going down the memory lane with
AIR CHIEF MARSHALL ROSHAN GOONETILEKE
“We should resolve never to allow divisions to occur in Sri Lanka”
As I approached Air Chief Marshall Roshan Goonetileke’s house which is situated in the outskirts of Colombo, I was wondering what to expect from a man who was one of the Commanders to support the President’s determined effort to win the war against terrorism. Imagine my surprise when he himself comes and opens the gate, welcomes me and leads me in to his house.
Such was the simplicity of a man who could claim glory and honour for his role in the war that was concluded in 2009. This simplicity was also evident in the relative compactness of the garden and the house and his welcome immediately put me at ease resulting in an interview that stretched to 2 hours whereas my assumption, when I sought the interview, was 45 minutes.
Asked if he would like to begin with his war years (and I expected him to say yes because that would be the years of glory), he chooses to start with his school days at St. Peter’s College, Colombo.
More proof of the simple nature of the man, if indeed proof was needed.
So he narrates “I was admitted to Grade 2 at St. Peter’s College in 1962” and quickly adds “the grade 1 year was spent in a school in Negombo because my father at that time was based in Katunayake.” To digress a bit, who was this father and what was he doing in Katunayake? “My father, Harry Goonetileke was himself the Commander of the Air Force from 1976 to 1981 but at that time I was admitted to St. Peter’s he was the Station Commander of China Bay in Trincomalee wearing the rank of Squadron Leader.
So you see Air Chief Marshall Roshan Goonetileke can claim an Asian record if not a world record of having been the Commander of the Air Force whose father also held the same post and had a brother who also served the Air Force and paid the ultimate price of his life in defense of his country. Roshan’s son Rehan is also now serving in the Air Force completing a 3 generation saga in the Air Force of which 2 have been Commanders leaving us to wonder what the future holds for young Rehan.
So back to his school days “At school I was in the boarding from grade two to grade five as my father was based in China Bay”. I ask him to recall some of the boarders he remembers and he says the Gypsies Boys, Sunil, Nihal, Piyal, Nimal and Neville (a cousin of the Glukorasa/ Gypsies clan), Chandrishan Perera (the rugby player, commentator, administrator, etc.), Andrew and Noel Liyanage, Mahinda Samarasinghe (now a Minister), Newman brothers who went on to become planters.
“Feels a sense of satisfaction that it ended while I was in charge of the Air Force, without leaving this burden to the next generation”
Asked to name a few of his classmates, he mentioned the names of Dr. Lawrence Perera of Micro fame, Maj. General Nimal Jayasuriya, Lalantha Heart, Orville Perera (a rugby player and Immediate Past President of the Referees Association), “Bunja” Leonidas, Amal Perera and Rohan Rodrigo as ones he could recall.
Q. How was boarding life?
It was disciplined. We had to do chores that we did not normally do at home. We had to get up at 5.30 a.m., say our prayers, arrange our beds, etc. and also work to a time table. I must say this discipline stood me in good stead in later life”. In lighter vein he recalls the times when they scooted off to get snacks as food was never enough.
Does he remember some of the teachers who taught him? “Yes” he says and mentions M/s. A S Peiris, Pius Fernando and Mss. Rita Fernando, Barbra Joachim, Trilby Rodrigo and Irene Perera in the Primary section and M/s. Merril Balasuriya, Austin Fernando (who’s sons are also in the Air Force), Arthur Fernando, Abeygunawardena, Kingsley Jayasinghe, Harischandra. Roshan had excelled in sports at school and had taken part in Athletics, Basketball (coached by Naufel Mahroof), Rugby (under the tutelage of the legendary Archibald Perera) and swimming (under Ranil Goonasena).
Q. What made you join the Air Force? Was it your father’s influence?
I was in Air Force camps from my small days and I developed a liking for service life. It became my ambition to be a Pilot and an Officer in the Sri Lanka Air Force.
Coming to the war days before anything else is written I’d like to share with you what Roshan says about the war. With almost his entire career at the Air Force spanning the war years he feels a sense of satisfaction that it ended while he was in charge of the Air Force, without leaving this burden to the next generation. He hastens to add that the war was won with difficulty and we should resolve never to allow divisions to occur in Sri Lanka. Sound advice indeed from a war veteran.
Having joined the Air Force on the 13th of January 1978, his appointment as Commander of the Air Force on 12th June 2006 was in the same year that the Humanitarian Operation commenced at Mavil Aru with the opening of the sluice gates which were forcibly closed by the LTTE preventing the supply of water for cultivation and drinking purposes. That, as events proved thereafter, was the beginning of the end of the war.
The credit for the victory, he said, must be given to many factors and not one. The first being the decision of the political hierarchy to give up the previous strategy of contain and discuss peace and go for an all out victory. Next was to have in place what was necessary to go for victory i.e. equipment, manpower, intelligence, etc. Then, importantly, it was the men in all 3 forces from top to bottom doing what was needed to be done.
The role of the Air Force, in the entire humanitarian operation to liberate civilians from the clutches of terrorists, was to identify and destroy LTTE positions and weaken their capability to fight. As Commander Roshan had to ensure that the right people were in the right positions, the morale of his troops was high and equipment and fire power was available to prosecute the war successfully. This we know was achieved and Roshan says he ensured that all necessary equipment was supplied, staff were kept informed of the government’s vision to win the war and credit was given to men who achieved success and adds that neither a single aircraft was destroyed in flight due to terrorist action nor a single pilot lost or even injured. He said the they lost some brave men on ground in Morewewa while doing route clearance duties and when the Anuradhapura camp was attacked, during his tenure as Commander of the Air Force.
Throughout all of the difficult war days, he said his family was a strength to him. He acknowledged that he received huge support from the wife and added “when I was a young pilot and flying much in operational areas, it was my wife who looked after our two children and sent them to school. She managed the home alone at Katunayake. This went on till 2003 when I was posted to Colombo. This was the first time that we were together after marriage in 1987.”
When his pretty wife Nelun and son Rehan joined us (unfortunately the daughter was at the university) it was plain to see why. Their faith in God was very evident and it was obvious that he and the family relied on divine assistance and not on mortals. Nelun declared “I was on my knees praying every time a fighter jet took off and as much as the mothers of the crews, I was praying till they were back”. Roshan adds philosophically “God puts you in a place for a purpose. You have to be there so He can work His plan for you and through you”.
A quick no to the question if he was tempted to join politics, I asked what message this unique Air Chief Marshall would wish to give to the country at large and the Government Servant in particular? His answer was that the war which was won with tremendous sacrifice was a solid foundation for a prosperous country and invites all to work hard to achieve that.
Q. Any message for younger generation?
Studies and practical activities must always go together. What is learned in theory must be seen in practice to experience success. If you wish to be a leader you must first serve under a good leader so you learn how to lead. If you cannot serve under a leader, it will be difficult for you to become a good leader. And finally as you learn on the sports field, you must be magnanimous in victory and gracious in defeat.
Air Chief Marshall W D R M J Goonetileke
RWP & bar, VSV, USP, ndc, psc
Service at Air Force :
Retired as :
Chief of Defense Staff
Date of Birth :
28th February 1956
School Attended :
St. Peter’s College (1962 – 1975)
Joined Air Force :
13th January 1978 as an Officer Cadet in the General Duties Pilot Branch
USA, Pakistan and India
Highest Awards :
Rana Wickrema Padakkama (RWP),
Vishista Seva Vibushanaya (VSV),
Uththama Seva Padakkama (USP)
Nelun Goonetileke from Kurunegala and educated at Holy Family Convent in Kurunegala
Son – Rehan joined the Air Force in 2009 and is a helicopter pilot like the fatner and holds the rank of Flying Officer
Daughter – Ronali Attending University
Air Chief Marshall Harry Goonetileke Position Appointment Commander of the SL Air Force
Marion Josepha Goonetileke
Brothers and Sisters :
1) Shirantha Goonetileke (died in action on 29th April 1995)
2) Shiromini Goonetileke
3) Sharmini Goonetileke