CIVILIAN SAFETY DURING AERIAL ATTACKS
In the aftermath of Sunday the 29th, mornings LTTE bombing raid on Colombo’s fuel storage facilities, several civilian casualties from across the city have been reported. Most of these casualties were incurred by spent bullets (projectiles) falling back to earth and hitting people. These were so called friendly fire casualties, a totally unacceptable fall out from the current air-attack defence plan in place. These projectiles originated from the many heavy calibre (bullet diametre greater than .30 of an inch) weapons being fired into the air that night. These projectiles were NOT from enemy fire i.e.; guns mounted on the two LTTE aircraft, as the two aircraft in question do not have weapons other than under-slung bombs. The Czech built Zlin Z-143 light aircraft, have been adapted to carry these bombs as they are basically twin seater flight trainers, and have not been designed to carry armaments, nor to be operated in a combat role. This is cold comfort for those who live near installations and bases which the LTTE may target, shrapnel and blast injuries, and resulting fires from exploding bombs will be a danger. There will also be the risk of bombs missing their intended target and falling on peoples houses. As there will be little or no warning before the bombs are dropped (except for the blackout) it is difficult to prepare. Having torches and candles handy and staying indoors and away from windows will help.
When the main-grid power was switched off during the second half of the world cup final in the wee hours of Sunday, I heard that there was gunfire being directed at the night sky in Colpetty. I could then hear the gunfire, like strings of evenly spaced fire- crackers being set off. I live in a top floor flat, on the St Bridget’s convent end of Gregory’s Road, so I went out onto my rear balcony that faces Colpetty. Between nearby buildings and foliage, I could see the red trails of tracer rounds arcing into the night sky in many directions. Some were going up vertically and others were heading down towards where I stood. I did not linger long on the balcony which potentially exposed me to injury or even death from falling projectiles, and went indoors. I was aware that these ‘spent’ bullets falling back to the ground could pass through the roof and ceiling, but did not give it enough importance to take further precautions. My sense of security was based on the fact that although I thought that some of the bullets were heading down towards my house, they must have over-shot it by some considerable distance, as I could not hear them fall. However that sense of security is baseless as it takes only one stray round to pass through your roof and hit you and if a projectile falls onto a lawn nearby you are unlikely to hear it.
Two .50 calibre projectiles landed in a friend’s property near Dickman’s road. Another projectile landed on another friend’s roof on Isipathana Mawatha in the same neighbourhood (These are only two cases that I know of first hand). Landed is really the wrong word to use as it conveys a more benign picture such as a stone falling on a roof, or even a spent sky-rocket falling, which at most will only crack a tile. These projectiles are actually passing through roofs, and retaining enough energy to seriously injure people as reported in the newspapers, and on T.V. Of the two projectiles that landed in my friend’s premises, one punched through a Met (zinc-aluminium) roof and struck a wall. The other directly struck a wall destroying about half a brick. These were only two, of thousands of falling projectiles that rained down over many areas of Colombo that night. Deserted roads and the fact that most people were indoors to watch the match, thankfully prevented a greater number of casualties.
When a projectile is fired from a large caliber weapon it exits the barrel with tremendous velocity (muzzle velocity) and energy (muzzle energy) these forces are far in excess of what is the minimum requirement to kill a human being. At close range such gun-fire is designed to pass through body armour worn by soldiers, the walls of buildings, doors, roofs, vehicles, and a certain thickness of steel armour plating. When directed upwards the projectiles travel in a parabolic arc, the shallower the arc the more terminal energy on impacting the ground. The rifled (spiraling grooves cut into the inside) barrels of these weapons impart these projectiles with an axial spin which stabilizes them in flight. These projectiles or bullets are seated into brass cases that have been bottle necked or down-sized to match the bullet diameter. Within the brass case is a propellant, usually a modern version of gun-powder. At the rear of the brass casing is a centrally placed primer which explodes when a firing pin hits it. This entire assembly is what we call a cartridge, and is loaded into the breech of a weapon. When the primer explodes it sets of a sympathetic detonation of the propellant within the cartridge case, which pushes the projectile forwards through and out of the barrel. The brass case is left behind in the breech to be extracted and ejected from a port, almost instantly only to be replaced by another cartridge from an attached magazine or belt. All this happens in a fraction of a second. In automatic fire as we saw the other night, as brass cartridge cases are ejected near the weapons a steady stream of bullets are shot out of the barrels at a rapid rate. They have a lead core covered with a harder copper jacket to prevent distortion caused by heat and pressure, generated within the steel barrel, as well as a shape to achieve optimum range (several kilometers for larger calibers, under ideal conditions) and penetration of a target. So when they land they behave quite unlike a stone and have enough velocity and energy to kill.
The attractive glowing red streaks that arc through the night sky are tracer bullets. Usually every third or fourth round in a belt of ammunition is a tracer. (Therefore there are many more bullets invisible to the human eye in the air at the same time as the tracers) Literally the bullets that allow one to trace or track the path taken by the other bullets. These allow one to make adjustments in relation to the target while firing. They are NOT flares as the newspapers have reported, but bullets with a chemical compound at the base which ignites and burns slowly creating a red glow. The shooter sees them as glowing red balls receding from him, and we the observers, see them as red streaks, arcing through the sky, their trajectory determined by the angle of the gun barrel from the horizontal. Although attractive to watch it is a deadly ‘fireworks display’ and you can get maimed or killed if you do not take precautionary measures to protect yourself. Some hard cover is advisable, if you live in a two story house, going downstairs for the duration of firing is safer. If you live in a single story house moving towards the core of your house is advisable. You should also step away from any windows. On no account should you be standing out in a garden or going up to a flat roof or balcony that faces the direction that the shooting is taking place.
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