By Ilica Malkanthi Karunaratne
This is an interview with a Sri Lankan consultant who served this country first, then received international recognition in Singapore and the Middle East.
Dayanthe is publicity shy, but I got him talking with just a simple question. Hardly anyone remembers all the technical first’s you introduced to the infrastructure of Sri Lanka’s aviation.
Wouldn’t it have been better to have given up aviation and gone into politics after your brother Lalith’s death? Dayanthe’s response was quick; little realising that I was recording the conversation.
Tell me how your passion for aviation began?
‘My attraction to technology, all things electrical and to what at that time was called ‘radio communications’ stemmed from the ‘Radio Club’ at Royal College. Radio Communications is a pre-requisite for airlines to operate, as pilots and airports require to have considerable data communication with each other, even before a flight is airborne.
My desire to make radio transmitting equipment required a licence from the Dept. of Telecommunications and sitting of an exam for which one had to be 18 years old. I was nowhere near that age, so my enthusiasm made me a ‘radio pirate’. I was selected for the Faculty of Engineering after my University Entrance exam in 1961.
After my degree I was back in Peradeniya for awhile on the teaching staff till the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) arranged for me to go to the UK for further training.”
Were you the first graduate electrical engineer to join the DCA?
“Yes, I was.”
What was your role there before proceeding to the UK?
“I was fortunate to have Mr. Lakshman de Mel as Director of Civil Aviation – he had an in-depth understanding of administration; he instilled an interest in me in non-technical issues and allowed me to express my views freely. He supported me when I expressed my displeasure at the procurement of obsolete equipment which would have taken us back; cancelled that offer and left the responsibility entirely in my hands. I began learning to fly while in Sri Lanka”
Tell me about your experiences and achievements in the UK?
‘My first year there was spent being trained on all the sophisticated electronic systems found in International Airports and Air Navigation Centres. On my return to Sri Lanka, I was delighted to be entrusted with the installation of all these which were to be used for ATC for the very first time. My second year in the UK was at Birmingham University where I did a MSc in the Dept of Electronic Engineering.
Birmingham University is where the heart of radar was developed during World War 2. After my MSc, my Professor was keen to get me into The Royal Radar Establishment, but this was denied, possibly because I was a foreigner. I was asked to lay off engineering, and train with other International students, in Air Traffic Control (ATC). I think I was the first engineer to be trained in ATC.”
Surely with a British postgraduate degree, you must have got job offers over there?
‘These came from Companies that first invite those they are interested in for ‘High Tea’ with lots of food and drink. As I was saving money to import a car, I gladly accepted these invitations and was asked by the best known A/c manufacturer to consider employment in Seattle, stating that they were ‘an equal opportunity employer.’
But you returned to Sri Lanka to work for a much lower salary?
“I had signed a bond before I left, agreeing to work for the Sri Lankan Government for 15 years. Having received a free education at Royal College and University education here, followed by postgraduate qualification and aviation training, I felt it was my duty to give something back to my country, even with the low salary offered. In the end, I served for 27 years, before leaving for Singapore.”
It is said that you installed many systems as Asst. Director of Civil Aviation and that the then PM, Ms. Sirimavo Bandaranaike personally entrusted the introduction of radar for ATC to you.
“A former Commander of the SLAF had frightened the PM about the need for radar in the NASC, saying that Fidel Castro and Gadafi may not come if their A/c was not guided by Radar. Ms. Bandaranaike told me that she knew that I was the only engineer knowledgeable on Radar and asked if I could get Radar working before the NASC as a special request from her.
It was a great challenge as not one of the engineers or ATC officers were trained in Radar. But as all of them gave me their support and co-operation, it was a great thrill to put Sri Lanka’s first long range Primary Radar into operation a few weeks before the NASC. Another system which I introduced was the Approach Lighting System which gives visual guidance to landing aircraft. These systems still continue at the BIA.”
During the long years of conflict with the LTTE, didn’t you assist the armed services with your expertise in Communication and Electronic Detection?
“It would not be proper for me to go into detail on this matter even now. But I can say that I was involved from specification stage through sea trials on a sophisticated ship-borne radar system which was installed on some navy boats which helped the Navy.”
I found on internet that you are now considered a leading world authority on Aviation Security and have made many presentations on the subject. How did you get involved in that aspect of Civil Aviation?
“While Aviation Security is unconnected to ATC/ANS, its importance is just one step below Air safety. When hijacking first began, governments looked for means of detecting arms and other objects that a hijacker would use. It was Electronic Engineering which provided the means of detection of these. My involvement in electronic engineering for ANS led me to find the best means of protection for the airlines, the airports, passengers and their well wishers.”
What did you do in Dubai?
“I went to Dubai after ten years in Singapore with the IATA.s I was Director (Safety, Security and Infrastructure with Dubai World Central. When this airport is completed it will be the largest in the world.”
You now work as a consultant?
“Yes, I have made presentations abroad and accept work abroad.”
I know you are a proud and happy father.What are your children doing?
‘”Both of them work in Civil Aviation, having qualified at a post graduate level in England. My son works in Airbus’ Avionics Research Division on the A350, which will begin flying next year and my daughter is an environmental specialist with the Dubai Civil Aviation Authority.”
You can be proud of your achievements in aviation which have contributed to progress and also as a father. On the achievement of your children, I think yours was a wise choice; infinitely preferable to the deep dark labyrinth of politics today. May I end by wishing you a happy birthday.