Air Lanka tookover from its predecessor Air Ceylon as Sri Lanka itself entered a period of turmoil, which would last for over twenty years. Throughout that entire period the white Peacock of Air Lanka would continue to connect the nation to the world, focusing on service if not always punctuality (the airline's designator UL was cheekily expanded to 'Usually Late' by detractors). The workhorse of the fleet was Lockheed's trusty Tristar and I well remember seeing them at Gatwick as a child providing a splash of colour and "a taste of paradise".
Air Lanka was formed by the Sri-Lankan government in July 1979 following the closure of Air Ceylon the previous year. The original national carrier had fallen out of favour after mismanagement and the country's change of identity in 1972. The initial fleet consisted of a pair of 707s (4R-ALA/ALB) leased from SIA for long-haul services to Europe. Both were soon purchased and a 737 (4R-ALD) added for regional routes. 4R-ALA was originally built for Malaysia-Singapore Airlines in July 1968 as 9M-AOT. She transferred to Singapore Airlines in September 1972, when MSA split in two, as 9V-BFB. The 707s were only ever intended to be short term fleet additions for Lanka and both were withdrawn in 1982/83 and broken up at Shannon.
Air Lanka's preferred aircraft choice was instead the Lockheed L-1011 Tristar. The airline started widebody operations only 1 year after establishment when it leased an Air Canada Tristar (C-FTNF, which became 4R-ALE) on November 1, 1980. The aircraft was returned in April 1982 by which time 3 All Nippon Tristars had been purchased. JA8503, which had been delivered to ANA in February 1974, became 4R-ULE ‘City of Ratnapura’ following ULC and D. Several other Air Canada aircraft were leased for short periods also.
Air Lanka wasn't purely satisfied with operating second-hand Tristars and had already ordered a pair of new Tristar 500s in March 1980 prior to the arrival of the secondhand frames. The deal included two orders and options valued at GBP100 million. The first new series 500 arrived in August 1982, and they were registered 4R-ULA and ULB. The arrival of the new Tristars however coincided with a dark time in the nation's history.
In July 1983 following an ambush on an army patrol by Liberation Tigers of Tamil militants the on/off civil war between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil minority was restarted. The ambush was the fuse, but when the government mishandled the funeral of the soldiers popular anger erupted against innocent Tamils. In the resulting organised chaos lynch mobs ran riot burning and killing Tamil civilians with impunity. Government officials appeared at times complicit in the slaughter and certainly unable to effectively stop it. The Black July pogrom resulted in the deaths of up to 3,000 Tamil civilians and the widespread destruction of Tamil owned properties. Over 150,000 Tamils became international refugees and the civil war was reignited with many young Tamils radicalised.
The political situation appears to have not affected Air Lanka too badly as only 7 months after leasing out its Tristar 500s it leased in a second Qantas Boeing 747-238B when VH-EBB became 4R-ULG 'King Tissa' in October 1985. The 747s saw service until September 1986 and July 1987. They were replaced by leased Tristars with Air Canada frame C-FTNB becoming 4R-ULJ and FTNE becoming ULK. Unfortunately the civil war intruded again into Air Lanka's operations on May 3, 1986 when one of its Tristars was destroyed. The frame 4R-ULD, one of the trio of ex-all Nippon aircraft, was delayed in departing for Male when a bomb hidden in a toolkit exploded blowing off the aircraft's tail. Sixteen people were killed and forty one injured. The bomb was obviously expected to detonate in flight which most passengers saved by the delay.
The Tristar fleet was boosted further in the early 1990s when Jordanian Tristar 500s were leased from September 1989 until June 1993. Only one aircraft was on strength at any one time with JY-AGH serving the first 9 months and JY-AGB the remaining three years. In addition a pair of ex-British Airways Tristar 200s were also leased in 1991 for three years, with G-BGBB becoming 4R-ULN and G-BHBP becoming 4R-ULM. They left the fleet in September-November 1994. It was at this time that the eventual replacement for the Tristars came into service when a pair of new Airbus A340-300s (4R-ADB/C) arrived. The Tristars continued to serve the Sri-Lankan flag carrier until 4R-ULA operated the final service in early 2000. All in all at one time or another Air Lanka operated 16 Tristars. Following the airline's privatisation the airline rebranded as SriLankan Airlines in late 1999 but none of the Tristars received the new colours and Airbus A330s replaced the Tristars fully.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: