By Parthiban Manoharan
‘A stitch in time saves nine’ says the Sri Lankan Pilot who cheated death during his career.
Captain Chelliah Kanagasabapathy from Uduvil, a village in northern Sri Lanka, served in the British Royal Air Force (RAF) during WWII. Today he is celebrating his 100th birthday at his own hotel in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka. This interview by Parthiban Manoharan for confluence during his recent visit to Trincomalee, is a tribute to Capt. Pathy’s adventurous and celebratory life commemorating many milestones, including being the first Sri Lankan Tamil to serve in the RAF.
PM: Tell us about your early life and how you ultimately got selected as a pilot for the RAF?
CKP: I was a brat when I was young. I studied in Ananda College first and then continued at Manipay and Jaffna Hindu Colleges. In my early twenties, I wasn’t doing anything meaningful with my life; hence, my parents told me to leave the house. I had no choice but to join the RAF to make something out of myself as I knew nothing else.
Eighteen people were selected from Lanka to join the RAF in 1941 and were sent to London, England for training. It was here where my name was formally changed to C.K.Pathy. We were first stationed in Scarborough, England after which we were sent to Canada for further training. I was the only Tamil person in the group.
In Canada, we were first stationed in Neepawa, Manitoba. During one of my training sessions, at about 8000ft above sea level, the engine of my plane ran out of fuel. I recall that it was dark at night and somehow I successfully managed to land the plane safely in the middle of a wheat field from where I was picked up by my instructor who praised me for my efforts.
Eventually, the training moved to Carberry, Manitoba, where I sat for the flying exams. I failed the exam by one mark due to my carelessness and there was no choice but to give up flying. I didn’t want to give it up. That night, I kept awake and the only thing I could think of was to take my life. I went to a nearby hospital and lay down beside a colleague of mine who was having an appendix removed. When the doctor came and asked me what was wrong, I mentioned that the right side of my stomach was hurting and that it’s probably my appendix. They gave me local anesthetics, operated on me and found nothing. I remember the doctors saying, “Maybe he has tropical appendix!”. When the commanding officer learned about this, he questioned me and I replied by saying that I had no choice after failing my exams. The officer did not agree with what I had done but out of compassion allowed me to sit the exam again. After recovering, I attended training again and wrote the exam. It’s the strictest test ever given to anybody. And you know what happened? I got the highest marks ever received by anybody in that station. This news was also published in the Lankan (then Ceylon) newspapers.
PM: Tell us about your life as a RAF pilot?
After my exams, I was back in England as a fighter pilot enlisted for WW2 in squadron no. 217. I flew Bristol Beaufighters, which was considered as one of the most difficult planes to fly in the world and was involved in many operations. The one event I remember vividly is bombing German submarines over the coast of France. Once the war was over, I was posted as a Coastal Guard in Northern England. Eventually I moved back to Ceylon and joined Air India (AI) where I worked for 27 years. I received the war medal in 1944 for serving in the RAF.
Capt. Pathy follows up with a question for me….
Do you believe in fate?
PM: To a certain extent. How about you?
I believe in it entirely and here’s why. One of my close friends in the RAF was Vijendra Kumar, who was from India. During my initial training sessions, we were separated as he was stationed in Doncaster and I was sent to Canada. The day I went back to London after my training, he was scheduled for a flight operation. During the war, all the planes including his were shot down over Germany. If I had passed the flying exam the first time, I would have been in one of those planes and would have encountered a similar fate. Out of the eighteen individuals from Ceylon who joined the RAF, eight were selected to be trained as pilots, out of which, two failed the exams. Two of them died during training. Three were shot down over Germany. One came back alive and that was me and I am grateful for that forever.
PM: What was it like working under the British at that time? Were you treated differently because you were Ceylonese?
Not at all. If you flew as well as them, then they treated you with the utmost respect. In fact, the Canadians were the best people in the world. At the end of the day it all depends on you. The world is a looking glass. If you smile, it smiles back and if you frown, it frowns back at you. It’s all your reflection.
PM: What do you consider as your biggest achievements and what are some of the most memorable moments of being a pilot for this many years?
I was the first Lankan to fly a jet plane at that time. When I joined AI, Boeing pilots from America were sent to train us. They singled me out as one of the best pilots that they have ever trained and mentioned that I not only brought a great name to AI but also for Boeing as well. These I consider to be my biggest achievements.
If I have to single out others then it would be flying Indian troops to base during the Indo-China war and also flying PM Nehru from Jammu to Kashmir, where he went to meet Sheikh Abdulla, the Lion of Kashmir, to dissuade Kashmir from joining Pakistan.
PM: Did you get to talk to PM Nehru? What did he say?
Yes he flew with me in the cockpit. We generally talked about the weather.
PM: After your stint in Air India, where did life take you?
I worked in Air Ceylon for a while after retirement. I also started a hotel in Trincomalee, which I am still passionate about. I trained both my sons to become pilots and they joined Singapore Airlines and have eventually become Captains. One of my sons retired and is currently taking care of that hotel. I eventually moved to Australia where I received honorary citizenship for having served in the RAF.
PM: Why were you so interested in running a hotel?
I never had a home, especially after being chased out by my parents, so I wanted one, particularly in my homeland. Therefore, I bought this piece of land in Nilaveli, Trincomalee, which was initially a jungle by the ocean and was later converted into a hotel. The hotel was initially named Florina after my daughter. But I have never properly enjoyed the luxury of my home due to the civil war, during which it was occupied by the army. The hotel also faced the wrath of the tsunami in 2004. The hotel is back in our hands and it has been renamed as Palm Beach Hotel. I am happy to be back here after being away for more than 20 years.
PM: You have been very closely associated with the Vairavar Temple in Uduvil, Jaffna. Why is this temple so significant in your life?
When I was eight years old and was walking on the right side of the temple, I was simply engulfed in this light, which came out of nowhere. For the brat that I was at that time, this light for some unexplainable reason assured me that I will do something great with my life and I proved it. Hence, this temple is dear to me.
I always look on the bright side of life. I do not believe in seeking recognition and I only believe in service to mankind and the temple. I adore and value honesty more than anything else. I flew kites as a child and then I flew some of the greatest planes in this world. My life was very adventurous. My episode in Canada made me a man and I believe in the proverb that “a stitch in time saves nine”. This is my life’s story. Now, I am happy to be back “home”.
PM: Lastly, can you still fly?
If I can still drive a car then most definitely I can fly a plane. No doubt.
Parthiban Manoharan is an upcoming writer currently lives in Toronto, Canada. With interests in Carnatic music, world issues and culture, Parthiban is currently pursuing his MBA at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.