SAFETY at Phnom Penh's Pochentong airport may have been compromised in a dispute
over the control of two giant helicopter transports, according to aviation industry
"This is a disaster waiting to happen," one foreign aviation company manager
said. "It's stupid and it's bloody dangerous. It goes against basic common sense
and all the rules of air safety."
A senior Secretariat of Civil Aviation official said the aircraft - two Russian-built
Mi-26s which are the world's largest helicopters - were recently moved from the military
base at Pochentong to a heavily guarded and unauthorized heliport located about two
kilometers southwest of the runway, and just 300m outside of the international flight
The official - who spoke to the Post on condition of anonymity - said the helicopters
were operating without clear visual contact with the tower at Pochentong and that
they did not inform air traffic controllers of their movements.
He said the situation was particularly dangerous for aircraft flying in bad weather,
though the possibility of a mid-air collision in clear weather could not be ruled
He added the situation was "very dangerous" and was in contravention of
standards outlined by the International Civil Aviation Organization.
"Under those guidelines, all [civilian] aircraft within ten nautical miles of
an [international] airport should operate only on the instructions of air traffic
controllers," he said.
"But these guys [the Mi 26 pilots] do not. They never tell the control tower
when they are taking off and landing."
But he said no-one was sure whether the Mi-26's were classified as civilian or military
aircraft and, as a result, it was unclear whether they came under the secretariat's
According to General Tum Sambol, military advisor to the First Prime Minister, the
aircraft belong to the prominent Phnom Penh businessman Theng Boon Ma. The land on
which they are now based, according to Sambol, also belongs to Boon Ma.
He said, however, requests to use the aircraft are made through the Ministry of Defense.
But the machines are not painted the traditional green or camouflage patterns of
military aircraft, and are crewed by Russian civilians. Neither is registered with
the secretariat as a civilian aircraft.
A recent attempt by civil aviation officials to inspect the aircraft on the land
reportedly owned by Boon Ma was blocked by armed troops, according to a senior defence
"At the moment we cannot ground these aircraft for breaching civil aviation
rules because they might be classified as military aircraft which operate on their
own set of rules," the official said.
"We have written to the Ministry of Defense to try and establish whether these
are military or civilian aircraft, but so far we have no answer."
Other industry sources played down the danger posed by the helicopters to civilian
airliners, saying the issue was about control of and access to the tactically-valuable
"Sure, there might be a problem in bad weather, but there is very little air
traffic at Pochen-tong" one said, "and if you can't see an Mi-26, then
you shouldn't be flying anyway."
"These helicopters can carry 200 troops (each) anywhere in Cambodia within a
couple of hours - they are a very important military asset," the source said.
He alleged Funcinpec was using its influence at the Secretariat of Civil Aviation
to have the Mi-26s moved back to the military airfield "where they can see what
they are up to."
The source said the Mi-26s were relocated from the military airfield when ongoing
tensions within Cambodia's ruling coalition resulted in skirmishes between the Cambodian
People's Party (CPP) and Funcinpec troops in Battambang.
He said troops loyal to Funcinpec controlled Pochentong and that other aircraft had
also been dispersed to airfields around the country. A 500-man battalion, including
three tanks and three armoured personnel carriers, are based on the military side
of Pochentong full time.
One of the Mi-26s was used to ferry Second PM Hun Sen, diplomats and journalists,
as well as hundreds of commandos from Hun Sen's personal security battalion, during
the visits to Pailin and Samlot late last year.
"This is about the Cambodian People's Party being able to move troops quickly
to places like Battambang," the source said.
"If things [between the parties] get out of hand, both parties want to ensure
they have access to these machines."