By Capt. Elmo Jayawardena
Come December 2012, there is a centenary celebration of a little known event that set off a stellar trail of aviation in Sri Lanka. The old Race Course was the venue; limited records indicate that a German aviator did the maiden flight in our paradise isle. It was the second plane that arrived on our shore by ship. The first one owned by an Englishman was only for display, where people bought tickets to see the flying machine. On record is that Von Hester owned the second plane, whether he flew or someone else did is an unanswered question. The plane took off, glided and crashed, thus recording Lanka’s first flight. It was in 1912 and that makes our nation’s aviation history a hundred years old in 2012.
Celebrations are being planned and celebrations will be held to commemorate the event. Aviation in Sri Lanka is moving. 2.5 million tourists by 2015 are not going to parachute down to beach resorts or come paddling out-trigger canoes. They need aeroplanes to bring them in and ferry them out to places of choice. Planes need airports manned by competent people and regulated procedures to meet international standards of safety. This may herald a situation that will demand dedicated professional efforts and certainly not dream-world aspirations and unrealistic boardroom talk.
I have also read of the planned aviation hub and the center for aeronautical training that is being talked about in high circles. Matthala Airport comes in flashing neon while dimmer bulbs light-up the many runways that are scattered around the island for smaller craft to operate to and fro. The lakes too open up; landing platforms for the amphibians that open a whole new dimension of ‘fly to’ probabilities.
All that is good as long as the skies are safe.
The commercial aspect of aviation is a matter of profit where everyone aims for a piece of the pie. Engineering is a vital link, directly connected to flight safety. Training people to be professionals matter most and should certainly be the aim of the fraternity. Many meaningful methods are minted and placed in classrooms where trainers propel trainees to fit into different roles that oil the operation. These aspects are the prerogative of the individuals and the companies that do aviation business. They run a show that is based on rupees and cents, rightly so.
The question then is who minds the store? What about safe practices, qualification approvals, periodical evaluations and audits that keep the system ticking in the ‘safe mode?’
There lies the ‘thin edge of the wedge’ as without professional monitoring to separate the villains of aviation from the venerated we will only be making a fervent plea for a catastrophic result. No proper regulations, no proper monitoring and no properly qualified personnel will brew a sure recipe for disaster which in simpler terms is called tempting providence.
Let’s look at how we have travelled in this long road of aviation from 1912 to now? The path did have its share of pitfalls and cobblestones. The sheet at times has not been laundered clean in our annals of aviation. Godfathers with political connections saw to it, adding their unqualified expertise to the script. Let’s not take the ‘holier than thou’ label and profess we are perfect. I do know a few scintillating fairy tales; some things are best left unsaid. I have been romancing with aviation here for four plus decades and I sure have seen enough of the ‘seenibola system’ that acted against professionalism.
But Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has survived, scarred and dented but survived and will survive, thanks to some people who ride the parasitic tide of interference and stand tall (sometimes injured and in crutches) to ensure the truth remains the truth and regulations are respected. Of course there is always a Judas or two who may nod to the 30 pieces of silver, but the fact is CAA survived and today has achieved a very commendable position in ICAO’s (International Civil Aviation Organisation) ratings of safety compliance.
The last reckoning by the respected ICAO placed Sri Lanka fourth in Asia and 19th in the world ranking in a comprehensive audit carried out to ascertain the safety standards of world-wide civil aviation authorities. It is ICAO Safety Management Systems (SMS) that need to be adhered to which are in annexes that came out of the Montreal Conference where 180 countries became signatories. To give an idea to a layman, Annex 1 for Personal Licensing, Annex 6 for Operation of Aircraft and Annex 8 for Airworthiness of Aircraft spell out some of the stringent checks CAA have to comply with in the eyes of ICAO before they rate. We managed well and reached a high echelon.
If at all the CAA lagged a little behind, it was in TRAINING. We are not Singapore, nor are we Japan or Korea. The Civil Aviation authorities of those countries have multiple budgets giving extensive privileges to plan and spend in their quest to train personnel and achieve the best possible results. Ours is a different story; limited funding to compete in international platforms. It takes money.
Training sure is expensive, but if you think it is costly, go try an accident? Finally it all boils down to accountability, airline operators to the CAA, the CAA in turn to ICAO. That is how the skies become safe. We have done well, so says not me, but ICAO.
Recently I visited the CAA complex at Hunupitiya. The new premise is a far cry from what it was before. My recollections go way back to the 60s when I was a fledgling aviator proudly clinging on to a Student Pilot’s Licence. The CAA office that time was located on Lotus Road; ramshackle tables and rusted fans and looked more like the Kachcheri in Kurunegala.
The next I remember was the one in front of Cinnamon Grand, far superior to Lotus Road, but the grandness ended there. It was way below the norms of a prestigious aviation authority dealing with international tentacles. The lift alone took a million minutes to arrive and when it came it was filled to the brim. The ‘would be’ passenger had to wait another million minutes for the next lift door to open. Better climb the stairs, if one had perfect vision to see the steps in the dim ascending corridor. That itself was a vision test for a ‘wanna be’ pilot.
The rooms were like a pigeon coop, doors leading everywhere and nowhere and some just for show, just like Topol sang in ‘If I were a rich man’. In this building, the staff plodded and pondered and worked their best to safeguard the skies of Sri Lanka. Uncomfortable working environment, but job done well.
The new Civil Aviation Office is so very different. Of course it would have cost money. The Southern Highway too did cost a colossal sum. The daily newspapers run a poll on the highway and today 53.3% says it is a waste of money. I wonder how many of the 53.3 % opponents drive cars and have reasons to go to Galle? If they don’t, the highway certainly is a white elephant to them and their vote on the poll is sure to be negative to make the tally 53.3%.
I wonder how many of the people who criticise the opulence of the Civil Aviation Authority Building know what international aviation representation is all about and how important it is to come out of the Kachcheri look and make it appear professional? If we are the fourth in Asia, let’s look that way too.
Attention to DG
Stones will be cast and mud will be slung; to laugh at men of sense has always been a privilege of fools. Like in most places ‘three bags full’ stooges connected to political demigods do exist in aviation high places and nod heads till their necks break. Civil Aviation Authority I am sure also has its class acts that need correction. But amidst all this tomfoolery of power games, aeroplanes fly and safety has to be maintained.
Hundred years of aviation in Sri Lanka saw the survival of the Sri Lankan sky. In 1997, we were black marked so badly by the ICAO that we were found guilty of 197 faults in the totality of aviation safety. Today in 2012, we have climbed an almost impossible ladder of achievement and stand proud on the fourth rung of Asia and the 19th rung of the world.
Over to you sir, the Director General of Civil Aviation Authority. You have the qualification, you have professionally competent people, an opulent office and a hard earned Asia’s number four reputation to maintain. Better buy a few brooms too sir, there could be a Brutus or two loitering around and a few dead-wood pedestrians masquerading in expert clothes. You need to sweep them off your floor to keep the premises clean.
Let’s celebrate 100 years of aviation that began in the Race Course in the December of 1912. Let us ensure the traditions of safety and regulations are respected and adhered to. Let that be so in spite of interfering winds that blow on CAA from ‘who knows where.’ Let them not back and veer and become monsoons to ruin everything.
2.5 million visitors need Sri Lanka’s skies to be safe. (The writer can be contacted via email@example.com)