The Hingurakgoda-based Mi 24 helicopter gunship squadron played a critical role in the recently concluded eelam war IV with nearly 400 missions in the Northern and Eastern theatres. Known as the No 09 squadron, it had caused devastating losses in coordinated attacks directed at fortified LTTE positions situated close to what Wing Commander Sampath Thuycontha, Commanding Officer of the squadron called forward location of own troops.
In an interview with The Island, the veteran flyer said that despite having a range of weapons, including dedicated anti-aircraft guns the LTTE never succeeded in threatening their operations. `Of course, they hit our choppers on many occasions, maybe about 35 instances during the entire offensive. Some times, damaged choppers had to come down in areas where fighting was raging,` he said, adding that their engineering section always responded swiftly and decisively to any emergency.
The Mi-24 squadron comprises about 35 officers and 375 men. `We caused chaos along their frontline in the Vanni theatre. They were never allowed to settle in and zero-in on attacking choppers,` he said. Responding to The Island queries, he said that as they engaged targets right across the Vanni theatre from the north-western coast to the north-eastern coast, the enemy couldn t concentrate on one particular sector. `We always achieved any given task,` he said. He asserted that a range of powerful armaments, enhanced technology, technical support and most importantly, freedom to coordinate missions with field commanders paved the way for the squadron s success.
Thuycontha said that his squadron mounted four missions to evacuate LRRP (Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols) teams sent on daring missions into LTTE-held territory. He said that LRRP teams took on high profile targets deep inside enemy held territory both east and west of the A9. On four occasions, the army called for swift evacuation of LRRP teams and the No 09 squadron met the challenging task, he said.
LRRP teams played a played a pivotal role in army chief General Sarath Fonseka s overall strategy to destroy the LTTE. Thuycontha, who had been involved in about 60 missions during eelam war IV had flown on one mission to evacuate an LRRP north of Thunukai. `We flew away under LTTE fire,` he said, adding that they were thrilled to be of assistance to the elite troops. He also recalled Mi 24 landing in the LTTE-held area (Vanni east) to evacuate LRRP personnel returning from a secret mission which claimed the life of war veteran Major. Lalith Jayasinghe.
The Mi 24 chief said that during the army-led operations in the East the squadron had come under a missile attack over Vakarai.
Squadron Leader Chandana Liyanage, chief engineer of the No 09 squadron told The Island that they managed to save a badly hit Mi 24 after it landed in the Iranamadu area in the midst of a ground battle. Had our technicians failed to fly it again within hours, we would have been forced to destroy it, he said, adding that his section had performed exceptionally well under trying conditions. Liyanage s section comprises six officers and 250 men.
The Squadron Leader said that they flew the damaged chopper to the Vavuniya air base.
Out of 14 fighting machines, six had been fully committed to the recently concluded offensive.
The No 9 squadron established on November 23, 1995 with three choppers acquired on a wet lease basis from Ukraine subsequently grew to 14 machines over the years.
Liyanage said that the squadron, during eelam war IV fired 19,762 80 mm rockets. Among the weapons available to the squadron were 23 mm twin barrel system and 12.7 mm Gatlin and 30 mm cannon, he said, adding that they also had 250 kg bombs. We couldn t have used them all together, he said. The armaments were selected depending on the target to be taken, he said, a combination of the available weapons gave tremendous firepower. Two pairs of Mi 24s could have caused massive devastation, he said.
Wing Commander Thuycontha said that the squadron also caused considerable damage to the Sea Tigers. He said that engaging LTTE targets close to own
troops was an extremely difficult task. He said that there had been many heavy battles involving the squadron but the battle for Puthukudirippu area this year was undoubtedly the fiercest. `We flew many sorties day and night targeting the enemy,` he said. `It was like 31st night,` he said referring to the battle for Puthukudirippu, one of the major LTTE bastions.
He said that the 80 mm rockets with a three km range had a devastating effect on the LTTE. A Mi 24 crew comprises a Captain, co-pilot and two door gunners.
The electronics specialists of the squadron, too, under the guidance of Director Electronics and Telecommunications Engineering Air Commodore Rohan Pathirage had kept the avionics systems in shape in the midst of logistical maintenance challenges.