The Saturday morning flight went smoothly until we “hit the wall” over Lake Tonle Sap and, as pilot Eddie “Moto Hawk” Smith said, “It all turned to shit”.
Indeed it was a white knuckle moment, but in retrospect the turbulence and buffeting caused by a sudden change in air temperature wasn’t all that bad. I’ve certainly experienced worse on commercial flights in more conventional aircraft, but the sense of trepidation was heightened by the sheer simplicity and seeming fragility of the craft we were in – a dinky little airborne machine called a microlight, or alternatively, an ultralight. Within the aeronautical trade it’s often referred to simply as a “trike”, an apt description because it’s a three-wheeled, two-seater fibreglass pod fitted to an aircraft-grade aluminium mainframe with a motor and propeller at the back. The pod is attached to a large Dacron wing similar in shape to a hang-glider, from which this aircraft actually evolved.
But an even more apt description is the modern Khmer name it’s been given – flying moto.
Some cynics may question whether the craft is merely a scooter with wings. But the British Microlight Aircraft Association is adamant that it’s more:
“It’s simple – a microlight is an aeroplane, capable of flight in the same way as any other. It is restricted to two seats, it must weigh around 265 kilograms at most and it must be able to fly at low speed. Other than that, it’s an aeroplane!”
Being airborne in a flying moto is an exhilarating experience. The sheer sensory perception of real flight is the big buzz. Unhampered, all-round vision of what’s on the ground is superb – maximum altitude is about 1000 feet, but it can also be safely flown in good conditions about 20-30 metres above ground at a speed between 120-140 kilometres an hour.
Since 2002 these crafts have been used in Cambodia, particularly in Siem Reap for commercial purposes such as mapping and archeological surveys.
But earlier this year Eddie Smith, a commercial microlight pilot with 26 years of commercial experience in this specialised flying, teamed up with former RAF pilot and ex-British realtor David Sayer who formed SkyVenture Siem Reap Cambodia, a tourist-oriented enterprise.
The flyboys built Jayarvarman Airfield, a landing strip and hangar on the outskirts of Siem Reap, and equipped themselves originally with one small aircraft, a Quik GT-450, which, according to Sayer is “state of the art”.
Another GT-450 is now on order and last month a second craft was acquired – a smaller machine called an Air-Creation, suitable mostly for training.
On May 23 SkyVentures took its first tourist customer into the wild blue yonder and news of the venture has spread rapidly. SkyVenture charges tourists $45 for a 15-minute flight, $100 for an hour, and longer flights’ prices are negotiable.
On Saturday I took to the air in the microlight for a 30-minute taste of what tourists can expect.
After a quick sprint down the dirt runway, the craft slipped into the air, turned, and at 1000 feet we glided past the West Baray, noting how low the water level was. We flew past Angkor Wat, maintaining the height and distance mandated by officialdom. Then the flight took us over the outskirts of Siem Reap past many other smaller temples, with a good view of Bakong, and past Preah Ko, or Sacred Bull, the oldest temple in the sprawling Angkor complex.
At one point Eddie handed the steering over to me, a brief initiation into the simple pleasure of flying this craft. Hands simply clasp a horizontal bar. A shift to the left steers the craft to the right, and vice versa.
We then swung out over Siem Reap’s highest point, Phnom Krum, noting the presence of anti-aircraft guns, and over the lakeside port of Chong Kneas to the edge of the great lake itself. Luckily, Eddie had taken control of the steering again because this is when the turbulence hit, buffeting the tiny craft. This, Eddie later explained, was due to uneven heating of the earth’s surface, creating rivers of air that move at different speeds. Hawks, he said, take advantage of this, catching updrafts that send them circling overhead.
Indeed the microlight flight was superbly enhanced by the engaging commentary provided by Mr Moto Hawk. His aerial knowledge of Siem Reap and Cambodian landmarks is unsurpassed.
He’s been flying around this neck of the woods since 2002 and has worked for a bewildering array of organisations, as well as for TV programs such as Animal Planet, magazines such as National Geographic, archaeological surveys and commercial companies such as Mobitel when he helped to survey remote lake communities.
Projects he’s flown on have located four previously unknown Angkorian temple sites, and he’s flown over all but two of Cambodia’s provinces, including a massive 14-province reporting mission with CTN TV’s high profile news presenter Som Chhaya.
His arrival in Cambodia in early 2002 to initially work for the Greater Angkor Project, a University of Sydney archaeology mission, is documented in a feature article in the July 2004 edition of Sport Pilot magazine. The article’s author, Don Cooney, also
a microlight pilot who flew with Eddie, described the early years as befitting an Indiana Jones adventure story. Eddie said their first off-airfield landing in Cambodia was “as if Elvis had landed in a spaceship”.
At another off-airfield landing near Siem Reap the craft was almost mobbed – the magazine article described how people came running from the village, and the pilots decided to get in the air again before the crowd became a problem. They pushed the people back, strapped in, fired up, and bounced into the air.
And, according to the article, when the tiny microlight landed at Siem Reap airport, it was such a novelty that a grinning line crewman parked it next to a giant Silk Air 767.
Eddie and Don Cooney gave dozens of curious people – soldiers, monks, tower controllers – their first ever flight, and the pilots were dubbed “Moto Hawks”.
These days, Mr Moto Hawk is such a feature that Khmer dash out of their homes to wave at him when he passes overhead. “By now, I must have waved a million times,” he quipped.
But the wave I most enjoyed was the one he gave me when I left the airstrip after landing. The flight was great, but being safely grounded was even greater.