The Air Tigers (Tamil: வான்புலிகள்) was the air-wing of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who used it against the Government of Sri Lanka. Though the existence of the Air Tigers had been the subject of speculation for many years, the existence of the wing was only revealed after an attack in March 2007, during Eelam War IV.
Early reports of the Air Tigers
The LTTE credits the formation of the Air Tigers air-wing to Colonel Shankar, alias Vythialingam Sornalingam, a diploma graduate of Hartley College in Point Pedro. He has an Engineering Diploma in Aeronautics from Hindustan Engineering College in Tamil Nadu, India.
On November 27–28, 1998, Tamilnet reported the LTTE-operated Voice Of Tiger radio station had claimed “Aircraft of the Air Tiger wing of the Liberation Tigers [had] sprinkled flowers over the cemeteries of the slain LTTE cadres in Mulliyawalai,” during the annual Heroes Day celebrations. Earlier in the month, the web based news agency reported (November 19, 1998) an unidentified aircraft allegedly belonging to the LTTE had been spotted in the Thondamanaaru region in Jaffna by Sri Lankan Navy officials. The report said it was also believed the Tigers had built an airstrip in the Mullaitivu army base after it was overrun by the LTTE in 1996.
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On November 27, 1998 Tamilnet reported Deputy Minister for Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte had scoffed at speculation that the LTTE has acquired aircraft, claiming the reports were part of an LTTE strategy of psychological warfare. Three days later, the news service reported unconfirmed reports of a Tiger helicopter being sighted in the Batticalloa‐Amparai region. The report also said The Sunday Times Military analyst Iqbal Athas had reported military intelligence UAVs had taken images of the LTTE helicopters and Mulativu airstrip. The Sunday Times Situation Report said (November 1, 1998) “Senior SLAF officials suspect the helicopter on ground to be similar to R44 Astro — a small, light, four-seat, piston-engined civilian helicopter produced by the Robinson Helicopter Company since 1992. Sri Lankan newspapers corroborated discovery of an R44 Astro  and also suggested that Australian LTTE contacts had facilitated the purchase of two Australian-made AirBorne microlight aircraft. The Singapore based Asian Tribune e-newspaper claimed (July 28, 2006) the LTTE had acquired two Czech-built Zlin Z‐143's, according to eyewitnesses in Eliranpuram, Pudukudiyiruppu and Meerukandi, who also claim to have frequently seen the Cessna Skymasters flying overhead for several months. The report also said it was believed the acquisition had been made between April and July 2006.
Similarly, news of LTTE airstrips in the north had made periodic appearances in the southern Sri Lanka media, including a May 28, 2005 admission by the Norwegian‐led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission of having sighted an airstrip in the Iranamadu area, in northern Sri Lanka. The new air strip was reportedly located near the ruins of another Tiger air strip that was abandoned due to air force bombing in the late 1990s. On March 16, 2007 the Daily Mirror defence analyst Sunil Jayasiri reported military intelligence had revealed the LTTE had constructed yet another airstrip in the South East of Pudukiduiruppu area in the East. “The Pudukiduiruppu airstrip is 1,250 metres long and therefore even a Hercules C-130 aircraft could land with a full load of cargo”, the report said. The Sri Lankan Government alleged that the aircraft have been shipped with foreign aid. That year, Air Tigers smuggled ten unassembled Czech fighter jets onto their bases.
Alleged air attack on Palali
On August 11, 2006, quoting unidentified sources in Jaffna, Tamilnet reported that “at least one unidentified aircraft” had flown over the Sri Lankan military base at Palali, firing “rockets” at government forces. “Sri Lanka Army (SLA) artillery fire being directed from the base stopped after the attack…,” the report said. When contacted by the Tamilnet to comment on the reported aerial attack the LTTE military spokesman Irasaiah Ilanthirayan alias Marshall was reported to have said “we will use our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in an all out defensive measure to protect our people and homeland.” The report was openly dismissed by the Colombo administration as blatant Tiger propaganda.
Military analyst Iqbal Athas said “Air Force officials flatly denied the claim,” adding a Bell 212 helicopter was damaged due to artillery fire, but Athas claimed personal communications with military sources had suggests the possibility of an unidentified aircraft.
A few weeks before the alleged aerial attack on Palali, the web based news agency published a series of ‘edited’ images taken during the July 5 Black Tiger celebration, at an undisclosed location in the Tiger held Wanni region. Significantly one of the images showed the tiger leader flanked by a number of Black Tiger ‘suicide’ cadre in the foreground against the backdrop of a somewhat crudely painted fixed wing military aircraft, with symbolically ambiguous flames emanating from the cockpit.
Katunayake Air Force Base attack
The first LTTE air attack happened in March 2007. Two LTTE Z Lin Z 143 aircraft penetrated the outer defences of the Katunayake Air force base north of Colombo on Monday, March 26, 2007, killing three air force officials and wounding 16–17 others. It was believed the attack was targeted at the IAI Kfirs and newly acquired MiG jets which had been bombing targets in LTTE-controlled territory. The base is located near Bandaranaike International Airport, which had been attacked by the Tigers in July 2001. The LTTE are also the only terrorist group to field aircraft.
At present the Sri Lankan Air Force's 10 Fighter Ground Attack Squadron operates ten Kfir Multirole Fighters (2 TC2/ 6 C2 / 2 C7). In addition 5 Jet squadron employs four Mig27M Fighter‐Bombers, with three more grounded pending maintenance; and four F‐7 Skybolts. Both the 5 Jet squadron and 10 Fighter Ground Attack Squadron are based at the Katunayake air base and are believed to have been the target of the LTTE’s symbolic attack.
On April 23, the Air Tigers conducted its bombs on a nearby military bunker, killing six soldiers.
On April 26, Sri Lanka’s air defenses in Colombo fired into the sky following reports that unidentified aircraft had been spotted on radar. No attack was reported.
However, a few days later on the early morning of April 29, while the nation was watching the Cricket World Cup Final, a Tiger aircraft bombed two fuel storage facilities outside Colombo. Chaos followed and electricity in the capital was shut off for nearly an hour. There were no casualties and minimal damage. The security forces were unable to bring down the aircraft prompting much criticism from the public and opposition political parties.
Although the government played down the attack, Shell's Sri Lankan country director, Hassan Madan told the AFP "There was big damage to our fire-fighting facility and we estimate it will cost us in excess of 75m rupees ($700,000) to put things back"  .
The assault started at around 3:20 am, with LTTE ground forces attacking the airbase and overrunning key positions, including an anti-aircraft position, before the Air Tiger's ultra lights dropped bombs on government positions. A total of 14 Sri Lankan Air Force personnel and 20 Tigers were killed.
Weli Oya Attack
On April 27, 2008, at approximately 1.45am, a least two Air Tiger aircraft dropped three bombs on military installations near the army forward defense lines in Weli Oya. No damage was caused.
Government Defense Authorities claimed that they had sent Air Force interceptors to engage the Tiger aircraft, but they were unable to do so as it had already flown back before they reached the area.
Strike on Trincomalee harbour
The Sri Lanka Navy confirmed that at least one LTTE plane dropped bombs on the naval base at Trincomalee on August 26, 2008. At least four SLN sailors were killed and more than 35 wounded in the air strike, which inflicted heavy damage on the SLN base, according to the LTTE. The aircraft safely returned to their base after carrying out their mission.
On September 9, 2008, during heavy fighting in the north, an Air Tigers aircraft dropped bombs at a military base in Vavuniya, in northern Sri Lanka. Simultaneously, an LTTE attack on the military base was launched, intended to destroy the India-provided INDRA-II Radar that the Sri Lankan government was using to detect the LTTE planes. Eleven soldiers and a policemen were killed along with eleven Tigers; two Indian technicians were wounded.
After the raid, the military claimed a Sri Lankan air force plane shot down the LTTE craft, but the LTTE denied it; no proof from either side was given.
LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, on October 31, conferred Awards of Valour for the Tiger commandos who excelled in their performance in the operation against the Vanni Headquarters, as well as on the Tiger pilots and operators who took part in consecutive and successful attacks against targets in the south and the bases of the Sri Lankan military. The Air Tiger pilots who had participated in three consecutive successful air attacks received the Warriors Award of Tamil Eelam (Thamizheezha Ma'ravar Viruthu), while Kiddu artillery formation received special awards for their performance in this specific attack.
Mannar and Colombo strikes
Tiger aircraft struck again on October 28. One air raid happened at the Thaladi army camp in Mannar, and another occurred against the Kelanitissa near the capital, Colombo. The Sri Lankan government said there had been no major damage at either location, but that two of the turbines hit at the power plant would take six months to renovate.
Suicide Air Raid on Colombo
On February 20, 2009 the LTTE launched a Kamikaze style attack aimed at SLAF Colombo - the Sri Lankan Air Force Headquarters on Sir Chittampalam Gardiner Street - and the SLAF hangars at SLAF Katunayake adjoining the International Airport in Katunayake. Both of the planes were shot down with one of the planes crashing into the Inland Revenue Department (IRD) opposite the Sri Lankan Air Force Headquarters, starting a fire which resulted in the building sustaining minor damage. The Trans Asia Hotel, which is adjacent, was also damaged though slightly. The Air Force claimed that a plane crashed into the IRD building when the pilot lost control due to anti-aircraft fire. The second aircraft was shot down by anti-aircraft fire close to Bandaranaike International Airport; much of the plane was found intact with the body of the pilot and explosives inside. Two persons (two pilots) were killed and 58 were injured including two airmen of the SLAF.
In their military offensive in the north of the country the Sri Lanka Armed Forces have reported the capture of seven airfields used by the Tigers. Of these, three have been used as emergency landing strips, while two had been a frequently-used airfield with two hangars. On February 20, 2009 the government's predictions were proved wrong when two LTTE aircraft attacked the capital. The LTTE lost both of the Zlín Z 43 aircraft and two Air Tiger pilots during the attack. According to military analysts, there are no aircraft left in the Air Tiger fleet, although the LTTE have claimed that they have three aircraft remaining. On May 18, 2009, The Sri Lankan army defeated the LTTE and regained control over the entire island. Several missions were carried out by the Sri Lanka Army soldiers and none of the three aircraft which the tigers claimed to have kept were found.
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