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Ray Wijewardene: The Ultimate Aviator

Ray Wijewardene in his Cambridge days  

He was a magnificent man with or without his Flying Machines, says Captain Elmo Jayawardena

We go back many years in the fraternity of aviation in Sri Lanka, of course not on equal terms as similar to the biblical saying I was not fit to tie his shoe laces in the aeroplane world. Such was the pedestal Ray stood on, Aviator Extraordinary on all counts sans a single doubt.

We first crossed paths when he was a Director at Air Ceylon, the then national career, and I was a flight steward eating crumbs and working more on hope than reality to become a pilot. I remember how he encouraged me and though the exact words are not in memory, it was all about an Icon bending down to a minion to give some words that lifted me in spirit to believe more in myself. The kindnesses experienced when you are a ‘nobody’ goes into hard disk memory, I am only re-winding time and writing these words to say thank you Ray.

Ray to me was the Ultimate Aviator. Inventor of light aeroplanes and modified engines, private pilot, balloonist, mentor and teacher, you name it, he had it -- and with such enthusiasm and visionary thinking that in the real sense of aviation, people like me who flew big jets were nothing but mere Pygmies in comparison.

Ray Wijwardene flying an auto gyro; birds eye view of an aviatorThat was Ray, roaming the skies with his home made gyro copter or his 'thanakola peththa' and a few others that he himself crafted in his backyard and took to the air in absolute safety.

I remember once he was a passenger on one of my flights along with Mrs Wijewardene. When asked where he was heading, I was astounded by his answer. "I am going to do a course in ballooning." I cannot recall how old he would have been, but he certainly was not young; but the enthusiasm was all there, I could see that by the way his words came out matching the glint in the eye, the ultimate aviator searching for newer horizons, the pure excitement of conquering the unknown.

I also remember once he took me for a spin in one of his open cockpit aeroplanes at Ratmalana. Ray was test flying a new toy and I was to be the observer. The little aeroplane was completely open and flying in it was more like sitting on a garden seat with a seat belt to hold you down. Clear vision all around, it scared me a bit, but one look at the old warrior was enough to calm me down. He was in complete control and revelling at that.

We flew over the Bolgoda Lake in a clear blue sky dappled in wisps of cirrus and circled over Panadura watching match box like vehicles fighting for space along the Galle Road. Then we went to Kalutara, the twin bridges and the Kalu Ganga and where it emptied to the sea alongside the serene whiteness of the temple. From there we returned to the airfield, flying along the coastline, watching the golden sand and the glittering blue of the sea in contrast, all in picture postcard perfection from Ray's little aeroplane.

Ray Wijewardene with one of his fully collapsible experimental light aircrafts which can land and take off on water

What is written about a lot and often called the romance of flight was just this, all in light aeroplanes and certainly not in big jumbo jets that screeched the sky to link continents. Ray was a master of the propeller plane world, the kind Richard Bach wrote about in Jonathan Livingston Seagull and A Gift of Wings.

He certainly was quarter bird, that part was always clearly evident. The balance fractions were in all kinds of indigenous achievements and the totality was encompassed in an adorable human being with a big heart to match; whichever way you looked at him.

Capt Elmo Jayawardena

Capt Elmo Jayawardena works for Boeing Co training pilots in simulators. He was a Chief pilot of Air Lanka and flew 747s for SIA as an instructor for 20 years. He is also the Founder/President of CandleAid a Govenrment approved charity and an award winning author.