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 Post subject: The Y-8 Aircrash at Palali, Nov. 1995
 Post Posted: Thu Sep 22, 2005 1:52 am 
The Y-8 Aircrash at Palali, Nov. 1995

On November 18, 1995 Y-8 SLAF aircraft crashed into the sea as it was approaching the Palali airfield, brought down by LTTE missile fire. It was then the largest aircraft of the SLAF. There was only one survivor, Squadron Leader Bandu Kumbalatara, who gives this first-hand account of what happened, five years ago.

By Squadron Leader Bandu Kumbalatara
19 November 2000

The morning of November 18, 1995, is one I will never forget. Two weeks before that, Operation Rivirasa had been launched with the intention of liberating Jaffna, the largest city in the peninsula, from the hands of the LTTE. This was a time when pilots of the Sri Lanka Air Force were kept busy with heavy flying commitments.

That year, we had lost three transport aircraft and a ground attack aircraft as a result of enemy missile fire. There had been no survivors. Flying in this area was a great risk. But there was no alternative. Someone had to do the job.

The previous day I had requested an off day on Saturday, November 18, but since the pilot detailed for the day was unable to make the flight, for some reason or other, I had to take his duty-turn.

The aircraft, named Y-8, could carry 125 passengers or 20,000 kgs of cargo.


I heard a jeep stopping outside my quarters. Squadron Leader Thibbotumunuwe (Thibba), the captain of the aircraft had arrived to pick me up, at the wheel of a Maruti jeep, the front seat of which had been removed. With him was Squadron Leader Nanayakkara (Nana) seated in the rear. As I joined them, Thibba told me that he needed to complete this flight as soon as possible because he had another commitment in the afternoon.

The other members of the crew were at the hangar when we got there. They were Sanjeewa Gunawardena, the navigator, Flight Lieutenant Prasanna Balasuriya, our communicator, and Corporal Jayasinghe, our loadmaster, who had twelve years of service and was due for retirement in a few weeks.

The aircraft was loaded with a consignment of urgently needed military cargo meant for the advancing troops. They were only two kilometers from Jaffna city, preparing for the final assault.

We took off from Colombo at 6.50 am, with myself at the controls. Thibba had instructed me to fly to Palali, saying he would take over on the return flight.

As I levelled the aircraft at 13,000 feet, and cool air was coming into the pressurised cockpit, I observed that Thibba was, as usual, sweating. He always sweated, even in the coolest of temperatures.

Bala, our communicator was tuning in to an overseas cricket commentary. It was his first operational flight, and I teased him saying "Bala, you should give us a party after the flight! " He, Nana and I had undergone AN 32 aircraft training together in Ukraine. He was a popular entertainer in those beautiful days we had spent together.

We passed over Mannar island, the beginning of the crucial stage of the flight, for we were now over ‘enemy territory’. We had always maintained a safe distance from the coastline to avoid possible ground attacks by the terrorists.

Thibba contacted Palali control tower and informed them of our estimated time of arrival, using a coded message, to prevent monitoring by the enemy.

Thirteen minutes before estimated time of arrival, we started descending. I disengaged the auto-pilot and took over controls manually.

Thibba reduced engine power and I set the aircraft in the descending attitude.

Our approach to Palali was over the sea, as this was the safest route, since the runway was only one kilometer from the coastline.

The navigator was searching for any unidentified boat movements. The sea was calm, as we descended to 500 feet and our speed was reduced to 300 kmph.

We were now 8 kms north of the airfield, over the sea. As we did a low-level approach to avoid possible enemy attack from the uncleared Thondamannar area, I observed a Navy boat and an armed helicopter in the approach path — to protect our aircraft.

I told the flight engineer to lower the undercarriage, and Thibba was adjusting the power levers to maintain the required speed.

We descended to 300 feet to minimize the ground target. The runway was now slightly visible and the antenna mast of the Palali communications tower was very clearly seen.

I was turning the aircraft with reference to the antenna, to align with the runway when I heard our navigator shout "Two highspeed boats are approaching us from the left"

At the same time I heard Palali control tower shouting out the same thing. Before Palali could complete the message I heard a terrific explosion, and the aircraft went into an unrecoverable nosedive, banking to the left.

Thibba and I both tried to control the aircraft, but within ten seconds of the explosion the aircraft crashed into the sea about 3 kms from the coastline.

I could see the water level coming up to the windscreen and I thought we were about to go under. I remember my head hitting several places in the cockpit, but I was still conscious.

As the aircraft came down to rest, I realised that I would have to get out of the aircraft. I spotted a ‘direct vision’ window on my right, through which a person could creep out, with difficulty.

Creeping through this I found I had forgotten my life-jacket. As I treadled water, trying to keep my head above the water level, I remember shouting to Thibba and the others to come out of the aircraft.

To my relief, I saw the emergency hatch of the aircraft, which was on the roof of the plane, opening and Thibba and Nana came out and jumped into the water.

As they came out the aircraft went down. The other crew members did not have a chance. They went down with the aircraft.

I could see Thibba treading water and Nana was holding on to a seat cushion, and struggling to keep afloat. I shouted to him not to struggle too much, to take a deep breath and float with his arms and legs spread to reserve maximum energy.

I was able to remove my shoes, but not my overalls, and swimming with them was difficult. I asked Thibba whether he had removed his shoes and he answered in the affirmative.

I could hear the sound of firing and I could see Navy boats and enemy boats firing at each other. We were caught in the crossfire.

After a few minutes of this I looked around, but I could not see Thibba or Nana. As I was treading water I spotted a floating object about 100 meters away, and swam slowly, conserving energy, towards it. It was an oxygen cylinder which had come out from the aircraft.

I was getting a cramp in one leg, as I swam towards the cylinder. Then I began to get a cramp in the other leg as well. I thought I must have been dreaming, for I could see my wife and daughter, and the pain in my muscles was getting less, just as I came within reach of the cylinder.

I grabbed it. Just then there was a burst of heavy calibre gunshots close to me. I looked in that direction and saw an enemy boat, black, with heavy calibre weapons mounted around it. They were firing in my direction. I pulled the cylinder so it was between me and the boat, and at this moment I realised that I was lucky I did not have my life-jacket on. Its orange colour would have given away my hiding place to the enemy.

I saw the Navy boats chasing the boat that had been firing at me. I waved to them, but they did not see my hand.

After a few minutes I heard the sound of a helicopter approaching. I waved once more and they spotted me.

The Bell 212 chopper hovered over me and threw an inflated tube connected to a lifeline.

It took me a few minutes to grab the lifeline, after which I said goodbye to the oxygen cylinder that had saved my life.

With great difficulty I managed to tell the helicopter pilots that there were two others in the water.

Thibba and Nana were found floating, very close to each other. They were both unconscious, and their heads were beneath the water. Since they were unconscious the helicopter could not take them in, and the pilot directed a Navy boat to that location and then flew off with me to the military hospital in Palali.


As they tried to put me on a stretcher, I said "I can walk", but when I tried to do so, I just collapsed. A few minutes later Thibba and Nana were brought to the hospital, where, despite all efforts at rescuscitation, they died.

The same afternoon I was airlifted back to Colombo by an AN 32 aircraft, which also carried the bodies of my friends and colleagues Thibba and Nana.

The next day the body of Bala was found by divers trapped inside the aircraft. The bodies of Jayasinghe and Sanjeewa were not found.

It took one month before I could be certified fit to fly again, and two months after that I flew the longest flight of my career, from Colombo to Israel. On that flight my thoughts were constantly of Thibba, for both of us were to have flown together to Israel.

Five years later I left the Air Force. But I will always remember those brave men who were with me till the last moments of their lives. How can I ever forget them?

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