Cambodian Journal 2011, Part 12 – Donald Flies But Not From His Beloved Rice Paddy Field

The Australian made Airborne trike which Donald brought to Cambodia in 2002 had served him well and over the years he had many adventures, all of which I tried to describe. Then in January 2010, when Apsara no longer allowed him to fly out of the rice paddy at the village of Pom Prei, his career as “moto hawk” came to an abrupt end. Each year when we returned to Cambodia, he marveled that he was still allowed to do what he had done the year before, all the time knowing it was not going to last. Looking back over the eight years he was able to fly, Donald takes pride in the fact that every flight he took ended in success, with no harm to the passengers, the plane, or to himself.

Unfortunately, Eddie wrote the trikes”s last story. Sitting in the back seat, Eddie was giving a lesson in Donald”s trike when his student coming in for a landing made a mistake. Eddie was unable to regain control and the trike crashed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. However, the trike broke into pieces, which were eventually piled into a corner of Eddie”s new hanger. The trike was then seen only as a source of parts to be bastardized in the service of other trikes. Parts of Donald”s plane were used to fix up Eddie”s old plane and now instead of two trikes, there is only one. As I learned from a dear friend, it is what it is.

If you build a hanger, they will come and Jean Paul had his trike hauled out of Phnom Penh and brought to Siem Reap. Knowing Donald no longer had his plane, Jean Paul told Donald to fly his plane anytime he wanted. Jean Paul and his French friend, who is also a pilot, had just finished overhauling the plane. Their $6,000 investment included a new sail, trike talk for the hang glider type wing that enables the plane to fly.

Jean Paul owns French made Air Creations trike and on our first morning in Siem Reap, Donald took it up and flew it for a short time. Sensing the new wing needed a few minor adjustments, Donald “trimmed” the wing, pushed, pulled, tightened, and loosened and when he flew it again, the wing performed better and Donald was satisfied.

It has been unusually windy in Siem Reap but the next morning as Donald headed to the field, he found the winds quiet and the sky above a Tibetan blue. Donald waited until Eddie had taken off with a customer and he pushed the Air Creations trike onto the field, strapped himself in and took off. The hard surface runway, long, flat, and straight, must have seem tame when compared to the paddy dike to which he had become accustomed.

It is 8:30 when Donald heads east toward the Roulos Group, a series of three temple sites located seven miles outside Siem Reap in an ancient town originally called Hariharalaya (a Khmer contraction honoring the two main Hindu gods, Shiva and Vishnu). This town, established in the late 9th, served as the first Angkorian capital before the capital was moved closer to Angkor in the early 10th. The flight there should take Donald fifteen to twenty minutes. Down below, he would have seen the early morning tourists spilling out of their buses, attempting to assault the temples but temporarily stymied by phalanxes of aggressive young women determined to sell them t-shirts, bootlegged Lonely Planet tour books, and bottles of tepid water and cans of warm cokes.

Donald is enjoying the rush of the early morning air and knowing it is unseasonably cool, he wears a warm jacket and traded in his sandals for socks and shoes. Enjoying the “freedom of the sky”, to quote from Eddie”s web site, Donald has a bird”s eye view of Siem Reap and the surrounding countryside. Seen from the air, it is easy to appreciate the extent by which Siem Reap has grown, stretching out and building up in every direction. New roads, imposing an orderly grid pattern on the urban sprawl, criss cross the countryside. New buildings and new neighborhoods occupy previously vacant land, encouraging new businesses and new markets. The Tonle Sap Lake is in the distance, the boat people, small dots on the water and the newly planted rice fields, swaths of brilliant green.

Soon Donald hears an unwelcomed sound. It is the engine. The smooth, humming sound is no longer there. Instead, the engine is sputtering and coughing. Not a good sign. The engine has dropped to an idle; it is no longer producing any thrust or power. Donald has a major problem. He is 600 feet above the ground with a failing motor. Donald has always been comfortable in the air, the higher the better. He is an experienced hang glider pilot well versed in gliding back to earth. He has been in the skies when the motor has gone out. He has experience in purposely cutting off his engine, gliding to the ground, making what is called a “dead stick landing”. But this has been in competitions, where he chose the time and the place.

No longer soaring through the sky, he is in the throes of a slow descent. For the experienced pilot, panic is not an option. Making decisions without hesitation, Donald turns the plane around and heads back to the airstrip. He begins to pump the throttle, hoping he can clear the fouled engine. He is focused; his concentration distilled to its most intense capacity. But the engine does not cooperate. He is not sure he can make it back, and begins searching the ground for a place to make an emergency landing. Down below, empty sun bleached rice paddies stretch to the horizon, their hardened soil too rutted and unpredictable to provide for a safe landing. Besides, they are bounded by narrow paddy dykes. Other paddies are flooded, reflecting back up to him the blue sky he knows is above. In the past, landing on roads had always been an option, but Hwy 6 is crowded with morning traffic. The airway of the sky is taking a downhill turn, the red tile roofs seem to be coming up to meet him.

A little good news, he is gaining on the airstrip. But in order to land there, he knows he has to clear the fifteen foot high wall separating the air strip from a stretch of undeveloped land. From 600 feet, he has glided down to 100 feet off the ground. At this level, Donald stops pumping the throttle and the engine quits completely. At this point, not a bad thing to happen because now the propeller stops spinning. In the event of a catastrophic failure upon landing and if the plane deconstructs upon hitting the ground, Donald does not want the propeller, two feet from his head, spinning out of control.

The plane continues to sink. Realizing he cannot clear the wall, Donald assesses the terrain of the adjacent empty field. Looking for the smoothest spot, he approaches, scares the cows away and just glides down, as if he was completing a dead stick landing. He comes to rest close to a barbwire fence. As pilots always quip, “all takes off are optional but all landings are mandatory.” This time, no harm done to Donald or to the plane.

Eddie and his assistant come running over. They take down the barbwire fence and roll the plane through the weeds onto the runway. Several days later, Eddie would see a large cobra slither across the runway into the same area, but not this morning. The fence is then repaired, the plane returned to the hanger. Donald looked at his watch, it was 8:35.


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