Story & Photographs by Jon Elliot (Singapore).
SABAIDEE, CHEROKEE - A Cherokee Travels to Laos
N4203T is a 1972 PA28-140. Over the years, it has seen life on the flight line of a school, a 160hp RAM engine STC, and seems to have steadily migrated westwards with each change in ownership. The last migration was more of a giant leap, from Carson City, Nevada, by way of California and freight container, across the Pacific to Singapore.
After residing at Seletar for 18months and 300 hours, N4203T and I decided it was time for an adventure!
I had become quite familiar with the aircraft and its performance, and during the preceding 18 months had carried out replacements and improvements common for a 30 year old aircraft, including replacement of 2 cylinders, both control yokes, main gear tyres, the vac pump and the battery. I also fitted the AMR&D Vortex Generator kit. So with the aircraft in as reliable condition as possible, we began flight planning
Last November during a hangar flying session with James Teng, who had just returned from a trip to New Zealand in his TB21, the idea for a trip to Laos was raised.
It was clear that any trip into the mountains of Laos would have to be done during the months of December to February, the dry season. Clouds and mountains mixed together don’t turn me on, and although both of us are IFR rated and current, the whole idea was to see the country….difficult from the inside of a cloud! This gave us a limited amount of time in which to get the necessary approvals and put the trip together.
My first fax to the Lao Dept of Civil Aviation was promptly and politely answered. Yes, the trip was possible and they were prepared to issue the approvals, but a formal diplomatic request must be made via the country of registry. And by the way, there is no avgas anywhere in the country. Further enquiries made to PTT, the fuel company in Thailand, showed that positioning fuel into Laos was pretty much under the heading of ‘far too difficult’. Actually, this made things easier, rather than more difficult, as it simply meant that I could not plan on more than 450 miles between the last fuel stop leaving Thailand, and the first stop returning back into Thailand.
More hangar flying. This time with new TPC and ONC charts and a Jeppesen trip kit.
The way from Seletar into Thailand is straightforward. Airways to Penang, and airways to Surat Thani. Then a visit to the Thai Flying Club at Bang Phra, 40 miles south east of Bangkok, followed by another airways sector to Chiang Mai. That would take 2 days, and would keep us fat on fuel. The route after Chiang Mai was airways via Nan, to TOMIP intersection, where the airway ended! I have never actually come to the end of an airway before, and wondered if it was a bit like falling off the edge of the world. Freestyle from TOMIP intersection to Luang Prabang, our first stop in Laos. Then another freestyle sector from Luang Prabang to Vientiane, followed by a short hop across the Mekong to Udon in Thailand, Bang Phra, Hua Hin, Hat Yai and back home.
Sounds real easy. Just punch in the route on the GPS, arm the autopilot and off we go, right?? OK now back to reality.
Having frozen the route, it was time to get going with the approvals. Enter Tom Claytor, aviator extrordinaire, bush pilot, movie star, and has recently been to Laos!!! Up to this point, the only pilot reports I had from Laos were from guys who flew L-19 and T-28s there 30 years ago, call sign Raven. The mountains and the weather don’t change, but the groundbound picture certainly has. Tom pointed me towards the right guys in the US Embassy in Vientiane, and gave me pro-forma approval requests. He has also posted other useful stuff on the Thai F.C website (www.thaiflyingclub.com). Perhaps more importantly he gave me the attitude that “it can be done, just have patience and keep chipping away”.
The Embassy people were initially doubtful about the entire plan, however Ms Sivanphone in the Commercial section changed all that. She contacted the Lao DCA, passed the initial request, received their questions and had the whole thing done in 2 weeks. Fantastic! Quite changed my view of the ‘striped pants set’!
Next was a fax to Khun Bunjob, in the Thai DCA, to get approval to transit Thailand in both directions. The difficult bit here was the stop at Hua Hin, which has a Royal palace nearby. Security reviews of the request took time, and I must admit that I was right on the edge of my chair waiting for the approval until 12 hours before departure time!
As a footnote here, both Thai and Lao flight approvals are quite specific. Routes, levels, times, dates and equipment carried must be specified. Times/dates must be adhered to within 24 hours. These guys are totally serious, believe me.
OFF AT LAST
I was to stop by at Senai, to pick up my co-pilot. Jamil is an instructor at the Johor Flying Club. He is a serious looking Syrian, who plans a career with the airlines.
James set off direct for Penang. We agreed to make eta in Penang 1030 local, with the caveat that the last one on the localiser was a monkey! We were getting fuel when James and his P2 Steven taxied in!
Hot in Penang!!! And a long, hot climb for the Cherokee, up to 8,000ft which works out to a density altitude of 9,800ft, at just a shade under gross. This is hard work for a small Cherokee, believe me, and just about every sector would be like that.
Later in the day, CBs build over mountains south east of Surat Thani, but they are isolated and were not active thunderstorms. Jamil was by now expert at politely greeting controllers with a very Thai-sounding ‘Sawadee-cup’ at every handoff! And he flatly refused to let me have a go at it!
We were greeted on the ramp at Surat by James and Steven, a fuel truck and 2 ladies who escorted us through the terminal to the VIP lounge. We went through CIQ formalities there, part of it very easily, part not.
In order to protect the innocent, no names will be revealed…..however one official, who was wearing trousers far too small for himself, was very keen for us to make a significant contribution to his own private retirement fund. Which seemed to be doing Ok judging by the size and amount of gold on his watch, rings (plural) and pendant.
After we had negotiated our way out of that minefield, we set off, still escorted by the 2 ladies, for the taxi rank. Jamil, ever the gentleman, gave the ladies his greatest worldly possession….a bag of chocolates. Now, James had missed lunch, and was really ogling the chocolates. The ladies, however, completely misjudged his interest and thought he was trying to make a pass at them. A-hah, we all know James!
The first night on the road was spent at a new hotel just outside town in Surat Thani. Food ok, nothing special. Clean and reasonable priced. Bathroom floor as slick as glass, upon which next morning I did a skillful rendition of a back flip, grabbed the door jamb to save an unplanned inverted gear up landing, and ended up in hospital having 7 stitches in my hand!
And now I realized who I really was traveling with!! James very professional, off to the emergency room, no nonsense etc etc. His son is a doctor, so I guess he has seen it all before. Steven out with his digital movie camera, intent on catching every drop of blood on film, especially the bit where the doctor found out he had missed a nerve with the anaesthetic!!! I guess he wanted to see it all again.
Jamil quietly going off his breakfast. He obviously wished he had never seen any of it.
So slightly behind schedule, and very thankful for having a competent co-pilot, we were en route to Bang Phra. Just north of Hua Hin, the route leaves the airway and heads out over the Gulf of Thailand. Landfall is literally on downwind for Bang Phra. Up to now, weather had been clear sky with 6-9km in haze, and this sector was no different. Lucky, actually, as once over water, my attitude gyro started spinning, like watching socks going round in a washing machine. I always carry a rubber soap holder in my nav bag for such an eventuality, and gosh, what a difference it makes not to have to watch the socks going round and round.
The approach to Bang Phra is rather like Tioman, in that there is a mountain on the extended centerline of rwy 05. Not very extended, either. The Thai Flying Club is what pilot’s heaven should be.
They have some 50 aircraft based there, from an 0-1 Bird-dog, through 172s up to a very presentable fleet of Mooneys. They very kindly offered to exchange my attitude gyro with a loaner. Whilst the gyro change was under way, Jamil fell madly in love with the lady who serves freshly squeezed orange juice at the ‘Bushpilots Bar’. James fell madly asleep in a family-sized hammock whilst Steven was engaged in his candid camera routine. I just sat in the office wishing my sore hand was not sore!
And in rolls Sunny.
Sunny is an expatriate Singaporean who has spent much of his life in Thailand. He is totally unflappable, flies a Grumman Tiger and has recently obtained a rotary wing PPL. I guess you have to be unflappable to fly a…..no, sorry, that would be unkind!
Sunny ably took on the role of our host in Thailand.
As we were behind schedule and the terms of our flight approval excluded night flight, we felt it would be prudent to night stop at Bang Phra, then get off direct to Chiang Mai next day.
After dinner, I popped a painkiller for my hand and was sound asleep by 10pm. At what seemed like 3.30, but in fact was only 11pm, a banging on my door revealed Sunny, demanding my immediate presence. I wasn’t asleep, was I, he demanded? No of course not, I always stand right behind the door just in case someone wants to see me in the middle of the night!
Tom Claytor had arrived.
I woke James, who was resplendent in his blue and white striped Gucci pyjamas, and Jamil, who wore his beard. Both were quite certain they didn’t want to wake up. Steven I think, caught the whole show on camera.
I woke quite quickly as Tom imparted pearls of Laotian air lore. Like- don’t fly by the same village twice, they will take pot shots at you. And don’t fly too low following the river, 5 or 10 ft is quite low enough. Importantly, Tom gave us copies of the correct approach plate for Luang Prabang. There are two plates, however flying one of them will have one arriving 2 miles from the actual airport, on the wrong side of a hill.
LAOS AT LAST
Early morning at Bang Phra is still and hazy, with the sun telling everyone they will get a roasting later in the day. We were first off, departing off 23 and calling U-Taphao approach for ATC in the climb. Handoff to Bangkok approach and turn onto track, with the turbocharged TB hot on our heels. James was getting the same vectors as we were, and I started to get that creepy feeling that we may not be alone in the sky! I asked Jamil to give the controller an extra nice Sawadee-cup, and request vectors for separation from James, however before he could get it all out, James was given a vector for traffic (us) and was gone. A calm, clear trip up to Chiang Mai, during which I taught Jamil one of the tricks of pre-GPS airways navigation. See that contrail, he is on the airway, so I reckon we must be half a mile right of track!!! But don’t give the contrail time to drift in the wind.
We were in and out of Chiang Mai in a jiffy. Fees paid, passports chopped, flightplans filed, fuel fuelled and wheels up.
One of the points Tom was strong on last night was to be sure to crank the wind numbers when going into the mountains. Never, ever, approach a range of mountains head on with a headwind, always aim 45 degrees to one side. That way, when you get sink approaching the ridge, you can easily turn away and try further climb in the clear.
We had a 22 – 24 knot tailwind! Direct to TOMIP. There was no “Road Closed” sign there, nor did we feel more than a moderate bump when we flew off the smoothly paved airway into 4WD country.
But it was as if we had flown off the planet.
The limestone karst mountains are indescribably picturesque. Occasional villages along the ridgelines (no second pass, remember) appear as they must have centuries ago. No, absolutely no, roads, powerlines, factories blowing smoke. And mountains, mountains, mountains reaching forever. Contact Luang Prabang approach, who is clearly expecting us, but immediately hands us off again to Vientiane approach. The squawk light is going off regularly, so we know there is only one radar looking at us. Back to Luang Prabang Approach and GOSH, would you look over there? The mighty Mekong river! And the word mighty is by no means an understatement.
We get descent clearance and drop down to fly up the river, although slightly higher than the 5-10 ft mentioned by Tom.
We are cleared to final, but cannot see the runway as there is a mountain in the way. OK there it is, 2 o’clock for 5, and after on finals, a mountain goes by each side with temples above our level.
The airport is new and clean, although modest in size. There is an ATR and a y-12 on the ramp, and of course James is there, with big beaming smiles from Sunny and Steven. I think Steven was so overcome by it all he forgot to film us, but I may be mistaken.
Clearance was hard.
One of the airport staff had calculated parking fees on an hourly basis, whereas it should be per diem. Tom’s inclusion of a section of the Lao AIP in the TFC website saved the day. I persuaded all concerned of the error, and all was well. We loaded up the minibus to take us to the hotel, and before we could drive off, a granite-faced official came up and demanded to speak to someone. Jamil and I got off the bus, and were ordered to sit down on a bench outside his office. He started by telling us that we must pay US$300 per aircraft for some service which we were not too clear about.
Jamil immediately got out his ragged Lonely Planet Laos Guidebook and started looking up Lao words and phrases. I got off the bench and squatted down in the traditional Lao “lets negotiate” posture (also learned from Lonely Planet). Jamil announced in faultless Lao “we stay 2 days”.
Everything is cool, you speak my lingo, you must be good guys. Just pay $50 per aircraft and we can all go home. Deal, we’re gone!!
The hotel we stayed at was the Souvannaphoum, which was the ex residence of an ex royal. The house itself has 6 suites, we occupied 5 of them. It was a hotel totally in keeping with its surroundings, and I would not hesitate to recommend it.
We did the tourist things, hire a boat and go to Pak Ou caves, visit a Hmong village, go to the waterfalls.
Sunset over the Mekong, through the mountains, is a lifetime memory.
Luang Prabang is a World Heritage site, however it is not spectacularly beautiful. It has a certain something which makes it unforgettable in its own special way. It is totally unique.
We went to the airfield for a 10 a.m. departure. Typically, mist fills the valleys from pre-dawn to around 10 a.m., and the day of our departure was no different.
I wanted to fly to the east of the direct track to Vientiane, for 2 reasons. An 8,000ft+ mountain I would rather go round than over, and LS20A. If you are not familiar with LS20A, I’m afraid you will have to find out about it elsewhere. Suffice to say I wanted to overfly it.
The ATC guys got into a huddle over our charts and flight plan forms, a couple of calls were made to Centre, and everyone kept saying No No you must keep west of track, not east.
Finally, a guy came out with a local ATC chart which showed a danger area to the east, right where I wanted to go. I asked if he could find out if the area was hot, or if I could get a clearance through it.
You don’t understand, said he. You will be shot at if you go in there. Not by us, you understand, but by the bad guys.
OK. Convinced. Go west!
We followed the river out of Luang Prabang for 10 miles south west, then climbed though various passes as direct as possible to Muong Kassy, where some of the guys who gave me those old PIREPS operated. Then vectors to Vientiane.
Vientiane is not like Luang Prabang. More like Saigon in 1986.
James and I landed close together, and before we had put the covers on, a USAF C-130 taxied in. There was a tent and some kind of VIP presentation was about to be held. I couldn’t see exactly what. But I could see 3 trestle stands each with some kind of aluminium box on them. The Herc taxied too far, and had to back down, which Hercs are good at. But when done backing, don’t brake, or it will sit up on its tail. So give it a bit of forward thrust to stop. The Herc herder did, and in doing he blew away one of the trestles. The aluminium box was in fact a coffin containing the remains of a MIA, more than likely a pilot. The lid flew off and a puff of dust came out. Everyone scrambled to put it all back together again. Very, very sad. Some poor soul obviously wanted to stay in Laos, where he had rested the last 30 years.
I met with one of the Embassy people at the MIA ceremony and asked if I may find Ms Sivanphone, but unfortunately she was on a trip to Bangkok.
The hotel was somewhat of a comedown after our royal appointments the previous day. And it was far hotter down here on the plains. We had a look around town, went to see the vertical runway (ask your tour guide about that), sat by the river for another, slightly less spectacular sunset, and went to the Circle for a really excellent Italian dinner. Good food, good service, good wine and excellent company is a hard recipe to beat! Only the price could do that!
Next morning we were off reasonably early to Udon, Thailand, fuel and the world. Sad to go.
Udon is only 50 some miles from Vientiane, so we could stay low and sightsee. Interesting, but not on the same scale as the mountains. We cleared in at Udon, but found there was a military exercise taking up all of the airspace we needed for a direct shot at Bangkok. So we had to detour some 100 miles to the West, around the area. But weather was clear with haze, so it was a trip for quiet reflection over what we had just done.
WE GO HOME NOW
Back to Bang Phra, 4 hrs 20 mins out of Udon, and just in front of a rain shower. Gosh, it was good to get to bed that night!
Profound thanks, and mean it, to our gracious Thai hosts the next morning, and whilst James remained in Bang Phra frying fish, N4203T was homebound.
The stop at Hua Hin was interesting from an airport point of view….big flying school, strict approach etc etc, but it was soon well astern. Hay Yai is another of those airports that give one a scare. Look it up in the Jepps, when nearing top of descent. OHMYGOSH I don’t have the plate! No, but you will find it under S for Songkhla!
Nice airport, horrible town.
Hat Yai is a typical border town, seeming to attract the worst of both sides of the border. Never again would be too soon.
The airport folks are not like the town folks, however, and it is pleasant and easy to do the needful and be in the saddle once again.
An early morning departure put us over the mountains en route Ipoh and KL on the way to Senai before the sun started stirring up the air, so it was almost as though we were back in Laos, cranking wind numbers and looking closely under the nose as we approached ridgelines. Too soon, we were back on old faithful A464, VBA down to TOPOR, hang a left direct VJR. And the worst weather we had on the whole trip was the low CU building on the VOR/ILS 16 Johor! 4hrs 10mins from Hat Yai, and a lifetime since we left a week ago.
And what of our brave band of aviators? Jamil I would fly with anytime, anywhere. And hope to do something like that soon! Sunny keeps up his own brand of humour, and I hope he can be enticed to bring his Grumman to Taman Negara for an expedition later this year. Steven is hard at work, or he better be, editing the 7 hours of movie he took. I have saved a bottle of home made Lao Lao for us to drink at the premier. James occasionally fries fish, but we are all trying to get him to kick the habit.
I feel that I have learned a tremendous amount from the trip. About flying, certainly. But also about myself and how I relate to others. Would I do it again? Yes, in a New York minute! But I would move heaven and earth to get those 4 other guys to come with me.
Note: This article may be published in other publications but is premiered here with permission from Jon Elliot to the Editor of WingsOverAsia.com. Photos courtesy of Tom Claytor & Jon Elliot