Category Archives: Planes

Flying pharmacologic first class. Tallong, NSW, Australia. 2010

Over the Easter long weekend, I met Shawn who is visiting Australia from the US. Shawn is an old friend and fellow anaesthetist of a friend of mine, Peter.

I always find doctors entertaining in social circumstances, and I love pumping them for information about things I probably shouldn’t know about. As a consequence, I had what I thought was a pretty interesting conversation with Shawn and Peter while we were hanging out at my in-law’s holiday home in Tallong over Easter.

Me: “So, Shawn, how was the flight over?”

Dr. “Shawn: Cattle class always sucks.”

Dr. Peter: “You should’ve flown business.”

Dr. Shawn: “I know, I know, but I just can’t justify it to myself, even though I can afford it.”

Me: “I hate economy and I dislike the fact that I can’t afford first class even more.”
“It’s so cramped and after a few hours my joints start to swell and ache.”
“Not to mention the tedium.”
“Surely as a doctor, you’d be able to prescribe something to make economy more like first class?”

Dr. Shawn: “Well, you wouldn’t be getting a script from me, and that’s for sure.”

Dr. Peter: “Or me for that matter!”

Me: “Don’t go getting all high and mighty with me you glorified meat plumbers!”

Dr. Shawn: “Look, the trouble is that probably the best drug to control the general pain from sitting in a seat for so long would be a narcotic like Endone.”

Dr. Peter: “That stuff is hillbilly heroin!”
“Although we may be friends, you won’t get me writing you any prescriptions for narcotics just so you can fly in comfort in the cheap seats.”
“Anyhow, the Endone would constipate you.”

Dr. Shawn: “Metamucil would help out there.”

Me: “So it’s only the rich and famous with their pet doctors who get to travel by air comfortably?”

Dr. Peter: “They’d have enough money to travel first class anyway.”

Dr. Shawn: “Having enough money to keep a doctor or two in your pocket can lead to death.”
“Look at Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger.”

Me: “So you wouldn’t help out about the general pain, but what about the joint aches and swelling?’

Dr. “Shawn: A Voltaren patch would work well.”

Dr. Peter: “You can’t get those here in Australia.”

Me: “So I guess you’d have to take the pills?”

Dr. Shawn: “Yes and I’d also say it would be worthwhile to take some Aspirin to counter the risk of deep vein thrombosis.”
“Trouble is that the Voltaren and Aspirin are hard on the stomach so I’d say Zantac would be worth taking too.”

Me: “Well, all that leaves is the boredom, and adjusting to the jet lag.”

Dr. Shawn: “The best way to pass the time would be to sleep and for that I’d take Stilnox although Lunesta might be better.” 
“Stilnox lasts for about 4 fours Lunesta works for about 8 hours.”

Dr. Peter: “You can’t get Lunesta in Australia but Stilnox is ok, and no, Razz, I’m not going to help you out there either!”

Me: “O.K., O.K. be that way!”
“But as a matter of interest, how much would this Pharmacological First Class upgrade cost?”

Dr. Shawn: “Under ten bucks.”

So there you have it, people. There is a way to fly long distance, comfortably and cheaply.

Unfortunately it’s illegal.

The trouble with long distance air travel. Paris to Sydney. 2009

After the long flight back to Australia from France, we passed a Emirates airline billboard near the airport. As we sped by in our taxi homeward, I saw that the advertising slogan for the airline said something like, “Europe is almost as beautiful as the journey”.
  
My first thought at seeing the slogan was a very resounding, “BULLSHIT!”
 
Our flight back comprised of a  total 19 hours in the air and 2 and a half hours stop over in Singapore and after that long being cooped up  in cattle-class, I can definitively say, that unlike the pseudo philosophical “it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey” sentiments expressed on the billboard, flying long distances sucks! Unless one is rich and can afford first class or business class tickets, long haul flights are an exercise in a type of exquisite torture that combines uncomfortable cramped conditions and monotony, with the chance of a high speed, fiery, violent death.
 
Anyone who has read this blog over a period of time knows that I have a lot of goodwill towards the French, but my love of the French was sorely tested on the flight from Paris to Singapore.
 
Firstly the line to the check in at Paris for our flight on an Airbus A380 (largest passenger aircraft in the world that carries over 500 people) was obstructed and choked by a large group of French people on a tour.
 
For such a large aircraft as the Airbus A380, the line ups at check in can be very long, and everybody but them was lined up, but they insisted forming a large amorphous clump of well dressed stupidity that stood at the entrance to the check in without moving into the actual line. They weren’t moving forward and they weren’t allowing other people to move forward.
 
As the group was in a lump, there was no longer any order in the line and it was impossible for people wanting to check in to know where the line actually started. So Engogirl and I, with many other independent travellers formed up into a queue after the group. The line started to move into the nylon taped maze that is used in such situations and as we progressed, latecomers to the group started to passive aggressively try and push pass the rest of us who had been patiently waiting for the rest of their group to get their act’s together.
 
When I say “passive aggressively push past”, what I mean is that although there is an obvious line of people, the large group of late latecomers would wave at their friends, whilst making sure that they didn’t make eye contact with the people the were barging in front of. One or two people wanting to join their spouses or friends doesn’t bug me at all but when about 20 or 30 people try it on, it really gets on my wick and when I’m “pushed” in such cases, I always make it a point to “push back”. After a severl bunches of these French group members had weaselled their way past me, I blocked any further transgression of queue etiquette with my baggage trolley and faced off to the group and asked, “don’t you know what a line is?”
 
To which I was met with the kind of withering looks that the passive aggressive practice, and they ignored me as they kept trying to get around me. I stood my ground and told them to wait their turn.
 
One of the group members in the clot, tried to intervene with the startling logical argument of, “they’re with us”, as if that made all the difference in the world after so many people had already shown us how little they regarded anybody except them and their group.
 
I countered with, “there’s a line, and they can wait their turn”.
 
One of the group members started to go around sticking “La vache qui rit” (Laughing Cow) stickers on all the group members bag’s. I thought how apt, stickers for a cheese that is only surpassed by Velveeta in blandness, would be used by a tour group displaying a bovine herd mentality. As the members got their stickers on their bags it was as though they became aware of how big a group they were, and a few more people started to indicate with that the people who were trying to push in were with them.
 
By this time, even Engogirl who is a model of restraint and civility (concepts that I’ve only recently become aware of) spoke up and said, “but can’t you see there is a line?”, to which the passive aggressives still not wanting to make eye contact with me tried to push forward some more.
 
It was at this stage I used my black belt in communication and hit them and the group with a solid roundhouse, “fuck you!”
 
Finally I heard what I took to be the group leader (an alpha passive aggressive), unseen and hiding behind a wall of his minions, utter in the sort of unctious and wheedling voice that can control the sorts that go on tours, “is there a problem sir?”
 
To which he heard from me, “yes, there is a line here and I’m sick of so many people pushing past us”. There was no reply and after a few more minutes of our stalemate, a Singapore Airlines ground crew came up to us and undid the nylon tape that was being used to corral us towards the check in, saying “follow me”. He led us to the front of the queue just to get rid of us. Goes to show, that the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and of course all the nice people behind us just had to put up with further pushing in.
 
What a pain in the butt!
 
When we got to our seats at the back of the plane it was obvious that we were seated amongst another large group of well dressed French tourists.
 
They all looked a bit older than me and it was obvious that most of them hadn’t travelled that much. The group was agog with excitement and they wouldn’t sit down out of the way as people were trying to get to their seats. Guys in their sixties who were probably the life of the party in their hey-day, where wandering around, “working the room”, getting in people’s way.
 
It was bedlam.
 
I expect better from the French , but the real truth be known, “clothes don’t maketh the man” and you can dress up a ignorant person from anywhere and they are still clueless no matter what striking figures they cut from a distance.
 
All through our leg from Paris to Singapore, the French tour group was like an excited class of school girls. They were up and down out of their seats, walking up and down the aisles, yelling across the middle seats to each other. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was being constantly hit by those raucous oafs as they partied up and down the isles I wouldn’t have minded. Even when there was turbulence, the determined socialisers continued to mingle with what seemed to be an attitude of “give me a party or give me death!”.
 
 
Both aisles were full of the noisy bastards for most of the flight. The only time they sat down was when the food was served. I spent half my flight with either a groin or butt near my face.
 
Over the years I’ve flown so much that I’ve seen what happens when a plane hits “clear air turbulence” and I’m one of those people who always has their seatbelt done up when flying. At least once or twice a year, here in Australia there are reports of people being hurt (usually, head, neck or back injuries) during flights going through rough turbulence because they haven’t been wearing their seatbelts (probably on the way to the toilets, I’d say).
 
It wasn’t just the constant jostling that was annoying it was also the state of the toilets after the superannuated  party animals had been in them. I’m not joking, they were always left in a mess and one occasion some bright spark thought it would be a great idea to piss all over the seat. I’m not talking a little sprinkle here, I’m talking, unload their whole cargo everywhere but in the toilet. I just couldn’t believe it and what made me really angry was that I knew that if I left in that state, people would think I’d done the dirty deed.
 
So I cleaned it up.
 
So much for the pleasures of flying!
 
As we disembarked in Singapore I was shocked at the mess of the place wherever the large French groups had been. It looked as though someone had emptied garbage cans all over, and there was a very distinct pattern formed by their litter.
 
A modern French midden if you will. 
 
What a bunch of peasants (even if they were wearing expensive clothing)! It just shows you can’t buy class, no matter what the advertising industry would have us believe.
 
The trip from Singapore to Australia was a complete contrast. It was a quietly civilised and orderly trip. When I was leaving I made a point of looking around the seats and floor and there was hardly any litter at all. Such a completely different attitude to flying couldn’t have been more clearly demonstrated.
 
Lastly I’d like to say that Singapore airlines is a great airline and their staff are a bunch saints. 

A flood of memories from Cambodia in the early 1970s

Two days ago my hot water tank developed a leak that flooded the storage area under the stairs. After getting the, “ooo that’s bad news”, from the plumber over the phone, I organised for a new hot water heater to be installed the next morning and got down to the business of mopping up and clearing out all the camping equipment and various other junk from under the stairs.

I have a general rule about accumulating junk I try to adhere to; if I’m surprised about coming across something that I haven’t seen for years and haven’t missed it, it goes in the garbage. So I threw out an old turntable with a ceramic cartridge and a Nakamichi cassette player (they used to be considered the best). All of the camping gear gets used, so there was no culling there, but then I came across an old model aeroplane made from the detritus of war in Cambodia back in the early 1970s.

A real memory trigger

All of a sudden like a pin ball machine, my mind started to light up with a flood of memories. I knew instantly that I still valued what many people would consider a pile of junk. It was all covered with dust so I cleaned it off as best I could and I’ve put in my living room where I can look at it again.  I wondered why I hadn’t had it out on display. Then I remembered that up until recently, I didn’t have any where I could put it without it getting more damaged.

I bought the model plane in a small town called Takeo, while I was doing some hitch hiking by air. The plane was made by a soldier called Kong Chuon (he wrote his name on it), and he’d called it a Dara X Supersonic.

Kong Chuon in Takeo

The fuselage is mostly made of M16 stripper clips and loaders. The Bombs are made from .50 calibre bullets and rounds from AK47s (all emptied of course). Stuck on right wing of the aircraft is a little scrap of paper with a hand written anti communist slogan which says;

“The bomb can negotiate with the VC for the peace in South East Asia”

I carted this model plane around with me for over ten years in my backpack as I wandered around various countries. I always thought the plane was pretty cool and it was my intention that I’d put it on display when I finally settled down. After years of moving around, jammed into a pack the poor old model has taken a beating.

I remember the day I bought the model. I didn’t have any English teaching work on that day, I so I hitch hiked out to the airport and then walked out onto the tarmac to ask  pilots for a lift. I did this quite often, because of the war it wasn’t possible to travel by road as the government only controlled the towns and the rest of the country was in the hands of the very dangerous Khmer Rouge. It was the only way I could afford to see the country I was making so little money at the time, I was literally starving.

As I was asking around, I met a one armed American guy on vacation from his job in Saigon who was doing the same thing as me. We hit it off, so we hung out for the day cadging lifts all over Cambodia.

Apparently my new found friend (who for convenience sake I will call Sam, because I’ve long forgotten his name) lost his arm because he was kicked so hard during a football game. Sam came from Colorado and the things he missed the most, living in Asia were Coors beer and Dr Pepper. Sam just raved on about Dr Pepper (which at that time I hadn’t tried) and how good it was. As for Coors, I was informed that they made it from “pure mountain spring water” and Sam assured me that if I ever went to the States that I wouldn’t be disappointed with his favourite beer.

My travelling companion was mobbed by children in Svey Reng

It was Sam who suggested that I buy the model plane. He explained that they were very popular with the G.Is stationed in Vietnam and he bought a few of them to take back home as presents. For me at the time, the $2.50 that I paid for the plane was a real extravagance. I was ashamed to tell Sam why I couldn’t buy more of them, especially when he kept urging me to because they were so cool and so cheap.

Now as I look at my beat up little plane I can’t help but wonder what ever happened to Kong Choun and all the little kids in the photos above. I suspect that that many of them either had a very hard time or came to a bad end. I always have these feelings when I look at my old photos that I took in Cambodia.

I often wonder about the fate all the Cambodian people whose images I have.

On a lighter note, several years later, I went to the US and of course I was very keen to try Dr Pepper and Coors.

The verdict; Dr Pepper tastes like stale marzipan and is just horrible. I guess it’s one of those things you have to grow up with. A bit like Vegemite which so many Aussies rave on about (disgusting, salty rubbish). As for Coors, it’s just so bland that I can’t imagine why anyone would bother with it.

As I was looking through my old negatives to illustrate this article, I came across a few other photos of people in Cambodia that I’ll post over the next couple of days.

Our lives hang by a thread. Lake Eyre, South Australia. 2000

Back in 2000 I nearly killed my wife and I.

In the northern part of South Australia there is a large dry salt lake called Lake Eyre.  Lake Eyre is 15 m (about 50ft) below sea level, and receives what little water it ever gets from the channel country, in southwest Queensland.  Since central Australia has some of the driest country in the world, Lake Eyre generally only ever fills up once a generation.  In the year 2000 there were heavy rains in the channel country and six weeks later, the water trickled its way over the thirsty land to fill Lake Eyre.  The seemingly dead salty sunbaked mud of the lake bed bursts into life as the water awakens billions of tiny brine shrimp as they hatch from their protective shells. The brine shrimp, provide food for freshwater fish that have been washed along with the floodwaters from the north east.  This sudden explosion of life attracts coastal birds from over 1000 km away.

When Lake Eyre fills with water, it is such a rare event that it is reported on national television and when my wife and I heard about it, we thought we’d go and have a look.  Because it was winter at the time, we also thought it would be a good opportunity to travel to the very centre of Australia in the cooler weather to see Uluru (Ayres Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) in the Northern Territory as well.

After 3 Days Drive, we finally reached the Oodnadatta Track that passes through the Tirari Desert and past the south end of Lake Eyre.  Unfortunately, it seemed that we had arrived too late, and all the bird life had moved on.  By the time we got to Lake Eyre.  The water was already starting to disappear, and all that was left was miles of salty mud and shallow salty water.

Lake Eyre. We travelled a long way to see this?

After spending about an hour slopping around in the mud, we headed off north to William Creek.  The track up to William Creek is surfaced to with rounded, marble sized gravel.  It’s not unlike trying to drive over ball bearings, and when our front right tyre blew out we had what could only be called a character building experience.

We were travelling at about 100 km (about 60 mph) in four-wheel-drive, when the flat tyre caused the car to start fish-tailing. As I fought for control of the car, my wife and I collectively screamed SHIIIIITTTTT!!! 

The trashed tire pulled itself off the wheel and the rim of the wheel dug into the road. As the front end of the car dug in and basically stopped, the back end of the car rose up and we flew upside down through the air, end over end, for about 10 m (about 30ft), landing on the roof, and then rolling two more times.  I’ve been in these sort of life-and-death situations a few times before, so as we were tumbling through the air I found myself thinking that the best thing to do would be to relax and try and make sure my head didn’t hit the door posts (my wife’s brother died that way).  It’s amazing how adrenaline slows things right down and gives one time to contemplate what’s going on in such situations and to take action.

When a car landed right side up, my wife and I couldn’t get out of it fast enough.  As soon as we got out of the car my wife (Engogirl) started hysterically screaming.  I felt strangely calm and told her to shut up.

A quick check of the car showed that the chassis was bent. It was a write-off.

My trusty Subara meets it's end

Within 15 minutes, people who had I passed on the road, caught up to us and offered assistance.  There was nothing really to be done, other than go to the next town and get somebody to send out a tow truck.  Interestingly, the people who offered us help had to change a flat tyre as they spoke to us.

As we waited for help from the next town to come, we wandered about picking up our belongings that had been strewn all over the track and fended off offers of assistance from other passing motorists.  It’s strange how the first few offers of assistance are really appreciated, but after it happens 20 or 30 times it really starts to get irritating having to explain to people who only mean well, how you managed to roll your car three times on a dead straight road out in the middle of nowhere. 

I was starting to feel really stupid.  I also noticed I couldn’t concentrate very well and I was having trouble organising my thoughts enough to pick up our belongings on the road whereas Engogirl was in complete control of her faculties. In retrospect, I think I was going into shock, and perhaps Engogirl’s screaming had released her tension, enabling her to better deal with the aftermath.  Nowadays, we often laugh about the fact that there isn’t much of an overlap between our skill sets. I can handle drama when it happens better than Engogirl, but my wife is much better at figuring out what the next step should be after the clear and present danger has passed.

Engogirl cleaning up after me

Amazingly, we had not sustained any significant injuries. Engogirl had a small cut on the back of her hand (see the photo) and I seemed to be okay.

It took a couple of hours before help from William Creek finally turned up in the form of a German fellow (the ex-owner of the William Creek Hotel), and his girlfriend in a four-wheel-drive towing a trailer with a hand winch.  It took about an hour and a half to get the car onto the trailer during which time I just stumbled around in a daze occasionally getting in the way and Engogirl made herself actually useful.

It would be very easy to call William Creek, the arsehole of the world as it is not even a cross road, it’s a T-intersection of the Oodnadatta track, and the track to Coober Pedy. William Creek has a pub (William Creek Hotel), a few buildings, a solar powered public telephone and the remains of a R3 rocket, launched from the Woomera Rocket Range back in the early 70s. 

Stage 1 of the R3 rocket in William Creek

Behind the pub is a campground with a very noisy generator that runs all night to make sure no one gets a decent sleep, and next to the campground is an aircraft landing strip.  The William Creek Hotel at the time was run by a family, who seemed to be irritated and resentful by the fact that they had to deal with the public. They sure were a surly bunch.

On arrival at William Creek, we booked into the campground, and I phoned my insurance company from the solar powered phone.  My phone call, bordered on the surreal.

Me. “I’d like to report that I have had an accident with my car”

Insurance Woman (IW)  with the NRMA in Sydney NSW. “Where did the accident happen?”

Me. “25 km south of William Creek in South Australia”

IW. “have you reported the accident to the police”

Me. “No”

IW. “Why not?

Me. ” Because the nearest police station is about 170 km away in Coober Pedy”

IW. ” Where did you say the accident happened again?”

Me. ” William Creek, its out in the middle of nowhere near Lake Eyre in South Australia”

IW. “So why didn’t you call the police?”

Me. “What would be the point when they are so far away, and they’re not going to turn up anyhow because no one was hurt and nobody else’s property was damaged?”

IW. “Oh”

Anyhow, to cut a long story short, I was told to stay put and not travel anywhere, until I received a medical check-up that gave me the all clear to travel.  Trouble was that were no doctors in William Creek, and as a matter of fact, the closest doctor was in Coober Pedy 170kms away over very rough 4WD track.  I later found out at the pub that the flying doctor would be in William Creek in three days time as a part of his regular circuit.

My wife and I thought that would be a good idea to travel through the desert country during winter when it was cooler.  What we both didn’t know is that the desert is a very cold and windy place in winter.

That night as the cold wind buffeted our little hiking tent, I lay in my sleeping bag, mulling over the events of the day, wishing that I could somehow rewind it all and do it again.  The rolling of the car during the accident kept on playing through my head, like some demented loop.  Over and over the accident replayed as I beat up on myself mentally.  I was so angry at myself, and so ashamed at the risk that I put my lovely and long-suffering wife through.  Strangely enough Engogirl wasn’t too happy with me, wrecking the car and all.

As I lay there, and mentally self-flagellated to the steady beat of the howling wind, I noticed it was starting to hurt when I was breathing in my upper chest.  As the night wore on, the pain slowly and steadily increased. I was pretty sure I hadn’t broken any bones and I thought that I’d probably done some kind of damage to the soft connecting tissue between the bones of my chest.  The area of pain coincided to where my seatbelt crossed over my chest.

By the time, morning came around, I was feeling, very sore, very miserable, very sorry and very ashamed.  We presented quite a bleak sight with our shattered car up on a trailer next to our little hiking tent that was popping in and out to the intermittent gusts of cold wind while the low grey clouds rolled over the dry flat land. It was without a doubt, the worst time of my life.  Nothing that has ever happened to me, has left me feeling so low as I did at that time. Full of remorse, embarrassed and in pain.

During our first day at the campground in William Creek we witnessed a steady stream of rally cars racing at high speed along the Oodnadatta track and in my agony, I couldn’t help but keep on thinking to myself, ” guys, guys slowdown!”

As we waited for the flying doctor to arrive, I spent most of the time laying on my back in the tent, dreading having to get up and go to the toilet, because of the pain I was experiencing every time I moved.  The only sense of relief that I experienced in my whole time as I waited for three days for the flying doctor to arrive, was when I went into the William Creek Hotel to buy some food.  A few of the patrons recognized me as the guy with the smashed up car and before long I was regaled with many stories of how most of the guys in the pub had rolled a car at some stage in their lives.  Never were there truer words said than “misery loves company”. Up until the time that the guys in the pub told me about their car accidents I was feeling so alone in my regret and shame at what had happened.  After the guy’s told me about their experiences I almost felt like I belonged to some kind of exclusive club of car rollers and what I had gone through was merely a rite of passage.

On the second morning I would have laughed if it hadn’t been so painful when I saw a long line of city slickers in their big four wheel drives (SUV) getting all agitated as one of the guys from the hotel took his sweet time fixing their flat tires. It was hilarious to watch the self-important guys from the city as they huffed and grumbled about how long things were taking and the way the tyre guy made it clear that they should leave him alone so him could get on with his work. Throwing his tools down he said “why don’t yous all just fuck off!” If yous don’t fuck off, I’m not fixin no-one’s tyres!”

The bleak painful days waiting for the flying doctor eventually passed and I was finally able to be checked out.  In a strange way, I kind of feel honoured to have visited a flying doctor, as they are such a legendary Australian icon. The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia was set up about 80 years ago to provide medical service to the isolated communities of the Australian outback and they are highly regarded.

The doctor confirmed my suspicions that I had only sustained soft tissue damage which was caused by the seatbelt.  Better sore than dead. After my examination, I contacted the insurance company and they organised our trip home.  The only problem was that the insurance company could only organise things in places that had large enough populations to support some kind of regular infrastructure.  Public transport from William Creek is a bit problematic because the only way we could get to Coober Pedy was on the 4WD mail truck that only came twice a week. The flying doctor only airlifts people in life threatening situations (fair enough!).

Luckily, the mail truck was going to Coober Pedy the same evening of the morning I had seen the flying doctor.  The road to Coober Pedy from William Creek is really just a sandy rutted track that passes through the Anna Creek Station, which is the largest working cattle station (ranch) in the world.  It’s larger than Israel.  Travelling 170kms on a four-wheel-drive track to Coober Pedy in the mail truck was torture. Each bump in the road was like a hot poker in the chest.

Once we got to Coober Pedy everything was much better.  The insurance company had booked us into one of the famous underground hotels that they have in Coober Pedy.

A very young looking Engogirl in our underground hotel room

Coober Pedy is famous for its opal mining, and the fact that it is so hot that most people there live underground in the old disused opal mines.

After the first decent night’s sleep in three, we flew out in a small and very narrow Fairchild Metro 23 Airliner twin turboprop

Inside of a Fairchild Metro 23 Airliner

to Adelaide and then onto Sydney by jet.  At Sydney airport we were met by a chauffeur driven limousine and driven home. 

I’ll never begrudge paying car insurance ever again (well done NRMA). 

It took me about two months to recover from the damage that I had done to my rib cage, and it also took about that long for an insurance adjuster to make his way to William Creek to check out our wrecked car and to confirm my opinion that it was a write-off.

Military jets on plinths. Colorado, USA

Ever since I was I child, I have enjoyed seeing airplanes on plinths. So when I was in the US last year I was pleased to come across these two examples.

The Boeing B52D “Stratofortress”, is outside of an Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. It’s quite a stunning thing to see from a distance, whilst driving along the highway. The B52 looks like it’s just skimming over the treetops. Very dramatic! I love seeing things like that. It was so big I couldn’t fit the whole thing in one photo so I had to stitch two photos together.

b52.jpg

The McDonnell Douglas F4 “Phantom” was outside of a small air base (I think it was near Pueblo). When I was in my early teens I used to assemble plastic model airplanes and the “Phantom” was my favorite. I never could understand why such a ruggedly beautiful piece of machinery could be nicknamed “Double ugly”. To me the F4 is a prime example of “form follows function” as it just reeks of muscular power and speed.

f4.jpg

Cambodian AT-28D, 1974

This is a picture of the attack version of the “North American T-28”.

t28.jpg

I tried to get a ride on one but the pilot wasn’t interested in taking me up (strangely enough). I never was successful in getting any flights in Cambodian combat aircraft. I even tried to get flights on “Huey” helicopters as well. The only military aircraft I was able to hitch rides in were transports and they were always “Fairchild C-123K”s.

On a photographic note, the dark vertical streaks (bromide streaking), were caused by the fact that 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 like bromide streaking, caused by insufficient agitation much more likely.

Hitchhiking by air in Cambodia (part 2)

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.

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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.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

Hitchhiking by air in Cambodia

This is part one in a two part chapter of my “All the dumb things” series.

Back in 1974 when I was 17, I was travelling around South East Asia. I ended up in Cambodia about six months before the war there came to an end. One of the reasons why I went to Cambodia, is that I met a Belgian guy when I was in Laos who said it was possible to hitchhike in Cambodia by military aircraft or civilian air cargo.

I stayed in Cambodia for about six months and found myself various jobs teaching English (not being qualified, didn’t stop me). Road travel at that time was impossible as the government only controlled the cities (if you could call them that) and several of the larger towns. The Khmer Rouge were in control of the rest of the country.

When I wasn’t working (which was often) I used to hitch a ride down to the Phnom Penh airport,

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walk out onto the tarmac (Ahhh the bad old days when safety just didn’t seem to matter) and ask pilots for free rides as their planes were being loaded. I didn’t care where I went and most of the pilots were happy to have someone to shoot the breeze with on their flights. I used to get flights with civilians and the military.

 

The military flights were always on a Fairchild C123-K (known as the Provider). The C123-K was designed to take off and land on short makeshift runways and it had a big rear ramp for quick loading and parachute drops. The plane had two propeller engines for level flight as well as two auxiliary jet assist engines to enable the aircraft to take off and land in short distances .

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 The inside of the C123-K was basically a big square box with webbing benches running along the inside walls. At the front of the plane there was wall about 3 or 4 metres high with a ladder up into the cockpit. The centre usually had a payload of weapons and ammunition held down with a webbing net that clipped to the floor on the way out of Phnom Penh. Refugees and valuable civilians goods (like fancy furniture and motorcycles) were carried on the way back.

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My first experience in a C123-K was a real education. The pilots had trained in Sale, Victoria here in Australia and were pleased to host an Aussie. I was given a tour of the cockpit and treated like an old friend. They told me they were going to Kampong Soam on the southern coast and then back to Phnom Penh. The take off was very fast and steep as there was the possibility that the aircraft could come under small arms fire while flying under 10,000ft. The jet assist engines were incredibly powerful and I was surprised how quickly we reached cruising altitude. They just didn’t muck about!

The airport at Kampong Soam was in pretty good shape and the plane landed like a normal plane and it dropped off some soldiers and a few boxes of ammunition. About 30 refugees and a few motorcycles were loaded for the trip back. Unbeknownst to any of us passengers, we went back to Phnom Penh via Takey, which had a short makeshift runway.

The Cambodian refugees were just poor, uneducated farmers, most of who had probably never been in a car, never mind an aeroplane. The refugees were quite pathetic in that they were plainly destitute. Most were women who didn’t have any shoes or anything else except the dirty and threadbare clothes they were wearing and perhaps a half clad child on the hip. These were people who obviously had gone through some very hard and harrowing times.

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The military just herded the refugees into the plane, where they sat where they could. Some on the floor around the ammo crates and some on the webbing benches next to me. I tried to explain as best I could, using broken sign language, that they should put their seat belts on. Most just didn’t get it, and the few soldiers who were with us just smirked at my efforts and made no attempt to enlighten the other people.

Landing on short runway at Takey came as quite a shock. The C123 just dove steeply, hit the runway with an alarming thump and with the help of the jet assist engines, came to an abrupt halt. The only troubles were, that the cargo netting broke and there were unfastened refugees. Those of us who were strapped in stayed where we were. Everybody and everything else that wasn’t strapped down went hurtling forward at a terrifying speed, smashing into the wall at the front of the plane with sickening force. Crates of mortars, women and babies went past me in a blur. In the midst of all this, a little woman, with an iron grip, grabbed my leg as she flew forward and horizontally fluttered off me like a flag until the plane stopped. The most amazing thing is that every body walked off the plane unscathed, even the ones who were thrown into the wall with all the very heavy ammo boxes smashing all around them. It’s was a wonder that no one was killed.

Part 2