When the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) were destroying LTTE targets, Tiger Air Wing too was engaged in air strikes using their light planes. The SLAF had at its disposal Kfirs and MiG 27s fighter jets. But they found it difficult to attack low-flying Tiger planes. The lack of air-to-air attack planes was another disadvantage the Air Force suffered at that time. Chinese-built F7 aircraft were introduced into the Air Force fleet in January 2008, to meet this challenge.By this time, the Air Tigers had carried out four attacks. Two of these raids were on Colombo.
Immense was the advantage received by the advancing foot soldiers from fighter jets which provided both air cover and action support during the decisive ‘Eelam War IV’.
When the Sri Lanka Air Force (SLAF) were destroying LTTE targets, Tiger Air Wing too was engaged in air strikes using their light planes. The SLAF had at its disposal Kfirs and MiG 27s fighter jets. But they found it difficult to attack low-flying Tiger planes. The lack of air-to-air attack planes was another disadvantage the Air Force suffered at that time. Chinese-built F7 aircraft were introduced into the Air Force fleet in January 2008, to meet this challenge.
By this time, the Air Tigers had carried out four attacks. Two of these raids were on Colombo.
F7s join the SLAF
The newly acquired F7 air-to-air attack planes equipped with radar and missile systems, filled the gap in the air security cover.
The SLAF procured the F7 planes for the first time in 1991. By 1970 the SLAF was in possession of MiG 15 and MiG 17 jets. But they were sent to the museum in 1977. The F7 planes acquired in 1991, were used in Eelam Wars II and III. The incumbent SLAF Chief of Staff Air Vice Marshall Harsha Abeywickrama was the first Commanding Officer (CO) of this squadron. These planes, initially used for bombardments, were later used for training fighter jet pilots.
Experienced Kfir pilots were deployed on F7 planes, purchased in 2008, on the initiative of SLAF Chief Roshan Goonetillake. Group Captain Pathirana was appointed as the CO and the second in command was its present commandant Wing Commander Sampath Wickramaratne. Kfir pilots Malinga, Dinesh, Pujana, Prabhath, and Chintaka took charge of the new F7s.
F 7 pilots were ready for action following a strenuous three-month training. They were now equal to the task of identifying and destroying low-flying Tiger light aircraft. Incidentally, the F7 squadron was the only SLAF unit that participated in action in both air and ground. While F7 pilots were under training, Air Tigers attempted to attack Welioya and Trincomalee. F7 Pilots swung into action. However, they could not destroy the enemy craft due to a miscalculation in the vital time factor.
Attack on Vavuniya Air Base
However, the Tiger Air Wing met their waterloo when they later attempted a raid on the Vavuniya Air Base. On this occasion, the Tiger air raid was preceded by a lightning attack by a group of Black Tigers, who overran the air base after breaching the security barricades, with artillery fire assistance directed by another group which had arrived along the A9 route.
No sooner had the Tiger aircraft appeared on the `Indra’ Radar system at the Vavuniya Air Base, the Operations Room at Kanunayake was alerted. The time was 10:30 pm. The F7 Squadron swung into action immediately, with its CO, Wing Commander Sampath Wickramaratne, and Flying Officer Malinga Senanayake seeking the enemy planes.
“We took off in less than six minutes.” Wing Commander Wickramaratne recalled the memorable experience. “As we reached Vavuniya, skies over the air base were alight with ground to air fire. We found that the Tiger planes were fleeing in the dark. We switched on our radars and gave chase. The Tiger planes appeared on the radar screen, when we had flown about 30 kms from Vavuniya. By this time, we were about two kms apart. “Suddenly, the two Tiger planes disappeared from the radar screen.”
Hunting the enemy
In the pitch darkness, their sole available means of locating the enemy planes was the radar and that had failed. The two F7 planes were initially flying at an altitude of 5,000 ft. Now Sampath was flying at about 500 ft. and Malinga had come down to about 2,000 ft.
Sampath, however, did not give up the search for the Tiger planes. A little while later, a small dot appeared on the radar screen. He called Malinga, “I am going after a plane I have located. You search the other one.
He continued to recount his experience. “My position in relation to the ground is indicated on a Sri Lanka map on one screen. But I had no time to look at it. Because I was too busy with operating the missile system, while piloting the plane, with an eye on the radar. The heat-seeking missile took about two minutes to identify the target, after pressing the ‘switch on’ button of the missile system.
“I was flying over the area between Iranamadu and Mullativu. We had penetrated into Tiger-held territory by about 60 kms. The missile was released after identifying the target, and the loud bang of an explosion was heard when it hit the enemy plane. The entire operation was conducted in the dark.”
Sampath immediately climbed to a higher altitude after informing his colleague that he took the target. They were soon back at their base in Katunayake.
Security authorities later learnt that the wreckage of the Tiger plane fell on a school building at Iranapalai.
This was the first successful air-to-air attack launched by the SLAF.
Launching successful attacks on light planes of terrorists, using fighter jets, is a challenge being faced even by countries boasting highly advanced technologies. In this context, Sampath’s feat is a shining example to all pilots engaged in combating terrorism the world over.
The CO and the six pilots of this squadron made an invaluable contribution towards the Military victories in the Wanni battle. They carried out their historic feats launching no less than 515 successful strikes remaining airborne for over 500 hours. In addition to conducting air strikes, this Squadron had to shoulder the responsibility of maintaining a round-the-clock surveillance, to prevent any violation of our airspace, in a last minute bid to rescue the beleaguered Tiger leader Prabhakaran.
In the history of Eelam War, the largest number of fighter jets was deployed in the battle to destroy the Tiger Forward Defense Line at Muhamalai. Four of the six F7 planes prominently figured among those 10 fighter jets.