All the dumb things

A cautionary tale in development

Hitchhiking by air in Cambodia (part 2)

Posted by razzbuffnik on April 20, 2007

This is part two in a two-part chapter in my “All the dumb things” series

The other types of aircraft I used to air hitchhike in were civilian cargo planes. In 1974 there were still a lot of old WWII aircraft flying in Cambodia and I got to see first hand, aeroplanes that I’d only ever seen in books.  The most common were the Curtis C-46, Douglas C-47 (aka as the Dakota or DC-3) and also the Douglas DC-4.

curtis-46.jpg
The Curtis C-46 above was operated by the imfamous Air America
(I never asked them for a ride… they were just sooo serious) 

The planes were usually loaded with rice or fish as a cargo. Incidentally, the area around Tonlé Sap Lake is one of the most productive food producing areas in the world.

Most of the civilian pilots were Philipinos and generally as such, were a friendly happy-go-lucky bunch.  Most of the cargo planes had two crew, the foreign pilot and a Cambodian loadmaster. The relationship between the pilot and loadmaster, looked to me, like that of master and servant. There didn’t appear to be much crossing over the gulf of class, education and culture between them.  The pilots didn’t fraternise with the loadmasters in a social way.  The pilots sat up the front in the cockpit and the loadmasters sat in the fuselage with the cargo, each by themselves.

aircraft_int.jpg

I once commented to an American journalist who could speak Khmer, that I thought it must be fascinating to understand what the locals were saying. His response went something like this: “not really, the average Cambodian is an illiterate farmer who has no concerns other than his crops and that is all they talk about”.  So I suppose, that attitude goes some way to explaining why the pilots had any interest in having anything to do at all with a young naive fool from Australia like me.  At least I spoke English and prattled on about other things besides farming.

loading.jpg

The hand loading and unloading of a cargo plane by the loadmaster and a few locals from where ever we landed, took quite a while, so the pilots used to have a fair amount of time to kill. It was during these times I got to have extended conversations with the pilots, as they waited, smoking, in the shade under the wings of their planes.  Most of them saw themselves as nothing more than glorified truck drivers.  Flying air-cargo in 1974 by yourself (no co-pilots), in old dilapidated, ill maintained crates, during a war, landing quite often on dirt roads, in the heat and humidity of Cambodia was a long way from being glamorous and they knew it. Most of the pilots looked like they were in their fifties and I’m sure the novelty of flying had worn off many years beforehand.

Cambodia at the time didn’t seem to have any law other than that which could be bought. Which in turn meant that any safety codes that were deemed “inconvenient”, were just ignored. Nothing seemed to get “enforced” anywhere in Cambodia at that time.  A lot of the aircraft I flew in looked like they didn’t get much maintenance. For example many of them had some broken windows and dents along the side of the fuselage. The cockpits in many also had loose cut wires sticking out in the air. One DC-3 I flew in had a metal maintenance plate in the cockpit that said something like: Air India, Bombay, Last maintained 1947.  At least that was the last time it probably got a real thorough maintenance.

plane_wreck_adj1.jpg

On a few occasions I was present when people tried to load more weight, in cargo, than the plane was rated for.  The pilots would be yelling at the loadmaster not to load any more, while the local, whose cargo it was (these sorts of things usually happened when we landed on dirt roads out in the middle of nowhere), would start to get out large wads of cash to try and smooth out the matter.  Not once did I see a pilot knowingly allow too much cargo to be loaded.  They always stood their ground. After all, self-preservation is a strong motivator. Large wads of local currency weren’t impressive in Cambodia. In one of the banks I frequented in Phnom Penh, due to the rate of inflation, they used to use bales of 100 riel notes to hold up the customer counters.

cows.jpg

The pilots had a fatalist attitude towards the state of their planes. One pilot told me that when he was flying his DC-3, he was always looking downwards at a 45-degree angle looking for landing places, just in case the engines failed. He said, very matter of factly, “these DC-3s don’t glide too well, they just sort of fall, at about a 45-dregee angle”.

Now days you’d have to hold a gun to my head to make me go up into the air in such aircraft. Then again, I don’t go into countries that have wars in them anymore either. Safe experiences don’t tend to lead to entertaining horror stories, which of course, are what tales of (mis) adventure consist of. In short, adventure often stems from bad decision-making.

By cadging flights, I got to travel all over Cambodia, which was illuminating on many levels.  For instance, I know for a fact, that Kissinger lied when he denied that the Americans were carpet-bombing the country, and when he was caught out, said that the American air strikes were confined to areas near the Vietnamese border. From the air, in some areas far from the Vietnamese border, vast swathes of land, densely pockmarked by perfectly round pools formed in bomb craters, were visible in every direction, as far as you could see.

Here’s a link to map prepared by Yale University showing how far from the Vietnamese border the Americans bombed: http://www.yale.edu/cgp/us.html

fort_craters.jpg
In this particular case, I don’t think that carpet-bombing caused the craters around this defensive position.
On a technical photographic point, the dark streaks are caused by insufficient agitation during development

It was also instructive to see how rag-tag and disorganised the government forces were once you got away from Phnom Penh. They were more of a militia than an army. When I look at the photos I took when I was in Cambodia and I see the photos of the boy soldiers (kids really, just like me at the time), I always feel an uncomfortable twinge, as I wonder what happened to them when the Khmer Rouge finally won the war.  Many of the soldiers had anti-Khmer Rouge tattoos. The poor and the ignorant always get dealt harsh blows by changes in history.

soldier_boy.jpg

Enough of that morbid stuff, here’s “all the dumb things”.

One time when I was flying in one of those old scrap heaps I noticed a window with a large jagged hole in it.  I tentatively stuck my hand a short distance out and felt the warm air rushing past at about 380kph (approximately 150knots or 170mph). I made a small wing out of my hand and was playing with the air (like when I was a kid in the family car). As timed passed,  I got a little bolder and stuck my arm out further and further with (surprisingly) nothing bad happening.  One of the things that I always wanted to do on a plane was look straight down at the ground, I was getting a bit bored with looking across at the horizon all the time.

Sooo…

I stuck my head out of the window and immediately the force of the wind rushing past my, much fatter than a hand, head, almost snapped it off. The loadmaster couldn’t hear me screaming for help, above the sound of the engines. There I was, all by myself, without anyone but myself to save me. My neck was bent at a severe angle while it was being pushed into the jagged plexiglass teeth of the broken window. My head was fully out of the window, being pressed, hard against the outside of the plane. 

I couldn’t just pull my head in and I was starting to freak out. The force of the wind was so strong I couldn’t straighten my neck to get my head back through the hole and inside the plane. Every time I tried to pull my head in, the jagged plexiglass digging into my neck, dug in further and held me fast. I felt that I was going slit my throat (don’t want to cut the carotid artery now, do we?). I eventually got out of my predicament by pushing myself, with one hand against one of the fuselage’s ribs (against direction of the air-flow) and then reaching around with my free hand to grab a hold of a large hank of my hair and pull my neck straight enough to get my head back into the plane.

Won’t be doing that again!

For you photographers out there, the film I used was Tri-X.  I had the film developed locally and since the ambient temperatures were so high, most of my negs were over developed and that’s why they look so grainy and the skies look so blown out.  The higher temperatures also meant that the development times were accelerated, making problems caused by insufficient agitation (bromide streaking), much more likely.

Part 1

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One Response to “Hitchhiking by air in Cambodia (part 2)”

  1. […] terrific installment, razzbuffnik at “All the dumb things” continues with his tales of bumming planes rides around Cambodia back in the 70s — including more terrific photography — and the things he used to do to […]

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