Remembering heroes of Operation Eagle
Posted on July 17th, 2020

By Nilakshan Perera Courtesy The Island

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(Intake 3 KDU)

On July 3rd, 1990, 30 years ago “Operation Eagle” was launched to evacuate a team of critically wounded soldiers of 6th Singha Regiment (6SR) and policemen from the Jaffna Fort, where they had been trapped for more than three weeks and to deliver urgently needed weapons, ammunition and medical supplies to the besieged soldiers. The situation in Jaffna 30 years ago was a far cry from what it is today. The Tiger terrorists had the upper hand; they had taken advantage of a phony peace accord and laid siege to the Fort. The only access to it was by air, and this too was extremely dangerous as the terrorists fired at any low flying aircraft. The think tank of senior officers headed by Maj Gen. Denzil Kobbekaduwa, Group Captain Anselem Peiris as Operations Commander and Wing Commander. Sunil Cabraal as Mission Commander meticulously planned Operation Eagle and finally decided on the personnel to be assigned to carry out the high risk mission. The most risky and dangerous part of the operation obviously was the landing of the helicopter for the rescue operation.

Squadron Leader. Lasantha Waidyaratne was to be the Pilot of the rescue chopper with Flying Officer. Avindra Mirando as his co-pilot.

While Maj Gen. Kobbekaduwa was engrossed in planning the overall operation in Jaffna, in the Operation Room of Joint Operation Command (JOC) HQ in Colombo, Brig. Wijaya Wimalaratne, was busy discussing the final details of this extremely dangerous mission with a few of his trusted officers including Sqd. Ldr. Waidyaratne. Sqd., who after going through the available maps and aerial photographs of the designated landing site, was not one hundred percent happy, as he observed a small speck on one of the photographs.

On discussing his concerns with Brig. Wimalaratne, he immediately called on Capt. Viraja Leelaratne for his expert opinion. Capt Leelaratne was a Civil Engineer of the Army Engineering Regiment but at the time was attached to the JOC.

Capt. Leelaratne had graduated from the Moratuwa University and the Kotelawala Defence Academy (KDA, which was the precursor to the KDU) with a BSc (Hons) Engineering Degree specialized in Remote Sensing techniques to Present Precision Aerial photographs. On analyzing the photographs of the landing area Capt. Leelaratne identified the speck that was bothering Sqd. Ldr Waidyaratne as a telephone pole. In addition to that he observed there were a couple of wires still attached to the pole, as well as a fairly large tree which was on the flight path to the landing area. While it was decided to instruct the troops in the Fort to remove the telephone wires under the cover of darkness, Sqd. Ldr. Waidyaratne had opted not to have the tree nor the telephone posts removed as it would alert the enemy of the impending operation as Capt Viraja had estimated the distance from Rampart to the telephone post by calculating length of helicopter rotor blades, and deemed it safe. The absolute professionalism of Capt. Viraja Leelaratne and the sharp instincts of Sqd. Leader Waidyaratne saved Operation Eagle from what could have ended up as a disaster. It also speaks volumes of the meticulous planning of Maj. Gen. Kobbekaduwa and Brig. Wimalaratne the legendary duo responsible for many successful operations.

At the crack of dawn of July 3 rd Squadron Leader. Lasantha Waidyaratne and Flying Officer. Avindra Mirando, (who was a proud product of Pakistan Air Force Academy) took their Bell-412 helicopter from Palaly Air Base for this? With them were another 17 fixed wing aircraft and helicopters and Three Chinese built Y-12 and one Y-8 fixed wing planes stationed at Mannar were on standby for possible support were also engaged with Operation Eagle.

The Navy was closely monitoring the seas of Jaffna, and, as usual, the Army had deployed enough troops with the mission ahead. The troops inside the Fort had been informed of the top secret operation earlier on the 29th of June by dropping the documents concealed in a dummy bomb from an SLAF aircraft during a pre-planned attack on terrorist positions around the Fort. Though these two brave pilots had not flown together before, knowing each other’s strengths, accompanied by two airmen, Rahula Fernando and Sooriyadasa, as gunners, they worked in perfect harmony as a team. Lasantha had handpicked these two gunners. Rahula was selected purely for his bravery on several previous missions as gunner for Lasantha’s Operations and Sooriyadasa was also a skilled airman having miraculously escaped from death on three previous air operations. Also onboard was Capt Jayantha Fernando with three soldiers who joined them to be with the rest of their 6SR colleagues. All of them had volunteered for this mission even though they were well aware of the extreme dangers they faced. While most of the aircraft approached the Jaffna Fort from the northeast flying directly from Palaly and started attacking the enemy positions as a distraction the rescue helicopter piloted by Sqd. Ldr Lasantha Waidyaratne and Flying Officer Avindra Mirando approached the Fort from the direction of Mandathieu from the west, coming under heavy enemy fire, hovered for a short while and suddenly they maneuvered the chopper towards the predetermined landing spot and swiftly landed.

No sooner had the chopper landed than Capt Anura Perera and seven serious casualties were loaded, and all supplies including medicines, fresh vegetables and most importantly 81mm mortars and other vital ammunition offloaded. Capt Jayantha Fernando joined the rest of 6SR men who were holding the Fort remarkably with very limited fire power and food supplies, and straightaway assumed duties as the commanding officer. Lt Ramesh Fernando was the only officer who was there from day one holding the Fort valiantly until the siege was successfully ended in mid-September with Operation ”Thrivida Balaya”.

The whole process of offloading and loading took less than 45 seconds though they planned for around 60 seconds. Under those circumstances even 60 seconds could be an eternity! They took off immediately and though still under enemy fire landed safely at Palaly Base by 6.30 am without any harm or damage to the helicopter. The dedication to duty, great application and unwavering determination of these two flyers speak volumes of their ability, integrity and selfless bravely.

Incidentally, both these heroic flyers are from Ananda College, and both of them were hostellers as well. Sqd Ldr Lasantha Waidyaratne is much senior to Fly Off Avindra Mirando at Ananda. Lasantha was an athlete and Avindra was a good basketball player and great racing motorcyclist. At the time of this mission, Lasantha’s wife Dilrukshi was six months pregnant and their only son, Uwin, is now a medical doctor in the UK. Young Avindra met his sweetheart Chelaka at Air Force itself, got married on 20th Jan 1992 and they are blessed with two sweet daughters Layanvi and Kishali-both are professionally qualified.

Both Lasantha and Avindra opted for an early retirement from SLAF, having served the country with dedication. Lasantha retired in 1992 in the same rank and Avindra retired as Wing Commander in 2005. Lasantha was attached to SriLankan Airlines and Avindra is currently working for an Abu Dhabi Oil Company. Viraja Leelaratne, retired as Major in 1996. Was educated at Dharmasoka College Ambalangoda, where he excelled in art, winning the prestigious President’s Award for Art in 1981. While still in Grade 7, he created a Vesak Pandol. He was a Senior Cadet Cpl and very good Basketball player. He excelled in his studies. He found his lifetime partner Lakmini also from Dharmashoka. They got married on 18th Jan 1991 and, as they stepped down from the “Poruwa”, starting their new life together Brig Wijaya Wimalaratne was there to bless them, taking time off from his very busy schedule as Overall Commander of Jaffna. This was testimony of the high regard Brig Wimalaratne had for Viraja. After leaving the Army Viraja migrated to New Zealand in 2000, and currently works as a Senior Planning Engineer at Downer NZ Limited .Viraja and Lakmini are blessed with two sons Vibhava and Nikhila doing higher studies in Auckland.

Jayantha Fernando retired from the Army as a Major in 2004. A proud product of Thurstan College, he excelled in rugby. This brave officer volunteered to join the besieged soldiers of his Regiment within the Fort. As the Commanding Officer Captain Anura Perera had been seriously sick and had to be evacuated, Capt Jayantha Fernando as the most senior officer within the Fort had to take over as the CO. He remained as the CO giving exemplary leadership to his troops until the end of the siege in mid-September. The stress of this operation took a massive toll on his family, too. He had just got married to his lovely wife Wasanthi just before Operation Eagle on 19th Feb 1990. Her first pregnancy ended tragically due to stress following an incident pertaining to war which erupted in the Jaffna Fort. One could only imagine the stress and trauma the wives of these brave young officers went through during those tough times. However, later they were blessed with a son, Janith Angelo, and a daughter, Vinuri Anjali. After leaving the Army, he worked for a company in Dubai but after meeting with a very serious accident which necessitated internal fixation of the hip with three steel plates before he returned to Sri Lanka. Currently, Jayantha is not employed and lives in Kurunegala with his family. The other brave officer who fought courageously during the toughest era was Lt Ramesh Fernando, former Cadeting Sgt and excellent Rugby player from St. Peter’s College, Bambalapitiya, got married to Iresha his childhood lover on 25th May 1995; they are blessed with a son, Kamesh Manchana, and a daughter, Nishmi Warsha. Ramesh, too, retired from the Army on 30th July 2012 as a Colonel and works for a multinational company. Gunner Rahula Fernando migrated to Italy with his family but the other Gunner Sooriyapala sadly died in a chopper crash a few years later. He was the only survivor of a helicopter crash in Kimbulapitiya on 3rd of June 1988 when a chopper captained by one of the most celebrated flyers, well known among Security Forces personnel for his heroic actions as one of the most daring Combat Flyers in SLAF has produced, Flying Officer Kasun Cumaratunge described as a pilot who could land his helicopter anywhere. Today, we all live relatively peaceful lives thanks to the brave and selfless service of these officers like the aforesaid heroes.

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