Khmer Air Force
|Khmer Air Force
Armée de l'air khmère
Khmer Air Force Service Banner (1970–75)
|Active||8 June 1971 – 17 April 1975|
|Size||10,000 personnel (at height)
309 aircraft (at height)
|Garrison/HQ||Pochentong Air Base, Phnom Penh|
|Nickname(s)||KAF, KhAF (AAK in French)|
|Anniversaries||8 June - KAF Day|
|Engagements||Cambodian Civil War
|Attack||Fouga Magister, T-28, A-1, T-37, AU-24, AC-47|
|Reconnaissance||MS 500 Criquet, O-1 Bird Dog, U-6 (L-20), U-17|
|Trainer||T-6, T-28, T-41, MS 733 Alcyon, Socata Horizon, MiG-15UTI, Fouga Magister, T-37|
|Transport||Dassault MD 315 Flamant, Aero Commander, Utva 56, An-2, Il-14, C-47, Douglas C-54, C-123K, Alouette II, Alouette III, H-19, H-34, UH-1, Mi-4|
The Khmer Air Force (French: Armée de l'air khmère; AAK), commonly known by its americanized acronym KAF (or KhAF) was the air force branch of the Khmer National Armed Forces (FANK), the official military of the Khmer Republic during the Cambodian Civil War between 1970 and 1975.
- 1 History
- 1.1 Early expansion phase 1955–63
- 1.2 The neutrality years 1964-1970
- 1.3 Pre-1970 organization
- 1.4 Reorganization 1970-71
- 1.5 Reorganization 1971-72
- 1.6 Expansion 1972-74
- 1.7 Late war organization 1974-75
- 2 Combat history
- 3 Aftermath
- 4 List of Cambodian Aviation and Air Force commanders
- 5 Air Force uniforms and insignia
- 6 See also
- 7 Notes
- 8 References
- 9 External links
Although an air wing for the fledging Khmer Royal Army (ARK) was first planned in 1952, it wasn't until April 22, 1954, however that the Royal Khmer Aviation (French: Aviation royale khmère; AVRK) was officially commissioned by Royal decree. Commanded by Prince Norodom Sihanouk's personal physician, Colonel Dr. Ngo Hou and known sarcastically as the ‘Royal Flying Club’, the AVRK initially operated a small fleet of four Morane-Saulnier MS 500 Criquet liaison aircraft, two Cessna 180 Skywagon light utility aircraft, one Cessna 170 light personal aircraft, and one DC-3 modified for VIP transport. At this stage, the AVRK was not yet an independent service; since its earlier personnel cadre was drawn from the Engineer Corps, the Ministry of Defense placed the AVRK under the administrative control of the Army Engineer's Inspector-General Department. The first flight training courses in-country were initiated in October 1954 by French instructors seconded from the airforce component of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps (CEFEO) at the newly founded Royal Flying School (French: École de l'Air Royale) at Pochentong airfield near Phnom Penh, though Khmer pilot students were later sent to the École de l'air in France.
Early expansion phase 1955–63
During the first years of its existence, the AVRK received assistance from France – which under the terms of the November 1953 treaty of independence had the right to keep a military mission in Cambodia –, the United States, Israel, and West Germany, who provided training programs, technical aid, and additional aircraft. The French delivered in 1954-55 fifteen Morane-Saulnier MS 733 Alcyon three-seat basic trainers, whist deliveries by the United States Military Assistance Advisory Group (US MAAG) of fourteen T-6G Texan trainers, eight Cessna L-19A Bird Dog observation aircraft, three de Havilland Canada DHC L-20 Beaver liaison aircraft, and seven C-47 transports (soon joined by with two additional C-47s bought from Israel) allowed the AVRK to acquire a limited light strike capability, as well as improving its own reconnaissance and transportation capabilities. A small Helicopter force also began to take shape, with the delivery in 1960 of two Sud Aviation SA 3130 Alouette IIs by the French and of two Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaws by the US MAAG in 1963. Although Cambodia was theoretically forbidden of having fighter jets under the terms of the July 1955 Geneva Accords, the AVRK did received its first jet trainers in September 1961 from France, in the form of four Potez CM.170R Fouga Magisters modified locally in 1962 to accept a pair of 7,62 mm machine guns and under-wing rocket rails. By the end of the year, the AVRK aligned 83 airframes of American, Canadian and French origin, though mostly were World War II-vintage obsolescent types well past their prime – US MAAG advisors often described the AVRK at the time as an "aerial museum" – and training accidents were far from uncommon.
The baptism of fire of the AVRK came the following year when its T-6G Texan armed trainers supported Khmer Royal Army troops in Takéo Province fighting a cross-border incursion by Vietnamese militiamen from the Hòa Hảo militant sect fleeing persecution from the neighbouring Republic of Vietnam. The obsolete Texans were eventually replaced in August that year by sixteen North American T-28D Trojan trainers converted to the fighter-bomber role. Also under the US MAAG program, the AVRK received in March 1963 four Cessna T-37B Tweet jet trainers; however, unlike the Fougas provided earlier by the French, these airframes had no provision for weapon systems, since the Americans resisted Cambodian requests to arm them.
Structure and organization
The main tactical air elements of the AVRK by mid-1956 were a training squadron, a transport and liaison squadron and the 1st intervention (or combat) squadron, all based at Pochentong airfield. As the AVRK expanded its flight and technical branch services, in 1958 the Air Force Command re-organized them more systematically into air wings or ‘Groups’ (French: Groupements) based on the French Air Force model – the Territorial Group (French: Groupement Territoriale) which handled administrative tasks, the Technical Group (French: Groupement Téchnique) for the maintenance of aircraft and other equipments and the Tactical Air Group (French: Groupement Aérien Tactique – GATAC). This later formation aligned three squadron-sized flight units:
- A reconnaissance squadron, the 1st Observation and Combat Accompanying Group (French: 1ér Groupe d'Observation et d'Accompagnement au Combat – 1ér GAOAC);
- A combat and ground support squadron, the Intervention Group (French: Groupe d'Intervention – GI);
- A transportation squadron, the Liaison and Transport Group (French: Groupe d'Liaison et Transport – GLT).
The Technical Group aligned the AVRK's support and technical branches, which comprised the Communications (French: Comunications), Civil engineers and Construction (French: Génie/Construction), Flight engineers (French: Mécaniciens Navigantes), Medical (French: Service de Santé, or simply Santé), Transportation (French: Train or Transport), and Military Fuel/Petrol, Oil and Lubricants – POL (French: Service de Essence) services.
The neutrality years 1964-1970
In response to the coup against President Ngô Đình Diệm in South Vietnam Prince Sihanouk cancelled on November 20, 1963 all American aid, and on January 15, 1964 the US MAAG program was suspended when Cambodia adopted a neutrality policy, so the AVRK continued to rely on French military assistance but at the same time turned to Australia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and China for aircraft and training. Already in 1961, Khmer student pilots returning from previous training in France had been sent to the USSR for conversion training in Soviet fighter jet types, and in November 1963 the Soviets delivered an initial batch of three MiG-17F fighter jets, one MiG-15UTI jet trainer and one Yakovlev Yak-18 Max light trainer. France continued to deliver aircraft to Cambodia in 1964-65, supplying 16 night attack Douglas AD-4N Skyraiders and six Dassault MD 315R Flamant light transports, soon followed by more Alouette II and Alouette III light helicopters and ten Gardan GY-80 Horizon light trainers, which replaced the obsolete MS 733 Alcyons. The Yugoslavians provided at the time two UTVA 60AT1 utility transports, whilst the USSR delivered one Ilyushin Il-14 and eight Antonov An-2 Colt transports, and China sent one Chinese-built MiG-15UTI jet trainer and ten Shenyang J-5 fighter jets. Not be outdone, the Soviets delivered in April 1967 a second batch of five MiG-17s and two Mil Mi-4 Hound light helicopters.
Like the other branches of the then FARK, the Royal Cambodian Aviation's own military capabilities by the late 1960s remained unimpressive, being barely able to accomplish its primary mission which was to defend the national airspace. Due to its low strength and limited flying assets, the AVRK was relegated to a combat support role by providing transportation services to ARK infantry units and occasional close air support to ground operations. Apart from two tarmacked airstrips located respectively at Pochentong and at a Chinese-built civilian airport in Siem Reap, the other available airfields in the country at the time consisted of unsurfaced runways that lacked permanent rear-echelon support facilities, which were only used temporarily as emergency landing strips but never as secondary airbases.
Consequently, and in accordance with Cambodia's neutralist foreign policy, few combat missions were flown. AVRK activities were restricted to air patrols in order to protect Cambodia's airspace from the numerous incursions made by US Air Force (USAF), South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) and Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) aircraft. In 1962, during a period of heightened tension with Thailand over the disputed Preah Vihear Temple in the Dângrêk Mountains border area, the C-47 transports of the Liaison and Transport Group (GLT) dropped at night three planeloads of paratroopers over the Choam Ksan district in a show of force intended to intimidate the Thai government. The AVRK C-47 transports resumed the same role again in 1964, when they carried out another battalion-sized parachute drop over two days near Samrong in Oddar Meanchey Province along the Thai border, and landing strips were improvised at Siem Reap and Battambang for the C-47s and An-2s supplying the ARK troops. Detachments of MiG-17s and AD-4N Skyraiders were also deployed at these locations after the intrusion of RTAF airplanes into the Cambodian airspace, but both sides prudently avoided confrontation and there were no incidents. A more serious clash occurred on March 21, 1964 when a patrol of two AVRK T-28D fighter-bombers penetrated 3,22 Kilometers (over 2 miles) into South Vietnam and shot down an L-19 light aircraft in retaliation for a VNAF strike into Cambodia, killing both the Vietnamese pilot and the American observer.
It was not until the late 1960s however, that the AVRK received its first sustained combat experience. In early 1968, its T-28Ds, AD-4N Skyraiders and some MiG-17 jets were again sent to Takéo Province, dropping bombs on pre-planned targets in support of Royal Army troops conducting a counterinsurgency sweep against armed elements of the Vietnamese Cao Đài militant sect that had entered the province from neighbouring South Vietnam; AVRK combat elements were also deployed in the Samlot district of Battambang Province, where they bombed Khmer Rouge insurgent strongholds. In November 1969, the AVRK supported the Khmer Royal Army in a restrained sweeping operation targeting North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong (VC) sanctuaries at Labang Siek in Ratanakiri Province. Some T-28D fighter-bombers, L-19 reconnaissance aircraft and Alouette helicopters provided air cover to the ground operation, whilst a few combat sorties were staged by the MiG-17s and AD-4N Skyraiders from Pochentong.
In March 1970, the Royal Cambodian Aviation had a strength of 1,250 Officers and airmen under the command of Colonel Keu Pau Ann (who had replaced Major-General Dr. Ngo Hou in 1968), consisting in most part of flight crew personnel – pilots, instructor pilots, navigators, flight engineers, radio operators, and flight mechanics – and ground technicians – air controllers, radar and radio station operators, meteorologists, maintenance personnel, and auxiliary male and female personnel employed on administrative tasks. The main air elements of the AVRK Tactical Air Group consisted of four flight groups – one advanced training, one attack, one transport and liaison, and one helio – provided with a mixed inventory of 143 aircraft of 23 different types, mostly of French, American, Soviet, Chinese, Yugoslavian, and Canadian origin. Most of the aircraft and personnel were concentrated at the military airbase adjacent to the Pochentong International Airport at Phnom Penh, which also housed the Air Academy and the AVRK Headquarters, being structured as follows:
- The Royal Flying School at Pochentong operated an Advanced Training Squadron consisting of eight Yakovlev Yak-18 Max and twelve Gardan GY-80 Horizon light trainers, plus four Potez CM.170R Fouga Magister (converted to the ground attack role) and four Cessna T-37B Tweet jet trainers (only one was operational by 1970);
- The Intervention Group had six Shenyang J-5, twelve MiG-17F fighter jets, and one MiG-15UTI jet trainer; sixteen Douglas AD-4N Skyraider three-seat night attack aircraft (only eight were operational by 1968), and seventeen North American T-28D Trojan fighter-bombers;
- The Observation and Combat Accompanying Group had eight Cessna L-19 Bird Dog observation light aircraft.
- The Transport and Liaison Group operated one Douglas C-54B Skymaster four-engine transport (used as a VIP transport), one Ilyushin Il-14, two Cessna 180 Skywagons, three de Havilland Canada DHC L-20 Beaver STOL utility transports, three UTVA 60AT1 utility and liaison aircraft, six Dassault MD 315R Flamant light twin-engined transports, eight Antonov An-2 Colt, and twelve Douglas C-47 Skytrain transports.
- The Helicopter Group operated one Mil Mi-4 Hound, one Sikorsky H-19 Chickasaw, and two Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw utility and transport helicopters, plus eight Sud Aviation SA 3130 Alouette II, and three or five Sud Aviation SA 316B Alouette III light helicopters.
In addition to aircraft acquired or donated from friendly countries, the AVRK between 1962 and 1966 also incorporated on its inventory a small number of planes and helicopters flown into Cambodia by defecting South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) pilots, which included three A-1H Skyraiders and two Sikorsky H-34 helicopters.
To patrol its main facilities and aircraft in Pochentong against possible acts of sabotage or enemy attacks, the AVRK command raised in 1967-68 an airfield security battalion (French: Battaillon de Fusiliers de l'Air – BFA). Similar in function to the British RAF Regiment, the BFA was organized as a light infantry battalion comprising three rifle companhies maintained primarily for airfield security duties and static defence. Permantely allocated at Pochentong airbase and commanded by AVRK Major Sou Chhom, the battalion fielded some 200-300 airmen armed with obsolete French-made bolt-action rifles and sub-machine guns.
In the wake of the March 1970 coup, the Royal Cambodian Aviation was re-designated Khmer National Aviation (French: Aviation nationale khmère; AVNK), though it remained under Army command. Colonel Keu Pau Ann was replaced as the AVNK Chief-of-Staff by his deputy, Major (promptly promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel) So Satto, with Major Penn Randa becoming deputy Chief-of-Staff for tactical operations and Major Ea Chhong the deputy Chief-of-Staff for logistics. After securing material support from the United States, South Vietnam, and Thailand, the new Khmer National Aviation immediately commenced combat operations, and embarked on an ambitious reorganisation and expansion program. Shortly after the coup, however, the French military mission suspended all the cooperation with the Cambodian armed forces, thus depriving the AVNK of vital training and technical assistance. China and the Soviet Union also severed their military assistance programs, which resulted in serious maintenance problems for its Shenyang and MiG fighter jets.
With the increase in activity at Pochentong airbase, the AVNK Air Academy (French: École de l'Air; formerly, the Royal Flying School) was moved in August 1970 to more quieter and less congested facilities at Battambang airfield. The director of the Air Academy, Lieutenant-Colonel Norodom Vatvani organized a road convoy to transport all the technical equipment whilst the instructor pilots flew the Gardan GY-80 Horizons to the new airfield, although the Cessna T-37B Tweet jet trainers were left behind at Pochentong. To provide air cover more effectively to the FANK's six military districts or “Military Regions” (French: Regions Militaires), the AVNK Command envisaged the creation of three Air Force districts, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Air Regions (French: Regions Aériennes). However, these plans never came to fruition and only the 1st Air Region (French: 1ér Region Aérienne) had been established by 1973, which encompassed nearly the entire Cambodian territory and was concurrently headed by the Air Force Commander. The VNAF flew numerous combat missions inside Cambodia since March in support of joint FANK/ARVN ground operations, and to better coordinate its own missions they established at Pochentong a liaison office, the Direct Air Support Centre (DASC) Zulu. In addition, South Vietnamese 0-1D Bird Dog FAC spotters began regularly staging reconnaissance flights from Pochentong to guide VNAF airstrikes and artillery fire.
An initial expansion of the AVNK inventory in September 1970 under American auspices was accomplished with the delivery of six Bell UH-1H helicopter gunships with temporary South Vietnamese crews. The VNAF assigned a 49-man contingent of pilots and ground technicians to Pochentong to help fly and maintain these airframes until AVNK personnel had completed their instruction cycle manned by US advisors in South Vietnam. To ease maintenance, it was decided upon American suggestion to build the AVNK´s strike component around the T-28 Trojan, since both its pilots and ground technicians were already well-acquainted with this aircraft type, and the Americans had plenty of surplus airframes and spare parts available. As a result, the rate of T-28 sorties increased, with 2,016 sorties being recorded between March and October 1970, in contrast to the 360 sorties of the MiG-17s and Shenyangs, and the 108 strikes of the Fouga Magister jets registed during that same period.
The Pochentong raid
On the night of 21–22 January 1971, a hundred or so-strong NVA 'Sapper' (Vietnamese: Dac Cong) Commando force managed to pass undetected through the defensive perimeter of the Special Military Region (RMS) set by the Cambodian Army around Phnom Penh and carried out a spectacular raid on Pochentong airbase. Broken into six smaller detachments armed mostly with AK-47 rifles and RPG-7 rocket launchers, the North Vietnamese 'Sappers' succeeded in scaling the barbed-wire fence and quickly overwhelmed the poorly armed airmen of the Security Battalion on duty that night. Once inside the facility, the 'Commandos' unleashed a furious barrage of small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades against any aircraft they found on the parking area adjacent to the runway and nearby buildings; one of the commando teams even scaled the adjoining commercial terminal of the civilian airport and after taking position at the international restaurant located on the roof, they fired a rocket into the napalm supply depot near the VNAF apron. When the smoke cleared the next morning, the Khmer National Aviation had been virtually annihilated. Most of the aircraft stationed at Pochentong at the time were either completely destroyed or severely damaged on the ground, including many T-28s, nearly all the Shenyang, MiG, T-37 and Fouga Magister jets, all the L-19s and An-2s, the UH-1H helicopter gunships, three VNAF O-1 Bird Dogs and even a VIP transport recently presented to President Lon Nol by the South Vietnamese government. Apart from the aircraft losses, 39 AVNK officers and enlisted men had lost their lives and another 170 were injured. The only airframes that escaped destruction were six T-28 Trojans temporarily deployed to Battambang, ten GY-80 Horizon light trainers, eight Alouette II and Alouette III helicopters, two Sikorsky H-34 helicopters, one T-37B jet trainer, and a single Fouga Magister jet that had been grounded for repairs. Pochentong airbase was closed for almost a week while the damage was assessed, wreckage removed, the runway repaired, and the stocks of fuel and ammunitions replenished.
The Cambodian Air Force was reborn on June 8, 1971, when it was made a separated command from the Army and thus became the third independent branch of the FANK. This new status was later confirmed on December 15, when the AVNK officially changed its name to Khmer Air Force (French: Armée de l'air khmère; AAK), or KAF.
Col. So Satto also requested from the United States Northrop F-5A light fighters to replace the destroyed Shenyang, MiG, and Fouga jets, but the US government offered in alternative some North American F-86F Sabrejets on the verge of retirement from the RTAF. However, an inspection made by Cambodian technicians revealed that the airframes were no longer in flyable condition, so the KAF Command rejected the proposal altogether. Unable to acquire new fighter jets, the KAF was left without air-to-air capacity for the remainder of the war. An additional offer of some Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar transports which had previously seen service with the VNAF was equally turned down by the Cambodians.
New airbases were laid down near the provincial capitals of Battambang (Air Base 123), Kampong Cham (Air Base 125) and Kampong Chhnang (Air Base 124), and near the Khmer National Navy's (MNK) coastal naval base at Ream (Air Base 122). Later in the war, secondary airfields and assorted helipads were temporally set up at Kampot, Oudong, Kampong Thom, and Stung Mean Chey near Phnom Penh.
Instructor pilots from Taiwan were posted on loan at the KAF Battambang Air Academy to train its pilots whereas Khmer cadets and air crews were sent for L-19, 0-1, T-28, AC-47, AU-24, and C-123 training to South Vietnam, Thailand, and the United States. Most of the advanced courses and specialized training of Khmer combat pilots was conducted by Thai instructors at the RTAF Kampheng Sen Flight Training School and by American advisors of Detachment 1, 56th Special Operations Wing at Udorn, U-Tapao, and Takhli airbases in Thailand, while others were dispatched to attend observer courses at the VNAF Academy in Bien Hoa, South Vietnam. A small number also went to train with the US Navy at the Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida and attended courses at the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) East Sale airbase in Victoria, Australia.
Under Project Flycatcher, an improvement programme for the KAF, the Americans first delivered twelve T-28D Trojans, six UH-1Hs, five C-123K Providers and a smaller number of C-47 transports and O-1D Bird Dogs, later followed by one AU-24A mini-gunship and 24 Cessna T-37B Tweet jet trainers before the programme was officially terminated on June 30, 1973. This was to be the last US delivery of aircraft to Cambodia, which nevertheless significantly improved the combat capability of the KAF.
On August 15, 1973, a ceasefire came into effect in Indochina and US air support was terminated, with the Khmer Air Force assuming full responsibility for all air operations in Cambodia. With the Khmer Rouge guerrillas controlling large parts of the countryside, the Khmer national armed forces were fighting an up-hill battle.
In an effort to further boost the KAF´s capabilities, the Americans initiated three assistance programmes. The first one, Operation Rotorhead Express, started in June 1974 when a US Army team arrived at Pochentong to give a one-time repair to the KAF UH-1H helicopter fleet. This was followed in January 1975 by Operation Flycatcher (not to be confused with the earlier namesake US aircraft delivery programme), a similar US Air Force effort directed at the KAF T-28 fighter-bombers carried out by a USAF team also at Pochentong. That same month, a USAF Mobile Training Team began in Thailand a training programme intended to make the KAF airlift wing self-sufficient.
Late war organization 1974-75
By January 1975 KAF's strength had peaked to 10,000 Officers and airmen (including airwomen) under the command of Brig. Gen. Ea Chhong, equipped with a total inventory of 211 aircraft of several types distributed amongst the Tactical Air Group squadrons as follows:
- The 1st Fighter Squadron aligned 64 T-28D fighter-bombers.
- The Mini-gunship Squadron had 14 AU-24A Stallion mini-gunships.
- The Forward Air Controller Squadron operated 45 Cessna O-1D Bird Dog reconnaissance/observation light aircraft, and 16 U-1A Otter liaison aircraft.
- The 1st Transport Squadron aligned 17 Fairchild C-123K Provider transports, twenty-three C-47 transports, and fourteen Douglas AC-47D Spooky gunships.
- The Helicopter Squadron had ten Bell UH-1G gunships, 46 Bell UH-1H transports, three Sud Aviation SA 316B Alouette III light helicopters, and two Sikorsky H-34 Choctaw utility transports.
- The Advanced Training Squadron of the Air Force Academy at Battambang Airbase operated six silvered C-47 trainers, 16 T-28B light trainers, ten Gardan GY-80 Horizon light trainers, 22 Cessna T-41 Mescalero trainers, and 24 Cessna T-37B Tweet jet trainers.
Air Force Security Regiments
Following several attacks on Cambodian airfields early in the war, the KAF Security troops underwent a major reorganization by mid-1971. The battered BFA at Pochentong was expanded accordingly from a single rifle battalion of three companies, to a full regiment aligning three battalions, receiving the designation of 1st Air Force Security Regiment (French: 1er Regiment de Fusiliers de l'Air – 1 RFA). Between July 1971 and December 1972, Air Force battalions were rotated through intensive infantry training programs in South Vietnam to upgrade their combat capabilities, with selected airmen receiving some specialized training as well – by early 1973, 1 RFA aligned two rifle battalions plus one specialized battalion trained for search-and-rescue missions and VIP protection. The KAF Security command under Colonel Sou Chhom was augmented in 1974 when a second unit was brought to strength at Kampong Cham Air Base, which became the 2nd Air Force Security Regiment (French: 2éme Regiment de Fusiliers de l'Air – 2 RFA). 2 RFA battalions were trained in-country by the Khmer Special Forces at the Ream Infantry Training Centre near Kampong Som. By April 1975, KAF Security troops totalled some 1,600 airmen organized in six light infantry battalions, equipped with an assortment of outdated US and captured modern Soviet or Chinese small-arms.
In the months following the March 1970 change of government, the new AVNK was thrown into heavy action. Its MiG, Shenyang and Fouga jets bombed and strafed NVA/VC troop concentrations and sanctuaries along the Takéo, Kandal, Svay Rieng, Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri southern and eastern border provinces, while the T-28s and a few AD-4N Skyraiders were employed on combat sorties north of Phnom Penh and in Kampong Cham Province.
During Operation Chenla II, launched by the FANK High Command on August 21, 1971, the Khmer Air Force's T-28s and C-47 transports supported with air strikes and air ressuply drops the advance of the Cambodian Army task-force sent to retake all of Route 6 and the road between Kampong Cham and Kampong Thom from the NVA. KAF helicopters carried Cambodian troops into the targeted areas and later helped evacuate the task-force units, disorganized and cut-off by a vigorous North Vietnamese counter-offensive held in late October.
On October 7, 1972, the NVA hit Phnom Penh once again with a spectacular 'Sapper' attack, in which a commando force of 103 men from the 367th Sapper Regiment raided the Cambodian Army armoured cavalry headquarters located at the Olympic Stadium in the northern outskirts of the Cambodian Capital, where an armoured vehicle park was housed. The North Vietnamese raiders even managed to capture seven M-113 APCs and drove them out in column into the capital's streets, causing panic among the inhabitants. Initially taken by surprise, Cambodian Army troops took several hours to dominate the situation, and urgent air support was requested. The Khmer Air Force response came in the form of two AC-47 gunships whose firepower succeeded in disabling all the vehicles, thus stopping the column before it could reach the city's centre, killing in the process 83 elements of the Sapper force and scattered the rest.
In October 1973, the KAF went on to the offensive again with Operation ‘Thunderstrike’, a nine-day’ ground assault operation in support of Cambodian Army units fighting Khmer Rouge forces south of the Prek Thnoat River. Striking in that area located south of Phnom Penh between Route 2 and Route 3, T-28 fighter-bomber pilots logged a record of seventy sorties a day. Although both the 1st and 3rd Infantry Divisions were already thrown on the defensive and failed to capitalize on ‘Thunderstrike’ by making no significant advances, the FANK high Command was nonetheless impressed by their Air Force improved performance.
The Cambodian air force scored a major hit in March 1974, when a flight of ten T-28 fighter-bombers guided by a single Cessna O-1D Bird Dog FAC spotter struck the main NVA transhipment point at Dambe, Kratié Province, where some 250 supply trucks laden with ammunitions lay in a truck park hidden on a nearby plantation. After the KAF T-28 pilots dropped their 250 lb bombs over the plantation, they unexpectedly ignited a violent chain reaction which – based on the analysis of post-strike aerial reconnaissance photos – destroyed at least 125 trucks, a record for the Second Indochina War.
Although regarded by most outside observers as the most professional branch of the Cambodian armed forces, the Khmer Air Force was seriously handicapped throughout its existence by several key problems that stood in the way of its efficiency. Being an all-volunteer, technically-proficient service, the KAF was long plagued by shortages of skilled pilots, experienced pilot instructors, and support personnel, coupled by the inconsistent quality of forward air controllers, pilot fatigue, lack of effective leadership – exacerbated by constant changes in command –, and its inability to organize itself. Other chronic problems included an unfocused inventory (at least, during the early stages of the war), inadequate maintenance of airframes, unsuitable airfields, and an insufficient night support capability. As with the Cambodian Army, the KAF faced severe budgetary constraints after US financial aid was slashed in 1973 and was riven by corruption – most of its transport aircraft regularly experienced landing gear problems since the aircrews often tended to accept paid transportation services, overloading their planes with unauthorized civilian passengers and cargo.
Training accidents remained a serious problem: in 1972-73 the morale of the Khmer Air Force pilots was strained by a series of crashes involving the T-28 Trojan, the T-41 Mescalero, and the Au-24 Stallion. Confidence in the T-28 eroded after fourteen crashes were recorded during a twelve-month period, even though eight of the crashes were due to pilot error and only three to mechanical failure. Four T-41 trainers were also lost in separate incidents during July 1972, all pilots being killed. The Au-24 was beset with a long list of technical faults, which became painfully clear on August 10, 1973, after a Stallion crashed on a rocket pass, killing its crew and forced the KAF command to ground the entire mini-gunship fleet.
Another problem that plagued the KAF was political dissent amongst its ranks. The 1st Fighter Squadron was regarded with deep distrust by both the FANK High Command and the Republican government, after some dissident pilots from that squadron tried unsuccessfully to assassinate top military and political officials (including President Lon Nol) of the Khmer Republic on at least three separate occasions:
- On March 17, 1973, a disgruntled pro-Sihanouk KAF pilot, Capt. So Patra, flew his T-28D fighter-bomber into downtown Phnom Penh and made a sudden dive-bomb attack over the Presidential Palace at the Chamkarmon District. A total of 43 people were killed and another 35 injured in the bombing, after which the pilot flew to Hainan Island in the South China Sea.
- On November 19, 1973, the Presidential Palace was struck yet again by another dissident pilot, Lt. Pich Lim Khun, who subsequently deserted by flying its T-28D to Khmer Rouge-held Kratié Province. As a result of this second air strike, President Lon Nol purged the KAF of who were considered to be disloyal elements and led to the downfall of Brig. Gen. So Satto.
- On April 14, 1975, for the third time in the war, a defecting Cambodian pilot attempted an aerial assassination of the nation's chief executive. That morning, a T-28D fighter-bomber flown by Lt. Kiev Yoursawath, dropped four 250 lb bombs over the FANK Joint General Staff Headquarters (French: État-Major Générale – EMG). Two landed about 60 feet (about 19 meters) from where Lieutenant-General Sak Sutsakhan was chairing a cabinet meeting. Although the officials managed to escape unscathed, the bombs claimed the lives of seven people and several others were injured. The pilot then headed north and landed in one of the Khmer Rouge-controlled portions of Kampong Cham province.
The Cambodian Air Force saw its aerial resupply capability severely curtailed late in the war, when on March 13, 1975, the Khmer Rouge hit Pochentong Airbase with 107mm rockets, which ignited an ammunition dump and destroyed a nearby storehouse used to pack and store air-drop cargo parachutes employed on resupply operations. The loss of their cargo parachute stocks deprived the KAF's C-47 and C-123 transports of the means to adequately support the isolated enclaves still held by Cambodian Army units, so the US government had to hire civilian contractors in order to carry out most of the outpost resupply drops within Cambodia.
Final operations 1974-75
It was only at the final months of the war that the Cambodian Air Force finally managed to exceed all previous performances. Taking full advantage of their air superiority, the KAF employed all available airframes to the limit – ranging from T-28D fighter-bombers, UH-1G helicopter gunships, and AC-47D and AU-24A gunships to T-37B jet trainers converted to the ground attack role, and even C-123K transports serving as improvised heavy bombers – launched an unprecedented number of combat sorties against Khmer Rouge forces massing around Phnom Penh. Operating against relatively light enemy anti-aircraft defences, Cambodian T-28 pilots logged over 1,800 daytime missions during a two-month period alone whilst the AU-24s and C-123s carried out at night bombing operations against entrenched enemy 107mm rocket positions north of the capital. To help locate these same positions and set up ambushes, detachments from the KAF's 1 RFA security battalions were heli-lifted behind the enemy lines, but they were decimated by insurgent troops.
Besides combat sorties, the KAF was also involved in last-minute evacuation efforts. On April 12, 1975, its T-28s and UH-1s provided air cover to Operation Eagle Pull, the evacuation of the US Embassy staff. Most of the T-28 pilots involved in this operation were forced to land their planes in the main road leading to Pochentong's civilian airport and adjacent to the military airbase, since the latter's airstrip was under heavy Khmer Rouge's rocket and mortar fire. The Air Force command also kept on stand-by seven UH-1H transport helicopters at an improvised helipad mounted on the grounds of Phnom Penh's National Stadium in the Cércle Sportif complex, ready to evacuate key members of the government. However, three of the machines had to be abandoned due to technical malfunctions when the evacuation finally took place on the morning of April 17. Amongst the small group of high-profile evacuees who boarded the remaining four helicopters heading for Kampong Thom was the KAF commander Brig. Gen. Ea Chhong.
Despite their best efforts, the overstretched Khmer Air Force alone could not prevent the defeat of the Cambodian Army and stem the tide of the advancing Khmer Rouge forces. On April 16 KAF T-28s flew their last combat sortie by bombing the Air Force Control Centre and hangars at Pochentong upon its capture by insurgent units. After virtually expending their entire ordnance reserves, 97 aircraft – consisting of 50 T-28Ds, 13 UH-1Hs, twelve O-1Ds, ten C-123Ks, seven AC-47Ds, three AU-24As, nine C-47s, and three T-41Ds – escaped from Pochentong, Battambang, Kampong Cham, Kampong Thom, Kampong Chhnang, and Ream airbases and auxiliary airfields flown by their respective crews (with a small number of civilian dependents on board) to safe haven in neighbouring Thailand.
The rest of the KAF personnel that remained in Cambodia – including the male and female clerical staff, the ground technicians, some pilots, and those airmen serving on the 1st Air Force Security Regiment at Pochentong – had no choice but to surrender, with most of them being executed by the Khmer Rouge. The last stand of the Khmer Air Force took place at Kampong Cham Air Base, where the airmen of the 2nd Air Force Security Regiment continued to resist for another week despite the official capitulation order, until they ran out of ammunition. The airbase commander, together with his deputy, the local ground technicians and the airmen of the Security battalions were captured and reportedly executed in a gruesome manner. Later unconfirmed reports however claim that a few qualified ex-KAF pilots and technicians escaped this fate by being pressed into service in the Air Force of the new Democratic Kampuchea Regime to fly and maintain the remaining French- and US-made aircraft left behind.
By 1975, Cambodian Air Force losses totalled 100 aircraft, mostly due to combat attrition, training accidents, and desertions, as well for other causes – between December 1971 and January 1972 four Alouette II and one Alouette III light helicopters were sent overseas for maintenance and general overhaul at the HAECO in Hong Kong, but there is no record that these airframes were ever returned to Cambodia.
The Khmer Rouge did managed though to salvage at least twenty-two T-28D fighter-bombers, four GY-80 Horizon light trainers, twenty-four T-37B jet trainers, nineteen T-41D trainers, seven C-123K transports, nine AU-24 mini-gunships, six AC-47D gunships, fourteen C-47 transports, twenty UH-1H and UH-1G helicopters, and three Alouette III light helicopters. Of the twelve T-28s operated by the Khmer Rouge Air Force at Ream Air Base, at least five were destroyed on the ground when the US Air Force bombed the facility during the Mayaguez incident on May 15, 1975. As for the other airframes, poor maintenance and a chronic shortage of spare parts ensured that only a handful of these was still serviceable by the time of the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978-79.
List of Cambodian Aviation and Air Force commanders
- Major-General Ngo Hou (1954-1968)
- Colonel Keu Pau Ann (1968-1970)
- Brigadier-General So Satto (1970–72)
- Brigadier-General Penn Randa (1972–73)
- Brigadier-General Ea Chhong (1973–75)
Air Force uniforms and insignia
The Cambodian Air Force owed its origin and traditions to the French Far East Airforces (French: Forces Aériennes en Extrême-Orient – FAEO) of the First Indochina War, and even after the United States took the role as the main foreign sponsor for the Khmer National Armed Forces at the beginning of the 1970s, French military influence was still perceptible in their uniforms and insignia.
Service dress uniforms
Upon its formation in 1954, AVRK personnel received the French Army’s M1945 tropical working and service dress (French: Tenue de toile kaki clair Mle 1945), standard issue in the ARK, consisting of a light khaki cotton shirt and pants. Modelled after the WWII US Army tropical ‘Chino’ working dress, the shirt had two patch breast pockets closed by clip-cornered straight flaps and shoulder straps whilst the trousers featured two pleats at the front hips, side slashed pockets and an internal pocket at the back, on the right side. In alternative, the short-sleeved M1946 (French: Chemisette kaki clair Mle 1946) – which had two pleated patch breast pockets closed by pointed flaps – and M1949 (French: Chemisette kaki clair Mle 1949) khaki shirts could be worn with the matching M1946 khaki shorts (French: Culotte courte kaki clair Mle 1946) in hot weather.
AVRK officers and pilots were given the standard FARK summer service dress uniform in light khaki cotton, which was patterned after the French Army M1946/56 khaki dress uniform (French: Vareuse d’officier Mle 1946/56 et Pantalon droit Mle 1946/56); for formal occasions, a light summer version in white cotton was also issued. The open-collar jacket had two pleated breast pockets closed by pointed flaps and two unpleated at the side closed by straight ones whilst the sleeves had turnbacks; the front fly and pocket flaps were secured by gilt buttons. The uniform was worn with a matching Khaki shirt and black tie on service dress whereas the white version was worn with a white shirt and a black tie instead. Some AVRK officers also wore a light Khaki British-style KD bush jacket which had two pleated breast pockets closed by scalloped flaps and two unpleated at the side closed by straight ones, a five-button front fly, shoulder straps, and an integral cloth waistband.
In 1955-56 however, AVRK officers adopted a new distinctive blue-grey overseas dress uniform, consisting of an tunic and slacks modelled after the U.S. Air Force M1947 service dress. On active service, the blue dress uniform was worn with a light blue shirt and blue-grey tie, replaced on formal occasions by a white shirt and black tie. The American-style open-collar, four-buttoned tunic had two pleated breast pockets closed by pointed flaps and two unpleated pockets at the side closed by straight flaps (senior officers’ tunics sometimes had their side pockets closed by pointed flaps instead). The front fly and pocket flaps were secured by gilt buttons bearing the standard FARK emblem, replaced after March 1970 by the FANK emblem; a short-sleeved light blue shirt was worn in lieu of the tunic on hot weather. A light blue-grey working uniform, consisting of a shirt and pants whose cut followed that of the earlier M1945 tropical dress, was also adopted for all-ranks though Cambodian Air Force ground personnel in the field often wore the standard ARK French all-arms M1947 drab green fatigues (French: Treillis de combat Mle 1947). Female personnel were issued light blue and working blue-grey short-sleeved blouses based on their male counterparts’ versions, except that the blouses’ front fly closed on the left side, and were worn with a matching blue-grey knee-length skirt. After March 1970, as part of the US-sponsored MAP re-equipment program, the AVNK was supplied with new American olive green tropical uniforms, the US Army OG-107 utilities and the M1967 Jungle Utility Uniform for its ground personnel and airfield security battalions, though they never replaced entirely the older French fatigue clothing.
Pilots were issued Khaki and Olive Green (OG) flight suits, with both French and US patterns being worn. Privately purchased Thai camouflaged flight suits in "Highland" pattern were worn by Cambodian Air Force Douglas AC-47D Spooky gunship aircrews on occasion, such as the members of the first contingent sent in May–June 1971 to Udorn Air Base in Thailand for gunship training. A US Air Force survival mesh vest was usually worn with the flight suits after 1970.
AVRK officers received the early ARK service peaked cap in both light khaki and white-topped versions, which was copied after the French M1927 pattern (French: Casquette d’officier Mle 1927) to wear with either the light khaki or white service dress uniforms. The peaked caps were worn with the standard gilt metal FARK cap device bearing the Cambodian Royal Arms. Ground and flight personnel generally wore the standard ARK headgear of the period, which consisted of French M1946 and M1957 light khaki sidecaps (French: Bonnet de police de toile kaki clair Mle 1946 and Bonnet de police de toile kaki clair Mle 1957), M1946 tropical berets (French: Bérét de toile kaki clair Mle 1946), M1949 bush hats (French: Chapeau de brousse Mle 1949) and light khaki cotton baseball cap-style field caps.
In 1956, the AVRK adopted a new blue-grey service peaked cap with crown of ‘Germanic’ shape – very similar to that worn by Royal Lao Air Force (RLAF) or South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) officers –, with a gold chinstrap, black cap band, and black lacquered leather peak (edged gold for general officers). It was initially worn with the standard gilt metal FARK cap device, replaced after March 1970 by a distinctive AVNK/KAF silver cap badge. A blue-grey overseas flight cap (with silver cord piping in the flap for officers) styled after the French M1957 sidecap, was also adopted; it was sometimes worn with a miniature cloth embroidered version of the AVNK/KAF cap badge.
Besides regulation headgear, unofficial Olive Green and camouflage baseball caps (black or red embroidered versions were adopted by some Cambodian pilots who attended advanced courses abroad) and US “Boonie hats” found their way into the KAF from the United States, Thailand and South Vietnam, to which were soon added Cambodian-made copies. The airmen serving in the airfield security battalions were issued steel helmets, in the form of the US M-1 and the French M1951 NATO (French: Casque modéle 1951 OTAN), standard issue in the ARK/ANK.
White and brown low laced leather shoes were prescribed to wear with either the white summer dress and the earlier AVRK khaki service/work uniform for all-ranks and, after 1956 black ones were required for Air Force officers wearing the new blue-grey officers’ dress uniform on formal occasions. On service dress, all Air Force ground personnel wore brown leather US M-1943 Combat Service Boots or French canvas-and-rubber ‘Pataugas’ tropical boots, and sandals; after March 1970, the KAF standardized on American M-1967 black leather and Jungle boots, and South Vietnamese Bata boots, which replaced much of the older combat footwear.
Air Force Ranks
The AVRK used the same standard FARK/FANK French-style rank chart as the Army, though differing in some of its nomenclature and in color details. Flag and senior officers’ (French: Officiers généraux, officiers supérieurs et officiers subalternes) ranks were worn on light blue removable shoulder boards (with gold laurel-like leaf embroidery on the outer edge for generals) or shoulder strap slides, both with a miniature royal coat-of-arms featuring a winged crown device on the inner end; NCO and airmen (French: Sous-officiers et aviateurs) ranks were worn on both upper sleeves. On the field uniform, officers’ ranks were worn on chest tabs in lieu of the shoulder strap slides; Army-style metal chevrons pinned to the chest were worn by NCOs whilst airmen (French: Hommes de troupe) wore no insignia. After March 1970 the AVNK adopted black shoulder boards and shoulder strap slides with a pair of stylised wings at the inner end, which replaced the earlier royal crest, but the basic rank sequence remained unchanged. In 1972, some KAF officers began wearing on their flight suits or OG jungle fatigues metal pin-on collar rank insignia identical to the pattern adopted that same year by their Army counterparts.
AVRK personnel wore over the left pocket of their working or fatigue shirts a gold metal badge, consisting of a pair of wings surmounted by a royal crown. After 1970 it was replaced by an AVNK/KAF cloth embroidered badge, featuring a yellow winged Angkor Wat temple motif surmounted by three stars on a blue background. A pilot’s qualification badge was created in the mid-1950s, its early design consisting of a simple gold metal circle bearing a stylised Hongsa, a mythical Cambodian swan. This badge was replaced in the 1960s by a more elaborated version that featured a gilt swan inserted on a silvered wreath. Both versions were worn on the left breast of the service dress and working uniforms. KAF airmen sent for training overseas wore on the upper right sleeve of their flight suits and working shirts a Cambodian national emblem with ‘Air Force’ or ’Khmer Air Force’ tab, or a simple rectangular flash based on the design of the Republican flag bearing ‘Khmer Republic’ inscribed in either French or Khmer script. Fighter-bomber pilots wore on the back of their flight suits a ‘blood-chit’ patterned after the Cambodian national flag, inscribed with a plea for the bearer to be treated has a Prisoner of war (POW) according to international agreements in Khmer script, with Vietnamese and Chinese translations also included.
Blue and subdued nametapes were worn over the right shirt or jacket pocket on field dress and flight suits; plastic nameplates were occasionally worn with the blue-grey overseas service dress and the working uniform. Specialized support services within the Khmer Air Force wore full-colour cloth embroidered, woven or printed round and squared- or shield-shaped insignia on their upper left sleeve, whilst airmen serving in the airfield security battalions were entitled to wear collar tabs featuring two yellow crossed rifles embroidered on a blue cloth background also outlined in yellow. KAF headquarters and airbase insignia went to the upper left sleeve. The placement of squadron insignia varied, with pilots wearing full-colour round, hexagonal, or shield-shaped patches on the upper left sleeve or over the right pocket of their flight suits.
- Air America
- Cambodian Civil War
- Forward air controllers
- Khmer Republic
- Khmer Rouge
- Royal Cambodian Armed Forces
- Royal Cambodian Air Force
- Khmer National Armed Forces
- South Vietnamese Air Force
- Royal Lao Air Force
- Operation Eagle Pull
- Weapons of the Cambodian Civil War
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- Jan Forsgren, Cambodia: Khmer Air Force History 1970-1975 (Part 1) - http://www.aeroflight.co.uk/waf/aa-eastasia/cambodia/cam-af-history1.htm
- Conboy and Bowra, The War in Cambodia 1970-75 (1989), p. 13.
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- Conboy, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces, 1970-1975 (2011), p. 218.
- Conboy, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces, 1970-1975 (2011), p. 216.
- Conboy, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces, 1970-1975 (2011), pp. 217; 224, note 3.
- Conboy and Bowra, The War in Cambodia 1970-75 (1989), pp. 19-20.
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- Conboy and Bowra, The War in Cambodia 1970-75 (1989), p. 22.
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- Davis and Greer, Gunships, A Pictorial History of Spooky (1982), pp. 13-14.
- Gunston, An Illustrated Guide to Military Helicopters (1981), p. 18.
- Sutsakhan, The Khmer Republic at War and the Final Collapse (1980), p. 183, Appendix C (Air Force Item).
- Conboy, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces, 1970-1975 (2011), pp. 218; 224, note 9.
- Conboy and McCouaig, South-East Asian Special Forces (1991), p. 15.
- Conboy and Bowra, The War in Cambodia 1970-75 (1989), p. 18.
- Conboy and Bowra, The War in Cambodia 1970-75 (1989), p. 7.
- Conboy and Bowra, The War in Cambodia 1970-75 (1989), p. 37.
- Conboy and McCouaig, South-East Asian Special Forces (1991), pp. 53-54.
- Conboy, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces, 1970-1975 (2011), p. 194.
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- Conboy, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces, 1970-1975 (2011), p. 219.
- Conboy, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces, 1970-1975 (2011), pp. 220-221.
- Conboy, FANK: A History of the Cambodian Armed Forces, 1970-1975 (2011), p. 220.
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