History of Jaffna International Airport

Palaly Air Field

History of the Palaly air field runs in to 1940s. This air field was constructed as a military facility by the Royal Air Force in support of Allied operations during the WWII. It is recorded that a number of RAF Squadrons were operating out of the Palaly Air Field during the period. There were several RAF Squadrons including No.160, No.203, No.292 and No.354 Squadron in Palaly at the time.

After the WWII, the Air Field was abandoned by the RAF and its management was taken over by the Department of Civil Aviation as the only airfield available in Jaffna peninsula. At the time of taking over by the Dept of Civil Aviation, the air field had a control tower building and two aircraft hangars built by the RAF which survive with the Sri Lanka Air Force even to date, though some with modifications. It is recorded that the two hangars were utilized even by the Ports Authority for storage of commodities at the time. Further, Officers of the Dept of Civil Aviation occupied RAF abandoned tower building and another small building presently called the ‘Fire Billet’.

The inaugural flight by the Air Ceylon on 10 December 1947 was conducted from Ratmalana to Madras via Kankasanturai (Palaly) and the airport facilitated domestic flights to Ratmalana and international flights to South India. These regional flights were smoothly carried out until the escalation of violence in 1970s

In 1976, a small Sri Lanka Air Force contingent was stationed at Palaly with the reduction of civil flights and in order to monitor illegal immigrations/smuggling and to carryout maritime surveillance using Bell-47 helicopters.The Air Force presence was gradually expanded to meet the requirements created due to increased illegal activities across Northern waters.

The site became an Air Field Unit of the Air Force in January 1982 and during the terror conflict, Palaly served as the only major facility in the Northern theatre for the Sri Lankan military to keep its air supply corridors intact. Due to same reason the facility became as an important strategic location for military forces in Jaffna peninsula and the terrorists made many desperate attempts to neutralize its operations. The air field was well protected throughout the 30 year long conflict and since the conclusion of the war its good use for civil operations also was explored. As a military airfield it successfully supported both military and civil air operations in and out of the Jaffna peninsula all these years until its rebirth as an international airport.