By Abdul H. Azeez – Photos by Lalith Perera
The smoky haze that seems to have taken up residence over the tarmac of the Ratmalana Airport slowly dissipates as the little nine seater I am sitting in leaves the ground.
Our pilot had to keep the engine running in order to get the AC working and had to wait until his colleague removed something called a tail support; a stick like thing supporting the plane’s tail (in order to stop it from tipping over when people crowd into the back). We were in a Cessna Grand Caravan C 208, on its inaugural flight in Sri Lanka. We were taking off from Ratmalana, the time was around 2 pm.
As we lift off, our pilot turns around and politely asks us to stop taking photographs and video recording, at least in the immediate vicinity of the airport, apparently it makes the Air Force nervous. A few kilometers out and we were at it again, that’s what you get for putting a bunch of media men in an aeroplane. I look down as we head out of the airport and turn inland. Greater Colombo is a mass of takaran roofs, asbestos sheets, narrow streets, sporadic vehicles in a dust like almost depressing landscape. Moving further inland, things got a little more desolate. Houses were sparse, and I was struck by how much bare land we seemed to have. An up and coming highway with no one working on it at that time of the day was also part of the scenery.
Cessna is launching its aircraft in Sri Lanka. The company boasts that their aircraft are reputed the world over as safe, reliable and adaptable. The best part is that they can be privately owned, having the approval of over 70 civil aviation authorities around the world. Earlier, I was talking to Robert Gibbs, VP International Sales, from Cessna. But any hopes of me owning a pair of these sweet wings were quickly dashed. “2.2 million dollars” said Gibbs in reply to my first question “How much?”
Trying to hide my dismay I asked him about their potential market. “We are targeting the tourism market because of the wonderful flexibility these aircraft offer. I think Cessna is more than capable of taking advantage of and also boosting the post war development of Sri Lanka.”
This is mainly because of the low resource requirement of Cessnas. The only runway you need is a patch of asphalt or grass or even hard pressed clay of about 700 meters in length. This eliminates the need for complex infrastructure, making taking a flight as easy as getting the car out of your garage and reversing out of your lane. The aircraft can also be customised to land on water, and can be made to suit each company’s requirements, “Whether it is freight forwarding, passenger travel, special missions or floats for water based operations,” said Gibbs. We were then carted off to the tarmac for our first glimpse of the craft, before getting in for a taste of how it feels like to ride in one.
Twenty minutes after taking off, we are circling Kandy, a total distance of roughly 100 km by road with a maximum altitude of 6000 feet. The Mahaweli traces a lazy circular pattern around the central hills and the buildings are spread out randomly. They start to gather and form and ultimately meet in a solid mass of concrete surrounding the Kandy Lake. Roads cut through the mountains like jagged streams, heading off to the West, and towards Colombo.
Meanwhile, our pilot takes us around the city, showing it to us in a nice, lazy circle, his voice buzzes over the intercom drawing our attention to the radar screen in the front that glows with the blip of another plane 25 kilometers away. He tells us we have nothing to worry about, as the radar is just another security feature of the Cessna, I feign relief. “The plane flies most of the way on autopilot,” he boasts, adding that even the minor turbulence we experienced passed unnoticed to the plane’s sensors. A fellow passenger later told me that his stomach didn’t exactly think the turbulence was ‘minor’ but I really didn’t agree with him.
Cessnas have proven to be success stories for people from all walks of life. An Indonesian woman recently started distributing fish in a corporative enterprise to enhance the reach of remote Indonesian fishermen. She discovered that the Cessna gave her large advantages in terms of cost and time and never looked back. She now owns and operates a fleet of 32 Cessna Caravans. Her 33rd plane, currently being delivered to her fresh from the Cessna factory and briefly used en route in Sri Lanka for some promotional work, was the one I was flying in right now.
Cessna’s local partner, Infotechs PL has ambitious plans for the aircraft. “Soon the need to languish on busy roads when commuting will be a thing of the past. The Cessna Grand Caravan will fly across the country, carrying its passengers to any destination far and wide of Sri Lanka,” says Director and Group General Manager, Infotechs, Michelle Pinto. “Flying to Jaffna will only take one hour, while Trincomalee and Arugam Bay can be reached in 45 minutes,” she adds, mouth watering figures, but what of the cost?
Well apparently it only costs roughly 2.23 dollars of fuel per nautical mile, that is roughly 1.8 kilometers. Not bad. The flying range is an impressive 1698 km without having to refuel but this would hardly matter in an island as small as Sri Lanka. According to Gibbs, Cessna has a whole range of aircraft ranging from small training aircraft to plush private jets. And, with Sri Lanka’s rich getting richer, the sale of the latter is looking more and more probable.
The flight lands with hardly a bump on the tarmac. It taxis to a stop and we are asked to wait until the tail support is put up. We pile out of the aircraft and start taking more pictures of its sleek lines. Taking roughly 40 minutes to Kandy and back, this is definitely the way to travel, if it can be afforded.