RATMALANA – in the emperor’s new clothes – The Island
A few days ago I read in the newspapers that Sri Lanka opened another international airport (RML) in Ratmalana on March 27th. There was also a picture of the arrival of the first aircraft, a Maldivian Airline Dash-8, 50-seat twin-turboprop that flew from Velana Airport, Hululle, to Ratmalana. The plane was greeted by water cannon arches created by the airport fire department’s fire trucks. Kandyan dancers were also present, as well as a VVIP contingent to celebrate the inauguration of the new international airport. Of course, the fanfare of the day must have cost millions; that’s what the newspapers said.
Ratmalana Airport (RML) has a remarkable history. It came into being as a 600 square foot cleared lawn, which had galvanized roof sheds, on the side where the terminal was located. It was 1935 when the first plane, a Puss Moth piloted by Flt/Lt Tyndale-Biscoe, landed on level grass, making it a sweet opening for the new airport. There was no marked runway, only a black and white striped windsock that stood like a sentry to tell the pilot which direction to land or take off.
The official opening of the airport took place on February 28, 1938 when a Tata Airways mail plane, a Waco, took off from Ratmalana.
Between Tyndale-Biscoe’s Puss Moth and the Tata Airways mail plane, there were people learning to fly on the Ratmalana Lawn, which included expats as well as locals. They were the airmen of the Ratmalana Flying Club.
Then came the RAF, followed by commercial aircraft and Ratmalana had its heyday. Leading airlines such as TWA, BOAC and KLM have landed and taken off from Ratmalana. They flew their Lockheed Constellations, de Havilland Comets and DC-4 Skymasters using Ratmalana as a ‘pit stop’ to operate their long haul flights. Then, in 1948, the national carrier, Air Ceylon, took over Ratmalana as its base of operation.
I saw Ratmalana from the first day I flew a small plane as a rookie pilot. I learned to fly there, take off and land on the grass runway. I flew my first commercial flight on a DC-3 from Ratmalana and trained a host of student pilots at Ratmalana. Yes, I have fond memories and precious moments of flying airplanes from that wonderful old airstrip that laid the foundation for my flying career. The memory is filled with admiration, not only for me but for all those who have had a connection with this old brand airfield.
So what are they doing in Ratmalana? Bad enough, we have Mattala’s magnificent error. Do we need another fiasco contributing to our country’s financial difficulties? Mattala is known as the emptiest airport in the world. Are we also trying to win the second prize with Ratmalana?
Ratmalana can be a very good airport to accommodate domestic flights. It is also good to operate air force planes which serve all airfields in Sri Lanka. Ratmalana has served his time and served Sri Lanka faithfully and must now make way for Katunayake and Mattala to handle international arrivals and departures. RML has ONLY a 1400 meter runway which cannot take even the smallest of passenger jets, a Boeing 737 or an Airbus 320. How do you fly international or for that matter even regional from such a short runway? Extending the length is not financially viable as either you have to send the Galle Road underground or go towards Diyawanna Oya on the other side.
Yes, maybe it can accommodate a business jet, but you have to remember that a business jet does not bring many passengers. They are used by the rich and famous and to have 50 passengers in the airport terminal would require at least 10 business jets. This poses a parking problem. Someone certainly didn’t count their marbles when they decided to play this game.
Yes, I saw the large paved access road to the new RML. Almost like the four lane highway we have in Mattala. Ratmalana, too, would be another “all hats and no cattle” story. Someone whispered that it cost 200 million to build the road and renovate the terminal. Maybe whoever was in charge of the project took that money and did something to improve the navigation facilities at the Ratmalana track. This is an intransigent safety factor that has been totally ignored.
On March 27, 2022, when the first international flight landed, no landing aids were functioning except for a set of Precision Approach Path Indicators (PAPI) lights on the north/east side of Runway 22 and nothing on track 04.
The PAPI lights will help a pilot to adjust his final approach course, but it does not help him in any way to make a ‘Let-Down’ instrument to locate the runway in bad weather.
Let’s take a look at this history of landing aids. On December 11, 2014, a Sri Lankan Air Force Antonov aircraft flew from Katunayake to Ratmalana in the morning. Visibility was marginal with mist and low cloud and the aircraft on approach struck the ground 10 miles short of the runway threshold and crashed. Of course, the voices that had power blamed the pilots. No one mentioned that Ratmalana airport at that time had no landing aids. No ILS, no VOR/DME and the non-directional beacon was unusable. The crash was said to be pilot error. But I don’t think that’s the right conclusion. Pilot error may not be pilot error. There is a one mile difference between pilot error and pilot error. (sorry I have no space to explain) Sdn/Ldr Abeywardena and Flt/Lt Jayatunge, plus three others died in vain, simply because there were no landing aids at Ratmalana on that fateful day in December. If there had been at least one good working landing aid, this unfortunate accident could have been avoided. And today in 2022, we have the same runway classified as an international airport. Can you believe the same landing aids that weren’t there in 2014 still aren’t there in 2022? I’m not whistling Dixie here. I checked Ratmalana’s NOTAM on March 27, 2022. NO LANDING AID FOR RUNWAY. It is sure that providence is tempting. Too bad, when they were thinking of turning Ratmalana into an international airport, they completely forgot why the Air Force Antonov had come down to Hokandara.
Who is making these colossal mistakes of opening new international airports without assessing safety or researching and confirming commercialization? Only Diyawanna Oya would do that! And Yahapalanaya also was guilty of the same mortal sin. Let’s not forget that it was the Yahapalana brothers who opened Jaffna International Airport with a 1400 meter runway and brought in Alliance Air ATR -72-600 twin-turboprop planes that were to operate a daily service Chennai- Jaffna-Chennai. What happened to these promised flights is the same thing that happened to the hordes that were to come to Mattala.
As for Ratmalana, the Maldivian operator has already made the first flight with a flamboyant arrival ceremony that cost millions. Then they turned around and canceled the next flights for lack of passengers. No doubt there would have been some brilliant planning and marketing to achieve such a mesmerizing result.
Let’s be realistic, Mr. Diyawanna Oya. We and the whole world have been hit by Covid. As we started to raise our heads, we had the nasty dollar pandemic. Today, the inhabitants of our beautiful paradise are suffering from multiple calamities without even a mirage in sight. And we are opening an international airport that will only have one propeller plane from Male at best. That too, only if they can find passengers.
Of course, business jets would fight to come – That’s the hope? If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!
We have Katunayake, Mattala, Jaffna and now Ratmalana designated as international airports. Don’t do the same in Batticaloa too! Leave that to the next lot who will win the Diyawanna Oya musical chairs and get their seats to serve the nation. Let them open Batticaloa International Airport. They too may want to jingle coins in their pockets.
As for the aviation responses, let me be serious. We are definitely coming to the air traffic capacity limits in Katunayaka. Maybe we’ve already moved past that and are operating on borrowed time and have pleaded tolerances. We need a second parallel track of 2500 meters in Katunayake. This length is adequate for small passenger jets such as A320s and Boeing 737s. If a dual runway concept can be achieved, authorities can use Katunayake as an international hub for all international flights (including airliners). business) who will arrive in Sri Lanka. Then we can use our so called international airports – Ratmalana and Jaffna as well as all small local airfields such as Ampara, Batticaloa, China Bay, Weerawila, Anuradhapura, Minneriya, Sigiriya and Katukurunda for twin engine propeller planes to effectively operate and manage internal flight service.
As for Mattala, the authorities have been trying for years to sell or rent it without success. Why not give it to the Air Force? Give him the lock, the stock and the barrel and make them Mattala’s guardians. They can certainly take care of all the movements of civil aircraft and share the airfield with them. There’s room for both and more.
Whatever you do, Mr. Diyawanna Oya, don’t make fun of Ratmalana; she deserves better.