THE SINGER, NOT JUST THE SONG-By Capt Elmo Jayawardena

Source:Island

As for those who flew the sleek, fully aerobatic machine, undoubtedly the most flamboyant was Paulis Appuhamy, the Bus Mudalali from Attanagalle. He obtained his Private Pilot’s Licence, flying in his Palayacart Sarong and pressing rudders with his bare feet. Paulis had his long hair tied in a knot at the back of his head. No, he did not speak any fluent English, barely managed to read the checklist. He needed no short-cuts either, went through the whole flying school rigmarole to obtain a pilot’s licence. If anyone broke the pseudo-sophisticated conceit of flying aeroplanes, it was Paulis Appuhamy. I know of no other person who had such determination to become a pilot and succeeded doing so with flying colours.

Recently, I received a gift of a book. The name on the cover said ‘de Havilland Chipmunk’, a comprehensive narration about a popular aeroplane that served 1950s onwards in most colonial countries as a pilot trainer. I too flew that aircraft as a fledgling pilot at Ratmalana. Sure, the book I will treasure, the story of the sleek silver-grey monoplane was certainly interesting. The Chipmunk was used by the Royal Ceylon Air Force for more than five decades and was also available to civilian pilots at the Civil Aviation Flying School. Every detail of the aeroplane is there in this beautifully-presented book, certainly a must-read publication to those interested in aviation.

Pathum Wimalasiri is a Flying Officer of the Air Force. He is from the village of Walpola in Bamunakotuwa and educated at Maliyadeva College, Kurunegala. As a cadet engineering officer, he was posted to the Air Force Museum in Ratmalana. It was his superior officer Air Commodore Nihal Jayasinghe (himself an author) who encouraged Pathum to write ‘something’ about the Chipmunk. By this time, the majestic aeroplane had been reduced to a ‘display’ relic in a corner at the museum where it stood in solemn silence with its Gypsy Major engine dead to the world. It was just another aeroplane gazed at by the visitors who passed her by. Pathum wrote her story and that is how the book came to life. It was a ‘labour of love’ from the Bamunakotuwa man, the result, a fitting memento to be treasured by those who flew and loved the Chipmunk.

No, the author is no Salman Rushdi nor a Khalid Husseini; he is just a young man from an obscure village who did his best and produced a worthy read that has given a new lease of life to the Chipmunk. The pages are filled with all the details, about the 12 aeroplanes that arrived in Sri Lanka and when they landed and who flew them plus a host of other facts. The sadness, too, is recorded, the unfortunate accidents of where they crashed and who lost their lives.

I know a lot of people who flew the Chipmunk, both in the Air Force and in the civilian school. Talk about it, you will notice a glint in their eyes, that is what the Chipmunk did to someone who flew her, nostalgic remembrances that would have faded with time, but always coming alive at the mere mention of the Chipmunk.

As for those who flew the sleek, fully aerobatic machine, undoubtedly the most flamboyant was Paulis Appuhamy, the Bus Mudalali from Attanagalle. He obtained his Private Pilot’s Licence flying in his Palayacart Sarong and pressing rudders with his bare feet. Paulis had his long hair tied in a knot at the back of his head. No, he did not speak any fluent English, barely managed to read the checklist. He needed no short-cuts either, went through the whole flying school rigmarole to obtain a pilot’s licence. If anyone broke the pseudo-sophisticated conceit of flying aeroplanes, it was Paulis Appuhamy. I know of no other person who had such determination to become a pilot and succeeded doing so with flying colours.

The book says it all about what the Chipmunk did and has a pictorial record of how the Air Force used it in training. Of the veterans who flew the Chipmunk, some are still around, and some are sadly no more. The book features Air Chief Marshall Paddy Mendis who leads the parade and many more are mentioned. Winco Vivekanandan, ACM Harry Gunathilake, ACM Dick Perera and ACM Walter Fernando among them. Then there are so many photographs of the ‘BIRD” itself, soaring amidst the clouds or in low-flying formation, leaving us with no doubt as to what a magnificent aeroplane the de Havilland Chipmunk was.

The book also carries a lot of details of the engineering aspects of this plane. The cockpit photos are a worthy giveaway to what post-war flight instruments were like before the ‘glass cockpits’ changed the tide. There are also details of the fuel system, the ignition system, and some gauges to make a pilot want to fly this again. As in most things we love, that chapter is completely closed now. The last to fly the Chipmunk was Group Captain Siddath Marambe and the last to lead a fly-past was Wing Commander Dhammika Weligodapola, both now retired.

The museum will keep the Chipmunk embalmed and the book will take the pilots to the memories of the sky again. I like to think that the ‘Walpola Bamunakotuwa Singer’ will be remembered too, along with his cleverly crafted song of the Chipmunk. The author Pathum deserves that tribute.

The book is priced at Rs 370, almost a give-away, and is available at the Air Force Museum. Maybe it is all sold out.



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