SL Volunteer Air Force in counter-insurgency operations in 1971 – The Island


This article was written by the late Sqn. Dr. JT Rex Fernando (SLAFRetd.), Sri Lanka’s first volunteer air force commander, four years ago.

The contribution made by the Sri Lankan Air Force over five and a half decades to safeguarding the country’s airspace and hence territorial integrity has received wide coverage in print and electronic media. Recounting its illustrious history, it can recall with pride and satisfaction its enviable record of operational success, its reputation as well as its contribution to the development of the non-military fields of the country.

While recalling the vital role it played in crushing the failed armed uprising of 1971, it is only fitting to recall the supporting role of the Sri Lanka Volunteer Air Force.

Armed insurrection

The armed insurrection of April 1971, aimed at overthrowing the legally constituted United Front government, clearly demonstrated the tragic unpreparedness of the government security forces at the time to deal quickly with a major and bloody uprising such as the one that the insurgents had triggered. On the one hand, there were not enough weapons and ammunition. On the other hand, the strength of the security forces was far below what was needed to support a major operation. The Air Force in particular had to perform a number of tasks during the difficult first days of the campaign with the Regular Force and saw the need to supplement the relatively small Regular Force.

On April 24, Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike said: “On April 5, we discovered that we did not have enough weapons, ammunition and aircraft to deal with a threat sustained over a long period by the terrorist insurgents. The Prime Minister underscored this point again in July when she told Parliament that “the week immediately following 5 April was an extremely vital week and the armed forces and police had to contend with many obstacles during this period”. The Air Force needed to expand and grow rapidly. Likewise, other sections of the security forces needed to be made ready to deal with any future threats to the country’s security. The need of the hour, as the country faced a considerable terrorist threat, was to strengthen the armed forces and the police. It was this pressing need that led to the formation of the Sri Lanka Volunteer Air Force.


For Air Vice Marshal Paddy Mendis, the creation of the Volunteer Air Force was the realization of a cherished dream. For more than 20 years, since the inauguration of the Volunteer Force, there had never been a serious examination. With the pressing need to supplement regular strength, the formation of the Volunteer Air Force was officially authorized by a presidential proclamation on April 14, 1971.

Appointed first commander, I was tasked by the AVM Mendis to proceed with the installation of the infrastructure, the recruitment, the training and the deployment as a priority. The task itself was difficult and unenviable. However, with the guidance of the Commander and the continued support of the Air Force Management Board and with the exemplary dedication and admirable commitment of my Warrant Officer Flt. Lt Mani Seneviratne, the task was continued and successfully completed.


The role of the Volunteer Force was primarily to assist the Regular Force in its primary internal security functions. With more volunteers employed on homeland security duties, skilled regular tradesmen were able to focus on their specialized technical and other skilled tasks.


Based on their functional role, the volunteer force was broadly organized into ground operational squadrons, labor service squadrons, and air operational squadrons. Despite the relatively short training period and limited “on-the-job training”, volunteer personnel contributed significantly to Air Force tasks. In addition to homeland security and general operational duties, volunteer personnel were employed in almost all areas of Air Force activity, for flight duties, airfield construction, operations and l mechanical transport maintenance, engineering, logistics and catering tasks and administrative, clerical, medical and other tasks. various service tasks. The Air Field Construction Regiment was organized to undertake major construction projects and maintenance engagements. The Volunteers who worked alongside the regulars assimilated the form of service and gained confidence. The esprit de corps, the cordiality and the friendship which reigned largely contributed to his success.

Recruitment and training

Recruitment began almost immediately. After the promulgation, the first batch of volunteer officers and airmen began their initial ground combat training at Diyatalawa on April 23, while the volunteer pilots concurrently began their flight training at the flight school. #1 in China Bay. The task of the instructors was not enviable. They were to train personnel recruited from various backgrounds as fighters capable of operating their complex flying machines and coping with various operational and non-combat tasks in a short period of time. The full and authorized cadre was recruited and training completed at the end of May.

Initial training courses were thus designed to develop trainees into alert, efficient, and well-disciplined members of the Air Force; proficient in all basic aspects of ground combat and other general responsibilities; able to work confidently alongside their regular counterparts in a supporting role. All volunteer trainees, during the short training period, have been adequately trained in various aspects of service, among them drill, weapons training, crafts and tactics, map reading, jungle and navigation training, air force law, and have acquired adequate knowledge of air force organization, as well as first aid and countermeasures. fires. Particular emphasis was placed on physical fitness and the level of fitness was gradually raised, training them to take on the role of fighters, regardless of their specialized trade. Following initial combat training, trainees received “on-the-job training” on their particular trade duties.

Among the officers, the specialists recruited were general service pilots who were to supplement the meager number of regular pilots who had been flying continuously day and night for operational and air transport commitments, since the outbreak of the terrorist offensive. The volunteer pilots were intended to provide some relief although it was not possible to immediately employ most of them on operational duties. Although very few of them were experienced pilots, most of the pilots selected had experience only on light training aircraft. After a quick training on the basic Chipmunk, then a conversion on the Dove and Heron planes, they were able to come to the aid of the Regular Pilots.

Spontaneous response

With the formation of the Volunteer Air Force, there was an encouraging and unprecedented response from people from all walks of life to join the Force. Renowned professionals from various disciplines as well as highly skilled and half-killed people were all driven by a sense of patriotism and yearned to contribute their skills to preserve national sovereignty and integrity. Although a large number of professionals have volunteered and served with distinction, it is worth mentioning the names of some in appreciation and expression of gratitude for their service, and also to highlight the multiplicity of disciplines and professions that made up the Voluntary Air Force. Medical Professionals, Late Senior Consultant Dr. TH Amarasinghe, Consultant Surgeon Dr. S. Maheshwaran, Dental Surgeon Dr. S. Rajapakse, Experienced and Reputable Pilots Susantha Jayasekara and David Peiris, Consultant and Chartered Accountants Late Dayalan Tharmaratnam and S. Balakur, Chartered Auditor R. Ramachandra and Chartered Management Consultant, Kuda Liyanage, Banker Nimal Gunatunge, Chartered Civil Engineers Mervyn Wijesinghe and Ben Navaratne, Chartered Architect Mano Kumarasingham, Lawyer and HR Consultant Tilak Liyanage and Lucky Moonamale, Civil Servant Mervyn Koch, Management Specialist Mahes Goonathilake, late business entrepreneurs Ed Nathanielz, late Bevis De Silva, Upali Gunesekera and late Harold Pilapiya, noted artist Desmond De Silva and national cricketers Brian Obeysekera, Tony Opatha and Nihal De Zoysa are some notable examples. .

All of these gentlemen along with many others served the force with distinction. Most of them did so despite personal inconvenience, disruption of their regular employment, business and domestic life as most of them were stationed in remote and unpleasant places such as Ridiyagama , Weerawila, Weeraketiya and Hambantota.

The women’s entrance

The entry of women into the Volunteer Force can be seen as a unique feature of the formulation of the Volunteer Force. Armed Services, an exclusive domain for men, opens its doors to women. The four pioneer women upon graduation on October 4, 1972 were engaged in secretarial duties and duties associated with tourist aviation.

Continuous mobilization

It must be accepted that when personnel initially enlisted in the Volunteer Force, they did not expect to be mobilized for long periods. In particular, those in permanent employment and in positions of responsibility and those in the government sector have faced difficulties due to the continuous mobilization and deployment to remote areas. Some of them were gradually absorbed into the Regular Force and others left after fulfilling a cessation of hostilities obligation.


In 1973, just two years after the formation of the Volunteer Force, the commander of the Air Force AVMP. H. Mendis, with a feeling of great satisfaction, referring to the Volunteer Force asserted: “Due to hard work and devotion to first-class duty, the Volunteer Force has distinguished itself in the areas of combat, security, administration, operations and construction Duties Your units are based in many locations across the country and you have performed your duties exceptionally well.

Each Volunteer was aware that he had a vital role to play in the defense of the country. The sense of dedication and devotion to duty instilled by the regular counterparts was indeed the most encouraging feature of the Volunteer Organization.

These gentlemen who spontaneously responded to a call to serve the country in an hour of peril, maintained their enthusiasm and showed remarkable devotion to duty. Their service helped the Air Force at a time when the country was plunged into bloody chaos. It is right to recall their contribution and to express our appreciation of their services.


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