Chathuri Dissanayake, in The Daily News, 15 February 2016, with the title “Irosha: Lanka’s silver lining in the clouds”
Irosha Rajapaksha has her head in the clouds, and that’s a good thing. As one of the two female paratroopers in the country, she has a special place in Sri Lanka’s skyline. When Leading Aircraftwoman Rajapaksha replied to an email to join the first course in parachute jumping for women, she didn’t know what she was getting herself into! But she didn’t think twice before jumping at the chance, and since then she has been jumping into the clouds – 485 times, to be exact. The highest number of jumps for any Sri Lankan female jumper.
“I had no idea what it was all about, but I applied any way,” says Rajapaksha. As she floats through memories her eyes sparkle with excitement and a broad smile lights up her face revealing dimples on her cheeks. She is indeed a pretty woman. But don’t be fooled, Rajapaksha is no ordinary girl. She knows not what fear means and she has a thirst for adventure. She didn’t think twice about the new course, it sounded exciting, so she applied. Having never seen a Parachute in her life, she had little idea of the heights her decision would take her to – literally.
She told her parents after registering for the course. Her father, a brick layer in her home-town Matale, had no idea what his only daughter was embarking on. Neither did her mother, Rajapaksha says, so she got a free pass. “Besides they never stopped me from doing anything.” She never had any boundaries.
Rajapaksha, the only daughter in the family, had also been the athletic one. She was a star athlete in her school, and took part in ‘everything’; be it 100m sprint, 400m relay, netball or volleyball. So joining the Air Force came naturally to her. Out of 6,500 applicants to join the Air Force, 52 women were selected. Rajapaksha was one of them. Having completed basic training in Air Force. she was in the Ratmalana camp and following the email exchange the team immediately started training in January, 2008.
There were 40 men who were training and only seven women, including herself. The toughest part was training to land properly, says Rajapaksha. “You have to make sure that five specific places in your body touch the ground at the same instant to equally transfer the weight and pressure of landing. Learning that is the hardest thing,” she says. “We were all treated equally; the seven of us got no special treatment owing to our gender. We did the same exercises and same number of repetitions.”
The training was for 45 days and then came the jumps. First they were harnessed at just five feet above ground, gradually working up to the highest point of 34 feet above ground. They were harnessed to a 200 feet line connected to two towers, 34 feet in height. They were to get across, and repeat the exercise until there was no fear left.
“Dangling down that rope was an experience; I just wanted to get to the other side as soon as possible. After a number of jumps when I showed no hesitation to jump, the trainers knew I had no fear of heights,” Rajapaksha said. Then came the exciting part, she says; the first jump from an aircraft. There are five such practice jumps. During the first attempt, the jumper is attached to the aircraft and the instructor is in control.
“I was not scared during the first jump at all. But the second one, because I knew what is going to happen, when the parachute should open, I was a bit nervous,” says Rajapaksha recalling her first attempts almost a decade ago. But that was the only time she was nervous. Since then she has never been scared to jump off the aircraft and into the never ending clouds. But her parents were not so brave. At the graduating ceremony her parents watched her float across the sky, with happy tears to watch ‘their girl’ write history. Following the passing out ceremony in May, 2008 Rajapaksha completed the Skydiving course successfully.
“At the passing out ceremony, I landed behind the Commander’s tent, not in the landing area. I just collected my parachute and came for the salute. Since no one could recognize us from afar no one knew about it,” she says chuckling at the memory. Since her graduation in 2008, she has taken part in every Independence Day celebration and later at victory day parade celebrations.
With time, five members of her original team left the service, and the sixth gave up skydiving after marriage. In 2010 Rajapaksha had an accident while landing and fractured her leg. “I had a new parachute; it was a high speed one, so I miscalculated the timings,” she explains.
It took her two years to recover. That was a long wait, says Rajapaksha. Was she scared to get back to skydiving? On the contrary, she couldn’t wait to return. “I couldn’t wait to start jumping again. I returned in 2012, for the victory parade, and continued to date”
In 2010 a team of four female paratroopers including Rajapaksha along with their male team, represented Sri Lanka at the world military parachuting championship. Although they couldn’t win, the experience enriched their careers, she says. “Unlike us who need an aircraft to perform a jump or train, some of the competitors had 25,000 jumps as they practice in wind tunnels. “For us resources are limited and we need to wait till weather is all good to go for a jump,” says Rajapaksha explaining how training is always a gamble with the volatile Sri Lankan weather.
As an instructor in the SLAF parachute training school she has the opportunity to perform jumps with trainees, she says but if not chances for practice are limited. Rajapaksha’s next goal is to advance to the next level in her training and follow the Master Jumper course, a course only available in foreign countries. Unlike her team mates who have given up skydiving after marriage and other commitments, she has no intention of doing so. Six months ago, she got married but will not give up her first love, skydiving. “I married someone in the academy, so he’ll never ask me to give up,” Rajaupaksha explains confidently.
Rajapaksha is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
“Amen! Hai, Hoi and Away Irosha. .. Bravo and good luck, lass “– An Editorial Comment