Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)
Ceylon’s first flights Roger Thiedeman
As Sri Lanka marks its centenary of aviation, looks at the intrepid early aviators who brought ‘flying fever’ here
This month the Civil Aviation Authority of Sri Lanka (CAASL) is commemorating 100 years of aviation in Ceylon/Sri Lanka. But the first flight of an aeroplane in Ceylon took place on December 25, 1911. That’s right – 101 years ago. So why are Sri Lankan ‘aerocrats’ celebrating the centenary in 2012? Are they living up to that unkind tag bestowed on SriLankan Airlines and its predecessor Air Lanka: ‘UL’ (Usually Late)? Or is there a good reason? Let’s look at the facts, then you be the judge.
Piloting the first aeroplane to take off from Ceylonese soil on Christmas Day 1911 was an itinerant German named Franz Oster. But the story of Lankan aviation did not start with Herr Oster, because his airplane wasn’t the first to arrive on Ceylon’s shores. That distinction went to a Blériot monoplane similar to the one flown by French aviator Louis Blériot when he made the first aerial crossing of the English Channel on July 25, 1909. Ceylon’s first aeroplane arrived in Colombo on September 12, 1911, aboard the SS Rabenfels, imported by an Englishman named Colin Browne (not ‘Brown’).
Capitalising on the novelty value of this new-fangled flying machine, in November Browne put his Blériot on static display at the Colombo Racquet Club, charging visitors for the privilege of viewing it. Advertisements for the exhibition hinted that the aircraft would soon be taking to its natural element for demonstration flights, and that members of the public could also pay to go on joyrides. But Browne and his Blériot had their thunder stolen by Franz Oster, who arrived in Ceylon aboard the Hamburg Amerika liner Silesia in late December 1911 with an airplane as part of his ‘baggage’. This was an EtrichRumpler Taube, a curious-looking craft, also a monoplane, whose wings and tail had a ‘feathery’ look, like those of a bird – explained by the fact that ‘Taube’ is the German word for ‘dove’. Early on the morning of Christmas Day, in perfect weather conditions for flying and watched by five or six Europeans plus a small contingent of coolies, Oster’s Etrich Taube started its takeoff run along the Racecourse infield. According to a contemporary newspaper report, it “swept majestically past the interested spectators near the grand-stand…rising gracefully, and then descending as the aviator gradually increased its height.”
But suddenly things went awry for Oster and his ‘feathered’ mechanical dove with 80hp engine. Forced to bank sharply to avoid a wire strung across the course, Oster managed to miss the wire, but the violent manoeuvre caused the airplane to stall and plunge unceremoniously to earth. Although the Taube suffered considerable damage in the crash, Oster escaped injury. Thus ended, albeit ignominiously, the first flight of an aeroplane in Sri Lanka.
Undaunted, and with the Taube repaired, Franz Oster returned to the Racecourse for another attempt on December 30. But that too ended in a crash landing when a strong gust of wind flipped the airplane over and blew it onto the ground. Again, Oster wasn’t injured, but the Taube had both wings broken and its fuselage “hopelessly damaged”.
As 1912 dawned, and yet to make a successful, fullycontrolled flight, Oster decided to try again. By early in the New Year, a rivalry had arisen between Colin Browne and Franz Oster, each trying to outdo the other for the honour of making Ceylon’s first successful, totally-controlled aeroplane flight. But for his third foray aloft, Oster did a deal with Browne, obtaining the use of the Englishman’s Blériot monoplane, which had still not flown in Lankan skies. So on January 18, 1912, Franz Oster took off from the Racecourse in the calm early morning air.
This time he appeared to be in better control, as the Blériot was seen climbing steadily and disappearing in the direction of the Fort. But returning to land, his airplane clipped a bamboo pole on a building at Royal College and crashed inside the grounds of the Racecourse. Franz Oster suffered a dislocated shoulder and sundry cuts and bruises, and was taken to hospital. That was the last time he flew in Ceylon.
Later that year Ceylon finally saw its first successful and completely controlled flights. This time there were two pilots and two aeroplanes: visiting Frenchmen Georges Verminck and Marc Pourpe (not ‘Pourpre’, the French word for ‘purple’, which other writers have mistakenly used), and their Blériot monoplanes named Rajah and La Curieuse, respectively. Commencing on December 7, 1912, and almost daily for the next week or so, the pair put on a series of ‘aviation exhibitions’ above the Racecourse, even venturing as far afield as Mount Lavinia. To the delight of awestruck spectators below, they showed off their flying skills with Gallic flair and not even a faint suggestion of the unplanned returns to terra firma that had blighted Franz Oster’s attempts.
As ‘flying fever’ swept Colombo like an epidemic, the Times of Ceylon newspaper scheduled an event for December 12, with Verminck and Pourpe to compete against each other for the ‘Times of Ceylon Cup’. But during one of his public demonstration flights on December 11, Marc Pourpe fell foul of the British authorities. Having taken off from the Racecourse, he overflew Cinnamon Gardens and Kollupitiya, then headed farther north. But in the aerial vicinity of Colombo Fort he strayed over the harbour and Police barracks, areas that had been ruled out-of-bounds to the French aviators when they were given permission for their flights. Upon landing back at the Racecourse, Pourpe was met by senior Police officials and taken away for questioning on suspicion of espionage. The Police also banned the next day’s ‘Cup’ event.
Ultimately, it was all deemed to be an innocent misunderstanding, but not before much huffing and puffing by the British colonial powers-that-were, with even the Governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry McCallum, becoming involved. With the Frenchman released from interrogation, the ‘Times of Ceylon Cup’ went ahead the next day as planned, and Georges Verminck was declared the victor.
Despite the unpleasantness of the ‘spying scandal’ for Verminck and Pourpe, Ceylon could finally lay claim to seeing the first successful aeroplane flights taking off from and landing on local ‘real estate’. Therefore, CAASL apparently has some justification in regarding the Verminck/Pourpe flights of December 1912 as the benchmark for centenary celebrations this year. But some aviation-minded pedants may continue to insist that the honour should have gone to the accident-prone Oster instead, and the centenary of aviation in Sri Lanka celebrated 12 months ago rather than in December 2012.
Those differing viewpoints aside, what do we know about Oster, Verminck, and Pourpe? Who were those intrepid fellows who introduced Ceylonese men, women, and children to the wonder of powered flight less than a decade after brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright did their pioneering thing at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903?
Franz Oster was born on January 19, 1869 in Bad Honnef, Germany. After joining the German Navy, he sailed on a naval ship to Hong Kong.
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