A fearless fighter who flew against missiles

25th death anniversary of Wing commander Thejananda Thibbotumunuwe, RWP

(Courtesy of The Island)

Wing Commander T. C. B. J. Thibbotumunuwe, RWP was an Air Force transport (general duty) pilot, and we used to call him ‘Thibba’. He was a distinguished old boy of Ananda College, Colombo. Following in his elder brother’s footsteps, he joined the armed forces; his elder brother was in the Army and I have served under him in Mannar.

You will never forget Thibba’s face. He was rotund and always wore a charming smile. Thibba was a great transport pilot who usually flew AN-32 or Y8 aircraft. His main job was to carry troops and supplies from Ratmalana to the Palaly Air Base, Jaffna and transport military personnel going on leave from Palali to Ratmalana. He knew the importance of his task and always ensured that everyone waiting to go on leave, some after three months, would be taken care of. His job started at sunrise from Rathmalana, and he used to do three or four shuttles between Rathmalana and Palali until sunset.

There had been a number of incidents where brave Air Force pilots became victims of LTTE shoulder-fired Surface to Air Missile attacks at that time, but Thibba and colleagues never stopped maintaining the vital air link to the Jaffna peninsula by air.

There were no secure road links and sea transport was difficult and time-consuming. Sometimes it would take two days of sea passage from Trincomalee to KKS. So, flying even under missile threat was the only option available to transfer battle casualties from Jaffna to Colombo. Thibba was exposed to enemy missile threats at least six times a day when landing or taking off his transport aircraft at the Palaly airbase.

Hundreds of brave soldiers who were severely injured during enemy confrontations were saved, thanks to Thibba. Whether seats were available in the aircraft or not, he never left me at Palaly and even took me in the cockpit a couple of times. He was such a nice person and true friend in uniform.

When I was in the Special Boat Squadron (SBS) in 1990s and flying from one place to another, more frequently to Colombo from Jaffna and back for important meetings/briefings and debriefings at the Naval Headquarters, Thibba used to tease me by saying I, as the SBS Commanding Officer was gaining more flying hours than he, as a pilot. That was Thibba! He was a jovial fellow who never knew what fear was.

I was once taking the last flight from Palaly to attend my son’s birthday. To my surprise, an SLAF vehicle was waiting to take me home when we landed at the Ratmalana Air Base late on that evening. Thibba had arranged for my transport in consultation with the SLAF Base Commander, Ratmalana. That’s how Thibba showed that he cared for his friends. A true friend understands family values!

Thibba had three sons named Menuka, Diluka and Chamika. He was not fortunate enough to see his younger son, who was born in April 1996. They are lovely children and he was so proud of them.

One day in 1995, I flew from Palaly to Ratmalana in his aircraft. After taking off from Palali and leaving the enemy missile range, he invited me to the cockpit. We were talking of our boys all the way to Ratmalana. My son was of the same age as Thibba’s elder son, Menuka. They were four-years-old at that time. He wanted to teach them swimming as Thibba was also a good swimmer. That’s the last time I met Thibba.

On that fatal day, 18th November 1995, Thibba flew his Y-8 aircraft as usual from Ratmalana to Palaly with vital a defence cargo. He was approaching the Palaly airfield at a very low altitude from seaward to avoid enemy missile fire. Terrorists were in a boat, and they targeted Thibba and the aircraft went down into seas off KKS. His Co-Pilot (Squadron Leader Kumbalatara) explained later how Thibba had tried to land the aircraft on water. He helped his Co-Pilot to eject from the sinking aircraft and made the supreme sacrifice—a fighter to the last!

Time flew fast. One day, I accompanied my wife, Yamuna, to a swimming meet to see how my son performed. My wife was always behind my son, and she explained to me the timings of the event and the tough competition my son was going to face. There were two boys from Ananda College on the starting blocks. Yamuna said they were very good, and Thibbotumunuwe’s sons.

I silently wept for Thibba.

All three boys resemble Thibba. Thibba was not there to watch his sons perform so well in swimming—a fervent wish that he had as a loving father. He sacrificed his life for the protection all the children of our Nation.

When they grew up, Thibba’s elder sons wanted to join the military. Menuka joined the Air Force as a pilot (was in South Sudan UN Peacekeeping mission). Second son Diluka joined the Navy, did basic training in China and qualified as a Mine Clearance Diving Officer from India and competent officer in SLN Diving branch; he is currently serving in Diving Tender A 521. Both are married. Thibba’s youngest son Chamika has completed his MBA and awaiting employment. All of them are doing extremely well and if Thibba had lived he would be been 59 years old. The void created by his demise in the lives of his loving wife and three sons is unimaginable. The country has lost a patriotic son. We will never forget Thibba.

By Admiral Ravindra  C Wijegunaratne

(Retired from Sri Lanka Navy) Former Chief of Defence Staff (An extract from book, ‘Read Between the Lines’)

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