Monday, December 21, 2015

Sri Lanka Charter Flight - An Experience of a Lifetime, And So Glad We Made it Safely!

This morning, Michael got confused with the time change and woke us up and rushed us down to breakfast, thinking it was 10 am and fearing we were going to miss the meal, only for me to discover afterward that he had woken us up at 7:30 am.  So now we have some unexpected down time, so now I shall blog!  I promised I would give further detail of our Helitours charter flight from Colombo to Yala, so here it is!

The Helitours office in Colombo City looked like a travel agency from the early 1990s (think blue chairs, plastic labels,  a printer and fax machine) but it was spacious and got the job done.  When we arrived, the doors were gated shut and three or four men in military uniforms stood outside.  They were friendly and helpfully offered the obvious - that the office was closed.  We reassured them that we had an agent on the way, then proceeded to wait.

As I mentioned previously, the agents were not too happy to have to come in to work on a Sunday.  When Michael said hi and tried to make friendly chit chat (can't take the American out of the boy), they stonily ignored us and refused to respond!  To be fair, I don't know how much of it was just that they didn't want to be friendly, and how much of it was that they didn't really think he was talking to them…

It took them a while to fiddle with the printer and machines and get everything up and running, but we finally managed to make payment with our credit card.  We wrote down our names and passport numbers on a piece of paper (they didn't even want to see our passports) and then we were done.  We took a tuk tuk back to our hotel and proceeded to pack and prepare for our flight.

We took a taxi to the Ratmalana airport, which immediately felt so different than any other airport we had been to.  No arrivals or departures terminals, no signs.  There were just the different airline offices, lined up in a row, with the runway immediately behind the gated fence.

The planes!

We were obviously the exception, taking a flight on Sunday - the whole place looked shuttered.

And then we got down to business.  They did a thorough search of all of our bags - more thorough than  any TSA - opening all bags and compartments in our luggage.  The woman gave me a gentle pat down, smiling apologetically the whole time.  Here, Michael tried to take a picture of them and got this great candid shot.  Apparently no photos allowed.
 Then they took us to "check in", consisting of filling in a pink form, weighing our bags, and then weighing in.  We had to step on the scale with all of our carry on baggage.  It was kind of funny to be weighed for a flight.  After that, we walked to the waiting area and waited for the crew to prep the plane.
There she is!  The Harbin Y-12
The omnipresent military fatigues…Michael and I have decided we really like the colors of their camo.
And then before we knew it, we left the Helitours office and were heading out to the plane.  
 We insisted on getting pictures with the plane, much to our escort's dismay (don't think we were supposed to be using cameras on the runway).

 We had a pilot and a co-pilot, both of whom were very friendly and kept giving us thumbs up signals before take off.
 We could see straight into the cockpit, and helpfully at all times, the altitude of the plane.
 The plane was full of super old school details, like fans over each seat, and exit signs that were peeling.
The plane seats up to 12 people but we had it all to ourselves.

Here is the runway right before take off! Squee!!!
Michael was gripping my hand so hard at this point that I couldn't take any more pictures.  Within minutes we were airborne, and while it felt a little creaky and bumpy at first, we were flying smoothly in no time.  We settled in at a comfortable and easy 7,000 feet, and proceeded to enjoy the incredible bird's eye views.

I was mesmerized by the little propeller.  The flight was pretty noisy because we could hear the propellers and engine at all times, but not unbearable.  This was my first ever non-pressurized flight.
 The view of the clouds was amazing - they felt so close at times, as if I could reach out and touch them.  They really looked like tufts of cotton candy floating by.

 We flew over fields and streams.

 We flew over clouds.

  We flew through clouds.

 We flew over mountains.
 We marveled at how green the country is.
 We passed over Mattala airport, which was a stark strip of gray concrete in the middle of all of these lush green fields.  It looked completely abandoned, but also utterly brand new - very incongruous.  I wish I had gotten a picture of it.
 I was mesmerized by these fields.

We had a pretty smooth landing.
 Woo hoo!  Flight complete.
 It was awesome and we felt so privileged to have the opportunity to experience this.  In no small part also are we relieved that we are alive!

So, I felt a little bit superstitious and didn't want to post this beforehand, but now that we have survived the flight, I will put back into the blogosphere the information that the airplane did not have any certifications from the CAA (Civilian Aviation Authority) of Sri Lanka.  Helitours had two MA60s that made the news because they were flying with outdated licenses (and in fact, the UK FCO issued a warning that none of their citizens were to fly Helitours as a result), but the plane we flew didn't ever have one!

However, we figured that this would be a professional operation, as it was the commercial arm of the military, and it was likely that the planes didn't have licenses only because they were military property and there are a lot of red tape and bureaucratic issues for getting all of the paperwork squared away with the CAA.

Having now gone through the flight with them, I feel pretty comfortable saying that their fleet is well maintained and that their personnel are very professional.  For those interested in traveling to Sri Lanka via charter flight, the main companies to check out are Cinnamon Air (which operate some commercial routes), Simplifly, Senok, Cosmos and Helitours (which also operate some commercial routes).  Of the five, Helitours' prices are by far the most reasonable.

Sir Chithampalam Gardiner Mawatha, Colombo 2
Telephone: +94 113 144944
Hotline: +94 113 144244

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