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,
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 .
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.
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.
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.