Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A bird's eye view of Thailand

You forget just how lush and green this country is until you fly over it. From the thick dense jungle of the mountains to the rice paddies and banana plantations of the valleys, the landscape is a wonderland of marvellous scenery and natural beauty. It's really no surprise that some folks prefer to take an airplane than to sit in traffic: you don't have to brake and dodge weaving tuk-tuks and motorbikes, nor face-off against thunderous trucks careening towards you on the highway when you're flying in the sky.

"Sure, sure," I hear you grumble. "If only I were a millionaire too."

It might surprise you however that the art of flying and the thrill of the skies might not be as unreachable as you think. And here in Thailand - like with so much else - it's cheaper and more practical than in most other countries in the world.

At 80 knots you hardly feel as if you are moving. The T-shaped shadow skimming through the rice fields 1,000 feet below convinces you that you are cruising along and the gentle hum of the single engine is just enough to remind you that you are not floating in the air. You look down at the winding rivers, the lakes and reservoirs; you identify the temples sitting proudly on top of the hills.

The sound of the pilot's voice in your headset wakes you from the reverie:

"OK," he says. "You want to take the controls now?"

Gulp. "Are you sure?"

The slightest squeeze of your hand is enough to manoeuvre the plane up or down. Your eyes dart back and forth to the instrument dials nervously checking your speed, the fuel gauge, the altimeter. It all seemed so simple just a few minutes ago. Now your life is in your own sweaty hands. Each time you wobble you feel that the plane might launch into an uncontrollable spin or nose-dive towards the Earth. Your head starts spinning around to check the skyline in case some drunken driver comes cascading out of a side-street in the clouds.

Then the pilot points out that you are holding the stick so hard that you have activated the microphone and the control tower are probably listening to your breathless pants and shrieks of terror. He reminds you to keep your eyes on the horizon and cup the stick gently in your palm. You sit back in your seat and take a breath. You're still in the air and moving smoothly ahead.

Finally, you allow your shoulders to relax and you ease your way between two mountains. The pilot points to a landmark on your far left and you ease her round, cutting a beautiful long curve through the air. So this is flying? A piece of cake!

Of course it's not a piece of cake. The preparation needed to allow you into the position of being a pilot is serious and requires dedication. In order to secure a pilot's license in Thailand a student must log a minimum of 40-50 hours flying time, (including 10 hours flying solo) as well as at least the same amount of time in a classroom learning the laws of aerodynamics, the workings of a single engine airplane, medical knowledge and weather patterns - more or less the entire syllabus of the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). Realistically, a first-time pilot should expect to spend at least three months learning the art, as well as no less than 200,000 baht in costs and fees.

"The first time I went up in a two-seater I didn't like it," admits pilot Jon Malnick, an ex-stockbroker from London. "It was unpleasant and scary. Believe it or not, I'm afraid of heights!"

Naturally, after getting their licenses, some pilots would like to buy their own plane, perhaps a Cessna-150, a Mooney, or a Piper Cherokee. Jon Malnick and his friend picked up their second-hand Diamond DA 20 Katana in Houston, Texas, for US$45,000. The Diamond weighs only 700 kilos and has a maximum level cruise speed of 120 knots from an 80 horsepower engine. They are more than pleased with their aerodynamic acquisition and like the 40 other pilots and members of Nok Flying Club, based at a private airfield southeast of Chiang Mai, the joy of flying is now well worth the investment.

Malnick has only been "licensed to thrill" since September 2006, but has already flown himself all over Isaan and northern Thailand, as well as undertaking a group flight with five other members of his club to Malaysia: a three-day trip with overnight refuelling stops at Phitsanulok, Hua Hin and Phuket.

When asked why he chose to come to Thailand to learn to fly, Jon has little hesitation:

"It's well-organised, it's safe, there's good weather and great scenery," he says. "Plus you don't have the prohibitive expenses and regulations of Europe nor the air traffic of the States."

He's right too. How many other places would have landing fees as low as 85 baht, such as at Lampang Airport?

There are between 100 to 150 private airplane owners in Thailand, mainly in and around Bangkok. All planes, private and commercial, operate under the rules and regulations of the Department of Civil Aviation. For example, all aircraft must maintain radio contact while airborne with the nearest air traffic control centre.

Private pilots are strongly advised to check weather conditions before they set out. Many websites offer frequently updated weather information, such as the Thai Meteorological Dept (http://www.tmd.go.th) Storms can arise very quickly in Thailand and even the most experienced private pilots will avoid adverse conditions. The minimum visibility usually allowed under Visual Flight Rules is three miles; therefore during the "hazy season" - when farmers traditionally burn their fields - flights will often be grounded, and airports in mountainous areas, such as Mae Hong Son, are often closed for extended periods.

"For every one hour of flying, there's several more hours of preparation," according to Malnick.

After confirming the weather conditions are conducive to flying, pilots must file a flight plan with Air Traffic Control supplying route information and intended take-off time. Checking the airplane is not dissimilar to the way you would check your car: air in the tyres, check the oil, fuel and brakes.

Naturally, safety is the No. 1 priority in this sport, so all pilots adhere to a rigorous checklist before putting the keys in the ignition. All instruments, controls and equipment, inside and outside the aircraft must be tested before taking off. Nowadays, almost every pilot invests in a small GPS device to plot their route. The aviation authorities require precise record-keeping of all flights, and so pilots must fill in several logs each time they take to the skies.

Restricted areas for flying include the royal palaces, military zones and the flight paths of commercial planes. Although you probably won't get clearance for your requested low level pass over central Bangkok, the Thai skies are generally much freer than elsewhere.

Khun Worawoot Intase is the manager of Thai Flying Club near Pattaya, which has over 200 members. Although not a licensed pilot himself, the 27-year old logistics manager has been learning to fly for several months now and hopes to get his license soon.

"People on the ground just cannot understand it," he says. "But I love flying: you feel like a bird; you really feel free."


I wanna fly too!

There are several flying clubs and private airfields in Thailand.

Thrill-seekers can rent a small aircraft with a licensed pilot usually for between 4,000-5,000 baht per hour.

If you are interested in learning to fly, some clubs offer instruction and a full training course. A full medical checkup is needed before any solo flying; and you will need to pass a written test and a flying test before finally receiving your full pilot's license. Contrary to old macho rumours, women are as equally entitled and able to fly as their male counterparts and students as young as 16 can learn the art of flying, although you must be 17 to get a license.

Flying Clubs with tuition include:

- Nok Aviation
126 Moo 16, Baan Thi, Lamphun 51180
Tel: 086-670-249
Fax: 053-939-254
Web site: www.nokaviation.com ,

- Chiang Mai Flying Club
26/7 Moo 3, Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road,
Chiang Mai 50000
Tel/fax: 053-285-218
Lamphun: 053-584-321
Web site: www.cmflyingclub.com ,

- Thai Flying Club
Bang Phra Airport
Sri Racha 20210
Tel/fax: 038-777-348
Web site: www.thaiflyingclub.com

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