Many are not aware that the country’s main Air Traffic Control Radar Systems operate at Ratmalana. The Sunday Observer’s special correspondent, Dishan Joseph was privileged to enter this high tech digital domain last week. In the midst of constant rings and blips of flights inside the restricted control room, he is thrilled to watch how the air traffic controllers oversee the entire airspace of our FIR (Flight Information Region) communicating with hundreds of pilots.
Aviation is a vital component in a nation’s economy. The history of civil aviation dates back to more than a century in Sri Lanka. The airfields in use today, blossomed into existence during the Second World War, namely, at Katunayake, Koggala, China Bay and Ratmalana. The British 30 Squadron (pronounced three zero) was first stationed at Ratmalana. The airfield was first operated in 1934 and the first light aircraft touched down in 1935. The main terminal building established in 1937 still stands, although it has been brilliantly refurbished since then to include a VVIP and VIP lounge. Colombo Airport, Ratmalana is a certified aerodrome, covering an area of 460 acres bearing a 3C grading, the C indicating the kind of aircraft it is able to handle (Katunayake has a 4E grading and Mattala is a 4F).
The dynamic young man at the helm of the operation is Airport Manager Aruna Rajapakse, who leads a very dedicated team. The teamwork resonates in every section of the airport from the security to the admin staff. Aruna explains that the present runway is 1,773 metres in length and 30 metres in width. The airport has handled many corporate jets, ambulance flights (medivac) and also a few C 130 international flights. At present, 15 private domestic air operators use the airfield and hangar facilities, including Helitours. The runway is also shared by the Sri Lanka Air Force who has a fleet of Y-12 planes and helicopters. Colombo Airport, Ratmalana is the second busiest aerodrome in Sri Lanka. Aruna explains to me that they have a category 6 Fire and Safety operation (Katunayake BIA has a category 9) and the crews regularly train and practise emergency drills alongside the local Police and hospitals. The runway sees 130 flight movements daily (touch down and take off). The fuel storage capacity is 270,000 litres.
The vibrant airport manager explains that they get a lot of Corporate Jets that enjoy the privacy of this aerodrome, as their commercially important clients are processed within 15 minutes by an efficient staff. Since this is the only airport in the city these top notch executives have ready access, from here to 5 star hotels, the World Trade Centre, and all diplomatic missions. The airport has its own immigration and customs counters whose officers are on duty as per flight requirements. There is much speculation that with the temporary closure of the BIA runways, that flights would be diverted to Ratmalana. This is perhaps a mild misconception as Ratmalana is not able to take in an airbus or other flights of that capacity. However, the management expects a decent increase in the number of corporate jets. While I am in the office, a Gulfstream 150 jet touches down from India.
Rajapakse explains that there are plans to extend the runways at Ratmalana, but, in order to facilitate this there are two requirements. The first is the flying restriction zone (VCP-7) directly above Parliament, which covers a zone of 1 nautical mile. As the aircraft use a straight approach landing and takeoff they have to manoeuvre away from the Parliament route. The aviation authorities are hopeful that in future if their request is approved the restricted zone can be limited to .25 nautical miles, and would permit easier navigation for larger flights.
The second factor is the SLAF presence, and discussions are being held by the Civil Aviation Authorities to relocate a section of the SLAF element to enhance the commercial flight operations at Ratmalana which is a visual flight aerodrome, and the air operations are best done from dawn to dusk. The SLAF also contributes greatly to the outer perimeter security of the aerodrome.
The airport has greater potential to increase revenue from hanger rental fees and MTOW (Maximum takeoff weight) fees from all aircraft. Massive revenue for the facility comes via the Air Navigation Division. Many are not aware that the country’s main Air Traffic Control Radar Systems operate at Ratmalana. I was privileged to enter this high tech digital domain. Inside these restricted control rooms, specialist radar controllers under the common call sign of Colombo Radar oversee the entire airspace of our FIR (Flight Information Region) communicating with hundreds of pilots. The constant rings and blips of flights are amazing, as the large flat screens carefully indicate each aircraft. On a busy night shift there are 16 such men on duty, who work on two hour rotations as they need a very clear and focused mind.
Regional flying hub
Rajapakse emphasized that the airport has not increased its staff cadre but increased efficiency levels by training and motivation. Colombo airport, Ratmalana has the desire and capability to attract more jets, including Gulf Stream 550 and other smaller flights from India and the Maldives as its lounges are in top condition. In 2016 the airport handled 1,003 flights and 4,600 passengers. Singapore has its main airport and then Celita, a city aerodrome. Likewise, with the Colombo Port City project in progress Ratmalana can be transformed into a regional flying hub, which will supplement more business and domestic travel, and enrich our economy. One enemy plane was shot down and crash landed at the S. Thomas’ College grounds. This fiery aerial display was certainly not the kind of aviation expected in Ceylon!