Malaysian plane search revives Sri Lankan tycoon’s missing jet mystery

As authorities move westward towards the Strait of Malacca in search of missing Malaysian Airlines Boeing 777 carrying 239 persons, it revives memories of the extensive and unsuccessful search carried out by seven countries in the same area for a Learjet carrying Sri Lankan business tycoon Upali Wijewardene and five others in 1983.

The richest man in Sri Lanka and his Learjet 35A simply disappeared on February 13, 1983. The $3.6 million Learjet bound for Colombo took off from Kaula Lampur at 8:41 pm carrying Sri Lankan billionaire Upali Wijewardene, his Malaysian lawyer S.M. Ratnam, Upali Group Director Ananda Peli Muhandiram, pilot Capt. Noel Anandappa, co-pilot Sydney Soysa and steward S. Senenakye.
Eleven minutes later, the pilot Aanandappa requested and received permission to climb 8,230 meters (27,000 feet). Malaysian radar reported Upali’s jet cruising at 744km/h over the Indian Ocean, Kinght-Ridder Newspapers reported.

At 9:02 pm the aircraft suddenly shattered the speed of sound, traveled at 1,352 km/h before it lost all radar and radio communication.
Strait of Malacca mapping the two incidents.
Strait of Malacca mapping the two incidents.
Meanwhile, fishermen in the tiny Indonesian village of Tanjung Beringin were on an evening catch when the dark moonless night was lit by a red light. It didn’t sound like a plane. It appeared to be on fire and dipped and crashed into the water. The loud explosion rocked the sea. Huge waves rocked the fishing boats, fishermen told John Fernandez of the New Straits Times newspaper in 1983.

They decided to stay away from the crash site located one mile away from their wooden outriggers. The following morning, fishermen who ventured to the scene discovered packet of bread near the crash site. They also found a piece that looked like the wing of a plane and part of a door. There was blood on it. The fishermen tried to carry the wing on their boats but it was too big and heavy. One of them cut his hand trying to lift it, the report added.

What happened later would cement the Learjet’s fate as a mystery. It took four days for the fishermen’s news to reach authorities, and to add to the confusion, a spare wheel from the Learjet was found 100 km away from the fishing village.
But the fisherman insisted the wheel was brought down by strong currents. “The sea here may look very calm but don’t be fooled. It had strong undercurrents,” one fisherman told Fernandez.

Six months of intensive investigation by teams of specially trained detectives from three countries, aided by military assets from seven countries; an American Orion spy plane, air units from Sri Lanka, India, Soviet Union, Australian warships, Indonesian mine sweepers and Malaysian patrol boats yielded no results.

The only other items found was blood stained fibreglass, and man’s gold ring believed to be Upali’s found in the bowels of a fish, items discovered by fishermen who witnessed the red flash in the night on that fateful day.

Major Sugiarto of the Indonesian Air Force said the search team “did our best”.
“We had to cover some 200 miles, not just the sea but mountains, unpopulated areas of Sumatra.” He also added the information received from fishermen was sketchy and too late.

American Orion Spy plane was among military assets from seven countries used in the search for Upali's jet.

Meanwhile the chief Sri Lankan investigator refused to claim Upali was dead.
“How can I say that the man is dead? He may be on some island even now. He may be hidden away on the mainland. Without some positive evidence, all we can say is that it is very likely he met with some disaster,” he told Kinght-Ridder.

Reports said Upali’s cousin President JR Jayawardene appointed him to key government post.  Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa during confirmation hearings for the post shook a threatening finger at Upali.

“I curse that man,” he shouted in Parliament. “And nothing good has ever come to any I’ve coursed.”
Upali was born into a wealthy family and was a millionaire by age 26.  When he opened a small chocolate factory named ‘Kandos’ it captured the Sri Lankan market, expanded and thrived in Singapore and Malaysia

Profits were invested real estate- coconut plantations, tea and rubber estates, vast agricultural acreage—throughout Southeast Asia. He boasted almost constantly about his talent for finding legal loopholes – what he called “sailing close to the law,” according to Kinght-Ridder.
Upali’s business associates said he was so secretive about his operation that only one assistant knew the true intricacies of its inner workings, and he, too, was on board the Lear jet that night, the report added.

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