As I mentioned in the thread in the Civil Aviation Forum relating to the tragic crash of the PMT Air AN-24 last week, the accident had a more poignant and sobering effect on me than an accident usually would.
Exactly two weeks before, after much difficulty in planning and finally booking and paying for the flight, I myself flew on U4 241 from Siem Reap to Sihanoukville (and the return flight U4 242), operated by AN-24 XU-U4A, the very same aircraft that crashed, killing all on board on 25 June 2007. I am unsure whether the friendly crew on my flight were the same as on the doomed flight, but in my case it was also a Russian pilot and Cambodian crew, so the chances are high. May they all RIP.
I was in Indochina for a total of 4 days, this trip organised exclusively to fly on some of the more unusual aircraft and airlines operating in the region. I will try and post a separate report about some of the other flights, including Pacific Airlines (soon to become the next Jetstar franchise), Lao Airlines and the excellent Bangkok Airways. Getting me to/from Vietnam was the continually-good Jetstar International.
I had flown into Siem Reap the night before on PMT Air’s ancient Hanoi-based 737-242 XU-U4F, of which I can find zero reference anywhere on the internet. After a very pleasant night in a local guest house, it was back to the airport for the domestic flight to Sihanoukville and return on PMT Air’s AN-24. This was to be the aviation highlight of the trip and my first ride on the AN-24. It was even more of a highlight given the more than a month of frustrating email exchanges and phone calls with PMT air to arrange the booking – especially as the schedules and routings of the AN-24 fleet on the days I was available seemed to be constantly changing.
XU-385 the day before on the ramp at Siem Reap with the PMT Air MD-80 in the background.
The Angkor Airways MD-80 on the ramp at Siem Reap
Royal Khmer 737-200 on the ramp at Siem Reap
PMT Air have (had) two active AN-24s in service. On arrival the night before, XU-385 was parked on the ramp alongside a number of other exotic aircraft. However, on arrival the next morning (and being relieved to see the flight was operating as scheduled) and a quick check-in at the small and shabby domestic terminal, I noticed XU-385 was gone and spied the colourfully painted XU-U4A pull into the stand adjacent to the terminal, and it became quickly obvious that this was the aircraft to take me to Sihanoukville and back.
Boarding XU-U4A at Siem Reap
On the ground at Siem Reap
Monday 11 June 2007
Siem Reap (REP) – Sihanoukville (KOS)
PMT Air U4 241
Flying time: 51 mins
13 passengers, 5 crew (18 POB).
Captain: Nikolay (Russian)
Free seating – sat in 3A (Emergency Exit)
My boarding pass for U4 241 to Sihanoukville (KOS)
The boarding gate
The weather was sunny and fine, a somewhat dicey proposition given the monsoon season was in full swing (as it turns out, weather appears to be a probable cause of the accident two weeks later), and as seemed to be often the case on my flights over those few days, the light load of passengers boarded quickly and we pushed back early.
Looking into the cockpit.
On board were 13 passengers. If I remember correctly we consisted of 7 South Koreans tourists, 2 other Australians apart from myself, and three local Cambodians (one lady and her two children, travelling on their first flight).
Boarding the aircraft.
There were five crew. One Russian pilot, Nikolay (no further information was given to me) was in command with the remaining 4 crew being Cambodian. Our male flight attendant was one of the flight attendants I had had on my 737-200 flight from Hanoi the day before.
With the aircraft sitting in the baking sun on the ground, it was like a sauna inside and I was very soon literally dripping with sweat. It was only after 10 mins or so in flight that the air conditioning systems finally managed to cool things down so as to make the experience more comfortable.
It was free seating, so to get a view into the cockpit, whose door was open when we boarded, I sat further forward than everyone else (you board from the rear) in 3A, also purposely choosing an emergency exit row. I note that despite it being an emergency exit, there certainly was no additional leg room (seating was very tight) and what is more, the emergency exit door was partially blocked by the row in front. It would have been quite difficult to use it. You don’t tend to think too much of these things at the time – it’s very different looking back in hindsight.
The flight was smooth and in reasonably sunny conditions (some cloud). The terrain was initially quite flat and barren but quickly turned into more mountainous forest as we got closer to Sihanoukville.
Hilly terrain and jungle close to Sihanoukville. From reports I have read, this is the type of terrain into which the aircraft crashed two weeks later.
On landing I chatted to the flight attendant and arranged for the ground staff to collect my return boarding pass. They all found it quite amusing that I was doing a return trip simply to experience their AN-24 aircraft. I was met by the airport manager who explained to me that the Sihanoukville Airport had only opened to RPT traffic in January, with 3 weekly flights with the AN-24, but that they were hopeful of growing this and perhaps attracting other airlines to the beach resort town. He was proud to say that they had welcomed around 2000 passengers through the airport since it had opened and that things were looking up for the region since the air service commenced.
Sihanoukville Airport from the tarmac
On the ground at Sihanoukville. You can see most of the crew in this photo.
The boarding gate at Sihanoukville
Monday 11 June 2007
Sihanoukville (KOS) – Siem Reap (REP)
PMT Air U4 242
Flying time: 51 mins
16 passengers, 5 crew (21 POB).
Captain: Nikolay (Russian)
Boarding U4 242 for the return to Siem Reap
Free seating – sat in 8D (Emergency Exit)
After receiving my return boarding pass, it was very quickly time to go through the rudimentary security screening point and join the new load of passengers for the return flight to Siem Reap. Of course, the same crew of 5 were operating and grinned at me as I reboarded. This time I chose a seat further back, once again at an emergency exit. As all booked passengers had checked in, there was no need to wait, so we pushed back 16 mins before scheduled departure time and took off a couple of minutes later.
The return flight was uneventful. This time the majority of the passengers were South Koreans returning from a few days at the beach. The flight was again smooth, service once again consisted of a plastic cup of either water or coke and a refresher towelette (same as we had on the outbound flight). Being a little tired from the day before, I managed to get a few minutes nap, despite the very tight and somewhat uncomfortable seating.
We landed at Siem Reap on time and deplaned. I thanked the crew for their help and kindness in arranging everything for me, and I made my way back to the terminal.
The Siem Reap ramp on my return from Sihanoukville.
Little did I know, of course, what was to befall the very same aircraft, and quite possibly the same crew, just 14 days later. May they, and the passengers on that fateful flight, rest in peace.