Exemplary military leaders of Sri Lanka:

Paddy Mendis: Administrator par excellence

WAY OF LIFE: Great leaders are remembered by the younger generation with significance to their unique qualities and exemplary work that they have done in the past.

Deshamanya Air Vice Marshal Paddy Mendis

When talking about Sri Lanka Air Force the name of Deshamanya Air Vice Marshal Paddy Mendis is remembered for his tireless efforts of setting up the administrative structure that was to carry the Air Force into the 1990s and beyond.

The foundation laid and pillars constructed by Air Vice Marshal Mendis to make Royal Ceylon Air Force, the Sri Lanka Air Force is written in gold letters in the history of the Air Force and the country.

It was with his appointment on 1st January in 1971 that he started making history by becoming the youngest Commander of an Armed Service in Ceylon, at the age of 38 years.

"It was flying that attracted me while studying at S. Thomas' College Mount Lavinia in 1950s. I used to 'cut' school with my friend Rakitha Wickramanayake and go to Ratmalana airport to get free rides in aeroplanes from other students. My friend Rakitha went for civil flying but I could not afford it.

Meanwhile, the Air Force advertised for pilots and I applied. I was born in the middle in a family of five and my father was a doctor from Hikkaduwa and mother was a housewife.

There was strong objection from my parents to go for the interview because they did not want me to fly and get killed, but eventually they permitted and I got selected. That is how I realized my dream," he recollected the memorable achievement.

Young Mendis was the fifth man to join the Air Force and was given the number 1005 and sent to RAF College Cranwell in UK for training for three years.

"The education system there was of a very high standard, which went up to university level. Training was in three wings, flying, military and academic studies. Initially I found it very difficult so I had to work very hard. I even studied in the toilet after the 'lights out'. Everyone knew what I was doing in the toilet for about one hour every night, but they ignored it realizing my predicament" he said.

"I passed out in 1954 with a good grading and I was sent to Merryfield to train as a fighter pilot. There I was introduced to De Havilland Vampire jet and Meteor aircraft and commenced training on the Vampire.

On return to Ceylon I found that due to a change in policy Vampires were to be returned to UK and Transport aircraft purchased instead. I was then trained on Oxford aircraft and later appointed Commanding Officer of the newly formed Transport Squadron. I then qualified as a Flying Instructor at the Central Flying school. Then RAF Little Rissinghton UK, and commanded the Royal Ceylon Air Force Flying School.

AVM and Mrs. Mendis with their children and grand children

After that he attended Defence Staff College, Wellington in India and was appointed Senior Air Staff Officer at Air Force Headquarters. On reaching the age of 35 he attended the prestigious Imperial Defence College in London, UK.

On return he was appointed Chief of Staff in 1969. On the retirement of Air Vice Marshal Rohan Amarasekara an ex-war time RAF officer, he was appointed Commander of Air Force and became the first post-war officer to command a service in Sri Lanka.

Having realized that the RAF systems were very costly and did not suit the country and the problems encountered during the insurgency he initiated administrative and organisational changes and developments.

As Commander he never stopped development despite the poor financial situation and shortage of resources in the country and managed to open an Electronic Maintenance and Training school at Ekala, No 1 trade training School in Katunayake to provide formal training for officers and aircraftsmen an engine overhaul shop and a propeller overhaul shop.

In 1976 the first class Academy was built at China Bay and was declared opened by then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike.

During this time No. 4 Helicopter Squadron got independent unit status. Another significant event took place in 1973 when the Air Force established its agricultural project in the jungle of Morewewa, twenty miles from Trincomalee.

The "unofficial" formation of the Air Force military band also took place during his time. This was not approved as there was no funds allocated but he took up the challenge and posted 12 airmen to the Sri Lanka Navy, Welisara for training under the late Commander Premalal Danwatta, the Navy Band Master.

He did not stop there and insisted on, and obtained a block of flats from the National Housing Authority, and was able to house over 100 families in the new township which became known as Guwanpura located at Wanathamulla.

The Board of Management set up by him to monitor the activities of independent formations still exists the way he envisaged it.

Recollecting about the financial difficulties that the country had faced those days he said: "When I requested funds to purchase spare parts for the aircraft from then Secretary to the Treasury, Chandra Cooray he said: "How can I give you money to buy spare parts when there is no money to give rice to people."

Without getting discouraged by his words he formed "Heli-Tours" a unit that would operate commercially to cater to the tourist market mainly utilising the helicopters and available fixed wing aircraft of the RCyAF to transport groups of passengers to various parts of the island so that he could utilize the earnings to buy the spare parts. By the end of 1972 it was operating to the Maldives too.

Although many people objected this project at the beginning it helped the Air Force and the country in many ways.

"The skill of trained pilots were utilized and they gained more experience and opportunities and the Air Force was able to purchase a Convair 48-seater from the money that was earned through this project. It became very popular amongst visiting tourists and the pilots also enjoyed it," he said.

The Maldivian Government appreciated it and with the consent of the Sri Lankan Government made him an advisor to their government. He recruited and commissioned four lady officers in the Volunteer Air Force for the first time for these commercial operations.

The Air Force had felt the need to enhance the flight endurance, speed and comfort of its De Havilland Heron aircraft and as a result the Riley Heron conversion opened the door to significant enhancements in engineering capabilities within the Air Force.

Before it was done Paddy consulted John Cunningham, a test pilot of the De Havilland, who said that thy built the best air frame and world's worst engine. The idea of the conversion of the Heron to Riley standards was a great success. The Riley also went to Maldives with "Heli tours".

AVM Mendis inspecting a parade

Air Vice Marshal Mendis always wanted a self sufficient Air Force and did everything possible to that end. The strength of the Air Force was increased by 150 percent during that time.

During the Non Aligned Conference the SLAF took over the Katunayake airport for six months and all VVIPs' baggage and movements were handled by the Air Force smoothly which was again commended by the Prime Minister.

Not forgetting the civil needs in 1974 in the face of rail strikes and a threatened disruption to important educational examinations in the island, the SLAF responded to a request for assistance from the ministry of education and airlifted question papers to all troubled areas. A complicated and costly exercise using main airfields.

Then again in the face of epidemics of Polio, they operated flights between Colombo and Delhi bringing vitally important vaccines into the country.

So much so his time was known as Watershed Era of the history of the RCyAF.

It was after hardly three months into his command, that he was summoned by the Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike and announced the outbreak of a southern-led insurgency in the country.

The manner in which the Air Force brought the situation under control with very few aircraft and helicopters in serviceable condition was commended by the Prime Minister as a grave and difficult task magnificently done.

The heavy flying of aircraft during this period brought it to a stage where all the aircraft will be grounded in five days. "I wrote to the US Defence advisor and told our problem. Within four days American aircraft came with spare parts for six jet helicopters and gifted to SLAF," he said.

Air Vice Marshal Mendis retired from the Sri Lanka Air Force in 1976 having done so much that is impossible to write in one article. He was never discouraged in the presence of shortage of funds or resources and somehow found the way out and completed his tasks in a praiseworthy manner.

The Sri Lanka Air Force celebrated its Silver Jubilee in 1976 also during his tenure in command on a grand scale with celebrations in all formations.

The first ever exhibition on the grounds adjacent to Air Force Head Quarters was an unprecedented success where pedestrians on D.R. Wijewardene Mawatha received the shock of their life when a Russian built KA 26 helicopter crash-landed on the street deliberately.

However his extraordinary capabilities and invaluable experience never allowed him to retire from serving the nation. He was appointed Chairman Air Ceylon.

The radars he purchased from France for the Bandaranaike International Airport 30 years ago are still operational. He held many other responsible appointments as a member of the Reserve Affairs Council Commissioner General Civil Defence and Aviation, member of several Presidential Inquiries and Lion Air to name a few.

He has kept working for the country for 54 years and is presently the Chairman Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka. In recognition of service to Defence and Aviation he was honoured with the Deshamanya National Award.

Living in a quiet place in Mount Lavinia with his beloved wife Charmaine, whom he married following a love affair in 1957, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary - the Golden Jubilee - next February.

They are proud parents of three children and grand parents of five grand children half of them living abroad. One of his grand sons who were born in USA has joined the US Navy following his grandfather's footsteps.

"I enjoyed my work all the time and I never consider it a job. It was a way of life. Don't do anything just for money," which is very valid for today was his advice to the younger generation.


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