amazed the rest of us, who only had the time to talk about airplanes and lived mainly focused on flying Airplanes. Ravi also excelled as a Rifle and Pistol Shooter and won several Awards both nationally and internationally, representing Sri Lanka at the Tokyo Olympics and the Asian Games.
After qualifying as a Commercial Pilot, which also required a candidate to pass the Theory part of the examination set by the British Board of Trade, Ravi achieved his ambition of becoming an Airline Pilot in 1969 by being selected to join Air Ceylon as a First Officer on the Avro aircraft. He was joined by three of his batch mates -- Nihal Jayawickrema, R. Baladharan and myself for whom this was a dream come true.
Needless to say, Ravi performed his duties earning the reputation of being very Safe and Reliable Airline Pilot -- the greatest compliment that could be paid to one of them.
In the course of time, Ravi came to know first-hand the problems that slowed down the progress of Civil Aviation in Sri Lanka mainly because of the reluctance of the Airline Management to keep up with the rapid strides taken by the Aviation industry worldwide. Instead of training and developing the airline’s human resources and the infrastructure facilities, the management, hand in hand with the then political powers-that-be paid little or no heed to the local aviation scene other than being keen to sell Sri Lanka’s Sovereign Air Service Rights to various Foreign Airlines whenever possible.
Try as he might, Ravi never had the opportunity to change this situation and sadly though, a few years later suffered his first heart attack, which cut short his career as an Airline Pilot. This health condition continued to plague him for the rest of his life, finally leading to his recent demise. I remember walking into his room at Ratnam’s Hospital after his heart attack and the first words he spoke was, “That’s the end of my flying”. At the time neither was by-pass surgery nor stent insertion acceptable according to the medical Standards for Airline pilots. Shortly after, Ravi left Sri Lanka, first for a short period to study and to practice Buddhism in Thailand and thereafter to live in Australia with his wife Penny.
Civil Aviation in Sri Lanka cruised along as in the past, though a few unsuccessful attempts were made to change its flight path with more Sri Lankans recruited and several efforts being made to correct the situation ending in failure because of management and political agendas.
From time to time I corresponded with Ravi about these futile attempts to give Sri Lanka an Airline it deserved. In 1977, Ravi’s father, J.R. Jayewardena was elected Prime Minister. His government decided to close down Air Ceylon -- because of the heavy losses it was incurring and the rampant corruption plaguing the Airline -- and launch a new National Airline as a joint-venture operation. It was then that I received an Aerogram from Ravi saying he now had the opportunity of launching the proposed Airline so that it will be of benefit to the many talented Sri Lankans interested in Aviation.
Ravi envisaged that the proposed Airline would have a free hand to be operated and managed without any political interference and being only answerable to the then President J.R. Jayewardene, who was also the Minister of Aviation. Ravi had plenty of work to do, which meant several trips to Sri Lanka to achieve his goal.
Nothing much seemed to be happening on the matters that Ravi had worked so hard and diligently. Some two months later, I got another aerogram from Ravi, asking me to go immediately and meet his father to tell him that unless this proposed Airline started up soon and in the manner agreed to by President Jayewardena, Ravi would never return to Sri Lanka. This side of his character increased my estimation of my friend Ravi and left me wondering whether anyone else would even contemplate such a deed for such a personally unrelated cause. A strange sight greeted me when I walked into the President’s Residence “Braemar” in Ward Place the next morning, in the outer verandah were seated several top bureaucrats of the day some of whom were handling Aviation hoping perhaps one of them would head the new Airline. I was ushered into the President’s room. He called me in and said, “I say. Ravi says he will never return unless I start this Airline in the way he has asked for and that it has to be done right away.” I responded, “Yes Sir, Ravi has written to me as well saying the same thing and knowing Ravi, once he has made up his mind he will never change it”, to which the President replied, “I know. What’s the use of my being President and having all this, without my only son being by my side, come and meet me for lunch at Presidents House today and I will issue all the necessary directives to get it off the ground.”
So was born Air Lanka, which won many accolades for its high Service Standards while being much-respected as Sri Lanka’s ‘flag carrier’ with Sri Lankan pilots piloting the latest and largest aircraft and Sri Lankan Engineers setting new benchmarks by maintaining the aircraft according to the highest Standards.Thanks are due to Ravi Jayewardene’s single handed efforts and single minded purpose against so many odds for no personal gain or glory.
With his former colleagues busy flying airplanes to many parts of the world and being involved either directly or indirectly in the actual operations of Air Lanka, a lifestyle we only dreamt of earlier, I had on several occasions asked Ravi to join us. He always declined, saying he was happy to sit back and watch Sri Lankans having this great opportunity in Aviation and assured me of his support at all times to help in achieving our goals, a promise he always kept.
“Ask not what your Country can do for you, but what you can do for your Country,” were words made famous by US President John F. Kennedy and instilled many years before in the hearts and minds of schoolboys by Warden Buck of S. Thomas’s College, the other school which Ravi and his forefathers attended. These words would illustrate and summarize the unique life and times of Ravi Jayewardene.
May Ravi find Eternal Rest and Peace he so richly deserves for all his endeavours on Earth. Rest in Peace my dear friend.