'Moonlighting' Air Force builds Sri Lanka's tourism

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One unusual experience available for visitors to Sri Lanka is to be served curry puffs and Ceylon tea, while flying on a DC-3 plane and gazing down at the Temple of Buddha's Tooth or at a rock face called World's End.

More unusual, perhaps, is that such commercial flights are brought to you by the Sri Lanka Air Force.

In a few developing countries - where tourism is big business and foreign currency hard to come by - the air force is better known as an airline.

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In Sri Lanka, the tiny island nation south of India, the Air Force helps pay for its military hardware and salaries by ferrying around tourists, business people, and moviemakers. Last year, it brought in $188,591, down a little from 1980 because ticket prices went up after the pilots had to pay more for rice, their basic food.

''It's something out of the ordinary'' says Wing Commander Wimal Fernando, who runs the operation known as Helitour. To get to Mr. Fernando's office, one must pass through a security checkpoint at the Air Force command headquarters, a yellow colonial-style building near the capital, Colombo. On his walls are several tourist posters featuring the Aukana Buddha, a beach of your own, or the Sigiriya fresco of the 5th century.

Helitour's fleet of about 20 aircraft, which double as the airborne defense for Sri Lanka, include two DC-3 Dakotas, a few Bell JetRanger helicopters, a Cessna 337, a 15-seat de Havilland Heron (and the faster and more expensive to rent Riley Heron), and a number of Hawker Siddeley transport planes.

In all, about 25 pilots stand ready to take off on a moment's call to fly anywhere on this tear-shaped paradise of 25,332 square miles. Members of the Air Force also work as stewards on long flights, serving a Sri Lanka snack such as curry puffs.

Prices are as steep as a helicopter's ascent. The most popular craft is the JetRanger, which costs about $300 a hour. In a country where the average yearly income is about $150 -- one of the lowest in the world -- this capitalist venture by the military has few critics.

Like taxi drivers in Colombo, the pilots enjoy telling their passengers about the beautiful sights of Sri Lanka, such as the sacred mountain of Adam's Peak, and the ruins of ancient cities. Picking you up and dropping you off at your resort beach is no problem. The helicopters are kept at the Colombo airport or on the large cricket lawn next to the Air Force command.

Overflights are restricted in only a few areas, and these are not military bases. Rather, they are the wildlife sanctuaries, home to elephants, leopards, and wild boar.

Another side benefit for the pilots is the pleasure of flying movie actresses around the island for film shooting. Ursula Andress was here for ''Mountain in the Jungle,'' and recently actress-turned-producer Bo Derek came in for the shooting of ''Tarzan.''

In March a French television station plans live coverage from Sri Lanka for a show called Treasure Hunt. Contestants sitting in a Paris studio watching a screen will direct Helitours helicopters around the ruined cities of Sigirya and Dambulla in hopes of locating treasure.

For Sri Lanka's Air Force pilots, it's all part of earning their wings.

While the tours are not considered a normal part of military duty, they do keep the pilots in training, and the aircraft in shape. Whether the operation makes a profit is hard to tell because the planes are used both for Helitour and standard military duty. But when Helitours began in 1971, the purpose was to encourage tourism and bring in badly needed foreign currency.

It has done that rather well, so well in fact that Helitours now faces competition from private air transport companies. The Air Force has begun an active promotion campaign overseas for its service, and tried to make Helitours a ''profit center'' in its accounting. It is also seeking landing rights in India.

Mr. Fernando sounds as if he isn't worried about the new competitors. ''The Air Force will go on. They may not,'' he says.

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