The Airborne Wizard ultralight plane glides in to land on the narrow runway in Kandal province.
owerful crosswinds and a pencil-thin runway make flying,
and landing, a heart-stopping good time.
Being dragged from the depths of sleep at 4:30 a.m. by a piercing telephone call
is a small sacrifice to make for soaring above the land at dawn.
Dominic Cardy, one of three founding members of Cambodia's ultralight plane club,
says the winds are so unpredictable that the only way to fly is to wake up early,
step outside to assess the weather, and then round up the flying crew.
"There is only a small window in the morning before the crosswinds make it too
difficult to land," Cardy says.
The club's hangar, which houses two Australian-built Airborne Wizard ultralight planes,
is tucked away in Kandal province, 20 kms southwest of Phnom Penh.
The small aircrafts weigh just 195 kilograms and can carry the pilot and one passenger.
There is no cabin, so the experience is one with the elements.
Taxiing down the little runway, the plane bumps around on the uneven surface before
taking off effortlessly, lifting above the coconut palms and patchwork of dried-up
The landscape below stretches out into the blinding morning light, with Phnom Penh
International Airport in the distance.
The propeller drowns out the whistling wind, and as the plane bobs and floats along
at 45 mph, 250 feet up, Cardy notes that the crosswinds are strengthening and it
is time to get out of the sky.
To add to the difficulties of landing in a crosswind, the club's "runway"
is a 3-meter-wide dusty path.
Cardy brings it in no problem, earning praise from the other enthusiasts.
Philippe Gatineau, another founder of the club, recalled a time he landed in strong
winds: He drove straight off the runway, up and over a Chinese burial site mound.
Luckily, he says, he and his passenger survived unscathed, and the burial site was
"The problem with this field is it's too dangerous, too narrow," Gatineau
Cardy says they have a new field lined up in Kampong Speu, where the wind will be
better, but they are still in the process of constructing a new hangar.
Dominic Cardy at the controls: He battles the crosswinds as he lines up with the landing strip, located just above the top left corner of the wat.
The club is also trying to bring out an instructor for people who want to learn to
fly. But this too will depend on the new location - a wider runway is more suitable
for student pilots.
Cardy, program manager of the National Democratic Institute, learned to fly in Canada
and imported his plane from Australia in January 2003.
He says the experience was surprisingly easy. It took only three weeks for his Airborne
Wizard to arrive in Cambodia and no one asked for any bribes.
Cardy is currently waiting on a new plane to arrive from the US in the next month,
which he says will fly more smoothly in the wind and enable him to float comfortably
down to Sihanoukville in an hour.