The opening of the year 2019 was the third 4Aviation visit to Thailand. We visited the country again to be able to witness some of the activities of the annual Children’s Day. Besides that we were able to capture some more aircraft in the week before.
So, there we were…the new year was only six days old and we were already at the far side of the globe, in Bangkok, on an early Sunday morning (6 January 2019). After some waiting on a group member who arrived an hour later a different flight, we were ready for the Bangkok traffic. As far as anyone can really be ready for the Bangkok traffic, even for the experienced global traveller it is something to get used to. Nevertheless, we arrived at our first stop, the excellent Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) Museum at the military side of Don Mueang airport. Here we also met our last group member who had arrived by his own means. The museum is a real treasure trove full of rare and interesting aircraft, a real pleasure to spend a couple of hours in and not crowded at all on an early Sunday morning. The restoration hangar was unfortunately closed, with a soldier sitting at a desk in front of the hangar saying “no” to anyone who dared to ask. On the other hand, the storage area is freely accessible and not to miss for anyone interested in not-so-pristine airframes. By the time we were done at the museum, the temperature had risen to 30 degrees Celsius with typical tropical humidity. There are more preserved aircraft in the neighbourhood, most on military grounds, and the best way to see those is to go on foot, which we did. After that, it was good to be in the car again with the air conditioner on full blast! After getting to grips with navigating a car in Bangkok, with roads at two levels and the Thai tendency to use U-turns instead of allowing right turns (driving is on the left side of the road, by the way), we stopped at the National Memorial for some more preserved aircraft, before ending up near the approach of Don Mueang airport. It was a Sunday so not much military traffic was expected (none turned up) but half of our group also had an interest in airliners so for them it was time well spend. The spot we were at, same as last year’s group, is now being turned into a housing area, so next time it will likely be harder to find a decent spot near the approach. After a couple of hours, we decided to call it a day, with everyone tired from the long travels and the humid hot weather. Fortunately, our hotel was not very far away, check in went smooth and the rooms were comfortable and cool. At night we went for “dinner” in a nearby Tesco’s food court (it was better than it maybe sounds) where we literally got our first taste of spicy Thai food!
For the Monday (7 January) we decided to get out of the city and drive to the RTAF training base Kamphaeng Saen. Getting out of the city in the early morning was not too hard (compared to getting into the city) and we arrived at the main gate of Kamphaeng Saen shortly after nine. Odds were not in our favour, but nevertheless we tried to talk us onto base, if only for the preserved aircraft. Until recently the best bet would have been to get an English-speaking officer come to the gate to do business with, when the soldiers at the gate don’t speak English at all. Unfortunately, nowadays, they all have smart phones with translator apps, and it is very hard to communicate with those and get your intentions clear. After the third (translated) “forbidden!” and no intention at all to call someone with a higher rank, we reluctantly gave up. Better to try our luck from the outside than wasting our time at the gate… Our timing was good because not two minutes after we had reached the spot where we thought it would be best to photograph the incoming aircraft, the first PC-9 trainer came in. For the rest of the morning until well after noon we were treated with CT/4s, PC-9s, DA42s and a single Airbus H225 and UH-1 helicopter each. The local population were not bothered with our presence there at all, and even a military patrol by car didn’t stop but just gave us broad smiles. At one in the afternoon we decided to move on, with the large army base at Kanchanaburi as our next objective. But first we stopped at the site of the famous World War II River Kwai bridge. Well… there is a bridge there but is not the actual bridge but a steel one… and it’s not in the actual location either! But tourists are easily fooled and there were plenty of those! We however were more interested in the nearby “World War 2 Museum” where we found, would you believe it, a German Bundeswehr Alouette II helicopter! You don’t expect to see one of those in the middle of Thailand, totally out of context…
Nevertheless, onward to the army base Camp Surasri, which turned out to be an “open base” despite armed guards manning all entrances. Over the week this turned out to be quite common in Thailand, when “public” roads cross military land and the guards don’t bother to look as long as you enter the gate at a reasonable pace. This may sound a bit tricky maybe but is in fact perfectly legal and common. Anyway, so we were on base and headed to the airfield. There was no additional fence there and we could duly drive up near the platform with two Bell 212s and a Bell 206. Time to ask someone whether it was allowed for us being here in the first place. A bit surprisingly this was not a problem and we even could take photos if we wanted to. If we wanted to?… dude… what do you think?! At first a bit apprehensive (“did he actually mean we can do this?”) we walked the edge of the platform for photos of the helicopters. With their “black on black” serial numbers, the army Bell 212 isn’t the easiest to read off and it took some effort to get the numbers on the tail. Again, our timing turned out to be immaculate when the typical sound of a Huey in the distance heralded the arrival of two more helicopters, and we were in the perfect spot to photograph it! After the arrival and again departure of one of the helicopters, we ended our impromptu visit with a brief chat with the unit commander who had just arrived on one of the helicopters. The next hour was spent with the many L-19/O-1 aircraft preserved on base, and the Vietnam Veterans Museum. By then it was time to start our way back to Bangkok. A quick stop at Kamphaeng Saen again proved what was already expected (but you never can be sure…), the air force had quit flying early and there was no point in staying there for very long. In the morning we had passed a real-life Boeing 747 next to the main road somewhere between Bangkok and Kamphaeng Saen, so on our way back we made our last stop there for those interested in these things. The local guard apparently asked for beer as parking fee upon our departure, but we gave him some Baht (local currency) instead and he as happy with that too. No wonder he had already appeared to be a little drunk when we arrived…
A very early rise and checkout from our hotel, because we were about to take an early morning flight to Chiang May with local low-cost carrier Nok-air on Tuesday 8 January. Although Don Mueang airport was closed as a civilian airport some years before, with the opening of the brand new Suvarnabhumi airport, it has reopened to cater mainly for the low-cost carriers which Suvarnabhumi apparently couldn’t accommodate. Good news for us, flying from Don Mueang saved us a long drive and gave the opportunity to (hopefully) read off some of the military aircraft at the opposite side of the airfield during take-off. This was not as obvious as hoped for, despite our 737 taking the furthest (“military”) runway for take-off, mainly because it was still dawn and not much light to work with. Still, we managed with some numbers and every one of them was a welcome one.
On arrival at Chiang Mai we were met by a nasty surprise: the weather was (rather unexpectedly) simply awful! Our 737 landed amidst a tropical thunderstorm with heavy monsoon rain. This did not forebode much good, looking at the forecasts it seemed like it would rain continuously for the next day-and-a-half, only to improve by the time we would take our flight back to Bangkok. Oh dear… In the airport arrival hall, we were met by two ladies who would take us to the Tango Squadron for a tour. This organisation used to be the historical aircraft unit of the Thai air force, but is now an independent entity, however still with ties to the air force. On arrival at the Tango Squadron facility, next to the air force’s L-39 platform which remained obscured thanks to wall around the parking sheds, we were greeted with a bang… an impressive lightning strike not more than 200 meters away! This scared our guides so much (rightfully so) that we were quickly ushered into the hangar. Which was all the better with the torrential rain outside. We were shown a varied collection of aircraft, some airworthy, ranging from Piper Cubs to a couple of (probably not so airworthy) L-39s. When we had finished here it was time to go outside again, rain or no rain. Armed with umbrellas and taking as much cover as could be found…we managed without getting ourselves (and our cameras!) too wet. Outside and under sheds are mainly two more L-39s, two OV-10 Broncos, a bunch of T-28 Trojans; and not forgetting a T-33, C-47 and a few others. We spent a good hour with the Tango Squadron, and with little hope of the rain stopping there was no point in staying much longer. Our guides dropped us off at the airport terminal again, but not before taking a brief detour into an air force area for a few more preserved aircraft, and we didn’t even have to ask for this! The weather couldn’t be helped, but besides that a very good visit with very friendly people.
Back in the airport terminal we first had coffee and cake, and time to contemplate our plans for the next day-and-a-half. We picked up our rental car and started driving north. Chiang Mai is not Bangkok, but the traffic was just as bad, and it took us quite a while to get out of the city. Ah well… it was still raining and not much else to do for now. Our target was the army base at Mae Rim, but (as feared) upon arrival there was not much to be seen there. Due to the weather most, helicopters had been put inside, if present at all. Only a single Huey could with much effort be seen through the trees. Back to Chiang Mai then, for a lone T-28 we hadn’t seen yet and reconnaissance of the spots we would hopefully spend some time at tomorrow, should the weather improve. Our hotel for the night, close to the southern airfield approach, allowed check-in from 2 in the afternoon, and this we did. It’s good to have a dry roof above your head, not counting the car of course. Around 3 o’clock the rain receded a bit, and we decided to go and sit in our car near the approach, who knows what it would bring? Nothing military unfortunately, there was the air force Airbus 340 but that one must have already come in when we were at Mae Rim, because we had noted it at Bangkok in the morning and had not yet arrived when we were at the Tango Squadron. No L-39s unfortunately, which was to be expected with all this rain and low cloud base, but very unfortunate since it was one of the two reasons for coming to Chiang Mai. After 90 minutes and a lot of low-cost airliners, we called it a day. We finished the day off in a nearby restaurant where the food was good, the beer flowed (almost) freely, and the karaoke went downhill from superb to consistently off-key. Not by us by the way, although we were kindly invited to participate.
The different weather forecasts we consulted for Wednesday 9 January showed different results, but at least this time the more positive ones prevailed, and although the clouds still hung low hugging the nearby mountains, it was dry. We drove to the spot where last year’s group was fortunate to be allowed on to the upper (open) floor of a building in the approach, overlooking the airfield perimeter wall. Whilst checking out the building the owner was again immediately cooperative and allowed us to enter without a fuss. Later he would come up himself briefly and, again with the help of some translator app on his mobile phone, said “My mother says you have to pay for taking photographs”. Clever mum. So we gave him some money, something we had intended to do out of gratitude anyway, and everybody was happy and smiling. Well… not quite so maybe. Because even with the weather constantly improving, the morning passed without a single L-39 showing, and only a single C-130 arriving. Half of our group enjoyed the morning with a constant stream of airliners, the other half could only hope for a miracle and enjoy “Dutch Mill” chocolate milk and other tasty stuff from the nearby 7-eleven supermarket. After 1 o’clock had passed and hope to see any L-39s flying was at an all-time low, the C-130 decided to depart, which was at least something worthwhile. Imagine the relief not ten minutes later when the first two L-39s were suddenly seen taxiing towards our end of the runway! Finally, and after all! “Only” four L-39s decided to come and play outside this afternoon, but they were very welcome indeed. After the third and fourth had taken off it was clear that there would be no more (the military “last chance” crew who had arrived at the end of the taxi way to pull the pins and do some last checks on the L-39s, had left again) and for us it seemed best to vacate our great spot on the top floor and go to yesterday afternoon’s spot to get the sun (yes there was!) in our back. This was the right decision, and after an hour or so the four returning L-39s were very nicely photograph-able in the afternoon sunshine. The timing was perfect too, for we had to return our car and fly back to Bangkok. Returning the car was a bit of a hassle, the overzealous staff at the terminal were already about to clamp our car whilst we were waiting for the rental company representative to come out and take over! For the rest the trip back went smoothly, and it must be emphasised that the (late) showing of L-39s after all helped a lot with our good mood. We arrived at our third and last hotel, in the northern parts of Bangkok, at eight. Curiously, there was not much to go to and have dinner in the vicinity, and the advertised food delivery company refused to come to the hotel “at this late hour”(?). So, we had to settle for the all-time classic “pot noodle” from the tiny shop at the hotel, where the merchandise consisted mainly of crisps, beer (good!) and, you’ve guessed it, a selection of instant Thai noodles. Quite tasty (and spicy) as far as instant noodles go, and good enough for tonight.
We had several options for Thursday 10 January (and Friday), one was to try our luck at U-Tapao. This looked like a good proposition, with several w&r locations on the way to the south east of Bangkok. At first, we made good progress, but after an hour or so the motorway ended, and we were diverted to the busy coastal road passing through “the Thai Benidorm” Pattaya. Since we were literally passing it anyway now we first stopped at the curious named dump store “War Camping & Coffee War” which holds several airframes. Unfortunately, the store owner(?) was not very friendly and refused entry to the back yard where an UH-1 and a small trainer aircraft could be seen from the outside. Here we also found out that the Thai tend to repaint preserved aircraft in fantasy colours (museums excluded, thank Buddha!), and it would not be the last time we were witness to this habit today. After leaving the Coffee War behind us we stopped at the gate of a naval establishment with an A-7 inside. We were not allowed to take photos and “please turn your car around and leave”. Eventually we arrived at U-Tapao, expecting it to be a morning in the approach hoping for some flying activity. But one can always try to do better and so we just drove to the main gate to see if we could enter. Well… no… you need an entry pass from the pass office. Of course. In the pass office two sailors were sitting behind a desk and were completely stumped what to do with this foreigner asking for something in a language they didn’t understand. It became comical when some workmen, (sort of) busy with fixing up the office, started to intervene, but it was not obvious if it was in our interest or the contrary. When an officer appeared, the work men were suddenly (very!) busy painting and plastering again. After what seemed like half an hour but probably wasn’t even 10 minutes waiting, one of the sailors must have had enough of it, suddenly asked for a passport and issued an entry pass. Maybe he had concluded we really must have business on base, otherwise we wouldn’t hung around for so long, and maybe he even would get a reprimand for keeping these distinguished foreign people waiting at the gate. Regardless… our second drive up to the gate was more successful, and we were on base. First stop was the new museum behind the gate. It is said this museum will soon open to the public, so entry to (at least) there should in the future be less troublesome. The museum has a nice (outside) collection with three A-7s in a threesome pose as its centre piece. A Fokker F-27 took off and started doing circuits, a very welcome sight! An attempt to get a tour of one of the naval helicopters hangars and platform led to nought, despite a helpful officer doing his best to get us in. Of course, the eventual “excuse” was “come back on Saturday for the Children’s Day festivities”, which we already expected. Ah well. U-Tapao is certainly an option for an upcoming Children’s Day tour.
After leaving the base, it was coffee time (without war this time) which we enjoyed near the runway approach, but nothing was seen landing. We decided to start making our way back to Bangkok in time, via several w&r locations near the route. This took the whole afternoon, mostly due to heavy urban traffic. And as already mentioned, it became less and less funny when each time we arrived somewhere the aircraft was in some fantasy colour scheme in use as a billboard or something similar. By the time we had arrived in the southern suburbs of Bangkok the evening traffic had obviously started, and the roads were jammed with cars, including on the elevated motorways. At one point we were stuck in what felt like the mother of all traffic jams, with little to no moving forward and stationary red car lights as far as the eyes could see. Two hours in a traffic jam do seem like an eternity. A petrol meter slowly crawling to “empty” doesn’t help the mood either. But in the end, we finally started moving again, managed to find a petrol station in time and a restaurant too.
It was decided to have a more or less leisurely day on the Friday (11 January), covering the couple of locations in the vicinity of our hotel and Don Mueang we hadn’t been to yet, and the afternoon at the Don Mueang approach hoping for some military traffic. First stop was the KASET (agricultural police) and MNRE (ministry of natural resources and environment) heliport at Khlong Luang. After making our intentions clear at the entrance we could drive on to ask for photography permission in the operations building. After a couple of minutes waiting we got the green light and were let loose on the platform and in the hangar. More than half of the helicopters (Ecureuils mostly) were stored, some in an advanced state of decomposition. At one point an older gentleman appeared who turned out to be the chief of the whole operation, or something. Luckily, he was very pleased with our presence and interest in their operation. Next door to the heliport is the large “Golden Jubilee Museum of Agriculture”, dedicated to the good work of the previous King Bumibol (aka Rama IX) who apparently was very dedicated to advance agriculture in his country. After parking our car, a very “helpful” guard ushered us into the museum, whilst we already could see one of the two preserved aircraft near the carpark. A half an hour of looking at one of the king’s original desks and other important things later, we were back at the carpark and were finally allowed to walk to the aircraft section, comprising of one crop duster and a rather sad looking Hughes 369.
Back to Bangkok where we had some loose ends to tie up. At the Bang Khaen Army Heliport, we had no problems getting on base (it turned out the military entrance is also used if you want to go to a kind of garden centre) but besides a preserved OH-13 helicopter and literary thousands of troops (mis)using the short runway for marching practice, there was not much of interest to see. So, we quickly moved on, to the police heliport at Ram Inthra. A good thing we knew the exact coordinates of the main entrance, because had we been looking for the C-47 on top of the guardhouse we would have had a hard time: it is gone. For good. In the main police building, asking for photographing permission, the answer eventually given by the highest-ranking police officer they could muster stumped us a bit. It was already clear we would not be allowed on the heliport itself, or even look at the police helicopters, but could we please see and take photos of the preserved aircraft? The answer… “No, Top Secret! But I haven’t seen you…” (wink wink). Not an answer you’d expect from a police officer, but okay, we interpreted it in our advantage and set out to photograph the museum aircraft and such, expecting every moment to be stopped and questioned, but that didn’t happen. After a quick stop at a shopping mall for a first-floor peek over the wall of the adjacent military barracks (good for a single S-62 helicopter) we arrived at the Don Mueang approach spot where we would spend the rest of the afternoon. This being a Friday we had good hope for locally based military traffic, and maybe some late arrivals for tomorrows airshow, but the latter was in vain, in hindsight we can say all visiting aircraft for the static display had arrived well before we did. The military A340 kicked off the military traffic, followed by four police helicopters (not seen at Ram Inthra), an ATR, army Casa 295, and a Hercules. In between also an American UC-35 from Japan came in. By late afternoon even the airliner-interested group members had had enough Nok-Air, Air Asia and other low-cost carriers. We had contemplated trying to access the military base for the static aircraft without fences and public, but with several military aircraft arriving at that time we decided to stay put. We ended the day in an American-style steak restaurant and the terrace of our hotel for a beer or two. Tomorrow would be a very early rise and a long day ahead.
Saturday 12 January. The big day! It’s “Wan Dek” or “Children’s Day” in English. We had been warned to be at the Don Mueang entrance (same entrance as the museum) early and park our car sufficiently far away and walk the last bit, so we could leave half way through the morning without too much hassle. Arriving at the gate at six in the morning we soon realised that being early was indeed a good idea, it was clearly going to be crowded! At seven the gates opened, and we managed to be the very first on base and through the security checkpoint. Despite being early it was soon clear that it would be nearly impossible to take decent photos of the static display aircraft, all fenced off very close to the aircraft and the arriving locals very eager to immediately start taking selfies and family snapshots. On the plus side, there was no problem finding a good spot at the taxiway, waiting for the action to begin. In due time we were treated with an F-16 making a high-speed pass, an F-5 with special tail markings taking off, duelling with two F-16 and the whole package landing after the F-16s had “bombed” the airfield, three AU-23 Turbo Porters in a slow fly-by, and a helicopter SAR demo. It was still a bit hazy, but for the rest the light was good, and the action was great for photography. A Gripen was also due to fly but we didn’t wait for that, we had more things to do! Our plan to park the car sufficiently far away to prevent being held up in traffic jams worked beautifully and we were on our way at half past 10. For one group member the journey ended at Don Mueang and we said our goodbyes before we joined the traffic going north and out of Bangkok.
The drive to Lop Buri should have only taken us 90 minutes or so, but it took almost an hour more before we drove up to the entrance of Lop Buri / Sa Pran Nak Army Aviation Centre. Still, we should be in time… or so we thought. Not so apparently, the event had already finished at noon and the helicopters we had hoped for had flown back to the airfield by the time we arrived. A kilometre down the road at the airfield itself we noted (but could not read off) the last of the helicopters, an Mi-17, about to be towed back into the hangar. On the plus side, all six Chinooks were outside, but these are stored and up for sale. Nothing else left for us to do at Sa Pran Nak than to photograph the many preserved aircraft scattered around the base, including the very nice Army Aviation Museum. More luck with the air force at the nearby Khok Kratiem air base, where the large flea market was about to pack in but at least the aircraft on display were still accessible and the children’s karaoke in full swing. Not being in a rush anymore, we could patiently wait until the aircraft and helicopters were free of people. The rest of our time on base was spend with (again) the many preserved and stored/derelict aircraft.
And that was (about) it. A Huey and DC-9 fuselage in a military camp next to the road was the only highlight on our drive back to Bangkok. Of course, now that we had time to spare, the traffic was much lighter, and we were back in the northern Bangkok suburbs in 90 minutes. From there it was still a 45-minute drive or so to Suvarnabhumi airport, where the rental car was swiftly returned, and our group finally split up for the different flights home. The long nocturnal flight was well spent… sleeping! Arriving at Brussels airport early Sunday morning (13 January) marked the end of the first, and successful, 4Aviation trip of 2019.