International Airport: Involves Canadians for Decades

Newspaper article circa 1965 proclaiming the airport to be a showpiece of Canada in the East

The Katunayake airport was the largest single aid project in the Canadian aid program to Sri Lanka in the 1960s. The media called it the “showpiece of the East”, partly because in 1965 when the 11,000 foot runway was completed, it allowed state of the art BOAC VC10 to land. Canada’s contribution was Rs 43 million, initially 80% grant and 20% loan (subsequently forgiven). The project was completed three months ahead of schedule and TWA, Aeroflot, UTA, Quantas and British Eagle Airways soon established operations.

D.W. Boyd of the Canadian Department of Transport worked with the Sri Lankan Department of Civil Aviation on the project. The Sri Lankan Cabinet named the road to the airport off the Negombo-Colombo Road the “Canada Friendship Road” in appreciation. The naming ceremony coincided with the visit of Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in 1971.

The most extraordinary thing about the airport in terms of the Canadian connection is the longevity of the relationship, with activities underway from 1963 to the present day.

In 1963 under the Colombo Plan, Canada worked with Sri Lanka on the runway and terminal. Then starting in the late 1970s, the Katunayake International Airport master plan was developed with the Lea, Acres and Norr consortium from Canada working with government aviation experts.

There followed a successful commercial contract to build an airport hangar for Sri Lanka’s airline, Airlanka. Pendrith was the project development company. Michael Couture was the project manager and he still lives in Colombo with his wife, artist Lise Nadeau. Funding was tapped from Export Development Corporation, TD Bank, Bank of Nova Scotia, and Melon Bank USA.

In 2003 ND Lea and Associates with Aecon, a Canadian infrastructure company, worked on a Bandaranaike International Airport feasibility study as part of the Canadian Airports Group and the Department of Highway and Transport.

Fenton was a local contractor that provided electrical engineering services at the Terminal building on the Canadian airport project. Chandev Abhayaratne, Managing Director of Fentons today recalls how he, his uncle and father have all been involved with the airport and with Canadians for four decades. He is now active in a brand new hangar project and the fire detection equipment they plan to install is from a Canadian agency, MIRCOM.

Norr, a Canadian company, also had a long association with the airport. Trevor Carnahoff worked for years in Sri Lanka but it was his personal life that got a lot of attention. He married Beulah Dias (Karunaratne), a famous Sri Lankan beauty and actress. They raised their family in Canada. He has enjoyed a 35 year career in the airport development business working on more than 20 airport projects around the world.

Last but not least, Canadian aviation experience has not been restricted to the Colombo airport. In the south, at Koggala, Canadian David Gilroy operates Ceylon Aeronautical Services (CAS). He has been involved in Sri Lanka aviation since 1986 with Bell Helicopters but only recently established a dedicated and independent maintenance, repair operation providing commercial aviation technical support in Sri Lanka. CAS operates under Transport Canada. Koggala airport has a lot of aviation history and remains an international airport according to the archives. It was the base to the Double Sunrise, the longest scheduled flight in history 27-33 hours non-stop, two sunrises.

Canada Friendship Road sign on the airport road in four languages

Koggala hangar in the South with Ceylon Aeronautical Services operating under Transport Canada regulations (courtesy of David Gilroy)

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